The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 16

0
191

CHAPTER 16

Jia Yuan-chun is selected for g1orious promotion
to the Imperial Bedchamber
And Qin Zhong is summoned for premature departure
on the journey into Night

Xi-feng, Qin Zhong and Bao-yu, as we have said, called in at the Temple of the Iron Threshold on their way home. After looking round for a while, the three of them got back into their carriage and continued their journey into the city. Home once more, they first called on Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang and then went off to their several rooms. But of the rest of that day and the night which followed, our story says nothing.
Next morning Bao-yu found that his outer study had now been finished and was ready for use. He looked forward to beginning night-work in it with Qin Zhong, in accordance with a promise they had made each other. But unfortunately Qin Zhong’s always sickly constitution had been much neglected during their two-day excursion into the country, and the unwonted exposure to wind and cold and immoderate indulgence in secret frolic with Sapientia had resulted on his return in a cough and chill accompanied by total loss of appetite. Altogether he presented so sorry a spectacle that study was quite out of the question and they were obliged to send him back home to bed. Although Bao-yu was very dis?appointed, there was nothing at all he could do but wait for his friend to get better.
Xi-feng had now received Yun Guang’s reply to the bogus letter, expressing his readiness to comply with her (or, as he supposed, Jia Lian’s) request. Euergesia communicated this information to the Zhangs; and soon the captain, swallowing his anger and resentment as best he could, was obliged to receive back the betrothal gifts he had sent them on behalf of his son. But Jin-ge possessed a far nobler spirit than might have been expected in the daughter of such mercenary parents. On learning that her affianced had been sent packing, she quietly went off and hanged herself in her scarf. The captain’s son, too, turned out to be a young person of unexpectedly romantic notions, for on hearing that Jin-ge had hanged her?self, he promptly threw himself into a river and was drowned. The Zhangs and the Lis were thus left in a very unenviable situation:

‘the maid and eke the money gone’

in the words of the poet. The only gainer was Xi-feng, who now had three thousand taels of silver to sit back and enjoy at her leisure. Not an inkling of this affair reached the ears of Lady Wang.
Emboldened by this taste of success, Xi-feng from now on undertook many more ventures of a similar nature — far more than we could give an account of in this history.
*
The day of Jia Zheng’s birthday arrived and all the members of the Ning-guo and Rong-guo households were gathered together to celebrate it. Just as the festivities were at their height, one of the janitors from the main gate burst in on the assembled company:
‘The Master of the Imperial Bedchamber Mr Xia is on his way, sir, with an announcement from His Majesty the Emperor!’
Jia She, Jia Zheng and the rest were taken completely by surprise, quite unable to guess what the meaning of this visitation could be. Hurriedly giving orders for the players to halt their performance and for all traces of the feast to be cleared away, they caused a table with burning incense (which would be required for the reading of the Proclamation, if there was one) to beset down in its place. Then, throwing open the centre of the three main gates, they knelt down in the entrance of the mansion to receive their visitor.
Soon Xia Bing-zhong, the Eunuch Master of the Bedchamber, arrived on horseback with a retinue of eunuchs at his back. He appeared to have no Imperial Proclamation or other document on his person, for instead of dismounting, as etiquette prescribed that he should if he was carrying a Written Instrument, he rode straight on to the foot of the main hall. There, with beaming countenance, he got down from his horse, climbed the steps, faced south and gave utterance to the following announcement:
‘By order of His Imperial Majesty:
Jia Zheng is commanded to present himself at court im?mediately for private audience with His Imperial Majesty in the Hall of Reverence.’
Having delivered this message he got straight back on to his horse without staying for so much as a cup of tea and rode away. Still no wiser, Jia Zheng hurried into his court dress and hastened to the Palace, leaving Grandmother Jia and the rest in an extreme state of alarm which they endeavoured (unsuccessfully) to allay by dispatching a regular stream of mounted couriers post-haste to the Palace to inquire for news.
About four hours later Lai Da, the Chief Steward of the Rong-guo mansion, and three or four other stewards came panting into the inner gate and gasped out congratulations.
‘Master’s orders,’ said Lai Da between breaths: ‘will Her Old Ladyship please bring Their Ladyships to the Palace to give thanks to His Majesty for the great favour he has shown us!’
Unable in her agitated state to remain indoors, Grandmother Jia had been waiting outside in the loggia, whither the others –Lady Xing, Lady Wang, You-shi, Li Wan, Xi-feng, Aunt Xue and the girls — had also congregated to await news of Jia Zheng. Grandmother Jia called Lai Da inside to explain his cryptic message in somewhat greater detail.
