The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 68

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CHAPTER 68

Er-jie takes up residence
in Prospect Garden
And Xi-feng makes a disturbance
in Ning-guo House

When Jia Lian made his second expedition to Ping-an in the tenth month, he found that the Military Governor was away on a tour of inspection; and since no one seemed willing to predict when he would be back, there was obviously nothing he could do but sit in his lodgings and wait for that elusive official to turn up. It was in fact several weeks before he did, so that by the time Jia Lian had finished transacting his business and made the journey back home again, almost two months had elapsed since he set out.
But we anticipate. Let us return to the point at which we left off in the last chapter.
After hearing Joker’s revelations, Xi-feng deliberately concealed her knowledge from Jia Lian for several weeks. It was not until he had started out on his journey to Ping-an that she began putting her plan into execution.
The first thing she did was to call in the workmen – carpenters, decorators, paperers and so forth – and have the three-frame building on the east side of her and Jia Lian’s courtyard converted into a smaller replica of the main apartment. On the fourteenth of the tenth month, when the decorating and furnishing of this apartment had been completed, she went to see Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang and announced her intention of going out first thing next morning to burn incense in a certain convent-temple in the vicinity. She would take only four companions with her, she said: Patience, Felicity, Zhou Rui’s wife and Brightie’s wife. She waited until they were about to get into their carriages on the morning of the fifteenth before revealing to her companions what their actual destination was to be. They were going to Er-jie’s house. Xi-feng had previously given instructions to the manservants who were to accompany them that they were to be dressed in mourning and that the carriage she rode in was to have mourning trappings. This was because Er-jie, she had discovered, had not long since suffered a second and greater bereavement: old Mrs You, who had never quite recovered from the shock caused by her third daughter’s suicide, had, only two or three weeks previous to this date, taken a nap which turned out to be her last. Joker was told to lead the way, and it was he who, arriving at the house a little before the rest of the party, knocked on the gate to give the occupants warning of its coming. The Mattress came to the door. Joker had by this time resolved the problem of nomenclature to his own satisfaction:
‘Tell Mrs Er,’ he said blandly, ‘that Mrs Lian is here.’
The immortal parts of the late Droopy’s relict leaped through her cranium and described several somersaults in the air. She rushed inside to inform her mistress. Er-jie was no less startled than her servant when she heard the message, but even in such an extremity she could do no less than receive her visitor with the expected courtesies. Adjusting her dress, therefore, she went into the front courtyard to meet her. By this time Xi-feng’s carriage had arrived outside the gate and its occupants were in process of descending from it. Er-jie watched her visitor curiously as she entered the outer gate, supported by Zhou Rui’s wife and Brightie’s wife, one on either side. She was dressed in half-mourning, with hair-ornaments of silver and white and a spencer of some black material with a silver thread in it over the palest of pale blue gowns. Underneath the gown she was wearing a plain white satin skirt. Er-jie was particularly struck by her eyes:
Brows a branched twig with two high-pendant leaves,
And trigon phoenix-eyes, slant, hard and bright.
And she was very beautiful:
Pretty as a peach-tree in the spring,
Even in austere autumn’s dress.
Er-jie advanced to meet her as she entered the courtyard and dropped her a low curtsey, adopting, in the first words she uttered, the form of address that an inferior wife uses in speaking to her chief.
‘Forgive me, sister, I had no idea that you were planning to favour me with an inspection or I should have gone out?side to meet you.’
This was followed by another low curtsey, which Xi-feng, smiling graciously, returned. After curtseying had continued for some moments on either side, Xi-feng took Er-jie impulsively by the hand and the two young women walked hand in hand into the house. Inside, Er-jie made Xi-feng sit down in the place of honour and ordered one of the maids to bring a cushion and put it down in front of her on the floor.
‘I am still very young,’ she explained to Xi-feng. ‘Since I first came here, everything has been decided for me by others, either my mother, when she was still with us, or my elder sister. Now that you have come, I hope – if you do not think me too unworthy – that you will allow me to take all my instructions from you. I promise to serve you with all the devotion of which I am capable.’
Having concluded her little speech, she knelt down on the cushion and kotowed. Xi-feng rose from the chair and bowed.
