The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 47

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CHAPTER 47

In pursuit of love the Oaf King takes a fearful beating
And from fear of reprisal the Reluctant Playboy makes a
hasty getaway

HEARING that Lady Xing had arrived, Lady Wang at once hurried out to meet her.
Lady Xing had come over to see if there had been any change in Faithful’s attitude. She was ignorant of the fact that the secret was now out and that Grandmother Jia knew everything. The first she heard of it was when quietly informed by some of Grandmother Jia’s women as she entered the old lady’s courtyard. She would have liked to turn back, but by then it was already too late: she had already been seen and announced by the servants inside, and when her sister-in-law Lady Wang came out to meet her, she was obliged to go in with her and pay her respects to Grandmother Jia. Finding that her greetings were received by the old lady in stony silence, she was covered with shame and confusion.
By this time Xi-feng had slipped out on pretext of other business and Faithful had gone off to her own room to nurse her anger alone. Fearing that their presence might add to Lady Xing’s embarrassment, Aunt Xue, Lady Wang and the rest also, one after another, withdrew. When she saw that she and Lady Xing were alone together, Grandmother Jia at last broke her silence.
‘I hear you have been playing the matchmaker for your husband,’ she said. ‘I must congratulate you on your wifely virtue though I must say, I think that in this case you are carrying wifeliness a little far. You have children and grand-children of your own now: why should you be frightened of his temper still at your age? Yet they tell me that you positively encourage his excesses.
Lady Xing blushed crimson with embarrassment.
‘I have tried several times to dissuade him, without suc?cess. I am sure you must realize that I have acted against my will in this matter.’
‘You did what you were told, all the same,’ said Grandmother Jia sharply. ‘Would you do what you were told if he asked you to kill someone? Just reflect for a moment. There is only your sister-in-law, poor, simple soul—she is always ailing from something or other—to worry about the responsi?bilities of this household. It’s true that she has Lian’s wife to help her, hut she has so much to do that she hardly knows which way to turn—always “putting the rake down to pick up the broom”. And I have to cut down on all my activities nowadays. So if there is ever anything that your sister-in-law and Feng have overlooked, Faithful is the only one left to make sure that my needs are attended to. She is a child who notices things. If she sees that I lack something, she will either ask for it herself or have a word with one of the other two and make sure that I get it. Think of all the hundreds and thousands of things there are to be done in this household. If I hadn’t got Faithful, how could the other two avoid overlooking some?thing once in a while? So what would you have me do then? Would you expect me to start worrying about all these things myself? Should I have to start calculating what I needed every day and go running off to the other two to ask them for it? Of all the girls I’ve ever had, Faithful is the only one left me now who is a bit older and more responsible than the rest—who understands my little ways and knows how I like things done. There’s a genuine bond between us—for example, she would never take advantage of our relationship, as some girls would, to ask other people for clothes or money for herself. One consequence 6f this is that not only Feng and your sister-in-law, but everyone else in the household, from the highest down to the lowest, is able to trust her. It means that quite apart from the fact that I have someone I can rely on, Feng and -your sister-in-law are saved a great deal of worry; because with a girl like that to look after me, I don’t suffer when they occasionally forget something, and that keeps me in a good temper. If Faithful were to leave me now, who would you get for me to put in her place? And even if you could find such a jewel, she’d need to have a tongue in her head too. She’d be no use to me if she didn’t have my Faithful’s gift for expressing herself. As a matter of fact I’ve been think?ing of sending someone round to your husband to tell him that if he would care to buy himself a girl, he’d be very welcome to do it with my money. I don’t mind if it costs me eight thousand—ten thousand even—but if it’s this girl of mine he wants, I’m afraid he can’t have her. Tell him that if he wants to be a dutiful son, he’ll be doing more for me by leaving me my Faithful, to serve me during the few years that yet remain, than if he were to come over and wait on me in person, morn?ing, noon and night. It’s turned out very conveniently, your coming over just now: you’ll be able to take this message back to him yourself and I can be sure of its being properly delivered.’
She called for the servants.
‘What’s happened to everybody? We were just in the middle of a nice chat when suddenly everyone went away.’
The maids, with answering cries, went off to look for the others. Soon all had been reassembled except Aunt Xue, who showed some resistance to the summons.
‘I’ve only just got back,’ she said. ‘What’s the point of going out again?’
