The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 64



Five fair women make subjects for
a chaste maid’s verse
And nine jade dragons make a
love-gift for aa flirt

As soon as Jia Rong learned that evening was ready, he returned to the temple and reported to his father to that effect. At once preparations for the procession into the city were put in motion. Bearers were organized, insignia, funeral banners and all the other paraphernalia got ready overnight, and messengers hurriedly sent out to relations and friends telling them when the procession would set out: five o’clock on the morn?ing of the fourth.
The procession, needless to say, was of dazzling magnificence, and troops of mourners took part in it. It provoked varying reactions from the crowd numbering many thousands who lined the road to watch it, all the way from the Temple of the Iron Threshold to the gates of Ning-guo House. Some took a simple pleasure in the spectacle; others admired the wealth which had created it; but there were also a few sour-faced Confucian scholars who looked down their noses and muttered something about sumptuousness being no substitute for grief. A buzz of discussion followed its passing all along the route.
The procession reached the mansion at about three in the afternoon; the coffin was deposited in its shrine in the main hall; offerings were made; the lament was raised. After that the mourners began gradually to depart. Only those members of the Jia clan remained who had undertaken to lend the family a hand with the reception. Among relations not of the Jia sur?name the only one to stay behind was Lady Xing’s brother, Xing De-quan.
As long as there were visitors around, convention obliged Cousin Zhen and Jia Rong to remain in appropriately grief-stricken attitudes beside the coffin, conforming, as far as possible, to the scriptural canons on mourning which enjoin the bereaved son, among other things, to ‘lie upon rushes with a sod of earth for his pillow’; but as soon as the last guest had gone, they were off like a shot to enjoy the society of their young female relations inside.
Throughout this period Bao-yu too was expected to put on mourning and go over every day to Ning-guo House to spend the whole day there beside the coffin. Xi-feng was not well enough to go over daily, but on days when there were sutra-readings and the callers were numerous, she would drag herself over and lend You-shi a hand in entertaining the wives.
One morning after the early offering, when Cousin Zhen and Jia Rong, worn out by a succession of short nights and long, exhausting days, lay dozing beside the coffin, Bao-yu thought that as there were no visitors he might just as well go back home and see Dai-yu. Calling at Green Delights on the way, he found the courtyard silent and deserted. In the coolness of the surrounding gallery a few old women and junior maids were sitting or lying about in various postures of sleep. He had no wish to disturb them, and would have made his way into the house alone; but just as he was approaching the doorway, Number Four caught sight of him and started up, intending to raise the blind for him to enter. She had not time to do so however, for at that very moment Parfumée came rushing out and very nearly ran into him. She checked her?self just in time.
‘What are you doing here?’ There was an expression of pleased surprise on her face. ‘Don’t let Skybright get me! She’s trying to hit me.’
Inside the room there was a clatter of numerous tiny objects striking the floor and a moment later Skybright burst through the doorway in pursuit.
‘Where are you, you little wretch? If you’ve lost, you have to have a slap. It’s no good running to Bao-yu to protect you: he isn’t here today.’
Bao-yu laughingly intercepted her.
‘She’s only little. I don’t know how she’s offended you, but won’t you forgive her for my sake?’
Bao-yu’s sudden appearance at that moment was so unexpected that Skybright found it comical.
‘Parfumée must be a little witch! I wouldn’t have thought even magic spells could bring someone so quickly! Well, I don’t care!’ she said, having recovered somewhat from her surprise. ‘Magic or no magic, I’m going to get her!’
She wrested the arm free that Bao-yu was holding and darted at Parfumée; but Parfumée dodged behind Bao-yu’s back and clung to him. Bao-yu took Skybright by one hand and Parfumée by the other and walked with them into the room. There, on the kang under the west wall, Musk, Ripple, Emerald and Swallow sat playing dibs: melon-seeds for winners and slaps for losers. Parfumée had lost to Skybright and run out to avoid the slap. The clattering noise that Bao-?yu had heard was the sound of dib-stones falling from Skybright’s lap when she got up to chase her. Bao-yu surveyed the scene approvingly.
‘I thought you’d be a bit quiet here with me away,’ he said. ‘And as the days are so long now, I was afraid you might be going to sleep after lunch and making yourselves ill. I’m glad you’ve found a way of keeping yourselves amused – Where’s Aroma?’ he asked, suddenly noticing that she was not with them.
‘Oh, Aroma,’ said Skybright. ‘Aroma’s gone religious. She’s sitting on her own in the next room like Bodhidharma with her face to the wall. I haven’t dared disturb her so I haven’t the least idea what she’s doing. Whatever it is, she’s being very quiet about it. You’d better go in and have a look: perhaps she’s attained Enlightenment!’
Bao-yu laughed and went into the inner room. He found Aroma sitting on the couch by the window making knots in a length of grey silk cord. She rose to her feet as he entered.
‘What lies has that wretch Skybright been telling about me? I wanted to get on with this knotting, that’s what I came in here for. I hadn’t got time to fool about with the others, so I pretended that I wanted to take advantage of your being away by sitting here quietly on my own and meditating for a bit. Bodhidharma, indeed! I’ll pinch that girl’s mouth!’
Bao-yu laughed and sat down beside her to watch her knot.
‘The days are so long now, you ought to take a break of some kind. If you don’t fancy playing with the others, why not come with me to see Cousin Lin? Surely it’s much too hot for knotting?’
‘I noticed that you’re still wearing that old black fan-cover we made for you when you went into mourning for Mrs Rong. As long as you were only wearing it once or twice a year, it didn’t seem worth the trouble of replacing it; but now that you have to wear summer mourning every day at the other House, I thought it was high time I made you a new one. As soon as I’ve finished this cord for it, you can take the old one off and put it on. I know you don’t care very much about this sort of thing, but if Her Old Ladyship were to see you wearing the old one when she got back, she’d be sure to blame me for neglecting you. She’d say I was too lazy even to notice what you were wearing.’