‘I am as young and inexperienced as you are, sister,’ she said. ‘What I have done for Mr Lian has always been for his own good, as far as a silly, inexperienced woman like me could tell what that was. I begged him, as I am sure you would have done in my position, not to go sleeping out “under the willows” (you know what I mean) both for his health’s sake and because I knew it would worry his parents; but Mr Lian completely misunderstood the spirit in which that advice was offered. It wouldn’t have mattered so much if he’d deceived me about taking a mistress; but marrying a second wife is a very serious business. He really ought to have told me. It isn’t as if I hadn’t begged him to take a second wife. If he were to have a son, no matter by whom, I should stand to benefit as much as he would. It would be a support for me in my old age. But no. Mr Lian has got it firmly fixed in his mind that I am the sort of jealous woman who cannot tolerate a rival. And so he has to go off and do this without telling me. It’s so unfair. Who am I to explain myself to? Only Heaven above knows what a great injustice he has done me. When I first got wind of your marriage about ten days ago, I realized at once that it was this mistaken notion he has about my being so jealous that had prevented him from telling me. I have waited until he is away before visiting you because I wanted this opportunity of getting to know you properly. But that is not the only purpose of my visit. I want to ask you – to entreat you – to show your understanding of my position by leaving this place and coming back with me to the mansion. Let us live together, side by side, like sisters. Let us join forces in looking after him: seeing that he performs his duties properly and takes good care of his health. Surely that is how it ought to be? Just imagine what it will be like for me if you continue living here outside. Quite apart from my feelings, think of the effect it will have on my reputation – and on yours, too, for that matter. And even if you think our reputations are unimportant, as no doubt they are, consider what the effect will be on Mr Lian’s reputation, which is a far more serious matter. I expect the servants say all sorts of nasty things about me behind my back. It is their way of having their revenge on me for being strict. I suppose it is only natural. You know the proverb. The woman who runs a household is like a water butt: all the dirt washes off on her. In our household I have three lots of seniors above me and cousins and sisters-?in-law both single and married in my own generation. If I were really hard to get on with, how do you think all those people would have managed to put up with me for so long? Would I have come to you today if I were such a terrible person? Many wives hearing that their husband had married another woman and was living outside with her in secret would be unwilling even to set eyes on her. Heaven knows I’ve tried to accommodate Mr Lian. I’ve even offered him my Patience as a chamber-wife. I think Heaven and Earth and the Lord Buddha must have taken pity on me in letting me know about this marriage. They didn’t want me to be destroyed by a pack of scandal-mongering servants. That’s why I am asking you to come and live with me. I promise that your treatment will be exactly the same as mine in every respect: accommodation, service, clothing-allowance, everything. There is so much that an intelligent person like you could do to help me if you had a mind to. Working side by side together, we shall not only give the lie to this malicious tittle-tattle of the servants which I find so wounding; we shall also be able to show Mr Lian when he gets back how wrong he has been in making me out to be jealous. The three of us will live in perfect harmony together. And all this I shall owe to you! But if you won’t come with me, I am perfectly prepared to move in here with you. Provided that you put in an occasional good word for me with Mr Lian so that I am still left some ground to stand on, I should even be willing to hold your basin and comb your hair for you and wait on you like a servant.’
She concluded this discourse by breaking into noisy weeping. Indeed, so pitiful a spectacle did she present that Er-jie herself could not help weeping with her. After further bowings and curtseyings the two women sat down together as first and second wife and Patience came forward to make Er-jie her kotow. From the superior quality of her dress and general air of refinement Er-jie could guess who she was and hurriedly rose to prevent her.
‘No, no, you mustn’t do that! You and I are equals.’
Xi-feng stood up, too.
‘Nonsense! Let her kotow to you,’ she said, laughing. ‘She is only a maid. She is your maid as much as mine now and in future you must treat her as such.’
She ordered Zhou Rui’s wife to take the First Meeting presents out of the bag she was carrying: four lengths of best quality dress material and four pairs of pearl and gold earrings with hair ornaments to match. There was more bowing and curtseying as Er-jie received them. The two wives sat down once more. Tea was served, and they began to talk things over as they sipped their tea. Xi-feng insisted that what had happened had chiefly come about through her own fault.
‘I blame no one else,’ she said. ‘All I am asking for is a little sympathy.’
Er-jie was so lacking in guile herself that she had no difficulty in believing that Xi-feng was a good woman who had been slandered.
‘After all,’ she told herself when she recollected the alarming things that Joker had said about Xi-feng’s character, ‘servants do often revenge themselves by saying nasty things about their employers.’