‘Have a heart, Mrs Xue I’ said the maid. ‘Her Old Ladyship is in a passion. If you don’t come, no one else will ever shift her out of it. If it’s the walking that bothers you, I’ll carry you there on my back I’
‘Get along with you, little monkey I’ said Aunt Xue, laugh?ing. ‘A few hard words won’t hurt you.’
She went with the maid nevertheless. On her arrival she was cordially welcomed by Grandmother Jia.
‘What shall we do?’ said the old lady. ‘Shall we play cards? Come and sit by me, Mrs Xue. You haven’t had much practice. If the two of us sit together, there will be less chance of Feng confusing us.’
‘Yes,’ said Aunt Xue. ‘You will have to keep an eye on my hand and help me out a bit. Is it to be just the four of us, or shall we have one or two more?’
‘Just us four, surely?’ said Lady Wang.
‘No, let’s have one mote,’ said Xi-feng. ‘It will make it more interesting.’
‘Go and call Faithful, someone,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘She can sit below me. Mrs Xue’s eyesight isn’t too good. Faithful will be able to keep an eye on both our hands.’
Xi-feng laughed.
‘I know you can read and write,’ she said to Tan-chun. ‘I suppose you haven’t learned how to tell fortunes too, by any chance ?’
‘What a strange question!’ said Tan-chun. ‘You should be concentrating all your energies on winning some of Grandma’s money, not thinking about having your fortune told.’
-’I thought you -might be able to tell me how much I’m going to lose today,’ said Xi-feng. ‘No question of winning anything. Look how Grandma’s got me ambushed on every side before we’ve even started playing!’
Presently Faithful arrived and sat in the place below Grandmother Jia. Xi-feng sat below Faithful. A red blanket was spread over the table, the cards were shuffled, the players cut for deal, and the game began.
After they had been playing for some minutes, Faithful noticed that Grandmother Jia had a nearly full hand and only needed a Two of Coins to go out. She made a sign to Xi-feng, whose turn it was to discard. Xi-feng pretended to be in great doubt as to what she ought to play.
‘I’m sure Aunt Xue is hanging on to the card I want. I’d better let her have this one, and then perhaps she’ll part with it.
‘I’m sure I haven’t got anything you want,’ said Aunt Xue,
‘I’d need to look at your hand before I believed that,’ said Xi-feng.
‘You’re very welcome to,’ said Aunt Xue, ‘Come on, now! Put that card down and let’s see what it is.’
Xi-feng laid the card down in front of Aunt Xue: Two of Coins.
‘It’s no good to me,’ said Aunt Xue, ‘but I’ve an idea your grandmother may be going out now.’
‘Oh, no I’ cried Xi-feng in mock dismay. ‘It’s a mistake. I didn’t mean to discard that one.’
But Grandmother Jia, with a crow of triumph, had already thrown down her cards.
‘You dare take that back! You shouldn’t make mistakes!’
‘I told you I needed a fortune-teller,’ said Xi-feng. ‘Well, I played the card, so I suppose I’ve no one but myself to blame.’
‘I should think so too!’ said Grandmother Jia. Give yourself a good hard slap on the face if you want to know where the fault lies!’ She turned to Aunt Xue. ‘You mustn’t think
I’m grasping, Mrs Xue. I don’t play for -the money; but I do so enjoy winning!’
‘Of course,’ said Aunt Xue. ‘No one would be so idiotic as to suppose that you played for the money. Hearing this, Xi-feng, who had meanwhile been counting out the money she had lost, abruptly stopped, and threaded the coins back onto the string.
‘Right!’ she said, speaking to the others present. ‘That settles it! She doesn’t play for the money, she just enjoys winning. Well I am mean and grasping, I’m afraid, and when I lose, I like to know how much. But if that’s the way she feels, back it all goes again!’
When Grandmother Jia played cards it was her unvarying custom to let Faithful shuffle for her. She had been talking to Aunt Xue throughout Xi-feng’s bit of by play, but broke off when he became aware that Faithful had made no move. ‘Come child,’ she said. ‘You’re not too upset to shuffle for me, are you?’
Faithful took up the cards with a laugh. ‘No, only Mrs Lian hasn’t paid up yet.’
‘Oh, hasn’t she? ‘said Grandmother Jia. ‘She’ll be lucky if she gets away with that!’ She called one of the junior maids to her. ‘Take that string of cash from in front of Mrs Lian and bring it here.’
