The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 54

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CHAPTER 54

Lady Jia ridicules the cliches of romantic fiction
And Wang Xi-feng emulates the filial antics
of Lao Lai-zi

TO CONTINUE OUR STORY:

Cousin Zhen and Jia Lian had secretly instructed their pages to have a large flat-bottomed basket of largesse-money in readiness, and when they heard Grandmother Jia call out ‘Largesse!’, they told the pages to take this basket and empty it onto the stage. The money showered down on the boards with a tremendous ringing clatter, which greatly delighted the old lady.
The two men now rose to their feet. A page hurried forward and handed Jia Lian a silver kettle of freshly-heated wine on a tray. Taking the kettle, Jia Lian followed his cousin into the hall. Cousin Zhen went first to Mrs Li, bowed, took her wine-cup and, turning back, handed it to Jia Lian to fill. Then he did the same for Aunt Xue. The two ladies stood up, meanwhile, politely demurring:
‘Please, gentlemen, go back to your seats! You are too polite!’
With the exception of the four senior ladies – Aunt Xue, Mrs Li, Lady Xing and Lady Wang – all the females present now left their seats and stood, hands at their sides, while Cousin Zhen and Jia Lian went over to the couch on which Grandmother Jia reclined. As it was rather a low one, the two men knelt to serve her. The other males, who had followed them into the hall and were standing a little behind them drawn up in their order of seniority, with Jia Cong at their head, seeing Cousin Zhen and Jia Lian kneel, knelt down in a row behind them, whereupon Bao-yu hurriedly rose from his chair and knelt down as well. Xiang-yun nudged him, amused.

‘What do you want to kneel down with them for?’ she whispered. ‘If you’re feeling so polite all of a sudden, it would be more to the point to get up and serve everyone your-self.’
‘So I shall, presently,’ Bao-yu whispered back at her.
The two men had now finished serving Grandmother Jia and gone on to serve Lady Xing and Lady Wang.
‘What about the young ladies?’ Cousin Zhen inquired when these last two had been attended to.
‘No, no, go and sit down now I’ Grandmother Jia and the senior ladies cried. ‘Spare them the formality.’
At this Cousin Zhen and the other males withdrew.
It was now about ten o’clock and the play being performed
– the ‘Feast of Lanterns’ section from The Orphan’s Revenge -had reached a climax of noise and excitement. Bao-yu tried to slip out unnoticed under cover of the din, but his grand-mother had spotted him.
‘Where are you going?’ she called. ‘There are a lot of fire?works about outside. Mind a piece of burning touch-paper doesn’t fall on you and set you alight!’
‘I’m not going very far,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I’ll be back directly.’
Grandmother Jia ordered some of the old nannies present to go after him and see that he was all right. Observing that he had only Musk and Ripple and a couple of little junior maids in attendance, she asked what had become of Aroma.
‘That girl is getting above herself,’ she said. ‘Sending the younger maids to stand in for her! – What next?’
Lady Wang rose hastily in Aroma’s defence.
‘It is only a few days since her mother died. She is still in mourning for her mother. It wouldn’t be right for her to go out in company yet.’
Grandmother Jia nodded, but seemed to have second thoughts:
‘That’s all very well, but bereavement shouldn’t make any difference where a master or mistress is concerned. Suppose she had still been working for me: do you think she would have stayed away then? One doesn’t want this sort of thing to become a precedent.’
Xi-feng came to her aunt’s assistance:
‘Even if she weren’t in mourning, she would still need to be keeping an eye on things. Tonight, with lanterns and fire-works everywhere, there is a terrible danger of fire. Whenever we have plays, the people from the Garden all come sneaking over here to watch. It’s just as well to have one careful person like Aroma left behind there who can go round making sure that everything is all right. Besides, she’ll be able to see that everything is ready for Bao-yu so that he can go straight to bed when he gets back. If she were here, you can be sure that no one else would bother. He would go back to find his bedding cold, and there would be no hot water for his tea or anything else ready for him. I’m afraid I took it for granted that you would prefer her not to come; but if you want her here, Grannie, I can easily go and fetch her for you.’
‘No, no, don’t fetch her,’ said Grandmother Jia hurriedly. ‘You have obviously given the matter more thought than I. There’s only one thing, though. When did her mother die? Why didn’t I get to hear about it?’
‘But Aroma came to tell you about it herself,’ said Xi-feng, smiling. ‘Surely you can’t have forgotten already?’
Grandmother Jia thought for a bit.
‘Yes, I do seem to remember something about it. I’m afraid my memory isn’t up to much these days.’
‘You can’t remember everything’ the others said reassuringly.
Grandmother Jia sighed:
‘She served me all those years when she was a little girl, then she was with Yun for a while, and during these past few years she’s had that holy terror who left a moment ago to put up with. I remember thinking at the time that we owe the girl a bit of kindness – especially as she’s not one of our own home-reared servants but one who came to us from outside – and meaning to ask them to give her something towards the funeral when I heard that her mother had died, but I’m afraid that afterwards I forgot.’
‘It’s already been taken care of,’ said Xi-feng. ‘Lady Wang gave her forty taels for funeral expenses the other day.’