And so, abandoning all caution, she began pouring her heart out unreservedly, confident that in Xi-feng she had found a friend. Confirmation of this favourable view in the form of tributes to the excellence of Xi-feng’s household governance were not wanting from Mesdames Zhou and Brightie in the background.
‘She puts herself out too much for other people, that’s her trouble. She gets no thanks for it, though. People only complain about her the more.’
They told Er-jie about the apartment that Xi-feng had made ready for her.
‘Beautiful, Mrs Er! You wait till you’ve seen it!’
Er-jie longed to live with Jia Lian inside the mansion like a respectable married woman and was therefore only too willing to comply with Xi-feng’s request.
‘I ought to go back with you, sister: it is no less than my duty. But what about this place?’
‘Oh, that’s no problem!’ said Xi-feng. ‘Just get the boys to move out your boxes and bags for you. You won’t be needing the furniture, you can leave that here. All you need to do is name whoever of your people is most reliable and we will get whoever it is to stay here and look after it for you.’
‘Now that I’ve met you, I should like to leave all those sort of decisions to you,’ said Er-jie hurriedly. ‘I haven’t been here very long and have no experience of running a household. I’m not able to decide things like this for myself. Why don’t you take charge of these chests and boxes, sister? I have got hardly any things of my own. Almost everything in this place belongs to Mr Lian.’
Xi-feng told Zhou Rui’s wife to make a mental note of all the movables and have them carried over later to Er-jie’s new apartment. She then urged Er-jie to dress herself as quickly as possible for going out, and as soon as she was ready, walked hand in hand with her to the waiting carriage. Inside the carriage she insisted that Er-jie should sit beside her on the same seat.
‘This is rather a strait-laced household we are going into,’ Xi-feng confided to Er-jie when they were alone in the carriage together. ‘Neither the old lady nor Lady Wang knows a word yet about your marriage. They would probably kill Mr Lian if they found out that he had married you while he was still in mourning. There is a very large garden at the mansion which all the young people live in and which other people very seldom go into. I think when we get back it would be better if you didn’t meet Their Ladyships straight away but stayed in there for a few days while I think of some way of explaining about you to them.’
‘I leave all that to you, sister,’ said Er-jie. ‘I will do whatever you think best.’
The boys accompanying the carriage had received advance instructions not to enter the mansion by the main gate on their return journey but to go straight in at the back. Descend?ing from the carriage on her arrival, Xi-feng, having first shooed away a knot of curious bystanders, led Er-jie through the rear entrance of Prospect Garden and took her to meet Li Wan and the girls in Sweet-rice Village.
By this time nine out of ten of the Garden’s inhabitants had heard about Jia Lian’s second marriage, and when the news spread that Xi-feng was bringing the new wife into the Garden, curiosity drew numbers of them to Li Wan’s place to meet her. All were impressed by her beauty and by her gentle, pleasing manner. After introducing them, Xi-feng warned each of them individually that she would kill anyone who mentioned Er-jie’s presence to an outsider. The nannies and maids who worked in the Garden were all terrified of Xi-feng and knew in any case that Jia Lian’s marrying a new wife in a period of family and national mourning was a very serious offence. They needed no persuading, therefore, to have as little to do with the matter as possible.
Xi-feng had a private word with Li Wan requesting her to look after Er-jie for a few days while she herself thought of some way of explaining about her to Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang. Li Wan knew that Xi-feng already had an apartment ready for Er-jie to move into at her own place and could well understand that a certain amount of secrecy had to be maintained about a marriage contracted when in mourning; she could not therefore refuse to give Er-jie temporary lodging.
Xi-feng took Er-jie’s own maids away from her and substituted a servant of her own. She also gave secret instructions to the older women to keep an eye on Er-jie, threatening them with the direst penalties if they allowed her to stray outside or deliberately run away. Having thus disposed of Er-jie for the time being, she went off to attend to the next stage of her plans. But of that, for the moment, we will say nothing.
Everyone who knew about this affair was mystified by the strange forbearance that Xi-feng had so far shown towards her rival and could not help wondering what had come over her. Er-jie for her part, observing how well all the young people in the Garden got on together, felt thoroughly reassured about her future in the bosom of so delightful a family.
But then, after a few days had gone by, there was an unpleasant incident with Mercy, the new maid whom Xi-feng had given her in place of her own. Er-jie had run out of hair-oil and told Mercy to run over to Xi-feng’s and ask her for some.
