The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 33

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CHAPTER 33

An envious younger brother puts in a malicious word or two
And a scapegrace elder brother receives a terrible chastisement

OUR story last told how Golden’s mother was summoned to take away the clothing that Bao-chai had brought for Golden’s laying-out. When she arrived, Lady Wang called her inside, and after making her an additional present of some jewellery, advised her to procure the services of some Buddhist monks to recite a sūtra for the salvation of the dead girl’s soul. Golden’s mother kotowed her thanks and departed with the clothes and jewellery.

*

The news that Golden’s disgrace had driven her to take her own life had reached Bao-yu as he was returning from his interview with Jia Yu-cun, and he was already in a state of shock when he went in to see his mother, only to be subjected by her to a string of accusations and reproaches, to which he was unable to reply. He availed himself of the opportunity presented by Bao-chai’s arrival to slip quietly out again, and wandered along, scarcely knowing where he was going, still in a state of shock, hands clasped behind him, head down low, and sighing as he went.
Without realizing it he was drifting towards the main re?ception hall, and was in fact just emerging from behind the screen-wall that masked the gateway leading from the inner to the outer part of the mansion, when he walked head-on into someone coming from the opposite direction.
‘Stand where you are!’ said this person in a harsh voice.
Bao-yu looked up with a start and saw that it was his father. He gave an involuntary gasp of fear and, dropping his hands to his sides, hastily assumed a more deferential posture.
‘Now,’ said Jia Zheng, ‘will you kindly explain the meaning of these sighs and of this moping, hang-dog appearance? You took your time coming when Yu-cun called for you just now, and I gather that when you did eventually vouchsafe your presence, he found you dull and listless and without a lively word to say for yourself. And look at you now — sullenness and secret depravity written all over your face! What are these sighings and groanings supposed to indicate? What have you got to he discontented or displeased about? Come, sit! What is the meaning of this?’
Bao-yu was normally ready enough with his tongue, but on this occasion grief for Golden so occupied his mind (at that moment he would very willingly have changed places with her) that though he heard the words addressed to him by his father, he failed to take in their meaning and merely stared back at him stupidly.
Seeing him too hypnotized by fear — or so it appeared — to answer with his usual promptness, Jia Zheng, who had not been angry to start with, was now well on the way to becoming so; but the irate comment he was about to make was checked when a servant from the outer gate announced that a representative of ‘His Highness the Prince of Zhong-shun’ had arrived.
Jia Zheng was puzzled.
‘The Prince of Zhong-shun?’ he thought. ‘I have never had any dealings with the Prince of Zhong-shun. I wonder why he should suddenly send someone to see me …?’
‘He told the man to invite the prince’s messenger to sit in the hall, while he himself hurried inside and changed into court dress. On entering the hall to receive his visitor, he found that it was the Prince of Zhong-shun’s chamberlain who had come to see him. After an exchange of bows and verbal salutations, the two men sat down and tea was served. The chamberlain cut short the customary civilities by coming straight to the point.
‘It would have been temerity on my part to have intruded on the leisure of an illustrious scholar in the privacy of his home, but in fact it is not for the purpose of paying a social call that I am here, but on orders from His Highness. His Highness has a small request to make of you. If you will be so good as to oblige hint, not only will His Highness be extremely grateful himself, but I and my colleagues will also be very much beholden to you.’
Jia Zheng was totally at a loss to imagine what the purpose of the man’s visit might be; nevertheless he rose to his feet out of respect for the prince and smiled politely.
‘You have orders from His Highness for me? I shall be happy to perform them if you will have the goodness to instruct me.’