Bao-yu smiled.
‘It’s very nice of you to have thought about it. But don’t drive yourself too hard. You don’t want to give yourself a heat stroke.’
At that moment Parfumée came in carrying a cup of water?-cooled tea for him on a tray. Because as a little boy he had been delicate, Bao-yu was never given ice-cold tea to drink in summer. To cool his tea they plunged the tea-pot into a basin of water freshly drawn from the well. The water was changed several times until the tea inside the pot, though not chilled, had reached a pleasant freshness. He drank half the contents of the cup while Parfumée held it to his lips, then turned his head back again to address Aroma.
‘I told Tealeaf when I left that if anyone important turns up at Cousin Zhen’s, he is to let me know immediately; otherwise I shan’t be going back there.’
He got up to go. As he was leaving the house, he called back to Emerald and the others in the outer room:
‘If I’m wanted for anything, you’ll find me at Miss Lin’s.’
On his way there, just as he was about to cross Drenched Blossoms Bridge, he came upon Snowgoose followed by two old women carrying an assortment of caltrops, melons and lotus-roots.
‘What are they for?’ Bao-yu asked her. ‘I know your mistress never eats that sort of thing. Is she expecting Mrs Zhu or someone?’
‘If I tell you, you mustn’t let on when you see her,’ said Snowgoose.
Bao-yu nodded.
‘You can go on ahead and give that stuff to Miss Nightingale,’ Snowgoose said to the two women. ‘If she asks you why I’m not with you, tell her I’m doing something and I’ll be back directly.’
The women made some reply and continued on their way. Snowgoose waited until they were out of earshot.
‘The Mistress has been feeling a bit better this last day or two. But when Miss Tan looked in after lunch today and wanted her to go with her to call on Mrs Lian, she wouldn’t go. She appeared to be thinking about something and had a little cry. Then presently she picked up her writing-brush and did a lot of writing – poetry I think. She told me to send out for some melons and things. While I did that, she said, Nightin?gale was to clear the qin-table in the inner room, move it into the outside room, and put the dragon incense-burner on it. She said she’d tell us what to do with the melons when I got back. If she’s planning to entertain someone, I don’t see what she wants the incense-burner for – certainly not for burning incense in, because she doesn’t like incense as a rule. She likes to have fresh flowers and fruit and gourds about her but not incense because she doesn’t like the smell of it in her clothes. Anyway, if she does want to burn some, why not in the inner room, where she spends all her time? Unless it’s because the old women have made the outer room a bit smelly and she’s burning it to get rid of the smell. The fact is, I really don’t know. You’ll have to go and find out for yourself.’
While she was speaking, Bao-yu had unconsciously lowered his head.
‘From what Snowgoose says,’ he thought, ‘there must be some other reason for this. She wouldn’t have things put out specially if she were merely entertaining one of the girls. Perhaps today is the anniversary of Aunt Lin’s death. No, just a bit: it can’t be. When it is, Grandma always sends her the stuff for the offering and she’s done that already this year. Perhaps it’s for a seasonal offering. Perhaps she’s been reading the Doctrine of the Mean:
In each season of the year … offer things seasonable
It’s possible. If I go and see her now, when she is feeling upset, I am sure to want to talk her out of it and shall probably only succeed in causing her to suppress her grief. On the other hand, if I don’t go, then with no one there to stop her, she may simply go on getting more and more upset. Either way will be bad for her. The best thing will be for me to go and see Cousin Feng first, sit with her for a bit, and look in at Cousin Lin’s on my way back. Then, if she is still upset, I shall try to find some means of consoling her. In that way I shall be able to prevent her grief from getting out of hand, though at the same time she will have had a chance of giving it expression, so that there will be no danger of its being unhealthily repressed.’
Having come to this decision, he let Snowgoose go on to the Naiad’s House alone and made his way out of the Garden to Xi-feng’s place. He arrived just as a number of women-servants who had been reporting on household matters were leaving. Xi-feng herself was leaning inside the gateway talking to Patience. She smiled at Bao-yu as she saw him come.
‘You’ve come back, then? I’ve just this moment been telling Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife to send someone over to the other place to tell your pages that if you don’t appear to be doing anything they ought to slip in and ask you to come back here for a rest. I was afraid that in this hot weather with so many people milling around there, you might find the sweaty smells a bit too much for you. But you’ve come back anyway, so I needn’t have bothered.’
‘Thank you for the kind thought, though,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I decided to come back here partly because there was nothing there for me to do, but also because I noticed that you haven’t been over there for some days and I wanted to see if you were all right. How are you feeling lately?’
‘Oh, still pretty much the same,’ said Xi-feng. ‘Still up one day and down the next. Now that Grandmother and your mother are away, those senior women are getting quite out of hand, fighting or quarrelling about something or other every day. We’ve even had cases of gambling and thieving recently. Of course, your sister is a great help; but she’s a young unmarried girl and there are certain things she can’t be told about. When they crop up, I have to struggle out of bed and deal with them myself. So I don’t really get a lot of rest. Under the circumstances there’s not much prospect yet of getting better: all I can hope is that I shan’t get any worse!’
‘I know. But you’ve got to look after yourself,’ said Bao-yu. ‘You must try not to worry so much.’
He chatted with her a little longer before going back into the Garden. Arriving at the Naiad’s House, he could see the remains of incense smoke as he entered the courtyard gate. In the outer room there was a wet patch on the flagstones where a libation had been poured, and Nightingale was super?vising the removal of the qin-table to the inside room and the replacement of various other objects and bits of furniture. Concluding that the little service (if that is what it had been) must just be over, he went inside. Dai-yu was lying down with her face to the wall. She looked ill and exhausted. At the sound of Nightingale’s ‘Master Bao, Miss’, she raised herself wearily, though with a smiling face, and invited him to sit by her.