‘We servants were all waiting in an anteroom,’ Lai Da told her, ‘and we had no idea what was going on inside. Eventually Mr. Xia came out and saw us waiting there. “Congratulations!” he said. “Your eldest young lady has been appointed Chief Secretary to the Empress and is to become an Imperial Concubine.” Then after that Master came out, too, and told us the same thing. “I have to go off to the East Palace now,” he said, “to see the Prince. But you must hasten back as quick as you can and tell Their Ladyships to come to the Palace and give thanks.”‘
Lai’s Da information at once dispelled the anxiety that Grandmother Jia and the others had all this time been feeling, and the worried looks on their faces quickly gave way to smiles of pleasure. Now a great dressing-up began as each lady robed herself in the costume appropriate to her rank. Then off they went to the Palace in four sedans one behind the other: Grand?mother Jia’s at the head, then Lady Xing’s, then Lady Wang’s, and then You-shi’s. Jia She and Cousin Zhen also changed into court dress, and taking Jia Rong and Jia Qiang with them, accompanied Grandmother Jia to the Palace as her male escort.
There was one person who did not share the unbounded delight now general among the members of the Ning-guo and Rong-guo households—who behaved, indeed, almost as if he had not heard the news at all. This person was Bao-yu. What was the reason for his unsociable lack of enthusiasm on this occasion?
A short time previously the little nun Sapientia had ab?sconded from Water-moon Priory and made her way into the city to look for Qin Zhong. Qin Bang-ye had discovered her, driven her from the house, and given Qin Zhong a beating. The shock and anger of the discovery had brought on an attack of the illness from which the old gentleman was a chronic sufferer, and within only four or five days he had breathed his last. Qin Zhong had always been of a weak and nervous disposition and had still not fully recovered from his sickness when these events occurred. The severe beating followed by the overwhelming grief and remorse attendant on the death of his father from anger which he had himself provoked led to serious complications in his illness.
This, then, was the reason for Bao-yu’s unseasonable melancholy—a melancholy which the news of his sister Yuan?-chun’s dazzling promotion was powerless to dispel. Grand?mother Jia’s visit to the Palace to give thanks, her return home, the visits of friends and relations to congratulate the family, the unwontedly cheerful bustle of the Ning and Rong households during the days that followed, the general satisfac?tion that everyone in those households now seemed to feel—as far as Bao-yu was concerned these things might just as well not have been: he viewed them with the eyes of an outsider. The rest of the family merely laughed at him, seeing in this be?haviour only further confirmation of their belief that he was ‘a bit touched’.
But then there was Jia Lian’s and Dai-yu’s homecoming to look forward to. The advent of the messenger sent on ahead to announce that they would be arriving next day produced the first glimmer of cheerfulness that Bao-yu had so far shown. On being questioned for further details the messenger told them that Jia Yu-cun was also returning to the capital to have an audience with the Emperor. This was the doing of Wang Zi-teng, who had recommended him in a report to the throne for promotion to a metropolitan post. As he was both a cousin (albeit a remote one) of. Jia Lian and also Dai-yu’s former teacher, it had been resolved that he should travel with them. Lin Ru-hai having been laid with his ancestors in the family burying-ground and his obsequies duly concluded, they would, if they had proceeded to the capital by the usual stages, have been arriving back some time in the following month; but when Jia Lian heard the news about Yuan-chun’s elevation, they had decided to make greater speed, travelling by night as well as by day. The journey had been smooth and uneventful.
Bao-yu merely asked if Dai-yu was all right, and on being assured that she was, paid no further attention to the man’s news.
Having waited with great impatience until the early afternoon of the following day, Bao-yu and the rest were rewarded with the announcement ‘Mr Lian and Miss Lin have just arrived!’ The joy of their reunion was, however, tempered with grief, because of the two deaths that had occurred since their parting, and for a while there was much loud weeping on either side. Then there were words of comfort and congratula?tion to exchange and Bao-yu had an opportunity of studying Dai-yu more carefully. He recognized the same ethereal quality he had always known in her, but it seemed to have deepened and intensified during her absence.
She had brought a lot of books back with her and was soon busy superintending the sweeping out of her bedroom to accommodate them and arranging various objets d’art around it which had also formed part of her luggage. She had salvaged some paper, writing-brushes and other articles of stationery from her old home which she distributed as presents to Bao-chai, Ying-chun, Bao-yu and the rest. Bao-yu for his part hunted up the rosary of fragrant Indian beads given him by the Prince of Bei-jing and offered it as a gift to Dai-yu; but she flung it back at him disdainfully:
‘What, carry a thing that some coarse man has pawed over? I don’t want it!’
So Bao-yu was compelled to take it back again.
But let us now turn to Jia Lian.
When he had finished seeing everyone in the family, Jia Lian returned at last to his own apartment. Xi-feng, though still so busy that she had not a moment’s leisure, had somehow contrived to find time to welcome back her wandering lord.
