The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 65

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CHAPTER 65

Jia Lian’s second marriage is
celebrated in secret
And the future marriage of San-jie
becomes a matter of speculation

By the second day of the month, the arrangements jointly agreed on by Jia Lian, Cousin Zhen and Jia Rong had been completed and Mrs You and San-jie moved into the new house. A brief inspection of it satisfied Mrs You that, if not quite what Jia Rong had led her to expect, it was at least excellently furnished, and it could be said that both she and San-jie were reasonably happy about the move. Bao Er and his wife could not do enough for them. It was ‘yes, milady’, ‘no, milady’ whenever they were talking to Mrs You; and San-jie, for the first time in her life, found herself being addressed as ‘Miss You’, or sometimes even as ‘madam’.
In the last watch of that same night, only an hour or two before the dawning of the third, Er-jie, seated in a plain chair without bridal trimmings, was carried to her new home. The incense and paper-offerings for the ceremony, the wedding-feast and marriage-bed had all been made ready long before she arrived. Jia Lian, also in a small, plain carrying-chair, arrived shortly afterwards. The bride and groom made their prostrations to Heaven and Earth, the paper offerings were set fire to, and Mrs You conducted her heavily-veiled daughter into the marriage-chamber, gratified to observe the transformation wrought by a completely new and expensive-looking outfit of clothes and jewellery.
The phoenix-gambollings of the nuptial couch and the mutual delight and cherishing which they engendered are here passed over. Suffice it to say that the more Jia Lian saw of Er-jie, the more he loved her, until the desire to make some gesture expressive of his feelings became overwhelming. All he could think of was to behave in every way as if Er-jie was his only wife and Xi-feng did not exist. He ordered Bao Er and his wife to call her ‘Mrs Lian’ and always referred to her himself in that way when he was speaking to them. When he went back to Xi-feng, as from time to time he was obliged to, he would tell her that he had been doing something at the Ning-guo mansion; and Xi-feng, knowing how well her husband got on with Cousin Zhen and how frequently he was consulted by him, suspected nothing. In spite of their num?bers, few of the Rong-guo domestics concerned themselves much with Jia Lian’s activities, and even the few who had the time and curiosity to nose out what he had been up to were more anxious to win favours by playing up to him than to gamble on the uncertain advantages of giving away his secret. Everything seemed to be working out very smoothly and Jia Lian felt immensely grateful to Cousin Zhen for having made it all possible.
The allowance Jia Lian made to cover the day-to-day expenses of his little household was fifteen taels a month. On days when he was unable to come, Mrs You and her two daughters dined together. On days when he was there, he and Er-jie would dine together and Mrs You and San-jie would eat separately in their own room. Besides paying Er-jie the allowance, Jia Lian handed over all his private savings to her to look after for him. He told her everything about Xi-?feng, down to the most intimate bedroom particulars, and promised her that as soon as Xi-feng died, she should move into the mansion and live there openly as his wife. It cannot be said that Er-jie found any of this displeasing. In the meantime the little household was managing very comfortably.
*
Two months passed quickly by. One evening, as Cousin Zhen was returning from a day of Buddhist ceremonies at the Temple of the Iron Threshold, he bethought him that it was some considerable time since he had enjoyed the company of the two You sisters and decided to pay them a visit. First, though, he sent a boy to the new house to find out if Jia Lian was there. Delighted when the boy brought back word that he was not, he ordered most of the servants to return to Ning-guo House without him, keeping only his two most trusted pages to accompany him on foot to the Yous’ house. They did this walking one on either side of his horse’s head and holding on to his bridle.
It was already lighting-up time when they got there, but the courtyard gate was still open. Their arrival was so quiet and discreet that they managed to get inside it unobserved. The pages tied the horse up in the stable and took themselves off to the servants’ quarters to await further orders, while Cousin Zhen entered the living-room alone. He found San-jie and her mother sitting there. The lamp had just been lit. Shortly after he had finished exchanging greetings with them, Er-jie herself appeared and made him welcome. Tea was served. Cousin Zhen smiled over his cup at her as he sipped his tea.