‘How have you been these last few days, coz?’ he said. ‘You look a bit calmer than you did, but something seems to have been upsetting you.’
‘I can’t imagine why you should say so,’ said Dai-yu. ‘I am perfectly all right.’
‘How can you expect me to believe that?’ said Bao-yu. ‘The tears are still wet on your face. You should learn to take things a bit easier. It is bad for a person who has so much illness to be constantly indulging in grief. If you end up by undermiring your health; I-’
The realization that what he was about to say was probably something that ought not to be said caused the words to stick in his throat. For although, from the fact that he and Dai-yu had grown up together, there existed a most perfect sympathy between them, although there was nothing in the world that either of them wanted more than to live and die in each other’s company, the understanding that this was so was a wordless one which had never been expressed. In the past, because Dai-yu was so sensitive, words had all too often proved a stumbling-block. And now today, when the whole point of his coming here was to comfort her, here he was again, on the point of saying something that would offend her! Finding that he could not go on, a sort of panic gripped him. He feared he was going to make her angry; and yet he so desperately wanted to help her. As he thought about it, the panic gave way to a feeling of helpless sadness and he began to cry.
Dai-yu, sensing that he was about to make one of those extravagant statements that she always found so irritating, had indeed been on the point of getting angry; but when she saw his internal struggle and the tears which followed it, she felt not angry with him but moved, and being herself of a tearful disposition, was soon sitting there in silence and weeping with him for company. To Nightingale, who came in at that moment with some tea, it appeared as if they must have been having a quarrel.
‘Just when Miss Lin is getting along nicely,’ she said to Bao-?yu with some asperity, ‘what do you mean by coming along here and upsetting her?’
Bao-yu laughed and wiped his eyes.
‘I’ve done no such thing.’
To cover up his embarrassment, he got up and began pacing about the room. In doing so, he caught sight of a sheet of paper sticking out from underneath Dai-yu’s inkstone. The temptation to reach out and pick it up proved irresistible, and before Dai-yu could get up and snatch it from him, he had put it in the bosom of his gown.
‘Let me read it, Dai!’
‘Whatever you come here about,’ said Dai-yu, ‘you always seem to end up by nosing through my papers.’
Bao-chai came in while she was speaking.
‘What is it you want to read, cousin?’ she asked Bao-yu.
Bao-yu still had no idea what the piece of paper contained, and because he was uncertain what Dai-yu’s feelings would be about his reading it, he hesitated to answer Bao-chai’s question for fear of giving Dai-yu offence. He therefore smiled and said nothing, while all the time his eyes rested on Dai-yu questioningly. Dai-yu smiled at Bao-chai and invited her to be seated.
‘I’ve been looking at some lives of famous women,’ said Dai-yu, ‘all of them women who are famous in history for their beauty or intelligence. There was so much I found moving – heartening and admirable in some cases, tragic and deplorable in others – that after lunch today, having nothing better to do, I decided to make a selection of them and try writing poems about them in which some of those feelings could be expressed. Then Tan-chun came in and asked me to go with her to see Cousin Feng, but I didn’t feel up to it. After doing only five of the poems I had planned, I suddenly felt too tired to go on and left them lying there on the table, little thinking that Master Bao would come along and dis?cover them. I wouldn’t really mind his seeing them if it weren’t for the fear that he might go copying them out and showing them to other people.’
‘When did I ever do such a thing?’ said Bao-yu indignantly. ‘If you’re referring to the White Crab-flower poems on that fan, I wrote them on it myself in small kai-shu characters merely for the convenience of always having them by me when I wanted to look at them. I fully realize that poems written in the privacy of the women’s quarters are not lightly to be passed around outside. Ever since you spoke to me about it, I have been careful not to carry that fan with me anywhere but inside the Garden.’
‘Cousin Lin is right to be worried,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Now that the poems are written on that fan, there is always the possibility that you might one day forget and carry it with you to your room outside. Suppose Uncle’s literary gentlemen were to see it there, they would be sure to ask you who the poems were by. If as a result of that they were to become public property, it would be extremely unpleasant for us. “A stupid woman is a virtuous one”: that is what the old proverb says. A girl’s first concern is to be virtuous, her second is to be industrious. She may write poetry if she likes as a diversion, but it is an accomplishment she could just as well do without. The last thing girls of good family need is a literary reputation.’ She paused and gave Dai-yu a smile. ‘There would be no harm in letting me see them of course. The important thing is not to allow Cousin Bao to go off with them.’
‘In the light of what you have just been saying,’ said Dai-yu drily, ‘I’m not at all sure that I ought to let you look at them either. Anyway,’ she pointed to Bao-yu, ‘he’s already got them.’
Bao-yu assumed from her tone that he might read them. Extracting the paper from the inside pocket of his gown, he drew up close to Bao-chai so that the two of them could peruse it together. This is what they read.
Xi Shi
That kingdom-quelling beauty dissolved like the flower of foam.
In the foreign palace, Xi Shi, did you yearn for your old home?
Who laughs at your ugly neighbour with her frown-and-simper now,
Still steeping her yam at the brook-side, and the hair snow-white on her brow?
Yu Ji
The very crows are grieving as they caw in the cold night air.
She faces her beaten Tyrant King with a haggard look of despair:
‘Let the others wait for the hangman, to be hacked and quartered and rent;
‘Better the taste of one’s own steel in the decent dark of a tent.’
Lady Bright
To a loveliness that dazzled, the palace of Han showed the door;
For ‘the fair are mostly ill-fated’, as has been said often before.
