The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 44

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CHAPTER 44


Xi-feng’s jealousy is the object of an unexpected provocation
And Patience’s toilet is a source of unexpected delight

BAO-YU having now taken his place amongst the girls, they and the rest of the company were once more able to give their undivided attention to the players.
The play being performed on this occasion was, as we noted at the end of the previous chapter, The Wooden Hairpin, and it chanced that they had reached that section of it popularly re?ferred to as ‘The Husband’s Offering’, in which the hero Wang Shi-peng, believing that his wife has drowned herself, goes with his aged mother to the river Ou-jiang to make offerings to her soul. At this point Dai-yu, who was able to guess what the real purpose of Bao-yu’s early-morning excursion had been, turned to Bao-chai and remarked, in a voice loud enough for Bao-yu to overhear, that she thought Wang Shi-peng a ‘very silly sort of fellow
‘He could have made his offering anywhere. Why was it necessary for him to go rushing off to the riverside to make it? They say that “objects aid recall”: well, since all the water in the world comes ultimately from a single source, a bowlful of it scooped up anywhere should have sufficed. His feelings could have been just as effectively relieved by weeping over a bowlful of water as by rushing off to the banks of the river.’
Bao-chai made no reply. Bao-yu, who had certainly heard her, turned away and called for hot wine to drink Xi-feng’s health with.
Grandmother Jia was determined that this should be a day like no other and that Xi-feng should derive the greatest possible enjoyment from it. Not feeling sufficiently energetic to sit with the rest, however, she had retired to the inner room with Aunt Xue, reclining on a couch there in a position from which it was still possible to watch the players. A small selection from the dishes which had covered the two tables laid for her outside had been set down within easy reach where she could pick at them while conversing with Aunt Xue. The remainder she had made over to the maids and older women on duty who had not been catered for, bidding them take their banquet outside on to the verandah where they could sit down and enjoy themselves without restraint.
Lady Wang and Lady Xing also sat in this inner room, not on the kang, where Grandmother Jia’s couch had been placed, but at a high-topped table on the floor below. The young people sat at a number of tables in the outer room. From time to time Grandmother Jia would give orders to You-shi to make sure that Xi-feng was enjoying herself.
‘Make her sit at the head. Why isn’t she sitting at the head? It’s up to you to act as hostess on my behalf,’ she told You?-shi. ‘The poor child is run off her feet all the rest of the year. Today I want her to be made a fuss of.’
You-shi went off to do her bidding, but shortly afterwards returned, a smile on her face, to announce that Xi-feng was being difficult.
‘She says she’s not used to sitting at the head. She says it makes her uncomfortable. And she refuses to drink anything.’
‘If you can’t make her, I shall have to come out and deal with her myself,’ said Grandmother Jia, laughing.
This brought Xi-feng herself running up. She spoke to Grandmother Jia from behind You-shi’s shoulder.
‘Don’t believe her, Grannie. I’ve had lots and lots to drink.’
‘Now look here,’ said Grandmother Jia to You-shi, ‘I want you to march this young woman back to her seat and force her to sit down in it. Then I want every one of you here to drink with her in turn. If she still refuses, I really and truly shall come out and deal with her myself.’
You-shi hauled Xi-feng out again, cal1ed for larger cups to be brought, and poured her out some wine.
There you are, my darling! In token of my appreciation of the noble way in which you have served Lady Jia and Lady Wang and me during the past year, please accept this cup of wine that I have poured out for you with my own fair hand!’
‘If you are really serious about wanting to show me your appreciation,’ said Xi-feng, ‘you ought to offer it to me kneel?ing down.’
‘Just listen to that!’ said You-shi. ‘I’ll tell you something, my girl you just don’t realize how lucky you are. For all you know, things may never be as good as this for you again. If I were you, I’d have a good booze-up while you can. Come on, two cups!’
You-shi was so insistent that in the end Xi-feng had to drink two whole cupfuls from the larger cups. After that the cousins came up one by one to drink with her, which meant that she had to take at least a sip or two with each of them. Then old Mrs Lai, observing with what high spirits Grand-mother Jia was watching these antics, determined to join in the fun too, and came over, with the other old nannies, to drink Xi-feng’s health along with all the rest. Because of the seniority of this group, it would have been difficult for Xi-eng to refuse them, so with each of them too she had to take a couple of sips. But when Faithful and the maids came trooping up, it was more than flesh and blood could bear and she begged to be excused.