‘Well, do you think I’d make a good marriage-broker? If the husband I picked for you is no good, I doubt I could find you a better! Your sister will be coming to see you shortly, by the bye, and bringing you a present.’
Er-jie had already given orders for food and wine to be brought and for the courtyard gate to be barred. Since their visitor was a member of the family, it seemed reasonable, that the usual restraints should be relaxed. Presently Bao Er came in with some things and took the opportunity of offering his respects to Cousin Zhen.
‘You’re a good fellow, Bao,’ said Cousin Zhen affably. ‘I’m sure that’s why Mr Lian chose you for this job. No doubt there will be even more important work for you in the future. So don’t go drinking outside and getting yourself into trouble, will you? If you do as I tell you, I promise to make it worth your while. And let me know if there’s any?thing you want here. Mr Lian is a busy man, and not all the people in his household are to be trusted. It’s better to ask me. He and I are not only cousins, you know; we are also very good friends.’
‘Yes, sir. I shall do my best to give satisfaction, sir,’ said Bao Er. ‘I realize it would be more than my life is worth to get into any trouble.’
Cousin Zhen smiled and nodded.
‘Good. As long as you know.’
For some minutes the four of them sat drinking together; but Er-jie knew that it was not for a family evening that Cousin Zhen had come and soon found an excuse for getting herself and her mother out of the way. She told him that she had to go to the other side of the house for something and was afraid to do so on her own. As soon as she and Mrs You were out of the room, Cousin Zhen drew up closer to San-jie. His behaviour became so familiar that the two maids in attendance grew embarrassed and slipped off to the kitchen. They were content that Cousin Zhen and San-jie should enjoy themselves in any way they chose, provided that they did not have to stay and watch.
Cousin Zhen’s two pages were all this time drinking with Bao Er in the kitchen, while the Mattress stood at the stove with her back to them. When the two maids burst in and began laughing and joking with the boys and asking to be given some wine, Bao Er was far from pleased.
‘What are you girls doing here? You ought to be in the sitting-room. Suppose they want service in there? There’ll be trouble.’
His wife turned round wrathfully from the stove.
‘Silly old fool! Why don’t you get your nose back into your winecup? The sooner you’re flat on your back snoring and your little winkle tucked up out of harm’s way, the better it’ll be for all of us! What’s it to do with you whether they want service in there or not? I’m here to see to all that. If there’s any rain falling it won’t fall on your head. So what are you worrying about?’
Bao Er was well aware that it was largely to his wife that he owed his favourable position with Jia Lian. He did little himself these days but draw his pay and drink his wine; but so exemplary was the Mattress’s service of Er-jie, that al?though Jia Lian knew of Bao Er’s failings, he had so far refrained from taking him to task about them out of con?sideration for her. Bao Er’s awareness of this kept him in obedient subjection to her. And so, when he heard himself addressed by her in this way, he merely drank a few more cups in silence and then took himself quietly off to bed.
The Mattress had a few drinks herself now with the pages and the two girls, anxious to make herself as agreeable as possible so that the pages would give a good report of her to Cousin Zhen. But just as this little party in the kitchen was beginning to warm up, it was interrupted by a sudden knocking at the gate. The Mattress hurried out and opened it as Jia Lian was dismounting from his horse. In answer to his question whether there was anything to report, she whispered into his ear that Mr Zhen had come and was at this very moment in the guest-room in the west courtyard. Jia Lian went straight to his own room, where he found Er-jie sitting with her mother. The two women seemed somewhat flustered by his arrival, but he pretended not to notice.
‘Bring us some wine,’ he told the Mattress. ‘I think I shall have a cup or two and then go to bed. I feel rather tired tonight.’
At once Er-jie was all over him, taking his coat, fetching him tea, asking him about his day – in short, showering on him all those little wifely attentions which so enchanted him. Presently the Mattress reappeared with their wine. Old Mrs You said that she did not want any and went off to bed. The two of them sat down together to drink it. One of the two maids, who had now been persuaded to resume their duties, came over from the kitchen to wait on them.