Grandmother Jia nodded:
‘Ah well, that’s all right then. As a matter of fact Faithful lost her mother too, quite recently. I couldn’t let her go to the funeral because her parents were living in the South. Since she and Aroma are both in mourning, why don’t we let her go and join Aroma? The two of them can keep each other company.’
She ordered some of the women in attendance to make a selection of the cakes and other delicacies they had been eating and take them for Faithful to eat with Aroma in Green Delights.
‘You’re a bit late with your suggestion,’ said Amber, laughing. ‘Faithful went over to Aroma’s place hours ago!’
This remark concluded the discussion and the company’s briefly distracted attention returned now to the business of drinking and watching the play.

*

After leaving the party, Bao-yu made his way straight through to the Garden. The old women whom his grandmother had sent after him, realizing that he must be returning to his own apartment, did not accompany him inside but slipped into the tea-kitchen of the gatehouse to warm themselves at the stove and avail themselves of the opportunity for some surreptitious drinking and a hand or two of cards.
On entering his courtyard Bao-yu found Green Delights ablaze with lights but silent as the grave.
‘Surely they can’t all have gone to bed?’ said Musk. ‘Let’s go in quietly and make them jump.’
Bao-yu and the four girls tiptoed through the outer room and peeped through the apertures of the mirror-wall into the room within. Aroma and another girl were lying facing each other on the nearer side of the kang. At the further end two or three old women appeared to be taking a nap. Bao-yu was just about to push open the mirror-door and enter when the sound of a sigh came from the direction of the kang and he could hear the voice of Faithful speaking:
‘You see, you can never be sure of anything in this life. Look at you, f6r example, on your own here with a free family living outside, never sure from one year to the next where they might move to: you never expected to be with your mother at the end, did you? Yet it just so happened that this year she was living near at hand and you were able to be a good daughter to her when she died.’
‘It’s true,’ said Aroma. ‘When I first came here, I didn’t think I’d ever see my mother again. And do you know, when I went to tell Her Ladyship that she’d passed away, she gave me forty taels for funeral expenses. She couldn’t have done more for me if I’d been her own daughter. It’s certainly more than I’d have dared hope for.’
Bao-yu turned back and whispered to Musk and the others behind him:
‘It’s Faithful in there with her. I didn’t think she’d be here. If I go inside now, she’s sure to rush off in a huff – she always does nowadays when she sees me. We’d better go away again and leave the two of them in peace. Aroma must have been pretty miserable on her own. It’s nice that she’s got Faithful with her to talk to.’
He tiptoed out again and taking his stand behind a rock, began hitching up his clothes. Musk and Ripple, who were standing behind him, suppressed a giggle:
‘Why don’t you squat down to take off your underthings? You’ll get the wind on your belly, standing up like that!’
The two junior maids who had been following behind Musk and Ripple, as soon as they saw the reason for the halt, hurried off to the tea-kitchen for hot water to wash his hands.
Bao-yu had finished and was just turning back to the waiting maids when two women servants appeared, walking in his direction. Seeing this dark figure lurking amongst the rocks, they loudly demanded who it was.
‘It’s Bao-yu,’ said Ripple. ‘Don’t shout at him like that, you’ll scare the daylights out of him!’
‘Oh I am sorry,’ said the woman who had shouted. ‘What an awful thing to do – and today of all days! How are you, young ladies? Having a nice holiday? You certainly deserve it, after all your work during the rest of the year.’
As they came closer, Musk asked them what they were carrying.
‘It’s some things from Her Old Ladyship for Miss Faithful and Miss Aroma,’ said the woman. ‘She suddenly thought of them, while she was watching the play.’
‘Oh?’ said Ripple. ‘I thought it was The Orphan’s Revenge they were watching, not The Magic Casket!’
‘Take the lids off and let’s have a look,’ said Bao-yu.
The two women squatted on their haunches and held out the food-boxes while Musk and Ripple took off the lids. Bao-yu leaned over and looked into them. Each one contained a selection of the very choicest of the various sweet and savoury confections they had been eating at the party. He nodded approvingly before hurrying on. Musk and Ripple threw down the lids – somewhat carelessly – and hurried after him.
‘Now those two women seemed very nice,’ said Bao-yu. ‘They were certainly very civil. Think how hard they must work every day, Yet they could still say those nice things about you – none of that boasting about how busy they are and how much they do for us that you get from some of these people.’
‘Oh, those two are all right,’ said Musk. ‘Some of them are really terrible, though.’
‘They can’t help being stupid,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Being more intelligent than they are, you ought to feel sorry for them. You only have to be a bit more forebearing with them and they’d give you no trouble.’
While he was speaking, they were passing through the gate?way of the Garden. The old women drinking and playing cards in the tea-kitchen had been taking it in turns to get up and peep outside so as not to be taken off their guard, and seeing Bao-yu through the gate, they came hurrying out after him.
In the gallery leading to the hall where the party was he came upon the two little maids who had gone to fetch hot water. They had been waiting there for some time, one with a basin of water, the other with a towel over her arm and a pot of hand lotion. Ripple first tested the water with her hand.
‘The older you grow the more stupid you get,’ she said to the girl. ‘This water is stone cold.’
‘Blame the weather, miss,’ said the girl. ‘I was afraid the water would cool quickly so I poured it out boiling from the kettle, but you see it makes no difference.’