Really, my dears, I couldn’t. Let me put it off until to?morrow.’
Faithful pretended to take umbrage.
‘I call that most insulting! Even Her Ladyship treats me with more consideration. I used to think that I counted for something round here, but now, after being put in my place in front of all these others, I can see that I did wrong to come. Well, if you won’t drink, I’m going!’
She turned away and began marching out, but Xi-feng ran after and detained her.
‘No, please! I’ll drink,’
She fetched the wine herself, filled a cup to the brim with it’ and drank it down to the last drop, up-ending it afterwards to show that it was dry. At that Faithful laughed and went away content.
As soon as she had resumed her seat, Xi-feng knew that she had drunk too much. Her heart was pounding in her throat and she felt an overwhelming desire to go back home and lie down. But the leader of the jugglers was bearing down on her.
‘Give this man his money,’ she said, turning to You-shi, ‘I have to go home to wash.’
You-shi nodded, and Xi-feng, choosing a moment when no one was looking, slipped outside and made her way along the outside of the hall under the shadow of the eaves. Patience, who had seen her go and was concerned about her, hurried after and gave her some support.
As they approached the passage-way which led from Grand?mother Jia’s rear courtyard to the gallery in the midst of the little enclosure surrounded by wails and buildings which had once been the scene of Jia Rui’s night-long sufferings, they recognized one of the junior maids from their own apartment standing there, who, as soon as she caught sight of them, turned tail and ran, Xi-feng at once became suspicious and called out after her. The little maid at first pretended not to hear, but when the shouting behind her continued, could no longer keep up the pretence and had to turn about and face them.
Xi-feng’s suspicions were now thoroughly aroused. Ad?vancing into the gallery and calling the maid back into it, she first made Patience close the partitions, so that they were com?pletely cut off from the outside, then, seating herself on the gallery’s stone plinth and ordering the maid to kneel down in front of her, she told Patience in a fierce, loud voice to fetch two pages from the inner gate with a rope and whips to ‘flog to a jelly’ this abominable creature who had so little regard for the presence of her mistress. The wretched girl, already half-dead with fright, now wept for terror and knocked her head repeatedly on the ground, entreating Xi-feng for mercy.
‘I’m not a ghost,’ said Xi-feng. ‘You’re supposed to stand still and wait when you see me coming. What do you mean by running away from me like that?’
‘I didn’t see you at first, ma’am,’ said the little girl tearfully. ‘I was running because I’d just remembered that there was no one at home to look after things.’
‘If there’s no one at home, you had no business to go out in the first place,’ said Xi-feng. ‘And even if you didn’t see me, you must have heard me calling you. Patience and I shouted to you at the tops of our voices ten or a dozen times, but you only ran the faster. We weren’t all that far away from you, either, and you certainly aren’t deaf. How dare you lie to me!’
She raised her hand and dealt the girl a slap on the cheek that made her reel, quickly followed by a second slap on the other cheek. An angry red patch swelled up instantly on either side of the girl’s face.
‘Don’t, madam. You’ll hurt your hand,’ Patience pleaded.
‘Hit her for me, then,’ said Xi-feng, ‘and ask her why she ran away. If she still won’t talk, tear her lips!’
At first the maid tried sticking to her story, but when she heard that Xi-feng was going to heat an iron red-hot and burn her mouth with it, she broke down and tearfully confessed that Jia Lian was at home and had stationed her in the passage-way to look out for her mistress and give him warning of her coming; hut as Xi-feng had left the party so much earlier than expected, she had been taken unawares.
This seemed to Xi-feng to have the ring of truth about it.
‘Why did he ask you to look out for me?’ she asked. ‘Surely I’m allowed to go back to my own room? There must have been a reason. Tell me. If you do, from now on I shall love you and be your friend. But if you don’t, I shall take a knife and cut your flesh with it!’