‘I don’t think any performing will be necessary,’ said the chamberlain drily. ‘All we want from you is a few words. A young actor called Bijou — a female impersonator — has gone missing from the palace. He hasn’t been back now for four or five days; and though we have looked everywhere we can think of, we can’t make out where he can have got to. How?ever, in the course of the very extensive inquiries we have made both inside and outside the city, eight out of ten of the people we have spoken to say that he has recently been very thick with the young gentleman who was born with the jade in his mouth. Well, obviously we couldn’t come inside here and search as we would have done if this had been anyone else’s house, so we had to go back and report the matter to His Highness; and His Highness says that though he could view the loss of a hundred ordinary actors with equanimity, this Bijou is so skilled in anticipating his wishes and so essential to his peace of mind that it would be utterly im?possible for him to dispense with his services. I have therefore come here to request you to ask your son if he will be good enough to let Bijou come back again. By doing so he will not only earn the undying gratitude of the Prince, but will also save me and my colleagues a great deal of tiring and disagreeable searching.’
The chamberlain concluded with a sweeping bow.
Surprised and angered by what he had heard, Jia Zheng immediately sent for Bao-yu, who presently came hurrying in, ignorant of what the reason for his summons might be.
‘Miserable scum!’ said Jia Zheng. ‘It is not enough, apparently, that you should neglect your studies when you are at home. It seems that you must needs go perpetrating enor?mities outside. This Bijou I have been hearing about is under the patronage of His Royal Highness the Prince of Zhong-shun. How could you have the unspeakable effrontery to commit an act of enticement on his person — involving me, incidentally, in the consequences of your wrong-doing?’
The question made Bao-yu start.
‘I honestly know nothing about this,’ he said. ‘I don’t even know who or what “Bijou” is, let alone what you mean by “enticement”’.
Jia Zheng was about to exclaim, but the chamberlain fore?stalled him.
‘There is really no point in concealment, young gentleman,’ he said coldly. ‘Even if you are not hiding him here, we are sure that you know where he is. In either case you had much better say straight out and save us a lot of trouble. I’d be greatly obliged if you would.’
‘I really don’t know,’ said Bao-yu. ‘You must have been misinformed.’
The chamberlain gave a sardonic laugh.
‘I have, of course, got evidence for what I am saying and I’m afraid you are doing yourself little good by forcing me to mention it in front of your father. You say you don’t know who Bijou is. Very well. Then will you kindly explain how his red cummerbund came to find its way around your waist?’
Bao-yu stared at him open-mouthed, too stunned to reply.
‘If he knows even a private thing like that,’ he thought, ‘there’s little likelihood of my being able to hoodwink him about anything else. I’d better get rid of him as quickly as possible, before he can say any more.’
‘Since you have managed to find out so much about him,’ he said, finding his tongue at last, ‘I’m surprised that so im?portant a thing as buying a house should have escaped you. From what I’ve heard, he recently acquired a little villa and an acre or so of land at Fort Redwood, seven miles east of the walls. I suppose he could be there.’
The chamberlain smiled.
‘If you say so, then no doubt that is where we shall find him. I shall go and look there immediately. If I do find him there, you will hear no more from me; if not, I shall be back again for further instructions.’
So saying, he hurriedly took his leave.
Jia Zheng, his eyes glaring and his mouth contorted with rage, went after the chamberlain to see him out. He turned briefly towards Bao-yu as he was leaving the hall.
‘You stay where you are. I shall deal with you when I get back.’
As he was on his way in again after seeing the chamberlain off the premises, Jia Huan with two or three pages at his heels came stampeding across the courtyard.
‘Hit that boy!’ Jia Zheng shouted, outraged. But Jia Huan, reduced to a quivering jelly of fear by the sight of his father, had already jolted to a halt and was standing with bowed head in front of him.
‘And what is the meaning of this?’ said Jia Zheng. ‘What has become of the people who are supposed to look after you? Why do they allow you to gallop around in this extraordinary fashion?’ His voice rose to a shout: ‘Where are the people responsible for taking this boy to school?’
Jia Huan saw in his father’s anger an opportunity of exer?cising his malice.
‘I didn’t mean to run, Father, but just as I was going by the well back there I saw the body of a maid who had drowned herself — all swollen up with water, and her head all swollen. It was horrible. I just couldn’t help myself.’