Just at that moment an old woman chanced to be passing by with a kettle full of freshly-boiled water.
‘Here, missus,’ the girl with the basin called after her, ‘do us a favour! Come over and pour some in this basin, will you?’
‘This is for Her Old Ladyship’s tea,’ said the old woman. ‘Go and get some yourself, young lady – walking won’t spoil your feet!’
‘I don’t care who it’s for,’ said Ripple, ‘but if you won’t pour that water out for her, I shall come and do it my?self.’
The old woman turned. Recognizing Ripple, she hurriedly lifted the kettle up and poured some water into the basin.
‘That’s enough,’ said Ripple. ‘Really, a person of your age ought to have more sense! We know it’s Her Old Ladyship’s. Do you suppose we’d have dared ask for it if we weren’t entitled to?’
The old woman smiled apologetically:
‘My eyesight’s not too good. I didn’t recognize this young lady as one of yours.’
When Bao-yu had finished washing, the other girl poured some of the lotion onto his palm and he rubbed it into his hands. Ripple and Musk took advantage of the hot water to wash their own hands too, and after rubbing a little of the lotion into them, followed Bao-yu back into the hall.
Calling for a kettle of warm wine, Bao-yu now took his turn at pouring for the ladies, beginning with Mrs Li and Aunt Xue. They protested smilingly and begged him to go back to his seat, but Grandmother Jia insisted that he should pour for them.
‘He’s young,’ she said. ‘Let him do it. But let us empty our cups first for this round.’
She drained her winecup as she said this. Lady Xing and Lady Wang followed suit and the other two ladies felt constrained to imitate their example.
‘Pour Out for the girls too,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘And do it properly. See that they empty their cups first before you fill them.’
‘Yes, Grandma,’ said Bao-yu, and proceeded from table to table, pouring for everyone in turn. When he got to Dai-yu he hesitated, knowing that for her this sort of drinking was an impossibility; but Dai-yu held her cup up to his lips and he drained its contents for her at a gulp.
‘Thank you,’ she said, smiling gratefully. Bao-yu refilled the winecup.
‘Don’t go drinking cold wine, Bao-yu,’ Xi-feng called out to him. ‘It’ll make your hand shake. You won’t be able to write properly or draw a straight bow.’
‘I haven’t been drinking cold wine,’ said Bao-yu.
‘I know, I know,’ said Xi-feng gaily. ‘I was only joking.’
When Bao-yu had finished pouring out for all the girls -all, that is, except Jia Rong’s wife Hu-shi, who, being of a generation below his, had to have her drink poured out for her by a maid – he went onto the verandah outside and poured for Cousin Zhen and the men. Having done so, he sat and chatted with them for a while before going back into the hall and resuming his seat with the ladies.
Presently soup was served and, shortly after, little First Moon dumplings of sweetened rice-flour. Grandmother Jia expressed concern for the boy-actors outside in the cold:
‘Tell them to break off for a bit, poor little things! Let them have some hot soup and some good hot food to eat before they go on again. They can have some of these cakes and things, and some of these dumplings.’
A few minutes later, the stage in the courtyard having by now fallen silent, two blind female ballad-singers, both of them familiar visitors to the house, were led in by the women. A couple of high stools were placed behind them, on which Grandmother Jia invited them to be seated, and their instruments were handed to them, a pipa lute and a three-stringed ‘samisen’ guitar. Grandmother Jia asked Mrs Li and Aunt Xue what story they would like to hear.
‘Anything,’ they said.
Grandmother Jia turned to the two women:
‘Have you added anything new to your repertoire lately?’
‘Yes,’ said one of the women. ‘We’ve got a new story set in the Five Dynasties period, after the fall of Tang.’
‘What’s it called?’ Grandmother Jia asked her.
‘It’s called The Phoenix Seeks a Mate,’ said the woman.
‘Well, the name sounds all right,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Can you give us an idea what it’s about, then we can decide whether we want to hear it or not?’
‘This story took place in the time of the Five Dynasties after the decline of the Tang,’ said the woman. ‘There was in those days a certain gentleman called Wang Zhong who, after having served as Chief Minister under two successive reigns, had retired because of old age to live on his estate in the country. Now this Wang Zhong had an only son whose name was Wang Xi-feng -’
This set everyone laughing.
‘Feng’s double, evidently,’ said Grandmother Jia.
One of the womenservants gave the blind ballad-singer a prod:
‘Don’t talk such nonsense! That’s our Mrs Lian’s name.’
‘Carry on, carry on!’ said Grandmother Jia.
The blind woman rose to her feet:
‘I’m dreadfully sorry, Mrs Lian. I had really no idea it was your name.’
‘Do carry on,’ said Xi-feng, laughing. ‘That’s quite all right. Coincidences over names are the commonest thing in the world.’
The woman sat down again and continued:
‘A time came when this old Sir Wang sent his son off to the capital to sit for the examinations. One day, while the young man was on his journey, there was a great downpour of rain and he was forced to seek shelter in a near-by grange. Now it so happened that the owner of this grange was a former acquaintance of old Sir Wang’s called Li, and this old Sir Li invited the young man to spend a few days with him at the grange, accommodating him in his own study. Sir Li had no son of his own, but he had an only daughter called Chu?luan, a very accomplished young lady who excelled in every?thing she turned her hand to, whether it was performing on the qin or playing Go or painting or calligraphy -’
‘I can see why it’s called The Phoenix Seeks a Mate,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘You don’t need to tell me what the story’s about, I can guess already. “Feng” means “phoenix” and “Chu-luan” means “little hen phoenix”. Obviously it’s the story of how Wang Xi-feng seeks to make this Li Chu-luan his wife.’