Meanwhile Jia Lian’s trusty servant Rich – the only attendant he had brought with him on this visit – had been tying his master’s horse up in the stable. Finding another horse there already, he was able on closer inspection to identify it and to deduce what the Mattress by her whispering had attempted to conceal from him: viz., that Cousin Zhen was somewhere on the premises. Sure enough, on going to the kitchen when he had finished tying up the horse, he found two of Cousin Zhen’s pages, Happy and Lively, sitting there drinking. They, too, when they saw him enter, realized that both their masters must be present; but neither party was going to admit what each knew the other one must know.
‘We couldn’t keep up with the master,’ said Happy and Lively, ‘and it was getting too dark to go home, so we came here to beg a night’s shelter.’
‘There’s plenty of room here for you to sleep,’ said Rich expansively. ‘Make yourselves at home. Actually I came here to bring the mistress her monthly allowance. Now that I’ve given it to her, I think I shall spend the night here as well.’
‘Come and have a drink then,’ said Happy. ‘We’ve had a lot to drink already.’
Rich sat down and poured himself some wine; but before he could drink any, there was a sound of neighing and trampling from the stable and he and Lively had to run out and shout at the horses. The two animals sharing the same manger had taken a dislike to each other and started kicking. It was only after a great deal of shouting and whoaing that the pages succeeded in quieting them and tying them up on separate sides of the stable.
While they were doing this, Happy was able to drink several more cups of wine, and by the time they got back into the kitchen, he was already glassy-eyed. The Mattress was evidently waiting for an opportunity to retire.
‘Well, boys,’ she said to them as they entered, ‘I’ll leave you to it then. I’ve made you a pot of tea, so you can help yourselves. I’m going off to bed.’
The boys were reluctant to let her go, and there was a good deal of kissing and fondling and noisy ribaldry before she finally succeeded in extricating herself. She closed the door behind her as she went, and Rich and Lively proceeded to bar it on the inside, preparatory to going to bed. When they went back to look at the kang, however, they found Happy sprawled out in the middle of it, already fast asleep.
‘Come on, there’s a good chap, get up and lie down again properly!’ they said, shaking him. ‘Don’t be so selfish! Where are we supposed to go?’
‘What about a bit of bum-cake?’ mumbled Happy, momen?tarily returning to consciousness. ‘Turn and turn about. Fair shares for all.’
The others, seeing that he was too drunk to reason with, blew the lamp out and settled themselves on either side of him as best they could.
The commotion in the stable had caused Er-jie’s apprehensiveness to return, but by forcing herself to keep up a flow of chatter, she succeeded in distracting Jia Lian’s attention away from it. So successful was she that, after a few more drinks, he began to grow amorous and, having first sent the girl off with the dirty things, proposed that they should bar the door for the night and begin undressing. Er-jie was beautiful at any time, but in only a crimson shift, with her fashionable coiffure shaken out into billowing black clouds and her face all soft and glowing with desire, she possessed an extra dimension of beauty that was not revealed in the day?time. He hugged her to him with a delighted laugh.
‘They’re always telling me how perfect that termagant wife of mine is,’ he said, ‘but the way you look tonight, she’s not fit to carry your shoes!’
‘I may have looks, but I’ve got no class,’ said Et-jie. ‘Without class, one might just as well not be good-looking.’
‘Why do you say that?’ said Jia Lian. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘You all treat me as if I were a fool,’ said Er-jie tearfully. ‘You think that I know nothing-’
‘No!’
‘- but though we’ve only been married two months – ’
‘I know you’re not a fool!’ he insisted.
‘- though we’ve only been together for so short a time,’ she continued, ‘I already feel that I’m yours completely and for ever, in this life or any life to come. Because you are my husband, I shall always look up to you and never, never deceive you. My future is assured. But what is to become of my sister? We can’t let things go on the way they are at present. We must think of some permanent solution for her.’
Jia Lian laughed reassuringly.
‘Look, I’m not a jealous man. I know about your past and it doesn’t bother me. You really mustn’t worry. I realize that now we are married you must feel awkward about Cousin Zhen being here, but surely the solution would be for Cousin Zhen and your sister to have a formal union and after that we can forget our inhibitions and make it a foursome. What do you say to that?’
Er-jie wiped her eyes.