The little maid did as she was bid -and laid the money on the table beside Grandmother Jia.
‘Please let me have it back,’ Xi-feng pleaded, ‘—so that I can give you the right amount.’ ‘Feng really is rather mean,’ said Aunt Xue jokingly. ‘It’s only a game, after all.’
Xi-feng stood up and, laying a hand on Aunt Xue’s arm, pointed out to her the wooden chest in which Grandmother Jia kept her money.
‘You see that, Aunt? I don’t know how much of my money has at one time or another found its way in there. Before I’ve been playing half an hour, my money in the chest begins calling to my money on the table to come and join it. All I have to do now is wait until it’s called it all in, then the game will be over and Grannie will be in a good temper again and I shall be able to go and get on with my work.’
By the time she had finished -saying this, Grandmother Jia and all the others present were laughing. They were still laughing when Patience, fearing that her mistress might have insufficient money by her, came in bringing another string of cash.
‘Don’t put it down in front of me,’ Xi-feng told her. ‘Put it down beside Her Old Ladyship, so that all my money can go into the chest together. We don’t want the money in the chest to have to go through the -business of calling for it all over again.’
This made Grandmother Jia laugh so much that she scat?tered the cards she was holding all over the table.
‘Tear her mouth!’ she said to Faithful, giving her a playful push.
Patience laid the money down as she was bidden, and after laughing a while with the others, went out again. On her way out of the courtyard she ran into Jia Lian, who was just about to enter the gate.
‘Where’s Lady Xing?’ he asked her. ‘Sir She has sent me to look for her.’
‘She’s been standing in there with Her Old Ladyship for the last half hour,’ said Patience. She hasn’t dared to move yet, but I dare say she’ll get away as soon as she can. Her Old Ladyship has been in quite a tizzy this morning, but thanks to the Mistress, who’s been all this time humouring her, she’s gradually beginning to calm down a bit.’
‘Oh well, when I go in I shall say that I’ve come to find out if Her Old Ladyship is going to Lai Da’s place on the four?teenth, so that I know whether or not to have the carriages ready,’ said Jia Lian. ‘I can mention that Lady Xing is wanted as an afterthought. And after that perhaps I shall stay on and chaff the old lady a bit for a few minutes. That should he all right, shouldn’t it?’
‘If you’re asking my opinion, I think you’d do much better not to go in at all,’ said Patience. ‘Everyone’s been in trouble with her today even Her Ladyship and Bao-yu. If you go in now, you’ll walk straight into it.’
‘Oh, surely it’s all over now, isn’t it?’ said Jia Lian. ‘Surely she’s not going to start all over again? It’s nothing to do with me, in any case. And Sir She did ask me to go and fetch Mother myself. If he finds that I’ve sent someone else to do it, he’s in such a bad temper already, that he’ll probably use that as an excuse to take it out on me.’
He began to go in, and Patience, to whom this sounded reasonable enough, turned back and followed him in across the courtyard. Entering Grandmother Jia’s outer door, Jia Lian crossed the reception room on tiptoe and peered into the inner room at the back. He could see his mother standing there.
Xi-feng, who had sharper eyes than the rest, spotted him at once and made a sign to him not to enter and another sign to Lady Xing indicating that she was wanted outside. Lady Xing could not simply walk out, so she filled a cup with some tea and set it down in front of Grandmother Jia. This caused the old lady to turn round; and as Jia Lian chanced at that very moment to be looking in at the doorway and was unable to withdraw his head in time, she caught a momentary
glimpse of him before he disappeared.
‘Who’s that outside?’ she said. ‘It looked like one of the boys peeping in there just now.’
‘Yes’ said Xi-feng, quickly rising to her feet and going over to the doorway, ‘I thought I saw someone’s shadow there just now.’
Jia Lian walked smiling into the room.
‘I’ve come to ask if you are going on the fourteenth, Grandma, so, that I shall know whether to get the carriages ready or not.
‘In that case why didn’t you come in straight away,’ said Grandmother Jia, ‘instead of lurking around outside?’
‘I could see that you were playing cards,’ said Jia Lian with a somewhat artificial smile. ‘I didn’t like to interrupt you. I was hoping to get my wife to come out so that I could ask her.’