‘Congratulations, Imperial Kinsman!’ she said with a smile when, except for the servants, they were at last alone together. ‘You have had a tiring journey, Imperial Kinsman. Yesterday when the courier gave notice of your arrival, I prepared a humble entertainment to celebrate your homecoming. Will the Imperial Kinsman graciously condescend to take a cup of wine with his handmaid?’
Jia Lian replied in the same vein:
‘Madam, you are too kind! I am your most oble-e-eged and humble servant, ma’am!’
As they joked together, Patience and the other maids came forward to welcome their Master back, after which they served them both with tea. Jia Lian asked Xi-feng about the events that had occurred during his absence and thanked her for looking after things so well while he was away.
‘I am not much of a manager really,’ said Xi-feng. ‘I haven’t got the knowledge, and I’m too poor at expressing myself and too simple-minded — always inclined to “take a ramrod for a needle”, as they say. Besides, I’m too soft-hearted for the job. Anyone who says a few kind words can get the better of me. And my lack of experience makes me so nervous. Aunt Wang only had to be the slightest bit displeased and I would get so upset that I couldn’t sleep at night. I begged her not to make me do all these things, but she insisted. She said I only refused out of laziness and unwillingness to learn. I don’t think she realizes even now the state I have been in— too seated to move or even to open my mouth for fear of saying or doing something wrong. And you know what a difficult lot those old stewardesses are. The tiniest mistake and they are all laughing at you and making fun; the tiniest hint of favouritism and they are grumbling and complaining. You know their way of “cursing the oak-tree when they mean the ash”. Those old women know just how to sit on the mountain-top and watch the tigers fight; how to murder with a borrowed knife, or help the wind to fan the fire. They will look on safely from the bank while you are drowning in the river. And the fallen oil-bottle can drain away: they are not going to pick it up. On top of that, as I am so young, I haven’t got much authority over them; so it was all I could do to prevent them from ignoring me altogether. And to crown it all, when Rong’s wife died Cousin Zhen kept coming round to see Aunt Wang and begging her on his knees to let me help out for a day or two next door. I said again and again that I couldn’t do it; but Aunt Wang agreed just to please him, so there was nothing for it but to do as I was told. I’m afraid I made a terrible mess of it—even worse than I did here. And now it seems Cousin Zhen is beginning to grumble and says he wishes he had never asked me. When you see him tomorrow, do please try to make it up with him. Tell him it’s because I’m young and inexperienced. You might even hint that it’s his own fault for having asked me in the first place!’
While she was saying this there was a sound of talking in the next room.
‘Who is it?’ said Xi-feng.
Patience came in to reply.
‘Mrs. Xue sent Caltrop over to ask me about something. I’ve already given her an answer and sent her back.’
‘Ah yes!’ said Jia Lian, apparently pleased by the recollec?tion. ‘When I went to call on Aunt Xue just now to tell her I was back, I ran into such a pretty young woman! I couldn’t place her as any of the girls in our household, so in the course of conversation I asked Aunt Xue who she was. It seems that she’s the little maid they had that lawsuit about. Cal—something. Caltrop. She’s finally been given as “chamber-wife” to that idiot Xue, Now that she has been plucked and painted like a grown-up woman she really does look most attractive! What a waste to throw away a beautiful girl on that great booby!’
Xi-feng made a little moue.
‘I should have thought that having just got back from Hangchow and Soochow and seen something of the world, you would have settled down a bit; but I see you are still the same greedy-guts as ever. Well, if you want her, there’s nothing simpler: I’ll exchange our Patience for her. You know what Cousin Xue is like: always “one eye on the dish and the other on the saucepan”. Throughout the whole of this last year there have been I don’t know how many alarms and excursions between him and poor Aunt Xue because she wouldn’t let him get his hands on Caltrop. It wasn’t just her looks that made her concerned for the girl. Everything about her is so unusual. She is so gentle and so quiet. Even among our own young ladies there is scarcely her equal. In the end Aunt Xue decided that if she couldn’t stop him having her, at least she could make sure that the thing was done properly, with a party and invitations and all the rest of it. So that’s what she did, and made her his chamber wife. But would you believe it, before a fortnight had gone by he had completely lost interest. . .!’
She was interrupted by an announcement from one of the pages on the inner gate: ‘Mr Zhen wants you, sir. He’s waiting for you in the larger study.’ At once jia Lian did up his gown and hurried out.
‘What on earth did Mrs. Xue want, sending Caltrop here like that?’ Xi-feng asked Patience as soon as he had gone.