‘I believe Your Old Ladyship has heard this story before,’ said the blind woman, smiling.
‘Her Old Ladyship has heard everything,’ someone told her. ‘And what she hasn’t heard she can guess.’
‘These stories are all the same,’ said Grandmother Jia,’ so tedious! Always the same ideally eligible young bachelors and the same ideally beautiful and accomplished young ladies -at least, they are supposed to be ideal, but there’s certainly nothing ideal about their behaviour – in fact there’s nothing very ladylike about them at all. Invariably, we are told how well-born they are. Their father has been a Prime Minister, or a First Secretary at the very least. They are always their father’s only child and the apple of his eye. They are always amazingly well-educated, a model of decorum, a regular paragon of all the virtues – that is, until the first presentable young man comes along. As soon as he appears on the scene -it doesn’t matter who or what he is – all their book-learning and the duty they owe their parents fly out of the window and the next moment they are “making their plans for the future” and generally carrying on in a way that would bring blushes to the cheek of a cat-burglar – certainly not in the least like respectable, educated young ladies. You would hardly call a young woman who conducted herself like that a “paragon”, however many books she might have read – any more than you would acquit a young fellow charged with highway robbery on the grounds that he was a good scholar. The people who make up these stories give themselves the lie every time they open their mouths.
‘And for another thing: if these young women really belonged to cultivated, aristocratic households in which the girls and their mothers were all educated people, then even allowing for the somewhat reduced circumstances owing to their father’s early retirement, you can be sure there would still be plenty of nannies and maids in attendance on them. So how is it that in all of these stories there is only ever a single confidante who knows what her young mistress is getting up to? What are all the other servants supposed to be doing all this time? Of course, this is only another example of the way in which these stories contradict themselves.’
There was some laughter from the assembled company and someone complimented Grandmother Jia on her perceptive?ness in exposing the underlying falseness of these stories.
‘There’s always a reason for it,’ the old lady went on. ‘In some cases it’s because the writer is envious of people so much better off than himself, or disappointed because he has tried to obtain their patronage and failed, and deliberately portrays them in this unfavourable light as a means of getting his own back on them. In other cases the writers have been corrupted by reading this sort of stuff before they begin to write any themselves, and, though totally ignorant of what life in educated, aristocratic families is really like, portray their heroines in this way simply because everyone else does so and they think it will please their readers. I ask you now, never mind very grand families like the ones they pretend to be writing about, even in average well-to-do families like ours when do you ever hear of such carryings-on? It’s a wonder their jaws don’t drop off, telling such dreadful lies! For my part, I have never allowed these sort of stories to be told. Even the maids here don’t know about such matters. It’s true that during the past year or two, since I’ve been getting older, and particularly now that the young people are most of the time safely out of the way in the Garden, I do once in a while listen to a snatch or two of one of these stories, when I feel in need of cheering up a bit; but as soon as the children arrive, I make the person telling it stop.’
Mesdames Li and Xue were thoroughly in agreement:
‘That is the general rule in all the best people’s houses. Even in our households the children aren’t allowed to listen to such stories.’
Xi-feng walked over to pour the old lady a drink:
‘Come on, Grannie, that’s enough! Your wine will be getting cold. Drink this first to wet your whistle. You can go on with your lecture afterwards.’
She turned to the rest of the company:
‘The story you’ve just been listening to is called Falsehood Exposed, or The Tale of a Grandmother. It is a story which took place under the reigning dynasty, on this very day of this very month of this very year on this very spot and at this very hour. How can Grannie “with one mouth tell a double tale”? Ah, how indeed! Our tale puts forth two tails. Which tail to wag? Wig-wag. But for the time being we do not inquire which tale is false, which true. Our story turns rather to those people in the party who were admiring the lanterns and watching the play… Just give these two kinsfolk a chance to drink a cup of wine and watch a scene or two more of the play, Grannie, and then you can get on with your Exposure of Falsehood -dynasty by dynasty.’
She continued unconcernedly pouring wine while her audience convulsed themselves. Even the blind ballad-singers were in stitches.
‘You’ve got the gift, Mrs Lian,’ they said. ‘It’s what we call a “hard mouth”. If you were to take up story-telling as a profession, we should be out of business!’
‘Don’t let them encourage you,’ said Aunt Xue to Xi-feng, laughing. ‘You must behave yourself. There are people outside listening. This isn’t like every day, you know.’
‘It’s only Cousin Zhen outside there,’ said Xi-feng. ‘He and I used to get up to all sorts of mischief together in our younger days. It’s only during the last few years since I’ve grown up and married Lian that I’ve had to start being a bit more strait-laced with him. But even though we have to treat each other like solemn in-laws nowadays, I’m sure he doesn’t mind me fooling about like this. Think of Lao Lai-zi in the Twenty-Four Patterns of Filial Piety, dressing up in children’s clothes at the age of seventy and playing at “dicky-bird” in front of his aged parents to keep them amused. If Cousin Zhen and the other menfolk won’t come in here and play dicky-bird themselves, the fact that I’m taking so much trouble to make Grannie laugh and get her to eat a bit should make them feel pleased and grateful, not critical of my behaviour.’