‘And what is there so extraordinarily urgent about this that you needed to ask her now?’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘If you’d waited until she got home, you could have asked her all you wanted to then. Why this extraordinary conscientiousness all of a sudden? Eavesdropping is what you were up to more likely, or spying for somebody else. Whatever it was, you gave me a nasty turn, creeping around in that sneaky, under?hand way. Disgusting creature! Your wife will be with me a long time yet playing cards. Better get back to that Zhao Er woman while you have the chance and carry on where you left off with your plans- for poisoning her!’
The others all laughed.
‘It was Bao Er’s wife, my old love, not Zhao Er’s,’ said Faithful, laughing.
‘That’s what I said, didn’t I?’ Grandmother Jia snapped. ‘Well, “Zhao” or “Bao” or brown cow how can !be expected to remember such things? The very mention of them makes me feel angry. There were three generations of the family above me when I came to this household as a young bride, and now there are three generations below me, and I’ve seen many shocking and many wicked and many peculiar things during the fifty-four years since first I came here, but this sort of thing is simply outside my experience. Now be off with you!’
Jia Lian bolted, not daring to say a word. Patience, who had been standing meanwhile outside the window, quietly mocked him as he came out:
‘I told you so, but you wouldn’t listen. You walked straight into the net, didn’t you?’
Just at that moment Lady Xing came out.
‘This is all Father’s doing,’ said Jia Lian. ‘Now we have to face the consequences.’
‘Unfilial wretch!’ said Lady Xing. ‘Some people would die for their fathers, but you—a few harmless words and you are already whining and complaining. What’s the matter with you? You haven’t been hurt yet—though I should look out, if I were you: Father’s been pretty angry these last few days.’
‘Come on, you must hurry back, Mother,’ said Jia Lian. ‘He sent me to fetch you a long time ago.’
He saw his mother out of the main part of the mansion and round to Jia She’s quarters next door. Lady Xing then gave her husband, in briefest possible outline, a report of what had happened; and since it was now evident that nothing more could be done about Faithful, Jia She had to put up with his mortification as best he could. He did, however, from that day onwards, discontinue all duty calls on his mother on the pretext of being ill. Lady Xing and Jia Lian were sent to make the mandatory calls on her in his stead.
Meanwhile his agents scoured the market for likely girls. A suitable one was eventually purchased for the sum of five hundred taels a seventeen-year-old girl called Carmine, who was duly installed in his room. But that is another part of our story.
The card-game continued until dinner-time, and it was not until after dinner that the company finally broke up.
Of the day or two which followed these events our story preserves no record.

*

The fourteenth came. Before it was yet daylight, Lai Da’s wife came round once more to renew her invitation. Grand?mother Jia responded enthusiastically and, taking Lady Wang, Aunt Xue and the young people along with her, spent a considerable part of the day in the Lai family’s private garden.
Lai Da’s garden was not, of course, to be compared with Prospect Garden; nevertheless it was spacious and well-made and among its pools, rocks, trees and pavilions were to be found several features of striking interest or beauty.
The menfolk who were gathered in the reception hall at the front or ‘outer’ part of the establishment included Xue Pan, Cousin Zhen, Jia Lian, Jia Rong and a number of the more closely related members of the Jia clan outside the immediate family. Jia She was conspicuously absent. Young Lai had also invited some of his office holding colleagues and a few young men of good family as congenial company for the Jias.
One of these last was a young gentleman called Liu Xiang?lian whom Xue Pan had met on some previous occasion and hankeringly remembered ever since. The discovery that he was a keen amateur actor one, moreover, who specialized in romantic roles had led Xue Pan to jump to the wrong conclusion and assume that he must share the same ‘wind and moonlight’ proclivities as himself. Eager to make his closer acquaintance but hitherto denied any opportunity of doing so, he was overjoyed at finding him among the company on this occasion and consequently in a state of excitement which rendered his behaviour extremely unpredictable.
Cousin Zhen had also heard of Liu Xiang-lian and admired him. Today, under pretext of being a little drunk, he had taken the liberty of asking him to perform for them, and Liu Xiang-lian, supported by the hired professional players, had obliged by appearing on the stage in two operatic num?bers. When he rejoined the company, Xue Pan took the oppor?tunity of moving over to his table and began plying him with all sorts of questions and insinuations.