Yet it seems strange that an emperor – even one with such tepid views –
Should abandon his eyes’ own judgement and let a painter choose!
Green Pearl
Pebble or pearl – to Shi Chong it was only a rich man’s whim:
Do you really believe your undoubted charms meant so very much to him?
It was fate, from some past life preordained, that made him take his rash stand,
And the craving to have a companion in death’s dark, silent land.
Red Duster
She marked the firm, courteous protest, the well-phrased confident plan,
And, under the unsuccessful clerk, saw the essential Man.
The great Yang Su in her eyes was finished from that hour:
He could not hold a girl like her for all his pomp and power.
After praising the poems enthusiastically, Bao-yu suggested that, as there were five of them, a good collective title would be ‘Songs for Five Fair Women’; and without waiting for Dai-yu’s approval, he picked up her writing-brush and wrote it on the left-hand side of the sheet after the poems.
‘Whatever subject one chooses for a poem,’ said Bao-chai, ‘it is important that one’s treatment of it should be original. If one merely plods along in the footsteps of earlier poets, it doesn’t matter how fine the language is, the lack of originality will prevent it from being a really good poem. Thus, many poets have taken Lady Bright as their theme, but the best ones have always contrived to give the subject a new turn, one emphasizing the sad fate of Lady Bright herself, another the wickedness of the painter Ma Yan-shou, another the frivolousness of the Han emperor who employed him to paint portraits of court ladies rather than portraits of distinguished statesmen and soldiers, and so on. Further new twists were given to this theme by Wang An-shi:
What brush could ever capture a beauty’s breathing grace?
The painter did not merit death who botched that lovely face.
and by Ou-yang Xiu:
A prince so ill able to control what went on under his nose
Must hope in vain to impose his rule on remote barbarian foes.
Cousin Lin shows the same originality as these two poets, by presenting each of her subjects in a novel and interesting light -’
Before she could continue with her disquisition, a servant came in to announce that Jia Lian was back. His arrival at the Ning mansion had been reported some time ago and he was expected any moment at Rong-guo House. Bao-yu at once got up and, hurrying out to the front part of the mansion, waited inside the main gate for his cousin to arrive. He did not have to wait long. Within moments Jia Lian was dis?mounting from his horse and stepping through the gateway. Bao-yu advanced to meet him, touched hand and knee to the ground in greeting, and wished good health, first, as was good manners, to his grandmother and mother, from whom Jia Lian had come, and then to Jia Lian himself. The cousins then went inside together, hand in hand. Li Wan, Xi-feng, Bao?-chai, Dai-yu, Ying-chun, Tan-chun and Xi-chun were already waiting for Jia Lian in the hall. After each of them had greeted him individually, he gave them his news.
‘Grandmother will be arriving here early tomorrow. She’s been keeping very well on the journey. Today she sent me on ahead to make sure that everything here is all right. I shall be leaving again tomorrow at four o’clock in the morning and going out of the city to meet her.’
They asked him a few questions about the journey, but because they knew how tired he must be after so much travel, soon left him so that he could go back to his own room and get some rest. About the remainder of that day our narrative is silent.
Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang arrived home round about lunchtime the following day. When the initial greetings were over, the old lady sat for a while and sipped a cup of tea before taking Lady Wang and the others with her to Ning-guo House. A great wailing rose up as she arrived. Jia She and Jia Lian had gone there after seeing the old lady home, and as she and her party entered the room in which the coffin stood, the two of them advanced to meet her at the head of a number of weeping clansmen, and supported her one on each side as she ap?proached the coffin. At the foot of it Cousin Zhen and Jia Rong knelt down, pressing their heads against her skirts and weeping piteously. To people of advancing years even simulated grief is distressing, and Grandmother Jia, an arm about each head, wept very bitterly herself, Jia She and Jia Lian did their best to comfort her, and at last, when her grief had some?what abated, she moved on, to the right of the coffin-screens, where You-shi and her daughter-in-law were waiting for her. Here there was more clinging and weeping, after which those present came forward one by one to salute Grandmother Jia and welcome her in a more normal fashion.
Cousin Zhen, fearing that Grandmother Jia, who had still not rested properly after her tiring journey, would become distressed if she were to sit much longer in such melancholy surroundings, strongly urged her not to stay. When at last he had prevailed on her to go and she was back in her own apartment at Rong-guo House, it became evident that the shock of mourning, following so soon upon the discomforts of travel, had indeed had an adverse effect on her ageing con?stitution. By nightfall she was showing all the symptoms of incipient illness: heaviness in the head, a constricted feeling in the chest, a blocked-up nose and hoarseness of the voice. The doctor was summoned immediately and half that night and the whole of the following day taken up with consulta?tions, prescriptions and the preparation and administering of medicine. Fortunately the illness had not yet established itself in her system and responded rapidly to treatment. There was a slight outbreak of perspiration round about midnight of the second night and after that her pulse and temperature both returned to normal. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief; though to be on the safe side they kept up the dosage for another day.
A few days later it was Jia Jing’s ‘funeral’ – in this case no more than the re-depositing of his coffin in the family temple. Grandmother Jia was still not well enough to take part; Bao-yu stayed at home to look after his grandmother; and Xi-?feng was still insufficiently recovered. Apart from them, all the other members of the Rong-guo family, Jia She, Jia Lian, Lady Xing and Lady Wang, together with all the men- and women-servants of their households, accompanied their Ning?-guo cousins to the Temple of the Iron Threshold. They were back again that evening; but Cousin Zhen, You-shi and Jia Rong stayed on at the temple for the Hundred Days, at the end of which Jia Jing was to be taken to his final resting-place in Nanking. Old Mrs You and her two daughters remained all this while at the Ning-guo mansion to keep an eye on things.