To reinforce her threat, she plucked a formidable hairpin from her hair and jabbed it violently in the neighbourhood of the girl’s mouth, causing her to dodge this way and that from it in terror.
‘I’ll tell, madam, I’ll tell. Only please don’t let him know that it was me that told you,’ she wept and implored.
Patience begged Xi-feng not to hurt the girl, at the same time urging the girl to make a clean breast of what she had to say. The story then came out.
‘Mr Lian came in a while ago and had a bit of a nap. When he woke up, he sent someone to see what you were doing. They brought word back that your birthday party had only just started and you wouldn’t be back for ages, so he opened the chest and took out two pieces of silver and two hairpins and two lengths of satin and told me to go and give them in secret to Bao Er’s missus and tell her to come over. So then she came over to our room and Mr Lian made me go and wait in the passage here and look out for you. And that’s really all I know.’
Xi-feng was by now shaking all over with anger. She pulled herself to her feet notwithstanding and strode off swiftly towards the house. As she approached the gateway of the court?yard, another little maid popped her head out but quickly drew it in again and ran when she saw that it was Xi-feng. When Xi-feng called to her by name, however, this maid, being more quick-witted than the other one, neither went on retreating nor stood still, but simply turned about and came running up to Xi-feng outside, an obsequious little smile upon her face.
‘Oh madam, I was just going over to tell you when I saw you coming here yourself.’
‘Tell me what?’ said Xi-feng.
The girl then proceeded to relate voluntarily what the other girl had just told under duress.
Xi-feng spat contemptuously.
‘You’ve left it a bit late, haven’t you—waiting until you see me and then trying to act the innocent?’
She raised her hand and struck the girl a blow that sent her staggering, then, tiptoeing across the courtyard, applied her ear to the window to hear what was going on inside.
The first thing she heard was a laugh and a woman’s voice.
‘The best thing that could happen to you,’ it was saying, ‘would be if that hell-cat wife of yours was to die.’
‘Suppose she did,’ Jia Lian’s voice said in answer, ‘and I married another one who turned out to be just as bad?’
‘If she was to die,’ said the first voice, ‘you ought to make Patience your Number One. I’m sure she’d be better than this one.’
‘Patience won’t let me come near her nowadays,’ said Jia Lian. ‘She has a lot to put up with, the same as me, that she doesn’t dare talk about. I don’t know, I reckon I must have been born under a hen-pecked husbands’ star!’
Xi-feng heard this shaking with fury. The couple’s praise of Patience made her at once suspect that Patience had been com?plaining about her behind her back. The fumes of wine mounted up inside her, clouding her judgement. Without pausing to reflect, she turned and struck Patience twice before kicking open the door and striding into the room. There, without more ado, she proceeded to seize hold of Bao Er’s wife and belabour her, breaking off only to block the doorway with her body in case Jia Lian might think of escaping.
‘Filthy whore!’ she shouted. ‘Stealing a husband isn’t enough for you, it seems. You have to murder his wife as well!’ She turned to Patience: ‘Go on, Patience, your place is over there with them—with that whoremaster of yours and his other whore! You’re all three in this together. You hate me just as much as they do under that smarmy outside of yours I’
This was followed by several blows.
Poor Patience, overwhelmed by so much injustice, had only Bao Er’s wife on whom she could vent her feelings.
‘If you have to do these shameful things,’ she said, ‘you might at least leave me out of it.’ And she began to pummel the woman in her turn.
Now Jia Lian had had a good deal to drink that day, and because of the euphoric state he was in, had taken insufficient precautions against surprise. Xi-feng’s unexpected arrival had therefore left him completely at a loss. But Patience’s outburst was another matter. The wine he had drunk rekindled his for?gotten valour; and whereas the anger and shame he felt at seeing Xi-feng beat Bao Er’s wife had rendered him speech?less, the sight of Patience doing the same thing so roused his valiancy that he shouted at her and gave her a kick.
‘Little whore! You want to join in too, do you?’
Patience, whose gentle nature was easily overawed, at once left off, tearfully protesting that it was cruel of them to speak about her in such a way behind her back.