‘It wasn’t Caltrop!’ said Patience. ‘I had to make something up and hers was the first name that came to mind. That wife of Brightie’s is such a stupid woman! Just imagine’—she drew closer to Xi-feng’s ear and lowered her voice—‘of all the times she could have chosen to bring you the interest on that money, she had to pick on the very moment when the Master has just got home! It’s lucky I was in the outside room when she came, otherwise she might have come blundering in here and Master would have heard her message. And we all know what Master is like where money is concerned: he’d spend the fat in the frying-pan if he could get it out! Once he found out that you had savings, he’d pluck up courage to spend them in no time. Anyway, I took the money from her quickly and gave her a piece of my mind — which I am afraid you must have heard. That’s why I had to say what I did. I’d never have men?tioned Caltrop in the Master’s presence otherwise!’
Xi-feng laughed.
‘I was going to say! Why, for no apparent reason, should Mrs. Xue choose a chamber-wife to send here the moment Master gets back? So it was you up to your tricks, you little monkey!’
At this point Jia Lian came in again and Xi-feng ordered her maids to serve the wine and various choice dishes to go with it. Husband and wife sat cross-legged at opposite sides of the low table on the kang and began their drinking—Xi-feng with some restraint, although she was normally a fairly hard drinker, in view of the occasion.
They had not been drinking long when Jia Lian’s old wet-nurse, Nannie Zhao, walked in. The young couple at once invited her to drink with them and tried to make her join them on the kang. This last honour she would under no circumstances accept, and Patience and the girls laid a little table for her at the side of the kang and set a little stool beside it, on which she sat down very contentedly. Jia Lian made a selection with his chopsticks from the dishes on the table, and after heaping up two platefuls, set them down on Nannie Zhao’s own little table for her to eat there by herself. Xi-feng was critical:
‘Nannie can’t chew stuff like that. She’ll break her teeth on it!’ She turned to Patience. ‘That piece of boiled gammon in the bowl I said this morning was so tender: that would be just the thing for Nannie. Why don’t you run round to the kitchen and ask them to heat it up for her?— Nannie,’ she said, addressing the old woman, ‘you. must try some of the rice wine your Lian brought back with him from the South!’
‘Ooh yes!’ said Nannie Zhao, ‘I must try some of that! And you must have some too, Mrs. Lian. Never fear! As long as you don’t drink too much, ’ twill do you good. But I didn’t come all the way here for vittles and drink, bless you. I came on more serious business. And you heed my words, Mrs. Lian, and stick up for me; because that Master Lian of yours he always says he’ll do something, but when you go to see him later, he’s clean forgot all about it! To think I reared you up on the milk of my own bosom, Master Lian! And a fine young man you’ve growed into, thanks be! Well, I’m old and of no account now. But there are these two sons of mine, d’ye see? If only you would be more like a foster-brother to theta and look after them a bit, no one would dare say a word agen them. But dearie me! I’ve asked you again and again to help them, and you always says yes; yet to this very day nothing has ever come of it. Well, what I thought was this, Mrs Lian. With this great blessing of Heaven that’s come on the family on account of your eldest young lady, surely, I thought to myself, there must be jobs in this for someone? I’ll talk to Mrs Lian about it, I said to myself; because if I rely on Master Lian to help us, we’ll starve to death for certain sure!’
Xi-feng laughed.
‘Leave your two boys to me, Nannie. I’ll look after them! You know all about Lian’s little ways because you nursed him when he was a baby: he’ll give the dearest thing he has to some nobody he’s picked up outside, yet his own two foster-brothers who are much nicer young men than any of his favourites he neglects completely. If only you would take a bit of interest in them, Lian, you wouldn’t hear a word of complaint from anyone, instead of wasting your kindnesses on those — those little male misses of yours! I shouldn’t have called them “misses”, though. You treat the misses as your missus and give me the miss! ’
There was a loud laugh from everyone present, including Nannie Zhao, who concluded her cackles with a pious invoca?tion:
‘Bless his Holy Name! Here at last comes a just judge to set all things to rights — But oh Mrs Lian, those naughty things you said about “misses”: that’s not my Master Lian. It’s just that he’s so soft-hearted he can’t bring himself to say “ no” to anyone who spins him a tale.’
‘Soft-hearted with his boy friends, maybe,’ said Xi-feng with a lubricious smile; ‘but when he has to do with us women he is hard enough.’
‘Tee, hee, hee, what a one you are, Mrs Lian! I don’t know when I was last so merry. Come on, let’s have another cup of that good wine! — Now that I’ve got Mrs Lian to stand up for me I shall have no more worries!’
Jia Lian was by now thoroughly embarrassed and laughed sheepishly.
‘Stop all this nonsense now and serve the rice! I’ve still got to go round to Cousin Zhen’s after this to discuss things.’
‘Ah yes,’ said Xi-feng. ‘We mustn’t make you late for that. What did Cousin Zhen want you for just now?’
‘It was about the visitation business,’ said Jia Lian.
‘Has it been settled, then?’
‘Well, not absolutely. Eight or nine parts settled, you might say.’