‘It’s true, I haven’t had a really good laugh for days,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘She has made me laugh so much, I really do feel better for it. I think I’ll have another drop of wine.
She took a sip from her cup and then turned to address
Bao-yu: ‘Pour a cup for your Cousin Feng.’
‘No need,’ said Xi-feng. ‘Let me share your good health.’ She took the cup that Grandmother Jia had just been drink?ing from and tossed back what remained of the wine in it, then, handing the cup to a maid to take away, she replaced it with a clean one that had been previously warmed in hot water. She then proceeded to do the same for everyone else, removing their dirty cups and replacing them with clean, warmed ones. After that she poured out a fresh supply of wine for everyone before returning to her seat.
‘If Your Old Ladyship doesn’t want to hear a story,’ said the blind woman who had spoken before, ‘perhaps you’d like us to do a song for you.’
‘Give us “O Captain, Captain”,’ said Grandmother Jia.
The two women at once began tuning their instruments and presently struck up a lively tune, the words of which were divided alternately between them.
Grandmother Jia inquired what the time was.
‘Midnight,’ said one of the senior womenservants.
‘No wonder it’s getting so cold,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘It really is bitter.’
Maids were already arriving with more clothes, which they helped their mistresses to change into or put on over what they were already wearing.
Lady Wang rose, smiling, to her feet:
‘Why don’t you go into the room at the back, Mother, where the heated kang is? Mrs Li and my sister are not outsiders; I’m sure they won’t mind. And the rest of us will take care of them for you.’
‘Why don’t we all go inside?’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘That will be much cosier.’
‘I doubt there’s room for us all,’ said Lady Wang.
‘I’ll tell you what,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘We don’t need all these tables now. Why don’t we have just two or three of them taken inside? We can have them put together to make one big table, then we can all squeeze up round it and keep each other warm. That will be much jollier!’
Everyone agreed that this was a good idea and got up from their places in preparation for the move. The tables were cleared, the three largest ones were carried into the inner room and put together, and the dessert, with various additions and replacements, was relaid on them inside.
‘Now,’ said Grandmother Jia when everybody was inside, ‘you must forget about seniority now and sit down where I put you.’
She made Mrs Li and Mrs Xue sit at one end, facing south, and placed herself close to them on the east side, with Xiang?yun squeezed in on one side of her and Dai-yu and Bao-qin on the other.
‘You must sit next to your mother,’ she told Bao-yu. So Lady Xing and Lady Wang came next on the east side with Bao-yu sandwiched between them.
She put Bao-chai on the west side at the end nearest to Mrs Li, then came the Three Springs, then Lou-shi with her little boy Jia Jun, then Li Wan and You-shi with little Jia Lan squeezed in between them, and finally Xi-feng.
Jia Rong’s wife, Hu-shi, sat on her own at the north end, round the corner from Xi-feng.
When they were all seated, Grandmother Jia called to Cousin Zhen and the menfolk to leave, saying that she herself would shortly be going off to bed. Hearing her call, Cousin Zhen came hurrying inside, bringing the others with him.
‘Go away, go away!’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Don’t come in here! They’ve only just sat down, they don’t want to have to all get up again. Off to bed with you! You’ve got important things to do in the morning.’
‘Very good,’ said Cousin Zhen. ‘I’ll leave Rong behind then, to pour the drinks for you.’
‘Ah yes,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘I’d forgotten him.’
Cousin Zhen and Jia Lian withdrew. Pleased to be so soon released, they arranged for Jia Cong and Jia Huan to be escorted back to their own apartments and went off, as they had planned to do if possible, to spend the rest of the night together on the town. But that is no part of our story.
‘I was just thinking,’ said Grandmother Jia when they had gone, ‘ all these people enjoying themselves here tonight: all we lacked was a young married couple to make it seem like a proper reunion. I was forgetting about Rong. Sit next to your wife, Rong. Let’s see you both together.’
Just then some of the women came in bringing a playbill with them. The players were preparing to resume.
‘Oh, just as we were beginning to enjoy a little conversation,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Now we shan’t be able to hear ourselves speak. And those poor children must be getting dreadfully cold after so many hours in the open. Why don’t we give them a rest? Call our own troupe over and let them do something on this stage. The other ones can stay here and watch them.’
With answering cries the women went out to make the necessary arrangements. Messengers were sent, some into Prospect Garden to summon the young actresses, others to the inner gate to requisition some pages. When the pages presented themselves at the green-room door they were told to take away all the grown-up members of the visiting troupe and entertain them elsewhere so that only the boy-actors should be present when the little actresses arrived. These last were to be observed shortly afterwards, issuing from the gallery at the corner entrance to the courtyard, preceded by their chief singing instructor and accompanied by a number of women carrying bundles. There had not been time to bring the wardrobe-boxes, so they had had to make a guess at the three or four plays that Grandmother Jia was likeliest to want to hear and hurriedly bundle together the costumes that would be needed for their performance.