‘I think you might be a bit more considerate, Mrs Er,’ the maid said insolently. ‘Every day of her life Mrs Lian has to dance attendance on Their Ladyships and Lady Xing, she has two or three hundred servants waiting from daybreak every morning for a word from her to tell them what to do, she has at least a dozen important matters and thirty or forty little ones to deal with every day, all the family’s social contacts to attend to, from Her Grace at the Palace and princes and dukes and other high-ups down to other families like our own, thousands of taels of silver to approve the spending of – and you want to go bothering her for some hair-oil! My advice to you, madam, is to be a bit more patient. After all, your marriage to Mr Lian was rather a hole-and-corner affair, wasn’t it? It’s only because of Mrs Lian’s unheard of generosity that you have been treated so well. A less tolerant person might have turned you out into the gutter – and not much you could have done to stop them!’
At the end of this verbal drubbing Er-jie could only hang her head in silence. If that was what other people thought about her, minor inconveniences like the lack of hair-oil would have to be endured.
But that was not the end of it. Following this outburst, Mercy began to grow more and more careless about serving Er-jie’s meals. Either they came much too early or much too late, and the food she brought consisted invariably of stale old left-overs. Er-jie once or twice tried speaking to her about it, but Mercy only glared at her and lifted her voice up in noisy self-justification. Fearing that if the others heard the shouting they would think of her as one of those vulgar, shrewish women who are always quarrelling with their servants, Er-jie felt obliged to drop the matter and put up with the hardship as best she could.
After a week or so Xi-feng came to visit her. She was all smiles and loving sympathy, ‘my dear’ this and ‘my dear’ that.
‘If the servants are not giving you satisfaction, my dear, or are being insubordinate, do let me know and I shall have them beaten.’
She turned and spoke harshly to the maids and older women who were present.
‘I know you lot. I know how you bully the gentle ones. It’s only the hard ones like me that you are afraid of. Once out of my sight you think you can get away with murder. But take care! If I hear one word of complaint from Mrs Er, I shall have you slaughtered!’
Er-jie was impressed by the concern that Xi-feng showed for her.
‘With her to stick up for me,’ she thought, ‘there is really no need for me to do anything myself. Servants often are insolent. If I speak up about this girl and get her into trouble, people will say that I lack the forbearance that a wife – especially one in my position – is always supposed to show.’
And so, far from complaining, she covered up for Mercy and the other servants and insisted that the service they gave her was satisfactory.
*
All this time Brightie was making inquiries on Xi-feng’s behalf into Er-jie’s background. He quickly established that Er-jie had indeed been previously betrothed. Her affianced, now a young man of nineteen, was a gambler and a wastrel. After gambling his way through all his family’s possessions, he had been turned out of doors by his father and now made the gambling-dens his home. The fact that his father had been to see Mrs You and received twenty taels from her in return for breaking off the engagement was still unknown to him. The name of this unpromising youth was, as Joker had said, Zhang Hua. When Brightie passed this information on to Xi-feng, she promptly wrapped twenty taels up in a packet and told him to go back and promise them to Zhang Hua if he would bring a written indictment against Jia Lian before the court. It should say that Jia Lian had, in a period of both national and private mourning and without the knowledge or consent of his parents, brought unlawful pressure to bear on the plaintiff’s parents, causing them to break off an existing engagement between the plaintiff and his betrothed, and had then, setting his own wife aside in an unlawful manner, taken to wife the plaintiff’s betrothed in her stead.
A strong instinct of self-preservation at first prompted Zhang Hua to refuse. When Brightie told Xi-feng this she was furious. A young idiot, she called him; a lame dog who wouldn’t allow one to help him over the stile.
‘You will have to explain it to him very carefully. Tell him he can charge this family with high treason for all I care; all I want is a pretext for making it hot for them. But tell him that if things show any sign of getting too hot, I am perfectly well able to cool them down again.’
Another idea occurred to her as Brightie was on the point of leaving.
‘He could put your name on the indictment,’ she said. ‘Then you could go along to the court and answer it yourself.’
She gave him careful instructions as to what in that event he should say and do, assuring him that she would be able to handle the consequences herself. Confident of her support, Brightie persuaded Zhang Hua to write out an indictment in which he himself would be named.
‘ “Lai” is the surname,’ he said. ‘Put “Brightie Lai was principal agent of the accused.” You can say that everything Mr Lian did he was put up to doing by me.’