Liu Xiang-lian was a young man of excellent family who, having lost both his parents in early youth, had failed to complete his education. He was of a dashing, impulsive nature, impatient of niceties. His chief pleasures were exercising with spear or sabre, drinking, and gambling; but he was not averse to gentler pastimes: he frequented the budding groves and could play on both the flute and the zither. Because he was so young and handsome, many who did not know him mistakenly supposed that, being an actor, he must have the usual actor’s propensities. Lai Da’s son Lai Shang-rong had been a good friend of his for years and it was only natural that he should invite him on this occasion to help him enter?tain his guests. Under these circumstances Lin Xiang-lian was prepared to put up with a certain amount of drunken horse-play; but Xue Pan was too much for him, and soon his atten?tions were becoming so distasteful that Xiang-lian resolved to leave at the earliest opportunity in -order to escape from them. Before he could break away, however, Lai Shang-rong detained him.
‘Bao-yu gave me a message for you just now. He said that though he saw you briefly when he arrived, with so many other people around, be didn’t have a chance of talking to you properly. He’s most anxious that you should stay on so that he can talk to you afterwards. If you are really set on going, wait while I call him out and you can have a word with him now. What you do after that is your own affair: I certainly shan’t try to detain you.’ He called a waiter to him: ‘Look inside and get hold of one of the old women. Tell her to have a quiet word with Master Bao to say that he’s wanted here outside.’
After about the time it would take to drink a cup of tea in, Bao-yu appeared.
‘Here you are, Uncle Bao!’ said Lai Shang-rong when he had joined them. ‘I leave Xiang-lian in your bands, I’ve got to go and look after my guests now.’
With that he left them.
Taking Xiang-lian by the hand, Bao-yu led him into a study at the side of the hall where they sat down together.
‘Have you visited Qin Zhong’s grave recently?’ said Bao-yu.
‘Certainly I have,’ said Xiang-lian. ‘The other day I was out hawking with a few of the others and happened to notice that we were only half a mile or so away from it. It occurred to me that it might not have stood up to all that heavy rain we had in the summer, so I left the others and went off to have a look. As a matter of fact it had been washed away a bit; so the day after I got back I scraped a few hundred cash together, went back first thing next morning, hired a couple of labourers, and got it patched up again.’
‘That explains it,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Last month, when the pods were beginning to form on the lotuses in Prospect Garden, I picked ten of them and sent Tealeaf to offer them at his grave. When he got back, I asked him if the rains had damaged it at all, and he told me that not only had it not been damaged, but that it was in even better condition than it had been the time before. I knew from that that some friend must have been there recently and restored it. I wish I weren’t so cooped up all the time at home. I can never do anything I want to by myself. The slightest move I make is sure to be seen and reported, and either I’m physically prevented from going where I want to or else lectured at until I promise not to go. It’s useless for me ever to say that I’m going to do anything, because I know that I shan’t be allowed to. I can’t even spend my own money in the way I want.’
‘This thing at least is something you don’t need to worry about,’ said Xiang-lian, ‘with me outside to look after it for you. Anyway, it’s the thought that counts. It’s enough to know that you would do it yourself if you could. I’ve already put aside the money for his anniversary on the first of next month. You know how broke I always -am. I never have any savings because as soon as I’ve got any money I spend it all. Well, this time I thought I’d better not take any chances, so I put some by well in advance, so-as not to have to stretch my hands out helplessly when the time conies.’
‘I was going to send Tealeaf round to see you about that,’ said Bao-yu, ‘but you never seem to be at home; and you’re such a rolling stone that no one ever knows where to look for you.’
‘Don’t bother to try,’ said Xiang-lian. ‘This is a matter in which each of us does what he can. Anyway, I shall be going away quite soon. It will probably be three or four years before I come back again.’
‘Why?’ said Bao-yu in some agitation.
‘That’s something you’ll know -soon enough when the time comes. I must be going now.’
‘Must you?’ said Bao-yu. ‘I so seldom get a chance of seeing you. Can’t we leave together in the evening?’
‘I’m afraid it’s that cousin of yours,’ said Xiang-lian. ‘The usual problem. If I stay any longer, there’s sure to be some kind of trouble. I’d much better go now and avoid it.’
Bao-yu reflected for some moments.
‘Yes, I suppose in that case you’d better. Only, if you really and truly are going away for a long time, do please let me know before you start. Please don’t just slip away without telling me.’
His eyes brimmed over with tears.
‘Of course I’ll come and say good-bye to you,’ said Xiang-lian. ‘As long as you promise not to tell anyone.’ He stood up to go. ‘You go in again now. Don’t try to see me out.’