Jia Lian had heard a good deal in the past about these two step-sisters of You-shi, though, to his great regret, he had never until very recently had an opportunity of meeting them. The opportunity had presented itself on the occasion of Jia Jing’s removal into the city. Since then they had become fairly well acquainted. Acquaintanceship in his case (Jia Lian being what he was) had been accompanied by the first stirrings of lust. He felt encouraged by an unsavoury rumour he had heard to the effect that his cousins Zhen and Rong, both father and son, had at one time or another enjoyed the sisters’ favours. Whenever he had a chance to, he flirted or made eyes at them – unsuccessfully in San-jie’s case, for she met all his advances with indifference, but with a more promising reaction from her sister. Unfortunately, with so many pairs of eyes watching, he could not follow up his success, apart from which he was a little scared that Cousin Zhen might be jealous. Between him and Er-jie it could be said that there was a silent understanding; but for the time being there could be nothing more.
This all changed after the funeral. Then, at Ning-guo House, apart from Mrs You and the two sisters and a few maids and older women employed to do the rough work, hardly anyone from the master apartment was left behind. All the personal maids, parlour maids and concubines stayed with their master and mistress at the temple. As for the married servants, their activities were confined to keeping watch at night and minding the gates by day; and since they had their own quarters outside, they had no reason to go inside the house except when they were on duty. This seemed to Jia Lian to be an excellent time to act. A pretended wish to keep Cousin Zhen company at the temple gave him an excuse for absenting himself fr6m his own house, whilst the pretext of attending to household matters on Cousin Zhen’s behalf enabled him to make several trips back to Ning-guo House, thus providing him with further opportunities for pursuing his flirtation with Er-jie.
One day Yu Lu, a junior steward from Ning-guo House, came out to see Cousin Zhen about some business.
‘The total cost of the procession, including funeral furnishings and hire of labour, was one thousand one hundred and ten taels. Of that, five hundred taels have already been paid, leaving six hundred and ten taels outstanding. Yesterday I had the managers of both agencies round asking me for the rest of the money. I thought I’d better see you about it and ask you what I’m to do.’
‘Why didn’t you go straight to the counting-house and draw what’s wanted?’ said Cousin Zhen. ‘I don’t see why you should need to come bothering me about it.,
‘I did go to the counting-house, sir,’ said Yu Lu, ‘but since Sir Jing passed away they have already paid out so much that they’ve barely got enough left to pay for the Hundred Days services and the expenses of your stay here in the temple. They couldn’t pay these bills without eating into what has been earmarked for something else. That’s why I’ve come out to see you. I wondered whether you would want me to pay them out of your personal account, or whether there’s some other account you could transfer the money from. If you will let me know what you want me to do, I’ll go ahead and do it.’
Cousin Zhen laughed.
‘The days when we had money lying around unused in private accounts have long since passed. You’ll have to borrow the money where you can.’
It was Yu Lu’s turn to laugh.
‘If it were one hundred or two hundred taels, sir, I might be able to manage something; but five or six hundred? Where would I get a sum like that at short notice?’
After thinking for a bit, Cousin Zhen turned to Jia Rong:
‘Go to your mother, Rong, and ask her for that five hundred taels the Zhens of Nanking sent us after the funeral. It hasn’t been handed in to the counting-house yet. And ask her to have a rake-around and see if she can’t raise the whole sum.’
Jia Rong hurried off. In a very short time he was back again with his mother’s answer.
‘Mother says two hundred of the five hundred has already been spent. She sent the remaining three hundred back home for Grandmother You to take care of.’
‘In that case,’ said Cousin Zhen, ‘you’d better go back with Yu Lu to ask her for it and let him have it. While you’re about it, you’ll be able to see if everything at home is all right. And of course give my regards to your aunts. Yu Lu, you’ll have to raise the rest of the money as best you can by borrowing.’
Jia Rong and Yu Lu promised to do his bidding, but just as they were about to withdraw Jia Lian walked into the room. Yu Lu stepped up to him smartly and dropped him a salute.
‘What’s happened?’ said Jia Lian.
Cousin Zhen proceeded to explain to him why Yu Lu was there. As he did so, it occurred to Jia Lian that this would be a good opportunity of going to the Ning-guo mansion and looking up Er-jie again.
‘It seems a pity to go straining one’s credit for so trifling a sum,’ he said. ‘I had a little windfall the other day that I haven’t made use of yet. Why don’t I let him have that to add to your three hundred and save him the trouble of borrow?ing?’
‘That will be splendid,’ said Cousin Zhen. ‘Perhaps you will authorize Rong to pick it up then, when he goes to collect the three hundred?’
‘I think it will be necessary to go for it myself,’ said Jia Lian hurriedly. ‘In any case I haven’t been home for some days. I really ought to drop in and pay my respects to Grandmother and Lady Wang and my parents. I shall be able to look in at your place too, Zhen, and make sure that your servants are behaving themselves. And pay my respects to your mother?-in-law, of course.’
‘It means imposing on you once again,’ said Cousin Then, smiling. ‘I don’t know whether I should let you.’
‘For goodness’ sake!’ said Jia Lian. ‘One’s own cousin!’
‘Go with your uncle, then,’ Cousin Zhen instructed Jia Rong, ‘and when you see Lady Jia and the other ladies and Sir She to make your bow to them, remember to say that your mother and I send them our regards. And don’t forget to ask whether Lady Jia is quite better yet and whether or not she is still taking medicine.’
Having ‘yessir’-ed each one of these commands, Jia Rong followed his Uncle Lian outside. The two of them then took horse and, accompanied by Yu Lu and several pages, all on horseback, rode out towards the city. As Er-lie was very much on his mind, Jia Lian beguiled the journey by talking to his nephew about her as they rode along. He spoke approvingly of her good looks and gentle character. He remarked what perfect poise she had and what a soft and pleasing way of speaking. In fact, he concluded, everything about her excited one’s admiration and respect.