What Brightie was now proposing seemed to Zhang Hua much less risky than what he had suggested previously, and after some preliminary discussion about the exact form that the indictment should take, he wrote it out and went along with it next morning to the Court of Censors to ‘cry injury’ on the steps outside. An usher came out to relieve him of it and take it inside to their lordships, and in due course the court came into session and the presiding Censor found himself reading a bill of indictment in which a certain ‘Brightie Lai, servant of the above’ appeared as chief accomplice of the accused. Under the circumstances it seemed most expedient to have ‘Brightie Lai, servant of the above’ summoned before the court.
Somewhat overawed by the prospect of making an arrest in Rong-guo House, the blackcoats sent one of their number ahead of them with a message; but Brightie, who was expect?ing the summons, intercepted the messenger and was outside in the street waiting for them when they arrived. He stepped forward and offered himself to them with a disarming smile.
‘I’m afraid you have been troubled on my account, gentlemen, for I think I must be the person you have come for. Here you are: slip your chain on!’
He stretched his neck out in readiness; but the blackcoats declined.
‘That’s all right, brother. You just come along quietly. Nobody’s going to put any chains on you!’
When Brightie arrived in the court he knelt down facing the tribunal, side by side with Zhang Hua but at a little distance away from him. The Censor ordered him to be shown the indictment, and Brightie, although he had virtually dictated it himself, affected to study it very carefully. When he had finished doing so, he handed it back again and kotowed.
‘I know all about this, my lord. It’s true what it says there about my master, but it wasn’t really anything to do with me. Zhang Hua has only dragged me into it because he has a personal grudge against me. The person who put my master up to all this was someone else. Your Lordship ought to ask him about this other person.’
It was Zhang Hua’s turn now to kotow.
‘There is another person involved, my lord, but I didn’t dare to accuse him, so I put one of the servants’ names instead.’
Brightie pretended to be indignant.
‘Tell his lordship who it is, you fool! This is a court of law we are in and one of the Emperor’s judges you are speaking to. You’ve got to tell him the name of the person, no matter who it is.’
Zhang Hua admitted that Jia Rong was the person in question, whereupon the Censor, very much against his inclination, had to issue a summons for Jia Rong.
Xi-feng had secretly sent her page Cheerful to the court to see if the case was going forward. When he came back to her with this news, she hastily sent for a member of her father’s household called Wang Xin, explained to him what had been happening, and told him to see the Censor on her behalf. He was to persuade the Censor to give Jia Rong a good scare, but not to proceed to any damaging judgement against him. She also gave him three hundred taels with which to streng?then his persuasion.
That night Wang Xin saw the Censor in his private chambers and obligingly supplied him with a little ‘background infor?mation’ to the case. The Censor had a pretty good idea of what was expected of him. He took the proffered bribe with? out demur and agreed that at the next hearing it would almost certainly be discovered that Zhang Hua was a thoroughly worthless character who had brought these trumped-up charges against the Jias because he owed them money and could not pay it back.
Wang Xin also obtained a brief interview with the President of the Court of Censors at his private residence. The President was an old friend of Xi-feng’s uncle, Wang Zi-teng. He had observed that the defendants in this case were all members of the Jia family and was most anxious that it should be disposed of as expeditiously and with as little fuss as possible. He had made no recommendation for special action against the defendants as holders of commissions under the Crown, but merely confirmed what the Censor of the day had already decided: that Jia Rong should be summoned and should be required to answer the indictment.
By this time Xi-feng’s discovery and Er-jie’s removal into Prospect Garden were already known about in Ning-guo House, and Jia Rong and his father were anxiously discussing this latest development in Jia Lian’s affairs when someone arrived to give warning of the impending summons and urge them to think quickly what they would do. Jia Rong, who had gone into the front part of the mansion to receive the messenger, came rushing back in a panic to tell his father.
‘The man has an infernal nerve!’ said Cousin Zhen. ‘I thought I’d taken sufficient precautions against anything like this happening.’
He sealed two hundred taels up in a packet and sent it as a sweetener to the Censor. At the same time he ordered one of his senior domestics to go and answer the summons. He and Jia Rong were still discussing this new crisis when a cry went up that ‘Mrs Lian of Rong-guo House’ had arrived. This was a most unpleasant surprise. Father and son both attempted to make a getaway, but Xi-feng was already inside the courtyard before they could disappear.
‘Ah, the head of the family!’ she called after the elder of the two retreating backs. ‘You’ve been putting your cousin up to some nice tricks lately, haven’t you?’