He left the study and made his way to the main gate: but there, unfortunately, was the very person he was trying to avoid.
‘Who’s let my little Liu get away?’ Xue Pan bawled.
Xiang-lian’s eyes flashed angrily. In other circumstances he would have laid him out there and then with a single blow of his fist; but reflecting that to do so now would be inter?preted by the others as drunken brawling and would moreover be embarrassing to his host, he restrained himself with some effort
Xue Pan, in whose besotted eyes he appeared as a coveted treasure that was moving at last within his grasp, lurched towards him, smiling happily, and gripped him firmly by the arm.
‘Where are you off to little pal?’
‘Just-going out for a stroll,’ said Xiang-lian. ‘I’ll be back again directly.’
‘It won’t be any more fun here without you,’ said Xue Pan. ‘Do stay a bit longer—just to show me that you care for me, eh? If it’s business that’s taking you away, don’t worry, leave it to me! I don’t care how important it is whether it’s a career you’re after or making a pile—with me for a pal you’ll have no more to worry about!’
Angered and revolted by his odious intimacy, Xiang-lian quickly thought of a plan for disposing of him. Drawing him aside to a spot where they could not be overheard, he pre?tended to question his sincerity.
‘Are you really so fond of me, or are you just pretending?’ Xue Pan was almost beside himself. His eyes became tiny slits of pleasure:
‘How can you ask such a question, my dear? Pretending? May I die this instant if I am!’
‘Good. This place here is not convenient. We’d better go in again now and sit with the others for a bit. Then I’ll leave, and you can leave a bit after me and follow me back to my place. We’ll make a night of it. I’ve got a couple of very nice little boys there who’ve never been “out” before; so you needn’t bring anyone with you: all the service we’ll need is there already.’
Xue Pan was by now so delighted that his drunkenness had already half left him.
‘Do you mean this?’
‘What a person!’ said Xiang-lian. ‘One opens one’s heart to you and you don’t trust them.’
‘No, no, no,’ said Xue Pan hurriedly. ‘I trust you. I’m no fool. There’s only one thing, though: I don’t know where you live. If you leave before I do, where am I to look for you?’
‘My place is outside the North Gate,’ said Xiang-lian. ‘Do you think you can tear yourself from home and spend a whole night outside the city?’
‘What do I need a home for if I’ve got you?’ said Xue Pan. ‘All right,’ said Xiang-lian. ‘I’ll wait for you on the bridge then, outside the North Gate. We’d better get back to the party now. Don’t forget: wait a bit after I’ve gone before going yourself; then -no one should suspect anything.’
‘Yes,’ said Xue Pan, ‘yes.’
The two of them then went in again and resumed their places. Xue Pan found waiting difficult and kept his eyes constantly on Xiang-lian, watching for him to go. At the same time he began, in joyous anticipation of the pleasures in store, to drink with greater and greater abandon, not waiting for the wine to be offered, but stretching out rudely to left and right of him and plying himself from the wine-kettles of his neighbours. Soon he was very drunk indeed.
Xiang-lian now rose to go and succeeded in slipping out of the main gate unobserved. First he gave an order to his page Almond, who was waiting there:
‘You go home now. I have some business outside the city to attend to. I’ll be back later.’
Then he vaulted into the saddle and rode off until he came to the North Gate of the city. Passing through, he rode on till he came to the bridge, where he halted and took up his-station-to wait for Xue Pan’s arrival.
After the time it would take to eat a meal, he caught sight of Xue Pan hurrying along in the distance. His mouth was open, his eyes were staring, and his head turned from side to side as he looked anxiously about him, for all the world like one of those little clapper drums that children twirl upon a stick. So intent was he on scanning the remoter parts of the landscape that he failed to take note of what was nearer at hand and rode right past Xiang-lian without seeing him. Xiang-lian, who for all his loathing could not but laugh at this, gave his horse rein and followed after. Presently Xue Pan began to notice that he was getting into the open country and brought his horse round about. As he did so, he found himself almost face to face with Xiang-lian.
‘I knew you wouldn’t fall me,’ he cried delightedly.
Xiang-lian smiled back.
‘Let’s go on a bit further—just in case anyone is tracking us.’
He trotted on ahead and Xue Pan followed, keeping as close to him as he could. Presently, having satisfied himself that the country ahead was quite deserted, Xiang-lian dis?mounted near the edge of a reed-filled dyke and tied his horse up to a tree.