‘That’s a great favour of the Emperor’s, isn’t it?’ said Xi-feng. ‘Something you don’t hear of even in plays and stories about the olden days.’
‘Very true!’ chimed in Nannie Zhao. ‘But I must be getting old and stupid, for everywhere these last few days have been a-buzz with talk of “visitations”, but blessed if I can make head or tall of it. You tell us now: just what manner of thing is this “visitation”?’
Jia Lian undertook to do so.
‘Our present Emperor, who has always had a great sym?pathy for the common man, believes that the filial affection of a child for its parents is the most important thing in the world, and that family feeling is the same everywhere, irrespective of social rank. He has found that in his own case, even after see?ing the Ex-Emperor and Ex-Empress morning, noon and night every day of his life, he is still unable to express more than a fraction of the devotion he feels for them; and this has led him to think of all those concubines and maids of honour and other court ladies, taken from their homes and shut up in the Palace for years and years on end, and to realize how much they must miss their parents. And from there he got to thinking of the parents themselves, how they must long for the daughters they can never see again. And then he thought what a crime against Nature it would be if any of those parents were to become ill as a result of not seeing their daughters. And so he addressed a Memorial to the Ex-Emperor and Ex-Empress requesting permission to allow the families of palace ladies to visit them in the Palace on the twelfth day of every month. When Their Old Majesties saw this Memorial they were very pleased and praised the Emperor for his piety and goodness—“doing Heaven’s work among men” they called it. But they pointed out in their Rescript that when the families of court ladies entered the Palace on these visits, they would inevitably be hampered by the restrictions of court etiquette in the ex?pression of their natural feelings. So in the end, by an act of supreme generosity, the Emperor issued a special decree in which he said that, apart from allowing the families of court ladies to visit their daughters in the Palace on the twelfth day of each month, he would allow any family which had a separate house or annexe capable of being maintained in the degree of security specified for a temporary Imperial Residence to make written application for permission to receive a Visitation in their own home, where the pleasures of reunion could be enjoyed in an atmosphere of intimacy and affection. The proclamation of this decree has created quite a stir. The Imperial Concubine Lady Zhou’s father already has the builders at work on a special wing for visitations in his house, and Lady Wu’s father, Wu Tian-you, has been outside the city looking for a site. So it’s already eight or nine parts settled, as I said.’
‘Bless my soul!’ said Nannie Zhao. ‘So that’s what it is! Well, I suppose in that case we shall soon be getting ready to receive our young lady?’
‘Of course,’ said Jia Lian. ‘What else do you think we’re all so busy about?’
‘If we do receive her,’ said Xi-feng, ‘it should be an ex?perience worth remembering. I’ve often wished I’d been born twenty or thirty years earlier so that the old folk wouldn’t be able to look down on me for having missed so much. To hear them talk about the Emperor Tai-zu’s Southern Progress is better than listening to a story-teller. How I wish I’d been there to see it all!’
‘Ah, now!’ said Nannie Zhao. ‘That’s the sort of thing that scarce comes once in a thousand years! I was not so young then that I can’t still remember. The head of the Jia family in those days was Superintendant of Shipyards and Harbour Maint’nance in the Soochow-Yangchow area and was chosen to receive the Emperor on one of his visits. The way they spent silver on that visit, why, it was like pouring out salt sea water! I call to mind…’
Xi-feng in her eagerness cut her short:
‘We Wangs received the Emperor on one of his visits, too. At that time my grandfather was in charge of all the foreign tribute and the embassies going up to Court. Whenever any foreigners arrived, it was always my family that put them up. All the goods brought by the foreign ships to the seaports in Kwangtung, Fukien, Yunnan and Chekiang passed through our hands.’
‘Everybody knows that,’ said Nannie Zhao. ‘There’s even a rhyme about it:

The King of the Ocean
Goes along,
When he’s short of gold beds,
To the Nanking Wang.

That’s your family: the “Nanking Wangs”. But then there’s the Zhens, who still live down that way in Kiangnan. My word! There’s riches for you! That family alone received the Emperor four times! If I hadn’t seen with my own two eyes, I don’t care who told me, I wouldn’t have credited it, the sights I saw then! Never mind silver. Silver was just dirt to them. Every precious thing in the world you can think of they had there in moun?tains! Words like “save” and “spare” they just didn’t seem to know the meaning of!’
‘I believe you,’ said Xi-feng. ‘I’ve heard my grandfather talk about it, and he said it was just like that. But it still amazes me that a single family could have so much wealth.’
‘I’ll tell you something, Mrs Lian,’ said the knowledgeable Nannie. “Twere no more than paying for the Emperor’s entertainment with the Emperor’s own silver. No family that ever lived had money enough of its own to pay for such spectacles of vanity!’