Led by the women who had summoned them, Elegante and the rest entered the heated back room of the hall, made their curtsies to Grandmother Jia and the rest of the company, and then stood, arms held stiffly at their sides, awaiting instructions.
Grandmother Jia smiled at them benevolently:
‘Doesn’t your teacher give you a holiday even for First Moon? Dear, dear, dear! – Well now, what are you going to sing for us? We’ve just been listening to The Orphan’s Revenge which was so noisy that it’s given us all headaches. We’d like to hear something a bit quieter now. I ought to tell you that we have a very discriminating audience here tonight. There’s Mrs Xue and Mrs Li here who both come from families which used to keep their own troupes of players and who have heard heaven knows how many good performances between them; there are some young ladies here who know much more than our own girls about plays and music; and the troupe you saw just now outside, though they are only children, belong to a famous conn9isseur and are better than many commercial companies of grown-up players. So if we don’t want to disgrace ourselves, we shall have to be on our best. Now let’s see. Let’s try to think of something a bit different to show them. Suppose we get Parfumee to sing “The Dream Recalled” from The Return of the Soul with just a fiddle to accompany her – leaving out all the woodwind. How would that be for a start?’
‘Just the thing, Your Old Ladyship,’ said Elegante drily. We’re certainly not good enough for Mrs Xue and Mrs Li to want to see us in full performance. They just want an idea of what our diction and voice-production are like.’
‘Quite so,’ said Grandmother Jia.
The two ladies referred to were much diverted by Elegante’s reply.
‘I believe you and Her Old Ladyship are pulling our legs,’ they told her.
‘Not at all,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘These girls are trained only for our own private amusement, not as an investment. We don’t hire them out, like some people. So they really aren’t up to commercial standards.’
She turned to Althee, the performer of ‘painted face’ parts:
‘You can do “Hui-ming Takes the Letter” from The Western Chamber. Don’t bother to make up for it, though. I think those two scenes should be enough to give our guests some idea of what you can do. Put all you’ve got into it, now, or I shall have something to say to you!’
The little actresses went out. Those who were to play had soon got into their costumes and the performance began:
first ‘The Dream Recalled’ and then ‘Taking the Letter’. The audience listened throughout with rapt attention. When the performance had ended, Aunt Xue observed that, though she had seen hundreds of different companies in her time, she had never before heard a performance in which the woodwind in the orchestra was silent.
‘Oh yes,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Take that “Chu River” aria the heroine sings in The House in Ping-kang Lane that we were listening to earlier in the evening. Quite often you can see productions which leave out the woodwind parts in the orchestral accompaniment. Instead they have the male lead playing a flute accompaniment on the stage. I agree, a whole sequence with only string accompaniment is unusual, but there’s nothing very special about it. It depends entirely on the individual preference of the person who owns the troupe.’
She pointed to Xiang-yun:
‘When I was this child’s age her grandfather had a troupe of young actresses one of whom was a very good qin-player. She took a number of qin-playing scenes like the famous one from The Western Chamber and the scene in which Miao-chang plays the qin in The Jade Hairpin and the “Eighteen Stanzas for the Barbarian Pipe” from the modern sequel to The Story of the Lute, and arranged them in a single sequence with qin accompaniment. That was rather impressive. More what-shall-I-say than the things we have just been listening to.
‘Yes,’ the others agreed, ‘that does sound most unusual.’
Grandmother Jia called the women over and told them that she would now like Elegante and the others to perform an instrumental piece called Lantern Festival Moon. The women went out again to transmit her order. Meanwhile Jia Rong and his wife went round replenishing the winecups.
Xi-feng observed that Grandmother Jia was in very good spirits.
‘While the ballad-singers are still here,’ she said, ‘why don’t we get them to play “Spring Joy on Every Brow” for us and we can have a game of “Pass the Plum”?’
‘Oh yes, that’s a good game,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Just right for this time of year, too.’
Orders were given for a pair of drums to be fetched – special ‘drinker’s drums’ whose black lacquered sides were studded with patterns of brass nails – and handed to the blind women. Someone produced a flowering spray of red plum for the game.
‘Now,’ said Grandmother Jia, ‘whoever’s hand the branch is in when the drumming stops must first drink a cup of wine and then they have to say something: but what shall it be?’
‘You can turn your hand to anything, Grannie,’ said Xi-feng, ‘but for those of us who aren’t so clever it won’t be much fun if it’s something that we’re no good at. I think it should be something that all of us can enjoy. Why not say that whoever the branch stops with must tell a joke?’
Everyone present knew that Xi-feng was a wonderful raconteuse with a seemingly inexhaustible stock of new and funny stories. The servants standing below in attendance seemed quite as much delighted by this proposal as the members of the family sitting around the table on the kang, and several little maids went racing off to inform sisters or cousins outside:
‘Quick, come inside! Mrs Lian is going to tell a joke.’
In no time at all the room was packed with maids.
The actresses had by now finished playing. Grandmother Jia, after first seeing to it that they were given some soup and a selection of the delicacies available, gave orders for the drumming to begin.