‘You get down too,’ he called pleasantly to Xue Pan. ‘Let’s first swear an oath that if either of us is unfaithful to the other or betrays our secret to anyone, it shall happen to him as the oath shall say.’
‘Yes,’ said Xue Pan. ‘Good ideal’ He dismounted eagerly tied his horse to another tree, and straightway knelt down and began his oath:
‘If ever, in the days to come, I prove unfaithful or betray this secret to another, may Heaven and Earth destroy.’
He got no further. At that point there was a great thump and the sensation of being hit on the back of the neck by an object like a large iron hammer. Everything became suddenly black, except that the darkness was filled with a confusion of flying stars, and he collapsed forwards helplessly upon the ground.
Xiang-lian stepped up and surveyed him from above. Someone not used to taking punishment, he concluded. It would be unwise to use too much force on him. Turning him over, he performed, with a few deft flicks over Xue Pan’s face, the operation which is described in the profession as ‘opening up the fruits hop’.
At first Xue Pan struggled to get up, but Xiang-lian lashed out with his foot and sent him sprawling once more upon his back.
‘You were willing, just as much as I was,’ Xue Pan muttered plaintively. ‘You had only to say so if you weren’t. Why fool me into coming out here with you and then beat me up?’
He began cursing him obscenely.
‘You blind iniquity!’ said Liu Xiang-lian. ‘You don’t know who you’re dealing with. You should be begging for mercy right now, not swearing at me. You’re not worth killing, though. I’ll just give you a little lesson.’
He picked up his horsewhip and turning Xue Pan on his face once more, proceeded to deal him thirty or forty cuts along the length of-his body, from his shoulders down to his calves. Xue Pan was by now half sober, and finding the pain un?bearable, began to roar.
‘Look at you!’ said Xiang-lian contemptuously. ‘I should have thought you could take your medicine a bit better than that.’
He took him by the left leg and dragged him a few steps to where the reeds began, in the stagnant ooze of the dyke, so that he was coated from head to foot with the liquid mud.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘do you know who I am?’
As Xue Pan merely lay in the mud whimpering and made no reply, he threw away his whip and gave him a few thumps with his fist. Xue Pan rolled about and bellowed:
‘You’ve broken my ribs. I know you’re straight. It was the others who told me you weren’t. I shouldn’t have listened to them.’
‘Leave the others out of this,’ said Xiang-lian. ‘I’m talking about now.’
‘Now?’ said Xue Pan. ‘Now I know you’re straight. I kn6w I was wrong. What more can I say?’
‘You’ll have to talk a bit prettier than that before I’ve finished with you,’ said Xiang-lian.
‘Old pal—’ Xue Pan began, whimpering.
Xiang-lian dealt him another thump with his fist.
‘Ow! Ow! Chap—’
Two thumps this time.
‘Ow! Ow! Sir, then. Please sir, forgive me for being so blind. From now on I shall honour you and fear you.’
Now drink some of this water,’ said Xiang-lian. Xue Pan knitted his brows with disgust:
‘But this water is really filthy. I couldn’t get it down.’
Xiang-lian raised his list threateningly. ‘I’ll drink,’ said Xue Pan hurriedly. ‘I’ll drink.’
He bent down and drank a mouthful of the water at the base of the reeds; but before he could swallow it, there was a great retching noise and he vomited up all that he had recently eaten and drunk.
‘Filthy pig!’ said Xiang-lian. ‘Now eat that up and I let you off’
Xue Pan began kotowing to him.
‘Please, for your soul’s sake, earn a bit of merit: don’t try to make me do that! I couldn’t do that if you -killed me.’
‘This stench is poisoning me;’ said Xiang-lian; and leaving Xue Pan, he unfastened his horse, led it off a few paces, vaulted into the saddle, and galloped away.
Observing with relief that Xiang-lian had really gone, Xue Pan, cursing his folly for having been so egregiously mistaken in his man, attempted to struggle to his feet; but every part of him was hurting so much that it was impossible for him to rise.

*

Meanwhile, back at the party, Cousin Zhen and the others, suddenly noticing that the two of them were missing, sought them for a while without success. Someone did say that they thought they might have gone out of the North Gate; but Xue Pan had told his pages not to follow him, and they were all in such dread of their master that none of them dared go out there to look. In the end Cousin Zhen became so uneasy that he sent Jia Rong with some of the boys to track them down.