‘It’s very nice of you to suggest it, but I don’t know what the other two would think of your idea. For one thing, my sister is such a funny girl. And for another, I don’t know whether your cousin would like having everything dragged out into the open.’
‘It’ll be all right,’ said Jia Lian, ‘you see! I’ll go over and have it out with him now. There’s no time like the present. It’s only a question of breaking the ice.’
He strode off, the bolder for being a little drunk, to the courtyard on the western side of the compound. Light was streaming through the sitting-room window. He pushed the door open and walked in.
‘Where’s the big chief, then?’ he cried. ‘Cousin, I’ve come to pay you my respects!’
Speechless with embarrassment, Cousin Zhen rose to his feet and motioned him dumbly to a seat.
‘What’s this?’ said Jia Lian, noting his embarrassment. ‘After we’ve always been such good friends, and after all you’ve done for me – because if I cut myself into a million pieces, I still couldn’t begin to show you how grateful I am – you’re not, surely, going to start feeling uneasy on my account? My dear coz, from this day on I want you to carry on exactly as you used to in the past. Otherwise I shall give up any idea of getting myself an heir and stop coming here altogether!’
He tried to kneel down at this point, but Cousin Zhen, who was becoming quite frantic with embarrassment, quickly reached out to stop him.
‘All right, Lian,’ he said, ‘all right. Whatever you say, coz. I’ll be guided by you.’
‘Come on, let’s have some more wine!’ Jia Lian said to the servant-girl. ‘I’m going to drink with my dear cousin.’ He turned to San-jie with a leer. ‘Why don’t you and my dear cousin share a cup? You and Zhen drink a cup together and I’ll drink a cup to your future happiness. To Zhen and San-jie!’
San-jie leaped to her feet and, pointing her finger at Jia Lian from where she stood on the kang, fixed him with a withering look of contempt.
‘Don’t try the talking horse on me, my friend! If you two want to drink, I’ll watch you drink. But count me out of it. People who work shadow-puppets should be careful not to break the screen. You surely can’t be so stupid as to imagine that we haven’t seen by now how things really stand in your household? If you and your cousin thought that by spending a few taels of your stinking money you could buy my sister and me for your whores, you were very much mistaken. You see, I know all about your old woman and how scared you are of her. I know that it’s because of her that when you married my sister you had to smuggle her out here like a man who’s stolen a gong and doesn’t dare to play on it. Well, I should like to meet this Feng lady and find out just how many heads and arms she’s got. If we can reach a satisfactory agreement, well and good; but if there’s the slightest difficulty, I’m perfectly prepared to take her on and fight it out with her single-handed. But before I do that, I promise to have the liver and lights out of you two, or my name’s not “San-jie”! – You said you wanted a drink, didn’t you? All right, I’ll drink with you.’
She picked up the wine-kettle and poured out a cupful of wine; then, having drunk half of it herself, she threw an arm round Jia Lian’s neck and pressed the winecup to his lips.
Jia Lian was shocked by this onslaught into instant soberness; and Cousin Zhen, ill-prepared for such strident shrew?ishness by what had passed earlier in the evening, was almost equally taken aback. The two of them, for all their boasted experience, found themselves reduced to a condition of tongue-tied helplessness by this single unmarried girl.
But San-jie had not finished with them yet.
‘Why don’t you ask my sister to join us?’ she asked. ‘If we’re going to have fun, let’s all have fun together. “Home is handiest” as the proverb says. There are no outsiders here. We’re all in the family. Come one, come all!’
Cousin Zhen was by now looking for an opportunity to leave, but San-jie was careful to give him none. He had not suspected that she could be like this and deeply regretted having come; but he could not simply walk out without giving offence to Jia Lian.
Out of deliberate disregard for appearances she had taken off her hair-ornaments and outer clothes, and from time to time as she spoke, the animated gestures with which her words were accompanied caused the imperfectly-fastened crimson shift she was wearing to gape open, revealing glimpses of leek-?green breast-binder and snow-white flesh beneath; the red shoes that peeped out below her green drawers were all the time tap-tapping or coming together in a manner that was anything but ladylike, and her earrings bobbed to and fro like little swings. To her
brow’s dusky crown and lips incarnadine
the lamplight lent an added softness and brightness; and the wine she had drunk gave her eyes, which were at all times sparkling and vivacious, an even more irresistible allure. The two men were spellbound, and yet at the same time repelled. Her looks and gestures were all that inflamed concupiscence could desire; but her words and the very frankness of a provocation too brazen to be seductive kept them at bay.