Xi-feng, furious that Patience should be afraid of Jia Lian, rushed over and began striking her again, insisting that she should go on beating Bao Er’s wife and take no notice of him. Finding herself thus attacked on both sides simultaneously by the pair of them, Patience became so desperate that she dashed from the room, vowing that she would find a knife and kill herself, and would undoubtedly have done herself an injury if the maids and nannies from outside had not seized her and gradually talked her out of it.
Xi-feng’s reaction when Patience dashed off threatening suicide was to ram her head into Jia Lian’s chest and shout hysterically.
‘You’re all in league against me, and now you’re trying to frighten me because I overheard you. I don’t care. Kill me! Strangle me!’
Jia Lian, in a fury, snatched a sword down from the wall and drew it from its scabbard.
‘There’s no need for any of you to talk about suicide. I’m desperate too. I’ll kill the lot of you and swing for it. That’ll make a clean end of the business!’
Just as the rumpus was at its height, You-shi arrived with a crowd of others.
‘What on earth is happening? A moment ago everyone was enjoying themselves, and now here you all are shouting at each other!’
With the arrival of this audience Jia Lian pretended to be even drunker than he really was, striking a fiercely threatening attitude and behaving as if he was seriously intending to kill Xi-feng with his sword. Xi-feng, on the other hand, dropped me shrewishness she had up to then been showing as soon as she saw them come and, breaking quickly away, ran weeping to Grandmother Jia.
The play had already ended when Xi-feng burst in upon the aged matriarch and flung herself trembling upon her bosom.
‘Save me, Grannie, save me! Mr Lian is going to kill me!’
‘What?’ cried Grandmother Jia, Lady Xing and Lady Wang in startled simultaneity.
‘When I went home just now to change my clothes,’ Xi-feng tearfully related, ‘I was surprised to hear Mr Lian indoors talking to somebody. I was scared to go in straight away, thinking it must be a guest, so I listened for a while outside the window. Then I found that it wasn’t a guest that he was with but Bao Er’s wife, and they were saying what a tyrant I was and planning to poison me so that he could marry Patience. I became very angry then; but I didn’t want to make a scene with him. I struck Patience a couple of times. All I did to him was ask him why he should want to kill me, but he was so much put out by that that be tried to murder me on the spot.’
Grandmother Jia, believing this farrago to be true, was naturally appalled.
‘How dreadful! Bring the wretch here at once!’
But before the words were out of her mouth, Jia Lian him-self came running in, sword in hand, with a crowd pursuing at his heels.
Grandmother Jia had always treated Jia Lian and Xi-feng with indulgence, and on this occasion Jia Lian seemed to think that he could presume on this to riot in her presence with impunity, totally disregarding the fact that his mother and aunt were there as well. This deliberate flouting of their authority by a licensed favourite greatly incensed the two ladies. They seized hold of him with angry scoldings, one on either side.
‘Disgusting creature! Have you no sense of decency left whatever? Can’t you see that Grandmother is here?’
‘It’s because Grandmother spoils her so much that she has become the way she is,’ said Jia Lian, leering at them through bloodshot eyes.
Lady Xing, having at last succeeded in wresting the sw6rd from his grasp, shouted at him fiercely.
‘Get out of here at once!’
But Jia Lian remained where he was and went on talking and talking in the same leering, disgusting manner, like a little boy who expects his naughtiness to be admired. Grand?mother Jia, in a voice which shook with anger, uttered the only threat that she knew would shift him.
‘I realize that we count for nothing with you. Fetch his father, some one, and see if he’ll go then.’
At that Jia Lian finally shambled out. Sulkily avoiding the conjugal apartment, he took himself off to his study outside.
After he had gone, Lady Xing and Lady Wang turned on Xi-feng and began scolding her; but Grandmother Jia did what she could to comfort her by dismissing the incident as unimportant.
‘Young men of his age are like hungry pussy-cats, my dear. There’s simply no way of holding them. This sort of thing has always happened in big families like ours—certainly ever since I can remember. It’s all my fault, anyway. I shouldn’t have made you drink so much wine. It’s all turned to vinegar inside you.’
This made everyone laugh.
‘Don’t worry,’ she went on.’ I’ll see that he apologizes to you tomorrow. Just for tonight, though, so as not to put him too much out of countenance, I think you had better stay away from him.’