Their trail led them through the North Gate and about two thirds of a mile along the road which crosses the bridge outside it. There, suddenly, they caught sight of Xue Pan’s horse, tied up to one of the trees at the side of a reed-filled dyke.
‘Good!’ they said. ‘Where the horse is, the rider must be.’ And all of them went over to where the horse was standing.
As they did so, they heard someone groaning among the rushes; and there, when they went to look, was Xue Pan, his clothes torn, his face cut and swollen almost beyond recognition, and so besmirched with mud from head to foot that he had more the appearance of an old wallowing sow than of a human being.
Jia Rong had little difficulty in guessing what had happened. Slipping from his horse, he ordered the servants to help Xue Pan to his feet.
‘Tireless in the pursuit of love, Uncle I’ he said cheerfully, while they struggled to do his bidding. ‘This time it’s led you into the reeds of the marshes. I suppose the Dragon King must have taken a fancy to you and carried you off to be his son-in-law. To judge from appearances, I should say that you -must have got caught up on his horn!’
Xue Pan wished that the earth would open and swallow up his shame.
As there was clearly no question of getting him onto his horse, Jia Rong told one of the boys to hurry back to the street outside the North Gate and hire a carrying chair. When Xue Pan had been helped into this, they had him carried into the city, themselves accompanying him on horseback. Jia Rong mischievously proposed that they should take him back to the Lais’ house to rejoin the party: but Xue Pan entreated so piteously and begged him so earnestly not to tell anyone of his plight, that Jia Rong relented and allowed him to go back home alone.
Jia Rong himself returned to the party to report back to his father. From his account of the state Xue Pan had been in when they found him Cousin Zhen deduced that he must have been beaten up by Liu Xiang-lian but appeared remarkably unconcerned, for he merely laughed and observed that ‘he could do with the lesson’. It is true that he went to inquire after him in the evening, when he got back home from the party; but Xue Pan was by that time nursing his injuries in bed and declined to see him on the grounds that he was feeling too ill.
When Grandmother Jia and her party had got back to their several apartments, Aunt Xue and Bao-chai found Caltrop with her eyes all swollen from weeping. On discovering the cause, they rushed in to look at Xue Pan. Fortunately he appeared to have no bones broken, but his face and body had taken a terrible battering. Torn between maternal anguish at his plight and anger at the folly which had occasioned it, Aunt Xue inveighed against Xue Pan and Xiang-lian by turns. She wanted to tell Lady Wang and get her to have Xiang-lian arrested, but was dissuaded from doing so by Bao-chai.
‘It’s not important enough for that, Mamma. The two of them had been drinking and fell out over their cups, that’s all there was to it. Whenever that happens, it’s always the drunker of the two who gets the worst of it. Besides, every?one knows what a lawless, ungovernable creature Pan is. It’s only because you’re his mother that you feel differently. If it’s satisfaction you want, that can easily be arranged. Just wait a few days until Pan is better and can get about again. I’m sure Mr Zhen and Mr Lian and the other menfolk will be unwilling to pass over this in silence. Probably they will get up a little party and ask this person to it and make him apolo?gize to Pan in front of everyone and admit that he was to blame. But if you insist on making an issue of it now and telling Aunt about it, you will make it appear that you are so blind to Pan’s faults that you allow him to go around provoking other people, but that as soon as someone stands up to him, you fly up in arms and use our relations’ influence to oppress them.’
Aunt Xue at once saw the force of this.
‘You are quite right, my child. I was being silly.’
‘Dear Mamma! But now you are being sensible. He doesn’t fear you, and he won’t listen to anyone else. He just goes on getting worse and worse. One or two good, sharp shocks like this might bring him to his senses.’
Meanwhile Xue Pan lay on the kang in his bedroom, cursing Xiang-lian by every name he could think of and calling on his boys to smash up his house, to beat him to death, to have the law on him. Aunt Xue shouted to them that they were to do no such thing. To Xue Pan she explained that Xiang-lian was in any case beyond the reach of his vengeance.
‘Xiang-lian behaved very bad because he was drunk. When he came to himself afterwards he was very sorry; and now, because he is afraid of the consequences, he has fled the coun?try.’
When Xue Pan heard that, he—
But you shall learn that (if you wish) in the following chapter.

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