While they were chatting, Lady Wang sent someone round to see if Xi-feng had finished her dinner yet. Xi-feng realized that there must be something which demanded her attention and, finishing hurriedly, rinsed out her mouth and prepared to go. Before she could leave, however, the pages from the second gate announced the arrival of Jia Rong and Jia Qiang from the Ning-guo mansion next door. Jia Lian had just finished rinsing his mouth and was washing his hands in a basin held out for him by Patience when the two young men came into the room.
‘What is your message?’ he asked them.
Xi-feng, curious, stayed to hear.
‘Father sent us to tell you that the uncles have already reached a decision,’ said Jia Rong. ‘They have measured off an area just over a quarter of a mile square which takes in a part of our grounds, including the All-scents Garden, on the east side, and the north-west corner of your grounds on the west, to be turned into a Separate Residence for the Visitation. They’ve already commissioned someone to draw a plan, which should be ready tomorrow. Father says as you’ve just got home he’s sure you must be tired, so don’t bother to come round tonight. If there’s anything to discuss, you can tell him about it first thing tomorrow.’
‘Thank your father for me very much,’ said Jia Lian with a grateful smile. ‘It is very good of him to let me off tonight, and I shall do as he says and not go over until tomorrow. I think the great advantage of this proposal is that it is so economical and makes the job of construction so much easier. It would mean very much more trouble if we were to build on land out?side, yet at the same time we should lose the convenience this present scheme gives us of a single layout. Tell him when you get back that I think it is an excellent proposal, and that I leave it to him to protest in any way he thinks fit if the others show signs of going back on it. The one thing we must under no circumstances do is to go looking for land outside. Anyway, I shall be round to see him first thing tomorrow and we can talk about it in detail then.’
Jia Rong promised to retail this message.
Jia Qiang now stepped forward with a message of his own:
‘Uncle Zhen has given me the job of going to Soochow to engage music and drama teachers and to buy girl players and instruments and costumes so that we can have our own theatricals for the visitation. I’m to take Lai Sheng’s two sons with me; and two of Great-uncle Zheng’s gentlemen, Dan Ping-ren and Bu Gu-xiu, are coming as well. Uncle said I ought to have a word with you about it before I go.’
Jia Lian looked the youth up and down appraisingly and laughed:
‘Do you think you are qualified for the job? It may not be a very big one, but I should say the pickings would be pretty good for someone who knew the ropes.’
Jia Qiang laughed too.
‘I shall have to learn as I go along!’
Jia Rong, who was standing somewhat away. From the light, availed himself of the shadow’s concealment to give Xi-feng’s dress a surreptitious tug. She understood perfectly well what his meaning was, but pretended not to, dismissing him with a curt wave of the hand and addressing herself instead to Jia Lian:
‘Don’t be so officious, Lian! Cousin Zhen is no less capable of choosing the right person for the job than we are. What do you mean by asking the boy if he’s qualified? He’s as much qualified as any of the rest of us. He’s old enough to have seen a pig run, even if he’s not old enough to have eaten pork! In any case, I’m sure Cousin Zhen only chose him as a figurehead. You don’t seriously suppose that he’ll be the one to discuss prices and deal with the business side of the expedition? — I think myself it’s a very good choice!’
‘Of course it is,’ said Jia Lian. ‘I don’t dispute it. I merely thought we ought to do a few of his sums for him before he goes. Where is the money for this coming from?’ he asked Jia Qiang.
‘We were discussing that just now,’ said Jia Qiang. ‘Gaffer Lai says that there’s no point in taking money with us from here. He says the Zhens of Kiangnan hold fifty thousand taels of ours on deposit and he can give us a letter of credit to take to them when we go. We’ll draw out thirty thousand first and leave the rest to buy lanterns, lamps, and curtains with later on.’
Jia Lian nodded appreciatively.
‘Good idea.’
‘Well, if that’s all settled,’ Xi-feng put in quickly, ‘I’ve got two very reliable young men for you to take with you, Qiang. I’m sure you’ll find them extremely useful.’
‘What a coincidence!’ said Jia Qiang. ‘I was just about to ask if you could recommend a couple of helpers!’
He asked for their names, and Xi-feng turned to Nannie Zhao to supply them. But the old nurse was so bemused by all this talk of policy and high finance that she appeared to be in a sort of coma, which it took a sharp nudge from Patience to rouse her from. When she answered it was in a gabble, to make up for the awkward pause.
‘One of them is called Zhao Tian-liang, the other is called Zhao Tian-dong.’
‘Mind you don’t forget!’ said Xi-feng. ‘Now I’m off to see to my own affairs.’ And she left the room.
Jia Rong slipped out after her.
‘If you will make a list of all the things you want,’ he said, smilingly and softly, ‘I’ll see that he gets them for you, gracious lady.’