Her voice became harsher when she remembered Patience.
‘Little wretch! I always thought she seemed such a nice girl. To think that underneath it all she should have been so wicked!’
You-shi laughed.
‘There’s nothing wrong with Patience. She just happened to be the person nearest at hand for Feng to work off her spleen on. When Feng and Lian are angry with one another, they both take it out on Patience. The poor girl is terribly unjustly treated. Don’t you go taking sides against her as well!’
‘Oh well, that’s all right;’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘I must say, she never struck me as a wily seductress. In that case, of course, I’m sorry for the poor child—bearing the brunt of it all when she is the innocent party.’
She called Amber to her.
‘Amber, I want you to take a message to Patience for me. Tell her—and I want you to make it quite clear that the mes?sage comes from me personally—that I know she has been unjustly treated and I shall make her mistress apologize to her tomorrow. Only tell her not to make a fuss about it today, because it is her mistress’s birthday.’
*

Patience was at this time in Prospect Garden, whither she had been carried off at the earliest opportunity by Li Wan and where, as soon as they were indoors, she had collapse in a sobbing heap, resisting all attempts at lifting her. Bao-chai tried reasoning with her.
‘Come, Patience, you are an intelligent girl. Think how well your mistress treats you normally. Just because she’s got a bit drunk today and taken it out on you—why, it shows how close you are to each other! You wouldn’t want her to take it out on anyone else, would you? Everyone else is laughing at her for being such a drunken silly. If you alone insist on—taking it so tragically, it will begin to look as if your reputation for good sense was undeserved.’
Just then Amber came in with the message from Grand?mother Jia, and Patience, conscious of the aura of prestige it gave her, began gradually to perk up a bit. She remained in the Garden, however, and made no attempt to return to her mistress.
After she had sat with Patience and rested for a while, Li Wan, together with Bao-chai and the rest of the girls, went back to see Grandmother Jia and Xi-feng, whereupon Bao-yu invited Patience over to Green Delights. Aroma gave her an enthusiastic welcome.
‘I’d like to have asked you here in the first place, but I saw that Mrs Zhu and the young ladies were taking care of you, so I didn’t like to interfere.’
Patience’s face was smiling as she thanked her, but fell again almost immediately.
‘I can’t understand it, I really can’t. I’d done absolutely nothing to deserve such treatment.’
‘Oh, it was a passing fit of anger,’ said Aroma. ‘I don’t suppose Mrs Lian knew what she was doing. Look how well she treats you normally.’
‘I wasn’t thinking so much of Mrs Lian,’ said Patience. ‘It’s what that hateful woman said. Why should she want to amuse herself at my expense? And then for that stupid master of mine to go and beat me—!’
Once more the sense of injustice overcame her and she could not restrain her tears.
‘Don’t be upset, Patience!’ said Bao-yu consolingly. ‘I offer you an apology on their behalf’
Patience laughed.
‘It has nothing to do with you.’
‘We’re all cousins,’ said Bao-yu. ‘What one of us does concerns all the others. If they have done you an injury, it’s up to me to apologize.’
He turned his attention to her appearance.
‘What a pity! You’ve made your new dress all damp. Aroma’s dresses are in here. Why don’t you change into one of hers, then you can spray some samshoo on this one and iron it? You’ll need to do your hair again as well.’
He called to the junior maids to fetch water for washing and heat a flat-iron.
Up to this moment Patience had known only by hearsay of the remarkable understanding shown by Bao-yu in his deal?ings with girls. He had deliberately kept away from her in the past, knowing her to be Xi-feng’s confidante and (he sup?posed) Jia Lian’s cherished concubine. It had indeed been a source of frequent regret to him that he had been unable to show her how much he admired her. Seeing him like this for the first time, Patience reflected on the truth of what she bad heard.
‘He really has thought of everything,’ she told herself, as she watched Aroma open up a large chest—specially for her and select two scarcely worn garments from it for her to change into. Then, since the water had already arrived, she took off her own dress and skirt and quickly washed her face. Bao-yu, who stood by smiling while she washed, now urged her to put on some make-up.
‘If you don’t, it will look as if you are sulking,’ he said ‘After all, it is Feng’s birthday, and Grandma did specially send someone to cheer you up.’