Jia Zheng heard him with incredulous horror.
‘What are you saying? Who has drowned herself? Such a thing has never before happened in our family. Our family has always been lenient and considerate in its treatment of in?feriors. It is one of our traditions. I suppose it is because I have been too neglectful of household matters during these last few years. Those in charge have felt encouraged to abuse their authority, until finally an appalling thing like this can happen an innocent young life cut off by violence. What a terrible dis?grace to our ancestors if this should get about!’ He turned and shouted a command.
‘Fetch Jia Lian and Lai Da!’
‘Sir!’ chorused the pages, and were on the point of doing so when Jia Huan impulsively stepped forward, threw himself on his knees and clung to his father’s skirts.
‘Don’t be angry with me, Father, but apart from the ser?vants in Lady Wang’s room, no one else knows anything about this. I heard my mother say -’
He broke off and glanced around behind him. Jia Zheng understood and signaled with his eyes to the pages, who obediently withdrew some distance back to either side of the courtyard. Jia Huan continued in a voice lowered almost to a whisper.
‘My mother told me that the day before yesterday, in Lady Wang’s room, my brother Bao-yu tried to rape one of Her Ladyship’s maids called Golden, and when she wouldn’t let him, he gave her a beating; and Golden was so upset that she threw herself in the well and was drowned –’
Jia Zheng, whose face had now turned to a ghastly gold-leaf colour, interrupted him with a dreadful cry.
‘Fetch Bao-yu!’
He began to stride towards his study, shouting to all and sundry as he went.
‘If anyone tries to stop me this time, I shall make over my house and property and my post at the Ministry and every?thing else I have to him and Bao-yu. I absolutely refuse to be responsible for the boy any longer. I shall cut off my few remaining hairs (those that worry and wretchedness have left me) and look for some clean and decent spot to end my days in. Perhaps in that way I shall escape the charge of having dis?graced my ancestors by rearing this unnatural monster as my son.’
When they saw the state he was in, the literary gentlemen and senior menservants who were waiting for him in the study, guessed that Bao-yu must be the cause of it and, looking at each other with various grimaces, biting their thumbs or sticking their tongues out, hastily retreated from the room. Jia-Zheng entered it alone and sat down, stiffly upright, in a chair. He was breathing heavily and his face was bathed in tears. Presently, when he had regained his breath, he barked out a rapid series of commands:
‘Bring Bao-yu here. Get a heavy bamboo. Get some rope to tie him with. Close the courtyard gates. If anyone tries to take word through inside, kill him!’
‘Sir! — Sir! — Sir!’ the terrified pages chorused in unison at each of his commands, and some of them went off to look for Bao-yu.
Jia Zheng’s ominous ‘Stay where you are’ as he went out with the chamberlain had warned Bao-yu that something dire was imminent — though just how much more dire as a result of Jia Huan’s malicious intervention he could not have foreseen and as he stood where his father had left him, he twisted and turned himself about, anxiously looking for some passer-by who could take a message through to the womenfolk inside. But no one came. Even the omnipresent Tealeaf was on this occasion nowhere to be seen. Then suddenly, in answer to his prayers, an old woman appeared — a darling, precious treasure of an old woman (or so she seemed at that moment) — and he dashed forward and clung to her beseechingly.
‘Quickly!’ he said. ‘Go and tell them that Sir Zheng is going to beat me. Quickly! Quickly! Goand tell. GO AND TELL.’
Partly because agitation had made him incoherent and partly because, as ill luck would have it, the old woman was deaf, almost everything he said had escaped her except for the ‘Go and tell’, which she misheard as ‘in the well’. She smiled at him reassuringly.
‘Let her jump in the well then, young master. Don’t you worry your pretty head about it!’
Realizing that he had deafness, too, to contend with, he now became quite frantic.
‘GO AND TELL MY PAGES.’