‘Everyone speaks so highly of your Aunt Feng, but to my mind she isn’t a patch on her.’
Jia Rong understood very well where this conversation was leading them.
‘If you love her so much, Uncle,’ he said, ‘why not let me he your matchmaker and arrange for you to have her as your Number Two?’
‘Is that a joke,’ said Jia Lian, ‘or are you in earnest?’
‘I’m being perfectly serious.’
Jia Lian laughed:
‘It’s certainly an attractive proposal. The only trouble is, I don’t think your Aunt Feng would ever stand for it. And besides, your Grandmother You might not be willing. And haven’t I heard somewhere that your Aunt Er is already engaged to someone?’
‘None of these is really a problem,’ said Jia Rong. ‘Aunt Er and Aunt San, although they took his surname, were not really my Grandpa You’s daughters. When Gran married my Grandpa You as his second wife, she brought them with her from a previous marriage. I’ve heard Gran say that when she was carrying Aunt Er, her first husband had an agreement with a friend of his called Zhang, who was a manager on one of the Imperial Farms and whose own wife was also pregnant at the time. They agreed that if the children their wives were carrying turned out to be a boy and a girl, they should be betrothed to each other. In that way Aunt Er was engaged to the Zhangs’ boy from the moment she was born. Later on the Zhangs lost all their money in a lawsuit, and Gran lost her first husband and married my Grandpa You, and for ten or fifteen years now she hasn’t heard a word from them. She often com?plains about the betrothal and says she wishes she could get it revoked; and Father is anxious to betroth Aunt Er to some?one else. He’s only waiting until he has found the right person, and then he means to find out where the Zhangs are, hand them a small sum of money, and persuade them to sign a deed of revocation. The Zhangs are so poor, they are hardly likely to refuse. In fact, when they’ve seen the kind of people we are, they probably won’t dare. And whatever Father and Gran might have thought about Aunt Er becoming a Number Two in other circumstances, I’m sure they would have no objection in your case. The only difficulty as I see it is Aunt Feng.’
Jia Lian was so enraptured by the main part of what Jia Rong had been saying, that it is doubtful whether he heard those last words at all. For some moments he rode on in silence, a fatuous grin on his face. Meanwhile Jia Rong was thinking.
‘I’ll tell you what, Uncle,’ he said presently: ‘if you’ve got the nerve, there’s one way of doing this that would be absolutely fool-proof. It would involve you in spending a bit of money though.’
‘Never mind that, dear boy!’ said Jia Lian eagerly. ‘If you have a plan, just tell me what it is.’
‘Don’t say anything about this when we arrive,’ said Jia Rong, ‘but wait until I have had a chance to explain it all to Father and he can arrange it with my Gran. When it’s all settled, buy a little house somewhere in the streets at the back of our mansion, furnish it, install one or two married couples to look after it, and then all you have to do is choose the day: you can marry Aunt Er then and nobody be any the wiser. Of course, you’d have to impress on the servants that they are not to let on about it; but provided they don’t talk, there’s no reason why Aunt Feng tucked away in the inner courtyards should ever hear about it. And by the time you’ve been living together for a year or two, you ought to be able to ride the storm out even if your secret is blown. You’d have to face an explosion from Sir She, of course; but you can tell him that you did it for the family, because Aunt Feng is unable to have a son. And as for Aunt Feng herself, when she sees that the rice is cooked and knows that it can’t be uncooked, she’ll have to put up with it. That only leaves the old lady to square, and you should be able to do that easily enough with a bit of coaxing.’
There is an old saying, ‘Desire maketh the wise man a fool’. Jia Lian was so intoxicated by his desire for Er-jie that Jia Rong’s idiotic plan struck him as unassailable. The fact that he was in mourning, the fact that a secret marriage of the kind he was contemplating was bigamous and illegal, the fact that he had an extremely strict father and an exceptionally jealous wife – all those things which ought to have given him pause were lightly brushed aside. Nor did it occur to him that Jia Rong’s counsel was by no means disinterested. Jia Rong had designs upon Er-jie himself, to which the presence of his father, when they were all together in the same house; was an impediment. If Jia Lian married Er-jie, she would have to live outside, and there would be unlimited opportunities for larks with her whenever Jia Lian was away. Blind to all this, Jia Lian thanked Jia Rong profusely and promised him a suitable reward.
‘If you can really arrange this for me, dear boy, I’ll buy you a pair of the prettiest little girls who are to be had and make you a present of them!’
They were by now approaching the gates of Ning-guo House.
‘You go in here and ask my Gran for the money to give to Yu Lu, Uncle. I’m going on to the other House to pay my respects to the old lady.’
Jia Lian smiled and nodded.
‘When you see her, don’t let on that I came here with you, will you?’
‘All right,’ said Jia Rong; then, leaning over, he added in a low voice in his uncle’s ear: ‘If you should happen to see Aunt Er today, don’t let impatience get the better of you! A scandal now will make it harder to arrange things later.’
‘Cheeky devil!’ said Jia Lian laughing. ‘Go on, be on your way now! I’ll be waiting for you here.
While Jia Rong went on to the Rong mansion alone, Jia Lian turned into the gateway of Ning-guo House. The men-servants temporarily in charge there were waiting inside the gate to welcome him, with the other servants all lined up behind them. They clustered round him as he made his way up to the hall. There, for form’s sake, he asked them a few per?functory questions before dismissing them and continuing on his way to the inner apartments.
As cousins and intimates having no secrets from one another, Cousin Zhen and Jia Lian had always felt free to come and go in each other’s apartments without formality, and so, when Jia Lian approached the main sitting-room of Cousin Zhen’s apartment, the old women at the door simply raised the portiere for him and let him go in unannounced.