Inwardly acknowledging the reasonableness of this advice, Patience looked round her for some powder, but could not see any, whereupon Bao-yu darted over to the dressing-table and removed the lid from a box of Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in which reposed the head of a white day my with five compact, stick like buds on either side of the stem. Pinch?ing off one of these novel powder-containers, he handed it to Patience.
‘There you are. This isn’t ceruse, it’s a powder made by crushing the seeds of garden-jalap and mixing them with per?fume.’
Patience emptied the contents of the tiny phial on to her palm. All the qualities required by the most expert perfumers were there: lightness, whiteness with just the faintest tinge of rosiness, and fragrance. It spread smoothly and cleanly on the skin, imparting to it a soft bloom -that was quite unlike the harsh and somewhat livid whiteness associated with lead-based powders.
Then the rouge, too, was different—not in the usual sheets or tissues, but a tiny white-jade box filled with a crimson substance that looked like comfiture of roses.
‘This is made from safflower, the same as ordinary rouge,’ Bao-yu explained to her, ‘only the stuff they sell in the shops is impure and its colour is inferior. This is made by squeezing the juice from the best quality safflower, carefully extracting all the impurities, mixing it with rose water, and then further purifying it by distillation. It’s so concentrated that you need only a dab of it on the end of a hairpin to do your lips with and still have enough left over to dilute with water in the palms of your hands for using on your cheeks.’
Following his directions, Patience found that her com?plexion had acquired a radiant freshness that she had never seen in it before. At the same time her whole face seemed to be bathed in the most delectable perfume.
Using a pair of bamboo scissors, Bao-yu now cut the twin blossoms from the stem of an autumn-flowering orchid that was growing in a pot and stuck them in Patience’s hair.
At that very moment a maid arrived summoning her back to Li Wan’s place and she had to leave him in a hurry.
Never before had Bao-yu been able to have Patience actually with him so that he could do things for her. She was such a superior sort of girl, so handsome, so intelligent, so different from the average run of common, insensitive creatures. His previous inability to serve her had been a source of deep regret.
Today was—or would have been if -she had lived—Golden’s birthday, and for this reason be had been feeling miserable since early morning. The row which bad broken out later in the day between Xi-feng and Jia Lian had proved a godsend. It had at last given him an opportunity of showing Patience something of what he felt for her. This was an unlooked-for happiness he might otherwise have waited a lifetime for in vain. He stretched himself out on his bed in a pleasurable glow of satisfaction.
These pleasant feelings were soon marred by the reflection that a coarse sensualist like Jia Lian who never considered anything but his own pleasure would certainly know nothing about the scientific preparation of cosmetics. He thought of Patience serving that precious couple, alone in the world without parents or brothers and sisters to defend her, some?how contriving to steer an even course between Jia Lian’s boorishness on the one hand and Xi-feng’s vindictiveness on the other, yet today, in spite of all her efforts, falling a victim to their cruelty. Truly her lot was an unhappy one -mote unhappy even than Dai-yu’s!
At this point in his reflections he became so upset that he began to shed tears, not bothering on this occasion to restrain them, because Aroma was not there to disapprove. Getting up from his bed, he went over to inspect Patience’s dress. The samshoo that had been sprayed on it was now neatly dry. He picked up the iron, ironed the dress for her, and neatly folded it. Then he noticed that she had left her handkerchief behind. As it was still marked with tear-stains, he washed it out in the water she had used for her face and hung it up to dry. Feeling a strange sensation in which sadness and happiness commingled, he mused for some minutes in silence before going over to Sweet-rice Village to join the others. He remained there a long while talking. The lamps had already been lit when he returned.

*

As Patience spent that night at Li Wan’s place and Xi-feng slept with Grandmother Jia, Jia Lian returned to his room in the evening to find it gloomy and deserted. Not caring to call for anyone, however, he managed for himself as hest he could and spent the night there alone. On waking next morning he felt nothing but revulsion and remorse when he remembered what had happened. His mother, Lady Xing, still worrying about the drunken exhibition he had made of himself the day before, came hurrying over first thing to urge him to go with her to see Grandmother Jia. This, despite the most acute feelings of shame and embarrassment, he now had to do.