And a poor pair they made of it in a situation where something other than carnal satisfaction was required of them. Not only was there none of that lively repartee that might have been expected of men who prided themselves on their gallantry; they could not produce so much as a single amusing remark between them and sat there, as the effortless flow of talk continued to pour out of her, fascinated but unresponding. Sometimes she abused them, called them names, said the most outrageous things to them. It was as though the roles had been reversed – as though she was the man and they were a pair of poor, simpering playthings whose services she had paid for. And when she had had enough of playing with them, she dismissed them ignominiously, bolted the door alter them, and went to bed.
From that time onwards, whenever one of the servants did some small thing to displease her, she would launch into loud abuse of Cousin Zhen, Jia Lian and Jia Rong, denouncing all three of them as swindlers, deceivers and oppressors of the widow and the orphan.
Cousin Zhen, when he finally got back after that visit, was chary of exposing himself again. Sometimes when San-jie felt in the mood, she would send one of the boys round to summon him and he would visit her then gladly enough, for he still had some small hope of winning her; but he was careful to behave himself when he did, and to defer in everything to her wishes.
San-jie was a very peculiar young woman. She took a perverse pleasure in enhancing her natural beauty by affecting a striking style of dress and by adopting every conceivable kind of outrageously seductive attitude. The effect was that every male who encountered her was smitten – not only the suscep?tible ones like Jia Lian and Cousin Zhen, but those made of sterner stuff as well; yet all of them, after only a few minutes in her company, felt their ardour extinguished and their advances repelled by the reckless, forthright, almost insolent way in which she received them.
When her mother and sister took her to task for her cavalier treatment of the two cousins, she told Er-jie she was ‘stupid’.
‘Why should that pair of precious rascals be allowed to ruin girls like us that are worth a million of them and get away with it?’ she said. ‘They shan’t do so if I can help it. Besides, that wife of Lian’s is a very dangerous woman. We’re all right for the time being because she hasn’t found out yet about your marriage; but she will do one of these days, and when that time comes she’s not going to sit still and do nothing. There’s sure to be a most terrible row, and who knows which of us will come out of it alive? It’s only fair that they should be made to jump a bit now. If we’re going to end up with a bad name anyway, let’s at least get what we can out of them while we’ve got the chance!’
Her mother and sister, seeing that it was useless to argue with her, left her alone.
San-jie certainly put her precept into practice. Her demands for special kinds of food, for clothing, for jewellery became daily more extravagant and capricious. Given a silver orna?ment she would express a desire for a gold one. If she had something with pearls in it, she would like something with gems in it as well. While she was eating the fatted goose, her mind was already contemplating the slaughter of the duck. And woe betide the cook if anything was not quite to her taste! Over would go dishes, table and all! Or, if a newly-made garment displeased her, no matter how expensive the material, she would quickly reduce it to ribbons, using a pair of scissors to aid the process and uttering a fresh malediction at every tear. Cousin Zhen, who, having some time previ?ously exhausted the possibilities with Er-jie and grown somewhat tired of her, had willingly yielded her up to Jia Lian and transferred his attentions to her sister, now found that San-jie, far from proving the complaisant mistress he had hoped for, was actually costing him a great deal of money – money, moreover, on which there seemed little prospect of a return.
Nowadays when Jia Lian came he spent the whole of his time there with Er-jie and scarcely dared venture from her room. Because of San-jie he too was beginning to regret the situation into which he had got himself.
On the other hand Er-jie was so loving and so devoted to him; he found her so sympathetic. In her gentleness, in the wifely submissiveness with which she insisted on discussing everything with him before she would make any decision, she was ten times better than Xi-feng. And in respect of looks, voice and deportment she was at least five times better.