Looking round him as he entered, Jia Lian saw only Er-?jie and a couple of maids sewing together on the kang at the southern end of the room. The mother and the other sister were not in evidence. He went up and greeted her. In response to her smiling invitation to join her, he climbed up and sat with his back resting against the openwork partition along the eastern side of the kang, insisting that Er-jie should take the place of honour. After a few generalities, he asked her where Mrs You and San-jie were.
‘Just gone out the back to see about something,’ said Er-jie. ‘They’ll be here again in a moment.’
The maids now went outside to fetch tea, leaving the two of them alone together. Jia Lian ogled Er-jie meaningfully, but she merely smiled, keeping her eyes demurely downwards, and pretended not to notice. At this stage, he judged; a physical advance would be premature. He noticed that as she sat there her hands were continuously playing with a length of silk handkerchief to which a tiny embroidered bag was attached. To fill in the embarrassed silence that was developing, he pretended to be feeling for something at his waist.
‘Oh, I’ve come out without my betel! Give me some betel, my dear, if you’ve got any.’
‘I have got some,’ said Er-jie, ‘but it’s not for other people.’
Jia Lian laughed and made a movement towards her, as if he intended to snatch the handkerchief and its little pouch from her by force, whereupon Er-jie, rather than risk someone coming in and finding them in the midst of an unseemly tussle, threw it across to him with a little laugh. Jia Lian caught it in mid-air, emptied the contents into the palm of his hand, selected one single half-eaten nut which he popped into his mouth and began chewing, and stuffed all the rest back into the bag. He was just going to hand it back to her when the two maids came in again with the tea. Jia Lian took a cup from one of them and began sipping it. While the maids were not looking, he contrived to unfasten a Han jade girdle pend?ant in the form of nine tiny interlocking dragons that he wore attached to his belt, tie it onto the handkerchief and toss it back for Er-jie to catch. But Er-jie pretended not to have noticed. She allowed the handkerchief with the two small objects attached to it to fall beside her on the kang and went on calmly sipping her tea.
Just then there was a rattle of the portiere and old Mrs You and San-jie came into the room from the back, attended by two little maids. Jia Lian signalled with his eyes to Er-jie that she should pick the handkerchief up, but Er-jie continued to ignore him. In somewhat of a panic by now and wondering what Er-jie could be at, he rose to his feet arid advanced to meet San-jie and the old lady. When, after exchanging courtesies with them, he glanced back behind him, Er-jie was stand?ing unconcernedly in the same place, with the same inscrut?able smile on her face; but the handkerchief had vanished. He breathed a sigh of relief.
When they were all seated and a few pleasantries had been exchanged between them, Jia Lian remembered the business on which he was supposed to have come.
‘Zhen’s wife says that she sent a packet of silver to you the other day to look after for her. It’s wanted now to pay some bills with, so Zhen has sent me to ask you for it and also to find out if everything at home is all right.’
Mrs You at once told Er-jie to take the key of the chest and fetch the money for her.
‘I’m also glad of the opportunity my errand gives me of offering you my respects, ma’am, and of seeing the young ladies again,’ Jia Lian continued after Er-jie had gone. ‘I must say, you are looking extremely well. But I am sorry the young ladies should have to put up with the inconvenience of moving into a strange house.’
‘Tut, for one’s own kin!’ said Mrs You, smiling. ‘You are too polite, Mr Lian! It’s of no consequence where we stay: one bed is as good as another. To tell you the truth, things have been very difficult for us since Mr You passed away. If it hadn’t been for the help given us by my daughter’s husband, I really don’t know how we should have managed. To look after the house for him in his time of trouble is the very least we can do in return. It can certainly not be spoken of as an incon?venience.’
Er-jie had now returned with the silver and handed it to her mother; her mother handed it to Jia Lian; and Jia Lian ordered one of the maids to call in one of the old women from outside, whom he then instructed to take it to Yu Lu and tell him to wait for him in the front.
While the old woman was going off with the money, Jia Rong’s voice could be heard outside in the courtyard and a few moments later he appeared. He greeted his grandmother and two aunts before turning with a smile to Jia Lian:
‘Sir She has been asking about you, Uncle. He says there’s something he wants you to do for him. He was going to send someone to fetch you from the temple, but I told him you were already on your way into the city. He told me that if I ran into you on my way back, I was to tell you to hurry.’
Jia Lian hastily rose to go, but delayed to hear something that Jia Rong was saying to Mrs You.
‘You know the other day I was telling you that Father has found a husband for Aunt Er, Gran. In looks and build he has quite a strong resemblance to Uncle Lian. Does that please you?’
Since he was pointing a finger at Jia Lian and simultaneously making a face at Er-jie while he said this, the question appeared to be meant as much for Er-jie as for her mother. If so, Er?-jie was too embarrassed to answer. Not so her sister, however.
‘Little monster!’ San-jie shouted, half angrily and half in jest. ‘Keep your dirty little mouth shut – unless you want me to come over and shut it for you!’
Jia Rong retreated, laughing, from the room; and Jia Lian, taking a laughing farewell of the old lady and her daughters, went out after him. He stopped in the hall again on his way out to admonish the servants: not to gamble, not to drink, and so forth. Then, after a private aside with Jia Rong in which he urged him to return with all speed to the temple and speak about a certain matter to his father, he went with Yu Lu to the other mansion and gave him the balance of the amount owing. Having dispatched Yu Lu, he went in to see what his father wanted, and after that to Grandmother Jia’s apartment to pay his respects. But these are formalities with which we need not concern ourselves.