The blind women were practised performers in this game and deliberately varied the speed of the beat. Sometimes it would be as slow as the last drips of a water-clock, sometimes as fast as the rattle of dried beans poured from a bag, sometimes it would go galloping along like a runaway horse, sometimes it became a soft whisper interspersed with sudden bursts of sound to make you jump, like flashes of lightning in the darkness. When the beat was slow, the branch passed slowly from hand to hand; when it was hurried, the passing too grew faster. Then suddenly it stopped altogether while Grandmother Jia was holding it. This, in itself, was enough to make everyone laugh. Jia Rong quickly came round and filled up the old lady’s winecup.
‘Naturally Grandma is the lucky first,’ the others said. ‘You must let us share your luck, Grandma!’
‘The wine is no problem,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘It’s the joke that’s worrying me.’
‘Come now, your jokes are better even than Feng’s, Grandma,’ they said. ‘Do tell us one. Make us all laugh.’
‘I don’t know any good new ones,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘I’ll just have to put a bold face on it and do the best I can.’
She began her story.
‘In a certain family there were ten sons, all of whom were married, but of the girls they married only one, the youngest, was intelligent and nimble-witted and a good talker. The old couple doted on this clever daughter-in-law and day in day out found fault with the other nine. The other nine naturally resented this and took counsel together what they should do about it.
“‘At heart we are every bit as dutiful as she is,” they said, “but because the little wretch is so glib, father-in-law and mother-in-law only care for her. Isn’t there anything we can do about this injustice?”
‘Then one of the nine had an idea:
“‘Why don’t we go to the temple of Yama, the King of the Underworld, and ask him why, when our souls first went into human bodies, he gave that little horror a clever tongue and made all the rest of us so stupid?”
‘The others were delighted with this suggestion, and so next day they all went trooping off to the temple of King Yama and, after offering up incense, lay down on the steps of the altar and went to sleep. When they were asleep, the souls of the nine sisters-in-law waited and waited and waited, but King Yama didn’t come.
‘Presently, just as they were growing desperate, Monkey came bowling along on his cloud-trapeze, and seeing the nine souls there, lifted up his metal-clasped cudgel to strike them with. The souls knelt down in terror and begged him to spare them. Monkey asked them what they were doing there, so they told him their story. When they had finished, Monkey stamped his foot and sighed sympathetically.
“‘What a good job you met me here and not old Yama,” he said. “He wouldn’t have been able to help you at all.”
‘The nine souls implored him to tell them what they should do.
“‘Do but have compassion on us, Great Sage,” they said, “and our troubles will be over.”
“‘It’s quite simple,” said Monkey with a laugh. “The day that the ten of you were due to enter your human bodies, I happened to have been around at old Yama’s place and done a little piddle on the floor, and just before she was born, that little sister-in-law of yours drank it all up. That’s what gave her such a clever tongue. If clever tongues are all you want, I can do as much piddle for you as you like.”‘
The story ended amidst laughter.
‘It’s a good job all of us are such stupid, tongue-tied creatures,’ said Xi-feng. ‘I should hate to think that any of us had drunk monkey’s piddle!’
You-shi and Lou-shi turned towards Li Wan, laughing:
‘I wonder who she thinks she’s fooling. It’s very clear which of us in this room is the one who drank monkey’s piddle!’
‘A joke is always the better for being apt,’ Aunt Xue observed.
While she was speaking, the drumming began again. The maids, who wanted only to hear Wang Xi-feng tell a joke, had come to a secret understanding with the blind women that if one of them coughed it would be a signal to stop, and when the branch had been round twice and had just reached Xi-feng for the second time, the maids all coughed and the drumming stopped. There was a shout of laughter from all present.
‘Ha!’ they said. ‘Now we’ve got you! Hurry up with your wine and tell us a good one – only don’t make us laugh so much that we get stomach-ache!’
Xi-feng thought for a few moments and then started:
‘A family was celebrating the First Moon festival, just as we are doing, admiring the lanterns and drinking wine together. It was a very lively party and everyone in the family was there: the grandmother, the great-grandmother, the daughters-in-law, the granddaughters-in-law, the great?granddaughters-in-law, the grandsons, the great-nephews, the great-grandsons, the great-great-grandsons, the great-little-medium-grandsons, the granddaughters, the great-nieces, the first cousins once removed, the first cousins twice removed, the second cousins two-and-a-half times removed – oh, good?ness gracious me, it was a really lively party!’
Her audience were already laughing.
‘She’s a caution!’ they said. ‘I wonder which of us she’s got it in for this time.’
‘Don’t you bring me into it,’ said You-shi, laughing: ‘I’ll tear your mouth for you!’
Xi-feng stood up and struck her hands together in mock despair:
‘Here am I going to all this trouble to entertain you and all you do is keep interrupting. All right then, I won’t go on.’
‘Go on, go on! Take no notice of them!’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘What happened then?’
‘What happened then?’ said Xi-feng. ‘Oh, there they all sat, and after drinking together all night long, they went to bed.’
She said this straight-faced and in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice. Her audience waited open-mouthed for her to con?tinue, but nothing was forthcoming, and at last they realized, with a chill of disappointment, that that was all they were going to hear. After a long, old-fashioned look from Shi Xiang-yun she relented, however.
‘All right, let me tell you another story about people celebrating the First Moon festival.