Jia Rong, as a junior, was obliged to go back and greet her. She seized him by the hand and marched on, with him in tow, towards the interior of the mansion.
‘Take good care of your aunt, Rong,’ Cousin Zhen called out after them. ‘Tell them to slaughter some fresh meat for her dinner.’
He called for his horse and went off to hide himself elsewhere.
Xi-feng walked through into the main sitting-room inside. You-shi came out of the inner room to greet her.
‘What is it, Feng?’ she asked, observing Xi-feng’s ugly expression. ‘Something has upset you.’
Xi-feng spat in her face.
‘Nobody else wanted that precious sister of yours, so you had to foist her onto our family. Anyone would think all the other men in the world had died and only our Jia ones were left! But even if you’d set your heart on marrying her to a Jia, at least you might have done it properly, with go-betweens and witnesses and everything open and above-board. At least we should all have known where we were then and been able to keep up some sort of appearances. I can’t think what could have come over you. Was it some phlegm that got into your heart? Was it rouge you’d swallowed, clogging up your thinking-tubes? Just what was it that made you think you could marry her to him at a time like that – a time when he was in double mourning: state mourning and family mourning? Now, thanks to you, we’ve got someone suing us: so even the people in the law-courts know what a jealous shrew I am and I have to sit by as helpless as a crab with no legs while total strangers discuss my character and wonder why my husband doesn’t divorce me. What have I done wrong since I came to this place that you should want to treat me like this? Is it something that Grandma or Aunt Wang said that has made you set this trap for me, to get me out of the way? Let’s go to court together, the two of us, and state our cases; and after that, let’s come back here and ask for a family council so that we can have it all out into the open, face to face. You can give me a bill of divorce then if you want to, and I shall go back to my own people.’
She began to cry noisily, tugging at You-shi’s arm and insisting that she should go with her to court. Jia Rong, in a desperate attempt to dissuade her, threw himself down on his knees and knocked his head repeatedly on the floor, entreating his aunt to ‘control her rage’. Xi-feng let go of You-shi and rounded savagely on Jia Rong.
‘Black-hearted villain! May God’s lightning strike you and the devils tear your carcase! You’re as stupid as mud, and yet you are forever meddling and interfering in what doesn’t concern you, forever busybodying away at your dirty, scoundrelly little plots that in the end will ruin your family and destroy the lot of us. Nobody wants you – even the ghosts won’t want you when you die, your own mother’s ghost or the ghosts of your ancestors. Don’t you dare tell me what I ought to do!’
And she began beating him. Jia Rong redoubled the frequency of his kotows.
‘Please, auntie, please! Don’t give way to anger. Don’t think only of what has just happened: try to remember the good things as well as the bad. I may be very wicked, but surely in a thousand days there must have been one day when I was good! I know you have every reason to be angry with me, but there is no need for you to punish me yourself. I will gladly do it for you if it will help you to overcome your anger.’
He spread his arms out to left and right of him and began to deal himself hefty slaps upon both cheeks, prefacing each blow with an interrogation, thus:
‘Are you going to go on doing these stupid, meddlesome things in future?’ (slap!)
‘Are you going to go on listening to Uncle instead of doing what Auntie tells you?’ (slap!)
‘How can you bear to be so cruel and unnatural to Auntie, when Auntie has always been so good and kind to you?’ (slap!)
The others felt like telling him to stop playing the fool. They also felt like laughing, but did not dare to. Xi-feng threw herself upon You-shi’s bosom, weeping and wailing in a fine display of histrionic grief.
‘I don’t mind your finding him another wife, but why was it necessary to make him break the law? Why did you let him do it without his father knowing? And why did you have to destroy my reputation while you were about it? You and I must go to the court together before the blackcoats come here and arrest us. After that we can go next door and have it all out in front of Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang and all the rest of the clan. If it’s found that I am an undutiful wife who refuses to let her husband take a concubine, you can give me a bill of divorce and I shall leave without a murmur. As a matter of fact I have invited your sister here myself. I haven’t dared tell Grandmother and Lady Wang about her yet because I was afraid they would be angry. At the moment she is living in the Garden, like a princess, with nothing but the best to eat and servants to wait on her hand and foot every minute of the day. Meanwhile I’ve been getting an apartment ready for her at home which will be exactly the same as my own. I’d been meaning to move her in there as soon as Grandmother had been told about her. I was prepared to live in peace and harmony with her and Lian and to let bygones be bygones. But now it turns out that all the time she was betrothed to somebody else! What a mess you’ve made of things! Of course, I knew nothing about this before. When they told me yesterday that I was being sued, I was panic-stricken. I knew that even if I appeared in court to answer the charge myself, it was the Jia family that would be disgraced. So I’m afraid I took five hundred taels of Lady Wang’s money without telling her, to bribe the Censor with. And even after that, he still has my servant there in custody.’