We return, then, to the Ning-guo mansion, where Jia Rong, concluding, when he saw Yu Lu go off with Jia Lian, that there was nothing more for him to do, went back to the inner apartments for further badinage with his young aunts before setting off once more for the temple. It was evening when he arrived there and reported back to his father.
‘Yu Lu got the money all right. And Lady Jia is now completely recovered. She is no longer taking medicine.’
He availed himself of the opportunity to tell his father about Jia Lian: how, on the journey into town, he had expressed a desire to take Er-jie as his Number Two and how he proposed to set her up in a separate establishment, keeping Xi-feng in ignorance of the marriage.
‘His sole reason for taking a Number Two,’ Jia Rong explained, ‘is that he wants a son. And the reason he particularly wants Aunt Er is because he feels it would be better to keep things in the family and have someone he knows, than risk taking some unknown person from outside. He was very insistent that I should speak to you about this.’
He omitted to mention that he was the author of this plan.
Cousin Zhen, after reflecting on it, seemed well disposed.
‘Actually, it’s not a bad idea. I wonder whether your Aunt Er would be willing, though. You’d better go in again tomorrow and have a word with your Grandmother You. Tell her to talk to your Aunt Er about it and see if she accepts. If she does, we can go ahead and fix it up properly.’
After a good deal more advice to Jia Rong on how he was to conduct himself, Cousin Zhen went inside to see You-shi and told her about the plan. You-shi could see at once that it would not work and did her best to dissuade him; but Cousin Zben’s mind was made up; and in the end, since she was accustomed to giving in to him, and since Er-jie was in any case only a step-sister, for whom therefore she felt only limited responsi?bility, she allowed the menfolk to go ahead and washed her hands of the whole affair.
Jia Rong went into town next morning and told his grandmother what his father had told him to say. He also added a good deal of his own. He told her what a capital person Jia Lian was; how Xi-feng was ill and not expected to get better; how Jia Lian was planning to buy a house outside and install Er-jie in it temporarily, but how in a year or two, as soon as Xi-feng was dead, he would move her inside and make her his Number One. He went on to tell her about the gifts Cousin Zhen would give for the betrothal and of the wedding presents that Jia Lian was planning for his bride; how Jia Lian was prepared to look after Mrs You in her old age; and how in due course he would see San-jie provided with a husband. The Liang dynasty preacher on whom the heavens rained down flowers could not have spoken with greater eloquence. Mrs You could hardly fail to agree, particularly in view of the fact that she depended on Cousin Zhen for her livelihood and that it was he who was sponsoring the marriage. And Jia Lian was such a fine young gentleman – infinitely superior to that Zhang boy. She would go to Er-jie at once and talk it over with her.
You Er-jie was a highly impressionable young woman. Already, in the past, she had compromised herself with her sister’s husband. And she had always resented the arbitrary betrothal to Zhang Hua (as the Zhangs’ boy was called) which seemed to condemn her to a lifetime of poverty. If Jia Lian loved her and her brother-in-law was prepared to give her away, what possible objection could she have to the marriage? Her consent was given with a nod, conveyed at once to Jia Rong by her mother, and in due course reported to Cousin Zhen.
Next day Cousin Zhen invited Jia Lian to the temple to hear from his own lips that Mrs You had consented. Jia Lian, delighted that the matter had been settled with so little trouble, at once began discussing what to do. Agents had to be engaged to look round for a suitable house, jewellery for Er-jie’s trousseau had to be ordered, and furnishings had to be pur?chased for the house. Within a few days all this had been done. A twenty-frame house in Little Flower Lane about two thirds of a mile north of Two Dukes Street had been bought, fur?nished throughout, and two little maids purchased to go with it.
Jia Lian was at first uncertain what to do about older servants. If he used servants from his own household, their transfer was sure to be detected; on the other hand a married couple purchased from outside would be strangers, and therefore of uncertain loyalty and impossible to trust. Suddenly he remembered Bao Er, whose unfortunate wife had hanged herself after being attacked by Xi-feng in a fit of jealous rage. At the time Jia Lian had given him some money and promised him a new wife. The wife he had eventually chosen for him was none other than the Mattress, widowed since the drunken cook ‘Droopy’ Duo had finally drunk himself to death. Bao Er had had prior experience of her charms and knew that he was getting a good bargain; and the Mattress for her part was glad to be married to someone who (thanks to Jia Lian’s subvention) could afford to be free with his money. This couple, united in their loyalty to Jia Lian and dislike of Xi-feng, seemed an ideal choice for the new establishment and were to their immense satisfaction installed in it, along with the newly-?purchased maids, to be at Er-jie’s disposal when she arrived.
There remained only the matter of Zhang Hua to be dealt with. It was Zhang Hua’s grandfather who had originally held the managerial post on one of the Imperial Farms. His father simply inherited the post when the old man died. While holding it, he had made the arrangement with Mrs You’s first husband, who was his good friend, as a result of which Zhang Hua and Er-jie were engaged to each other from their earliest infancy. Some time after that he lost all his possessions in a lawsuit and the family were reduced to penury so dire that even food and clothing were a problem, and taking on a new daughter-in-law was, for the time being, wholly out of the question. Then Er-jie’s mother had remarried, and for fourteen years or more they had been completely out of touch. Their whereabouts were eventually traced, however, and Zhang Hua’s father summoned to Ning-guo House and induced to sign a deed of revocation releasing Er-jie from her betrothal. He did not want to sign it, but was too intimidated by Cousin Zhen’s air of affluence and authority to object. After he had signed, Mrs You handed him twenty taels, and that was that.
Everything had now been taken care of. All that remained was for Jia Lian to name the day. The calendar was consulted and the third of the sixth month, which was just beginning, was found to be the earliest auspicious day. On that day, it was decided, Er-jie should be received as a bride in her new home.
But for that event you must await the following chapter.

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