‘Gracious arsehole!’ said Xi-feng. ‘Do you think you can buy my favour with a few knick-knacks? I don’t like all this whispering in corners.’
She walked away without giving him a chance to reply.
Meanwhile Jia Qiang was making a somewhat similar proposal to Jia Lian.
‘If there’s anything I can get for you while I’m away, Uncle, I shall be glad to wangle it.’
‘My, my!’ said Jia Lian. ‘Let’s not get carried away, then! I must say, for one who’s only just started, you certainly haven’t lost much time in picking up the tricks of the trade! Yes, I dare say I shall write and let you know if I find I’m short of anything.’
With these words he sent the two young men back to the other house. Their departure was followed by a succession of three or four visits by servants reporting on household matters, after which he felt so exhausted that he instructed the servants on the inner gate to refuse admittance to any others and to inform them that he would deal with their business next day. It was midnight by the time Xi-feng got back to bed.
But the affairs of that night are no part of our story.
Rising early next morning, Jia Lian first called on his father and uncles and then went to the Ning-guo mansion, where, with Cousin Zhen, he joined a group consisting of the older stewards and domestics and a few friends and clients of the family in making a complete survey of the Ning-guo and Rong-guo properties with a view to deciding where the various buildings of the Separate Residence should be sited. He also helped them interview the craftsmen who would undertake the work.
After the assembling of builders and artisans the assembling of materials began: a continuous flow of supplies converging on the site from every direction, from precious consignments of gold, silver, copper and tin, to huge, bulky loads of builder’s clay, timber, bricks and tiles.
Various walls, including the surrounding walls of the All? scents Garden, and some of the garden’s pavilions were demolished so that the north-west part of the Ning-guo property and the large open court on the north-east side of Rong-guo House were thrown into a single site. A range of servants’ quarters on the east side of the Rong-guo grounds had already been demolished. The Ning-guo and Rong-guo properties had previous to this been divided by an alley-way running from north to south between them, but as it was not a public thoroughfare, no problem as involved in closing it and incorporating part of it in the rest of the new site.
The All-scents Garden had been watered by a stream led in by a culvert which ran under a corner of the north wall. Now that the garden was being integrated in the larger site, it was no longer necessary to lead the water in at this point.
The artificial hills, rocks, trees and shrubs of All-scents Garden were, of course, insufficient for the whole of the new site; but the area occupied by Jia She was the original garden of Rong-guo House and plentifully supplied with bamboos, trees, rocks, pavilions, kiosks and pergolas capable of being moved elsewhere. By pooling the resources of these two garden—the All-scents Garden of Ning-guo House and the original Rong-guo garden where Jia She lived— and redistri?buting them over a single area, it would be possible to make great economies in both labour and materials, and when the estimates came to be made it was found that the requirements, in terms of completely new materials, would be comparatively modest.
The conception as a whole and the designs for its execution were alike the work of a well-known landscape gardener familiar to all and sundry by the sobriquet of ‘Horticultural Hu’.
Jia Zheng was unused to matters of a practical nature and left the management of men and the control of operations to a consortium consisting of Jia She, Cousin Zhen and Jia Lian, the stewards Lai Da, Lai Sheng and Lin Zhi-xiao, the Clerk of Stores Wu Xin-deng, and two of his literary gentlemen, Zhan Guang and Cheng Ri-xing. The digging of pools, the raising of hills, the sitting and erection of lodges and pavilions, the planting of bamboos and flowers—in a word, all matters pertaining to the landscaping and layout of the gardens, were planned and supervised by Horticultural Hu. Jia Zheng would merely drop in occasionally when he got back from Court and look around. On any important matters he sought the advice of Jia She and the rest.
Jia She led a life of cultured ease and never did anything. On routine matters of no great importance Cousin Zhen would either report to him in person or send him a brief note when the thing was done. If consultation was unavoidable, he would send along Lai Da or one of the others for a reply.
Jia Rong’s sole task was to supervise the making of objects in gold and silver.
Jia Qiang had already left for Soochow.
Cousin Zhen, Lai Da and the rest were the ones who did most of the real work. It was they who hired workmen, kept accounts, and supervised and inspected each job as it was undertaken.
The amount of noise and activity generated by these opera?tions could not be described in a few words, and for the time being we shall not attempt the task.
The family’s recent preoccupation with these important developments had released Bao-yu from his father’s periodical quizzing about the progress of his studies. Unfortunately the relief of mind which this would otherwise have afforded him was displaced by a grave concern for Qin Zhong, whose sickness seemed to be daily worsening. Under such circumstances it was impossible for him to feel happy about anything else.
One morning, just as he had finished washing and dressing and was thinking of going round to Grandmother Jia to ask if he might pay Qin Zhong another visit, he caught sight of Tealeaf dodging about behind the screen wall of the inner gate and evidently trying to catch his attention. Bao-yu hurried over to him.