True, she was a fallen woman; and though she had repented, neither her reform nor any other excellence could bring back her virtue. But that was what she said. Was it not Jia Lian himself who repudiated it?
‘Everybody makes mistakes,’ he would say. ‘As long as you know that you were wrong and don’t do it again, that’s all that matters.’
He refused to talk about the unchasteness of her past: her present goodness was enough for him.
And so, his doubts forgotten, he would cleave to her more passionately than ever. They were of one heart, one mind. He swore they should live and die together. Xi-feng and Patience were banished totally from his thoughts.
Inevitably these pillow-sessions would end with Er-jie urging Jia Lian to do something about her sister.
‘Why don’t you talk it over with Zhen and think of someone you both know of who can marry her?’ she said on the last of these occasions. ‘She can’t stay here like this indefin?itely. Sooner or later there will be trouble.’
‘I did talk to Zhen about it the other day,’ said Jia Lian, ‘but he couldn’t give up the idea of keeping her for himself. I said to him, “That piece of meat is too hot for chaps like us, Zhen. The rose is a very pretty flower, but you can get some nasty jabs from its spines. You’ll never hold a girl like that down. Much better find a husband for her and get her off your hands.” But he wouldn’t say “yes” and he wouldn’t say “no”: he just hummed and hawed for a bit and left it at that. So what can I do?’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Er-jie. ‘We’ll speak to San-jie herself about it tomorrow. If we can persuade her to agree in principle to a betrothal, it can be left to her to have it out with Cousin Zhen herself. Once she has convinced him that he has nothing to hope for, he will have to do something about finding her a husband.’
Next day Er-jie spent the morning preparing a little party for the four of them, and Jia Lian, instead of going off as he usually did, deliberately stayed indoors. At about noon Er-jie invited her sister over and, when she arrived, seated her next to their mother in the place of honour. San-jie knew perfectly well what the subject of this meeting was to be and, as the wine was going round for the third time, before her sister had had a chance to broach it, she burst into tears and proceeded to do so herself.
‘I’m sure the only reason you have invited me here today, sister, is to give me a lecture, but I’m not stupid and I don’t need to be nagged at as if I were a child. We all know what happened in the past, and there is no point in dragging it up now. The important thing is that as you are comfortably settled and Mamma’s future is now assured, it’s time to start thinking about how I am to be disposed of. However, this matrimony business is no children’s game: it’s a girl’s whole lifetime to the day she dies that is decided by it. In the past, because we were so vulnerable and one could never be sure what designs men might have on one, I deliberately acted in a shameless manner in order to keep them at bay. Now I am willing to put all that behind me and turn myself into a good and obedient wife. On one condition, though: the man I marry has got to he somebody I know about and somebody who is to my liking. If I leave the choice to you, I am sure you will do your best to find someone rich and well-placed and good-looking, but if it is someone I cannot give my heart to, I shall feel that the whole of my life has been wasted.’
Jia Lian smiled reassuringly.
‘That’s easy. We leave the choice entirely to you. Just name the man and we will take care of the expenses. Your mother will have nothing to worry about.’
‘I don’t need to name him,’ said San-jie. ‘Er-jie has known about him all along.’
‘Who is it?’ Jia Lian asked, turning to Er-jie; but Er-jie could not for the moment think who her sister had in mind.
‘I know who it is!’ Jia Lian clapped his hands delightedly, suddenly convinced that he had thought of the right answer. ‘And a very good choice too!’ he added.
‘Who?’ said Er-jie.
‘No one else could ever be good enough for her. It has to be Bao-yu.’
Er-jie and Mrs You felt sure that he was right, but San-jie herself repudiated the suggestion indignantly.
‘I suppose you think that if we were ten sisters instead of only three, every one of us would have to marry a Jia. There are other males in the world besides the ones in your family, you know.’
The other three were nonplussed. If it was not Bao-yu that she had in mind, then who could it be?
‘Don’t just look under your noses,’ said San-jie. ‘Try casting your mind back five years, sister.’
But at that point Joker arrived, one of Jia Lian’s most trusted pages and sharer of his secrets.