‘Some men were taking an enormous rocket outside the city and a crowd of thousands had collected behind them to see them let it off. While they were still on their way, some impatient character who couldn’t bear to wait any longer put a lighted incense-stick to the touch-paper and lit the fuse. There was a great WHOOSH! and the rocket went off. Every?one burst out laughing and went off home – all except the man who had been underneath, carrying the rocket on his back. He just stood there all on his own, complaining what a rotten job the firework-maker had made of the rocket. He’d put it together so badly, he said, that all the gunpowder had trickled away before they’d had a chance to let it off.’
‘But surely he’d have heard it go off?’ said Xiang-yun.
‘He was stone deaf,’ said Xi-feng.
There was a burst of laughter from her audience. But they were still worried about her earlier story.
‘What about the other one you were telling? What did happen then? You really ought to finish it, you know.’
‘Oh how you do pester one!’ said Xi-feng, thumping the table in pretended annoyance. ‘Next day was the sixteenth; the party was over; the festival had ended. If you ask me, I think they were too busy clearing up and putting things away to know what had happened then.’
This brought another burst of laughter.
‘That’s two o’clock sounding outside,’ said Xi-feng. ‘I’m sure Grannie must be tired. If you ask me, I think we all ought to be like the deaf man’s firework and “trickle away
You-shi, who in the vehemence of her mirth was rocking back and forth with a handkerchief stuffed in her mouth, stopped for a moment to point a minatory finger at Xi-feng:
‘She really is a caution, this one!’
‘She’s a caution all right, and no mistake!’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘By the way, talking of fireworks, why don’t we let ours off now? They will help us to overcome the effects of all that wine.’
At once Jia Rong jumped up and hurried out. Under his supervision a team of pages set up a number of framework stands in the courtyard on which fireworks were then fastened or hung. Though none of them particularly large ones, they were all imported tribute fireworks of the very highest quality. There were fireworks of all sorts, including a number of bangers. Dai-yu, being of a nervous disposition, was terrified of pops and bangs. Knowing this, Grandmother Jia hugged her to her bosom to comfort her. Aunt Xue offered the same protection to Xiang-yun, but Xiang-yun laughed and said that she didn’t mind the fireworks.
‘There’s nothing she likes better than letting them off herself,’ said Bao-chai. ‘She’s not afraid of fireworks!’
Lady Wang hugged Bao-yu.
‘What about me?’ said Xi-feng. ‘Doesn’t anyone love me?’
‘I’ll hold you,’ said You-shi, laughing, ‘ though why you should act the shrinking young thing now I can’t imagine. Normally when you hear fireworks you get so excited I’d sooner eat a bee’s turd than stand by and watch you!’
‘Wait until this is over,’ said Xi-feng. ‘We’ll go out in the courtyard and let some off ourselves. I’m sure I can do it better than these boys.’
While they were speaking, a succession of different sorts of fireworks were going off outside: golden rain, ‘nine dragon’ rockets, thunderflashes, cloud-hoppers, and many other sorts. When the display was over, the boy-actors were asked to go up on the stage again and play the Beggar’s Song, and every?one amused themselves by throwing money onto the stage and watching them scramble for it.
As hot soup was once more being served, Grandmother Jia remarked that after being up for so many hours she was beginning to feel rather empty.
‘We have some duck and rice stew ready,’ Xi-feng told her.
‘I think I’d like something a bit lighter than that,’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘We’ve got a rice and date frumenty that was made for the ladies who don’t eat meat,’ said Xi-feng.
‘That will do,’ said Grandmother Jia.
The used things were removed now from the table and another set of dishes containing all sorts of tempting entremets laid out in their place. When everyone had sampled what they fancied, they rinsed their mouths out with tea supplied for that purpose and the party finally broke up.

*

Early on the morning of the seventeenth the family paid a formal visit to the Ning-guo mansion to attend the ceremonial closing of the Hall of Ancestors and the taking down and putting away of the ancestral portraits. Later in that day, when they were back at Rong-guo House, they attended a New Year reception by Aunt Xue.
There was no question of another Visitation that year. A Dowager Consort, who had been the late Emperor’s favourite concubine, had fallen seriously ill and the filial feelings of the reigning Emperor had prompted him to curtail all seasonal festivities at the Palace. So from Yuan-chun that year there was not so much as a lantern riddle.
There was, however, during the days which followed, a succession of parties or ‘receptions’ given by the senior domestics of the household, to which the family were, of course, invited: Lai Da’s on the eighteenth, Lai Sheng’s at the Ning-guo mansion on the nineteenth, Lin Zhi-xiao’s on the twentieth, Widow Shan’s on the twenty-first and Wu Xin?deng’s on the twenty-second. Grandmother Jia attended these or not as the fancy took her, sometimes coming at the beginning and staying until all the other guests had gone, sometimes only putting in a brief appearance long after her arrival had been despaired of. But she refused absolutely to turn up when friends or relations were visiting, or to attend the receptions to which they invited her, leaving Lady Xing, Lady Wang and Xi-feng to stand in for her on these occasions. Bao-yu, too – apart from a single duty visit to his uncle Wang Zi-teng’s house – managed to avoid all social gather?ings by saying that his grandmother needed him at home to keep her amused.
Then suddenly, when all the festivities were over, an event occurred which filled the whole household with dismay. Xi-feng had a miscarriage.
For further information on this subject you must turn to the following chapter.

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