‘Well?’ the old lady asked him, when he knelt before her.
‘I had too much to drink yesterday, Grandmother, and I’m afraid I broke in on you and made a scene. I’ve come here now to apologize.’
Grandmother Jia snorted.
‘Disgusting wretch! If you must go filling yourself with liquor, why can’t you lie down quietly and sleep it off like a good, sensible creature? Fancy knocking your own wife about! Feng can normally hold her own against anyone—she’s a regular little Tyrant King as a rule—but yesterday you’d reduced the poor child to a state of terror. Suppose I hadn’t been here to protect her and you really had done her an injury, what would you have had to say for yourself then, I wonder?’
Though smarting under the ludicrous injustice of what she had just said, Jia Lian knew that he was in no position to argue, and humbly acknowledged his guilt.
‘I should have thought that a couple of beauties like Feng and Patience would have been enough for you,’ she went on. ‘Why you should need to be forever sniffing after other skirts and bringing all this disgusting rag-tag and bob-tail back to your own room, I just do not understand. Fancy beating your own wife and your chamber-wife for a creature like that! And you a gentleman and member of a distinguished family! You ought to be thoroughly ashamed of yourself. if you have any consideration for my feelings at all, you’ll get up off the floor now— because you are forgiven as far as I am concerned—and you’ll apologize handsomely to that poor wife of yours and take her back home with you. Otherwise you can just take yourself off, for I shan’t accept your kotow!’
Jia Lian turned and looked at Xi-feng, standing at his grandmother’s side. She was wearing none of her finery today, her eyes were swollen with weeping, and her face, pinched and yellow without its make-up, was pathetic and somehow more appealing than usual.
‘I suppose I’d better apologize,’ .he thought. ‘It will help to patch things up between us; and it will please the old lady.’
Having so resolved, he looked up at Grandmother Jia with a smile.
‘If that’s what you want, Grandmother, I daren’t disobey you. But it’s going to make her even more willful than before.’
‘Nonsense I’ said Grandmother Jia, though not ill-humoredly. ‘I know for a fact that she is a model of wifely behaviour. I am sure she would be quite incapable of deliber?ately giving offence. If she does ever give you any trouble, I shall see to it myself that she submits to your authority.’
Jia Lian got to his feet then, and clasping his hands in front of him, made a low bow to his wife.
‘It was all my fault, Mrs Lian. Please forgive me.’
This was said in so droll a manner that everyone burst out laughing.
‘Now you’re not to be angry any more, Feng,’ said Grand?mother Jia, ‘or I shall be angry with you!’
She ordered someone to fetch Patience, and told Jia Lian and Xi-feng that she would now expect them to make it up with her.
When Jia Lian saw Patience, he was even more ready to pocket his pride for her than he had been for Xi-feng.

There’s no wife like a chamber-wife

as the saying goes, and before anyone else could say a word, he had bounded up to her and began apologizing.
‘You were very badly treated yesterday, Patience. It was all my fault. It was because of me that Mrs Lian was so beastly to you. Apart from offering you my own apology, I’d like to apologize on her behalf as well.’
He clasped his hands again and bowed, once more provok?ing Grandmother Jia to laughter. This time Xi-feng laughed, too.
Grandmother Jia told Xi-feng that it was now her turn; but before she could do anything, Patience rushed up to her, threw herself at her feet and kotowed.
‘I made you angry on your birthday, madam. I shall never forgive myself.’
Xi-feng was already feeling remorseful that in her previous day’s drunkenness she had so far forgotten herself as to humiliate Patience, in spite of all they had always meant to each other, because of a mere chance-heard remark. Seeing her now so generous and so lacking in resentment, she was both ashamed and deeply touched. There were tears on her cheeks as she bent down and raised the girl to her feet.
‘In all the years I’ve served you,’ said Patience, ‘you’ve never laid so much as a finger on me before. I bear you ‘no grudge for striking me yesterday, madam. It was all that wicked woman’s doing. I don’t blame you in the least for losing your temper.’
She, too, was crying while she said this.