‘Her wages?’ the old woman asked in some surprise. ‘Bless you, of course they paid her wages! Her Ladyship gave a whole lot of money towards the funeral as well. And clothes. Paid her wages, indeed!’
Bao-yu stamped his feet in a frenzy of impatience. He was still wondering despairingly how to make her understand when Jia Zheng’s pages arrived and forced him to go with them to the study.
Jia Zheng turned a pair of wild and bloodshot eyes on him as he entered. Forgetting the ‘riotous and dissipated conduct abroad leading to the unseemly bestowal of impudicities on a theatrical performer’ and the ‘neglect of proper pursuits and studies at home culminating in the attempted violation of a parent’s maidservant’ and all the other high-sounding charges he had been preparing to hurl against him, he shouted two brief orders to the pages.
‘Gag his mouth. Beat him to death.’
The pages were too frightened not to comply. Two held Bao-yu face downwards on a bench while a third lifted up the flattened bamboo sweep and began to strike him with it across the hams. After about a dozen blows Jia Zheng, not satisfied that his executioner was hitting hard enough, kicked him impatiently aside, wrested the bamboo from his grasp, and, gritting his teeth, brought it down with the utmost savagery on the places that had already been beaten.
At this point the literary gentlemen, sensing that Bao-yu was in serious danger of life and limb, came in again to remonstrate; but Jia Zheng refused to hear them.
‘Ask him what he has done and then tell me if you think I should spare him,’ he said. ‘It is the encouragement of people like you that has corrupted him; and now, when things have come to this pass, you intercede for him. I suppose you would like me to wait until he commits parricide, or worse. Would you still intercede for him then?’
They could see from this reply that he was beside himself. Wasting no further time on words, they quickly withdrew and looked for someone to take a message through inside.
Lady Wang did not stop to tell Grandmother Jia when she received it. She snatched up an outer garment, pulled it about her, and, supported by a single maid, rushed off, not caring what menfolk might see her, to the outer study, bursting into it with such suddenness that the literary gentlemen and other males present were unable to avoid her.
Her entry provoked Jia Zheng to fresh transports of fury. Faster and harder fell the bamboo on the prostrate form of Bao-yu, which by now appeared to be unconscious, for when the boys holding it down relaxed their hold and fled from their Mistress’s presence, it had long since ceased even to twitch. Even so Jia Zheng would have continued beating it had not Lady Wang clasped the bamboo to her bosom and prevented him.
‘Enough!’ said Jia Zheng. ‘Today you are determined, all of you, to drive me insane.’
‘No doubt Bao-yu deserved to be beaten,’ said Lady Wang tearfully, ‘but it is bad for you to get over excited. Besides, you ought to have some consideration for Lady Jia. She is not at all well in this frightful heat. It may not seem to you of much consequence to kill Bao-yu, but think what the effect would be on her.’
‘Don’t try that sort of talk with me!’ said Jia Zheng bitterly. ‘Merely by fathering a monster like this I have proved myself an unfilial son; yet whenever in the past I have tried to disci?pline him, the rest of you have all conspired against me to protect him. Now that I have the opportunity at last, I may as well finish off what I have begun and put him down, like the vermin he is, before he can do any more damage.’
So saying, he took up a rope and would have put his threat into execution, had not Lady Wang held her arms around him to prevent it.
‘Of course you should discipline your son,’ she said, weep?ing, ‘but you have a wife too, Sir Zheng, don’t forget. I am nearly fifty now and this wretched boy is the only son I have. If you insist on making an example of him, I dare not do much to dissuade you. But to kill him outright that is deliberately to make me childless. Better strangle me first, if you are going to strangle him. Let the two of us die together. At least I shall have some support then in the world to come, if all support in this world is to be denied me!’
With these words she threw herself upon Bao-yu’s body and, lifting up her voice, began weeping with noisy abandon. Jia Zheng, who had heard her with a sigh, sank into a chair and himself broke down in a fit of weeping.