All this was spoken not as continuous discourse but punctuated by fits of weeping. In her final outburst the weeping turned almost into a scream as she began invoking her parents and her ancestors and threatening to hang or drown herself or batter her brains out against a wall. You-shi, whom all this time she had not let go of, was so mauled and crumpled that she was beginning to take on some of the aspects of a piece of well-kneaded dough and various parts of her clothing had become damp and discoloured with the moisture from Xi-feng’s eyes and nose. As there was nothing much she could say in answer to Xi-feng, she shouted at Jia Rong instead.
‘Stupid little fool! A fine mess you and your rather have made of things between you! I said at the time that no good would come of this.’
Xi-feng took You-shi’s head in both her hands and, drawing her face close to her own, pretended to inspect the inside of her mouth.
‘Who’s stupid? There isn’t an aubergine in here. I see no sign of a gag. Why couldn’t you have come and told me? If you had told me about it at the time, none of this would ever have happened. But no, you have to wait until it has got into the law-courts and the whole household is in an uproar, and now you start blaming them! There’s a very old saying: “A good lining gives a garment strength and a husband with a good wife has few calamities.” If you’d been a good wife to Zhen, he and the others would never have got up to this mischief. You haven’t the wit to k anything useful; and as for saying – for all the good sense that ever comes out of your mouth you might as well be a bottle! You seem to think that you have only got to sit tight and do nothing and people will praise you for your virtue!’
She spat two or three times in quick succession.
‘I did try,’ said You-shi tearfully. ‘The others here will tell you, if you don’t believe me. I tried very hard to dissuade them. It’s not my fault that they wouldn’t listen. What was I supposed to do? But I don’t blame you for being angry. It’s just one more thing that I shall have to bear.’
All the Ning-guo concubines, maids and womenservants were by now silently entreating for their mistress, so that the room seemed suddenly to have filled with row upon row of kneeling figures. The most senior of the servants now smilingly addressed Xi-feng on her mistress’s behalf.
‘You’re generally such a wise, understanding person, Mrs Lian: even though our mistress is at fault, you ought not to be too hard on her – leastways, not in front of us servants. You and our mistress have always been such good friends. Leave her a bit of face now, please!’
She handed her a cup of tea, but Xi-feng dashed it to the floor. After a bit she did, however, stop crying and rolled up her hair, which had come undone. But the tone in which she addressed Jia Rong was still an angry one.
‘Go and fetch your father. There’s something I want to ask him to his face. I want to ask him about this new rule which says that a man may marry when he is in mourning, barely thirty-five days after his uncle’s death. It’s something I’ve never heard of before. I should like him to tell me about it so that I shall be able to teach it to the younger generation.’
Jia Rong kotowed and remained upon his knees.
‘This business had nothing to do with either of my parents,’ he said, ‘I was the one who put Uncle up to it. I don’t know what came over me; I must have been out of my mind. My rather knows nothing about it. If you insist on having it out with him, he will undoubtedly kill me. I’d rather you punished me yourself – in fact, I should welcome it. As for the lawsuit, I’m quite incapable of handling a big thing like that myself. One “bides a broken arm inside one’s sleeve”: surely you, of all people, know that, Auntie? You’ve got a very silly nephew, I’m afraid, and he has done a very silly thing. There’s nothing for it, you will just have to deal with the matter for us, as you would if your cat or your dog had done something naughty and you had to clear up after it. Imagine you had a good-for-nothing son like me who had got himself into terrible trouble: wouldn’t you still go on caring for him, in spite of all the suffering he had caused you?’
He concluded by kotowing again and looked as if he might go on doing so indefinitely. His pathetic abjectness soon melted Xi-feng; but she could not change her tune too abruptly when there were so many pairs of eyes watching her. She did not answer him, therefore, but merely raised him up with a sigh and, wiping her eyes, addressed herself once more to You-shi.
‘You must forgive me, kinswoman. It’s because I am so young and inexperienced. When I heard that there was someone suing us, I simply lost my head. That’s why I have been behaving so badly. As Rong says, “One hides a broken arm inside one’s sleeve”: I must ask you to forget all those nasty things I was saying just now and have a word with Zhen on my behalf to see if he can’t get this lawsuit settled out of court.’