‘Sir She has been asking for you, sir,’ said Joker. ‘I told him that you’d gone off to Sir Wang’s and then hurried here as quickly as I could to let you know.’
‘Were they asking about me at home yesterday?’ Jia Lian sounded a trifle concerned.
‘I told the mistress that you were at the family temple discussing arrangements for the Hundred Days with Mr Zhen and thought you might not be able to get back.’
Jia Lian called for his horse to be led out and set off immediately, with Rich in attendance. Joker was left behind at the disposal of the women. Er-jie had two plates of food and a large cup of wine set down on the edge of the kang beside him and invited him to eat and drink standing, while she asked him a few questions. In fact she asked him a great many. How old was Xi-feng? In what way was she so awful? How old was Grandmother Jia? How many girls were there? And so on. Joker, smiling broadly, proceeded, between large sips of wine, to give the old lady and her two daughters a detailed expose of the Rong mansion and its inhabitants.
‘I’m one of the boys from the inner gate,’ he told them. ‘I belong to one of two groups of four. We work there by shifts. One group goes on duty as the other one comes off. Of us eight, some, like me, are in the master’s confidence, some are in the mistress’s. Those of us who are in the master’s confidence daren’t say a word to upset the mistress’s boys; but she can say or do whatever she likes to us. You want to know what she’s like? A cruel heart and a sharp tongue, that about sums her up. The master’s no softy, but he can do nothing with her. There’s a Miss Patience working for her though. She’s very nice. Though she’s so well in with the mistress, she’ll often do you a kindness behind her back. When one of us boys is in trouble, the mistress will be down on us like a ton of bricks, but if we can get Patience to put in a word for us, we know we shall be all right. Everyone hates the mistress. The only exceptions are Her Old Ladyship and Her Ladyship. The others pretend to like her, because they’re afraid. She knows she hasn’t got any rivals and she always takes very good care to keep both Their Ladyships happy, so consequently whatever she says goes, nobody else dares stand up to her. She’s a great one for saving. She must have saved a mountain of money by now. That’s why Their Ladyships are always saying what a good manager she is. They don’t realize how much we servants have to suffer so that she can take the credit. Whenever anything good happens, you can be sure that she’ll get in with the news first, before anyone else does, so that she can reap the benefit. But when things go wrong or she’s made a slip herself, she’ll very quickly step aside and fasten the blame for it on someone else. She’ll even fan the flames up and make it hotter for that other person once she’s safely out of it herself. Even her mother-in-law can’t stand her. “The magpie looking for a bigger nest who set up house with the crow” she calls her. She says she’s no business meddling with the affairs of our household when she ought to be looking after her own. She says if it weren’t for Her Old Ladyship, she’d have ordered her back long ago and made her stay where she belongs.’
Er-jie laughed.
‘If you say things like this behind her back, what must you say behind mine? In my case there are even more things to criticize!’
Joker fell on his knees, protesting.
‘If I ever said a word against you, madam, I should deserve to be struck by lightning! It would have been a great blessing for all of us if the master had married you first instead of the mistress. I know there would have been fewer beatings and cursings for us boys and we shouldn’t have had to go around the way we do in fear and trembling all the time. There isn’t a boy among us who isn’t every day and everywhere singing your praises and saying what a kind and considerate lady you are. We are planning to ask the master to let us stay here and serve you all the time.’
‘Get up, get up!’ said Er-jie, laughing. ‘Little imperti?nence! I was only joking; how easily you are scared! I’m sure I don’t know what you should want to come here for. I am thinking of going to see your mistress.’
Joker waved his hand in vigorous disapproval.
‘Don’t do that, madam, whatever you do! It would be much better if you never set eyes on her as long as you live. She’s “soft of tongue and hard of heart”, “two faces and three knives”, she’ll “give you a smile and trip you up the while”, she’s “a welcoming fire when you see her, but a stab in the back when it’s dark” – all those things and more. I don’t think even Miss You here could get the better of her in an argument, so I’m sure a quiet, gentle lady like you would be no match for her.’
Er-jie smiled.
‘If I behave correctly towards her, I don’t see why she should do me any harm.’