Presently Lady Wang began to examine the body she was clasping. Bao-yu’s face was ashen, his breathing was scarcely perceptible, and the trousers of thin green silk which clothed the lower part of his body were so soaked with blood that their colour was no longer recognizable. Feverishly she un?fastened his waistband and drew them back. Everywhere, from the upper part of his buttocks down to his calves, was either raw and bloody or purplish black with bruises. Not an inch of sound flesh was to be seen. The sight made her cry out involuntarily.
‘Oh my son! My unfortunate son!’
Once more she broke down into uncontrollable weeping.
Her own words reminded her of the son she had already lost, and now, with added bitterness, she began to call out his name.
‘Oh, Zhu! Zhu! If only you had lived, I shouldn’t have minded losing a hundred other sons!’
By this time news of Lady Wang’s démarche had circulated to the other members of the inner mansion and Li Wan, Xi-feng, Ying-chun, Tan-chun and Xi-chun had come to join her. The invocation of her dead husband’s name, painful to all of them, was altogether too much for Li Wan, who broke into loud sobs on hearing it. Jia Zheng himself was deeply affected, and tears as round as pumpkins rolled down both his cheeks. It was beginning to look as if they might all go on weeping there indefinitely, since no one would make a move; but just then there was a cry of ‘Her Old Ladyship—!’ from one of the maids, interrupted by a quavering voice outside the window.
‘Kill me first! You may as well kill both of us while you are about it!’
As much distressed by his mother’s words as he was alarmed by her arrival, Jia Zheng hurried out to meet her. She was leaning on the shoulder of a little maid, her old head swaying from side to side with the effort of running, and pant?ing as she ran.
Jia Zheng bowed down before her and his face assumed the semblance of a smile.
‘Surely, Mother, in such hot weather as this there is no need for you to come here? If you have any instructions, you should call for me and let me come to you.’
Grandmother Jia had stopped when she heard this voice and now stood panting for some moments while she regained her breath. When she spoke, her voice had an unnatural shrillness in it.
‘Oh! Are you speaking to me? — Yes, as a matter of fact I have got instructions”, as you put it; but as unfortunately I’ve never had a good son who cares for me, there’s no one I can give them to.’
Wounded in his most sensitive spot, Jia Zheng fell on his knees before her. The voice in which he replied to her was broken with tears.
‘How can I bear it, Mother, if you speak to me like that? What I did to the boy I did for the honour of the family.’
Grandmother Jia spat contemptuously.
‘A single harsh word from me and you start whining that you can’t bear it. How do you think Bao-yu could bear your cruel rod? And you say you’ve been punishing him for the honour of the family, but you just tell me this: did your own father ever punish yon in such a way? I think not.’
She was weeping now herself.
‘Don’t upset yourself, Mother,’ said Jia Zheng, with the same forced smile. ‘I acted too hastily. From now on I’ll never beat him again, if that’s what you wish.’
‘Hoity-toity, keep your temper!’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘He’s your son. If you want to beat him, that’s up to you. If we women are in your way, we’ll leave you alone to get on with it.’ She turned to her attendants. ‘Call my carriage. Your Mistress and I and Bao-yu are going back to Nanking. We shall be leaving immediately.’
The servants made a show of compliance.
‘No need for you to cry,’ she said, turning to Lady Wang. ‘You love Bao-yu now that he’s young, but when he’s grown up and become an important official, he’ll like enough forget that you’re his mother. Much better force yourself not to love him now and save yourself some anguish later on.’
Jia Zheng threw himself forward on his face.
‘Don’t say that, Mother! Don’t reject your own son!’
‘On the contrary,’ said Grandmother Jia, ‘it is you who have rejected me’. But don’t worry. When I have gone back to Nanking, there will be no one here to stop you. You can beat away to your heart’s content.’ She turned to the servants.
‘Come on, hurry up with that packing! And get the carriage and horses ready so that we can be on our way.’
Jia Zheng’s kotows were by now describing the whole quarter circle from perpendicular to ground. But the old lady walked on inside, ignoring him.