‘What is it?’
‘Master Qin. He’s dying!’
Bao-yu was stunned.
‘Dying? When I saw him yesterday he seemed quite lucid. How can he be dying so soon?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Tealeaf. ‘But that’s what the old gaffer said just now who came round to tell me.’
Bao-yu hurried back and told Grandmother Jia. She in?structed some of the more reliable servants to go with him and briefly admonished him before he went:
‘When you get there you may stay with him to the end, since you have been such good friends; but you must come back as soon as it is over. Don’t hang about!’
Bao-yu hurried off to change, only to find, on re-emerging, that the carriage was still not ready. Anxious lest he should arrive too late, he ran up and down the courtyard in a frenzy of impatience, imploring the servants to make haste; and when it at last arrived, he flung himself in it and drove off at great speed, hotly pursued by Li Gui, Tealeaf and the others attend?ing him.
The house, when they reached it, appeared silent and deserted. Entering together in a tight little knot, master and servants surged through like swarming bees to the inner apartment at the back where Qin Zhong lay, causing great consternation among the two aunts and half-dozen girl cousins who were tending him and who were unable to con?ceal themselves before the advent of this masculine invasion.
At this stage Qin Zhong had already lost consciousness several times and, in accordance with the Northern custom which forbids a sick man to breathe his last on the kang, had some time since been lifted on to a trestle bed to die. Bao-yu gave an involuntary cry when he saw where he was lying and broke into noisy weeping. He was quickly restrained by Li Gui:
‘You know how delicate Master Qin is. I expect the kang was too hard for him and they have put him here so that he can lie a bit more easy. You mustn’t cry like that or you will make him worse!’
Bao-yu held back his sobs and drew close to his dying friend. Qin Zhong’s face was waxen. His eyes were closed tight and he seemed to breathe with difficulty, twisting his head from side to side on the pillow.
‘Jing-qing, old fellow! It’s me! It’s Bao-yu!’—He called him several times, but Qin Zhong seemed unaware of his presence. Again he called:
‘It’s Bao-yu!’
In point of fact Qin Zhong’s soul had already left his body and the few faint gasps of breath in his failing lungs were the only life that now remained in it. The ministers of the under?world, armed with a warrant and chains to bind him with, were at that very moment confronting him; but his soul was refusing to go quietly. Remembering that he left no one behind him to look after his family’s affairs, and bethinking him of poor Sapientia whose whereabouts were still unknown, he entreated them most piteously to spare him. But the infernal visitants had no ear for his entreaties and silenced him with angry rebuke:
‘You’re an educated young fellow: haven’t you heard the saying
If Yama calls at midnight hour
No man can put off death till four—?

We ministers of the nether world, from the highest down to the lowest, all have unbending iron natures and—unlike the officials of the mortal world, who are always doing kindnesses and showing favours and inventing little tricks and dodges for frustrating the course of justice — we are incapable of showing partiality.’
Suddenly, above their angry shouting, Qin Zhong heard a tiny cry:
‘It’s Bao-yu!’
At once he renewed his entreaties:
‘Good gentlemen, be merciful! Give me just a moment for a few words with a very dear friend of mine, and I’ll be back directly!’
‘What is it now?’ asked the demons. ‘What friend?’
‘I won’t deceive you, gentlemen. It’s a descendant of the Duke of Rong-guo. His name is Bao-yu.’
‘What?’ screamed the officer in charge of the party in great alarm. He turned angrily on his demon minions;
‘I told you we ought to let him go back for a bit, but you wouldn’t listen. Now look what’s happened! He’s gone and called up a person full of life and health to come here right in our midst! This is terrible!’
The demons showed signs of disarray on observing their leader to be so affected, and there was some angry mutter?ing:
‘Yer Honour was putting on a brave enough show a short while ago. Why should the name “Bao-yu” throw you into such a state of commotion? If you ask us, seeing that he’s upper world and we’re lower world, there’s nothing to be afraid of. We might just as well carry this one off now and have done with it.’
The trepidation of their leader, who was perhaps thinking more of Bao-yu’s demon-repelling talisman than of its wearer, was far from comforted by this reflection.
‘No! No! No!’ he shouted, and compelled them to let the soul return to its body.
With the return of his soul Qin Zhong regained conscious?ness and opened his eyes. He could see Bao-yu standing beside him; but his throat was so choked with phlegm that he was unable to utter a word. He could only fasten his eyes on him and slowly shake his head. Then there was a rasping sound in his throat and he slid once more into the dark.
What followed will be told in the following chapter.

Previous articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 17
Next articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 15
Discover the wonders of China through studying abroad - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand your horizons, immerse yourself in a rich and diverse culture, and gain a world-class education.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here