‘See the three of them back to their room now,’ said Grandmother Jia to her women. ‘And if you hear another’ word about this, let me know straight away who said it. I don’t care who it is, I shall take a stick to them myself!’
The three of them now kotowed to Grandmother Jia, to Lady Xing and to Lady Wang; then the old nannies, bidden once mote to escort them, stepped forward with cries of obedience and conducted them back to their room.
As soon as the three of them were alone together, Xi-feng started on Jia Lian.
‘Am I really such a hell-cat? Are you really so terribly hen?pecked? When that woman wished me dead, you agreed with her. Surely I can’t be all that bad? Surely I must have some good days, even if it’s only one in a thousand? You’ve made it seem as if I’m worse even than that worthless whore. How can I have the face to go on living now?’
She began to cry again.
‘Aren’t you satisfied yet?’ said Jia Lian. ‘Just think a bit: who was most to blame yesterday? Yet today I was the one who had to kneel down in front of everyone and apologize. You’ve come out of this pretty well. So what are you yammering at me now for? Do you want me to kneel down again? Here? It doesn’t do to be too greedy, you know.’
Xi-feng, unable to think of a reply to this, fell silent. Patience giggled.
‘There, it’s all over!’ said Jia Lian, laughing himself. ‘It’s no good. I just can’t help myself.’
Just then a woman came to the door to report.
‘Bao Er’s wife has hanged herself.’
Jia Lian and Xi-feng were both profoundly shocked; but the look of fear on Xi-feng’s face was of only momentary duration.
‘Well,’ she said harshly, ‘what of it? Why make such a fuss about it?’
Shortly after this Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife came in and spoke to Xi-feng on the side.
‘Bao Er’s -wife has hanged herself. Her family are talking about taking it to court.’
Xi-feng laughed scornfully.
‘Good! I was thinking of doing the same thing myself.’
‘I’ve just been trying to talk them out of it,’ said Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife. ‘I tried frightening them a bit to start with, then I promised them some money if they would drop it. They seemed to be willing.’
‘I’ve got no money to give them,’ said Xi-feng, ‘and I wouldn’t give it to them if I had. Let them go ahead and sue. I don’t want you to talk them out of it, or to try frightening them out of it either. Just let them go ahead and sue. If they lose their case, I shall bring a suit against them for ex morte blackmail!’
As she stood there in some perplexity to know what to do, Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife noticed that Jia Lian was signaling to her with his eyes. She understood his meaning and went off to wait for him outside.
Jia Lian followed soon after.
‘I’m just going out to have a look—see what’s going on,’ he said on his way out.
‘You’re not to give them any money I’ Xi-feng shouted after him.
Jia Lian went straight off to discuss the matter with Lin Zhi-xiao himself. As a result of their discussion, someone was sent to haggle -with the family and promise whatever seemed necessary, and the family eventually agreed to keep quiet in return for a payment of two hundred taels ‘towards funeral expenses’. Terrified that they might change their minds, Jia Lian sent someone to talk to the local magistrate and invited the police inspector and two or three of the constables in to ‘help with the funeral’. Seeing the way things were, the family now dared not pursue the matter any further even if they wanted to, and were obliged to digest in silence whatever they might feel of grief or anger.
Jia Lian told Lin Zhi-xiao to account for the two hundred taels by adding a bit here and a bit there on to various items in the Current Expenses account. He also slipped Bao Er some money of his own and consoled him with a promise that he would pick a good wife for him at the earliest opportunity to replace the one he had just lost. Flattered by all the attention he was receiving and grateful for the money, Bao Er was only too willing to do as he was told and continued to serve Jia Lian with no less devotion than before. But that is no part of our story.
Whatever internal uneasiness Xi-feng may have felt about these developments, outwardly she affected complete in?difference. Finding herself alone with Patience when Jia Lian had gone, she smilingly inquired after her injuries.
I was terribly drunk yesterday,’ she said. ‘I hope you won’t hold it against me, what I did then. Where did I hit you? Let me have a look.’
‘You didn’t hit me very hard,’ said Patience.
Just at that moment they were interrupted by an announcement from outside.
‘Mrs Zhu and the young ladies are here.’
If you want to know what they had come for, you will have to read the following chapter.

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