From the sight that met her eyes she could tell that this had been no ordinary beating. It filled her with anguish for the sufferer and fresh anger for the man who had inflicted it, and for a long time she clung to the inert form and wept, only gradually calming down under the combined coaxing of Lady Wang, Xi-feng and Li Wan.
At this point several of the maids and women servants came forward and attempted to raise Bao-yu to his feet.
‘Idiots!’ said Xi-feng. ‘Haven’t you got eyes in your heads? Can’t you see that he’s in no fit state to walk? Go and get that wicker summer-bed from inside and carry him in on that.’
The servants rushed out and presently reappeared carrying a long, narrow couch of woven rattan between them, on to which they lifted Bao-yu. Then, with Grandmother Jia, Lady Wang and the rest of the womenfolk leading the way, they carried him to Grandmother Jia’s apartment and set him down inside it.
Jia Zheng, conscious that his mother’s wrath against him had not abated and unwilling to leave things where they stood, had followed the little procession inside. His eyes travelled from Bao-yu, who, he now saw, really had been beaten very badly, to Lady Wang. She was sobbing bitterly, interspersing her sobs with cries of ‘My child!’ and ‘My son!’. Presently she broke off and began railing at the object of her sorrow: ‘Why couldn’t you have died instead of Zhu? Zhu wouldn’t have made his father angry the way you do and I should have been spared this constant anxiety. What is to become of me if you go away and leave me, too?’ Then, with a cry of ‘Poor, worthless boy!’, she fell once more to weeping. When Jia Zheng heard this, his own heart was softened and he began to wish that he had not beaten the boy quite so savagely. He tried to find words of comfort for his old mother, but she answered him tearfully.
‘A father ought to punish his son if he’s done wrong, but not like that! — Why don’t you go now? Won’t you be content until you’ve seen the boy die under your own eyes?’
Jia Zheng, with flustered deference, withdrew.
By now Aunt Xue, Bao-chai, Caltrop, Aroma and Shi Xiang-yun were there too. Aroma was deeply distressed, but could not show the extent of her feelings in the presence of so many others. Indeed, Bao-yu was so ringed around with people fanning him or forcing water through his lips that there was nothing she could have done for him if she had tried. Feeling somewhat superfluous, she left the apartment and went out to the inner gate, where she asked the pages to look for Tealeaf, so that she could find out what had hap?pened.
‘Why did the Master suddenly beat him like that?’ she asked Tealeaf when he arrived. ‘He hadn’t been doing any?thing. And why couldn’t you have warned us in time?’
Tealeaf was indignant.
‘I couldn’t help it, I wasn’t there. He was half-way through beating him before I even got to hear about it. I did my best to find out the reason, though. It seems that there were two things the Master was upset about: one was to do with Bijou and the other was to do with Golden.’
‘How did the Master get to know about them?’ said Aroma. ‘Well, the Bijou business he probably knew about indirectly through Mr Xue,’ said Tealeaf. ‘Mr Xue had been feeling very jealous, and it looks as though he may have put someone else up to telling the Master about it out of spite. And Golden he probably heard about from Master Huan – leastways, that’s what the Master’s own people told me.’
The two reasons Tealeaf had given corresponded well enough with Aroma’s own observations, and she was more than half inclined to believe them. Fairly confident, therefore, that she now knew the cause of what had happened, she re?turned once more to the apartment. The ministrations of those surrounding Bao-yu had by now restored him to fall consciousness, and Grandmother Jia was instructing the ser?vants to carry him back to his own room. There was an answering cry and something of a scramble as many willing hands lifted up the cane bed. Then, preceded as before by Grandmother Jia, Lady Wang and the rest, they carried him through into the Garden and back to Green Delights, where they finally got him on to his own bed. After a good deal more bustle they gradually all drifted away and Aroma at last had Bao-yu alone to herself.
But in order to know what happened then, you must refer to the following chapter.

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