‘Listen, madam,’ said Joker. ‘I’m not saying this to you because I’ve had too much to drink, but when she sees that you are both prettier and more popular than she is, she’s not going to let matters rest. They call jealous people “vinegar bottles”, don’t they? Well, she’s not just a bottle-full of vinegar; she’s a storage-jar – a whole cistern-full of it! The master’s only got to rest his eyes on one of the maids, and she’ll find occasion to have that poor girl beaten until she looks like a boiled sheep’s head. Miss Patience is supposed to be his chamber-wife, but I doubt she lets him sleep with her more than once in a year. And even then she’ll go on and on about it afterwards until she’s reduced Patience to tears. “I didn’t want to do it,” says Patience, “you made me. When I said I didn’t want to, you told me I was wicked and dis?obedient, but now that I’ve done it, you keep picking on me.” After that she makes it up with Patience and begs to be forgiven.’
‘That can’t be true,’ said Er-jie. ‘If she’s really the harpy you say she is, how could she possibly be frightened of a mere chamber-wife?’
‘Because Patience has reason on her side,’ said Joker. ‘It’s like the proverb says: “Three men with a carrying-pole can’t shift Reason from its place.” Patience has been with the mistress since she was a little girl. There were four maids that came with the mistress when she married, but only Patience stayed on with her. The other three either died or got married. The mistress gave her to the master to be his chamber-wife partly because she wanted to show everyone what a virtuous wife she was and partly because she thought it would be a way of binding him to her. Miss Patience is a really good sort. She’s not the sort of person to go looking for trouble, and she’s always been good and true to the mistress. That’s why the mistress always makes it up with her.’
‘I see,’ said Er-jie. ‘But haven’t I heard that there are a young widow and a number of young ladies in the family? If your mistress is as awful as you say she is, how comes it that these other ones let her get away with it?’
Joker clapped his hands together and laughed.
‘Because the “young widow” you’re talking about – that’s our Mrs Zhu – is a Saint. The nickname we servants give her is “Lady Gwanyin”. She doesn’t as a rule have anything to do with household matters. She spends all her time teaching the young ladies writing and broidering and book-learning. That’s her job. She has done a bit of household managing since the mistress fell ill, but even now she doesn’t interfere very much: just follows the rules, very quiet and ladylike – no throwing her weight about or showing off how clever she is like the other one. Of the young ladies, the eldest one – well, I suppose she must be a good ’un to have been so favoured. The second one – that’s the master’s sister – we call her “Miss Doddyblock”. She’d probably forget to say “oh” if you stuck a pin in her. The third – Master Bao’s younger sister – we call “The Rose” –’
‘Why do you call her that?’ the You sisters asked simultaneously.
‘Sweet and pretty and everyone loves her, but she has a thorn,’ said Joker. ‘The great pity about her is that she’s not Her Ladyship’s child. A phoenix reared in a crow’s nest, that’s what she is. The fourth young lady is really Mr Zhen’s sister, but Her Ladyship brought her over to our mansion when she was still a baby and brought her up there with the others. She’s a big girl now, but still pays no attention to what goes on around her, no more than the second one. Then besides our four there are two other young ladies that you probably won’t have heard about – both very, very beautiful. One is Sir Zheng’s sister’s child. Her name is Miss Lin. Though she’s so beautiful, sh’’s very thin and weakly. The other is Her Ladyship’s sister’s child. Her name is Miss Xue.’
‘Miss Wood and Miss Snow,’ said Er-jie, smiling.
‘If we ever meet them on their way through the courtyard or getting into their carriages when they go out,’ said Joker, ‘we none of us dare to breathe.’
‘Of course,’ said Er-jie. ‘A great household like yours is sure to be very strict about such matters. Though young boys like you would be allowed into the courtyards, you would naturally be expected to keep your distance when the young ladies are about.’
‘No, no, no,’ said Joker, waving his hand energetically. ‘That’s not the reason we’re afraid to breathe. We’re afraid that if we breathed out too hard, we might blow Miss Lin over and cause Miss Xue to melt!’
The three You ladles, the Mattress and the two maids all burst out laughing.
But who was it that San-jie wanted to marry? This will be revealed (if you want to know) in the following chapter.

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