‘Certainly.’
‘Of course.’
In their eagerness to reassure her, You-shi and Jia Rong answered her simultaneously.
‘Whatever happens, Auntie,’ said Jia Rong, ‘I promise you that Uncle Lian won’t be involved. You mentioned just now that you had already had to spend five hundred taels on this case. Mother and I will certainly find some way of making that good. We can’t possibly allow you to be out of pocket because of this. That would be unthinkable. We must ask one thing of you, though. Do, please, cover up for us at the other house. Please don’t let Grandma and Lady Wang get to know about this!’
Xi-feng answered him scornfully.
‘You were willing enough to go over my head when you planned this thing in the first place. Now that it’s gone wrong and you need someone to cover up for you, you’ve decided that you need me after all. I may be stupid, but I’m not that stupid!’ Again she ignored him and addressed herself to You?shi. ‘Your Cousin Lian is my husband, don’t forget. You all say that you acted as you did out of your concern that he should have an heir. Well, don’t you think I share in that concern myself? I look on your sister as if she were my own. I was so happy when I first heard about her and Lian that I couldn’t sleep all night. I wanted the servants to start decorating a room for her immediately, so that I could have her to come and live with us. But you know what servants are. They told me I was too hasty and that I ought to tell Grandmother and Lady Wang first. I certainly wasn’t going to take that advice, and I threatened them with all sorts of pains and penalties if they said anything about it to anyone themselves. Unfortunately my threatening was of no avail. Just as I thought I’d succeeded in hushing the matter up, the very worst thing happened: a person called Zhang Hua suddenly popped up out of nowhere and brought a lawsuit against us. I was so scared that for two nights I didn’t sleep a wink. I didn’t dare tell anyone else about it. All I could do was to get the servants to try to find out who this Zhang Hua was and what it was that had made him so bold. After two days investigating they came back and told me. It seems that he is a thoroughly worthless character – a down-and-out. “Mrs Er is this man’s betrothed,” they said. “At the present moment he is so hard up that sooner than die of hunger and cold, he is prepared to do almost anything. This lawsuit is simply a last desperate attempt to make some money. He reckons that even if he dies in the attempt it will be a better death than starving. Anyway,” they said, “you can hardly blame him for trying. The master really has been a bit hasty: marrying during a period of national mourning is one offence; marrying in a period of family mourning is another; marrying without parental con?sent is a third; and marrying bigamously is a fourth. They say that the man sentenced to death by a thousand cuts will dare to pull the Emperor off his horse. A man like this Zhang Hua who is crazed by poverty will do anything. With such good arguments in his favour, he’d be a fool not to sue!” Well now, I ask you! Even if I’d been a forensic genius, which I’m not, hearing them say that would have been enough to shut me up. What could I do? Lian was away. There was no one at hand to advise me. All I could think of was to try and buy him off. But the trouble is, the more you give to people like that, the more they twist the knife in you and think up more and more pretexts for getting money out of you. And I am like a boil on a mouse’s tail: there’s a limit to what can be squeezed out of me. It was because I was feeling so desperate that I -’
‘Don’t worry about the money,’ You-shi and Jia Rong both chimed in, not waiting for her to finish. ‘That’s something we can certainly take care of for you.’
‘If Zhang Hua is only suing because he wants money,’ said Jia Rong, ‘I think I can now see what to do. We must promise him money on condition that he will admit that the charges he brought against us were false ones. Of course, we shall have to spend a bit of money to see that he isn’t too heavily proceeded against; but once the case has been dismissed and he has been released, all we have to do is give him the money we promised, and that should be the end of it.’
Xi-feng tutted and looked amused.
‘Brilliant! No wonder you made such a mess of your match-making if this is the way you go about things! I always thought that you were intelligent, but I see now that I was wrong. If we do as you suggest, he will pretend to agree, the case will be called off, and that will appear to be the end of it. But don’t you see, if you put money into the hand of a fellow like that, he will get through it in about four or five days and then think up some other villainy as a means of getting more? Even though we have nothing to fear from him, he will still be a constant source of worry. What you propose in any case plays straight into his hands, because it enables him to say that we must have something to be ashamed of or we wouldn’t be offering him money.’
Jia Rong was a sharp young man and quickly saw what his aunt was driving at.
‘I’ve got another idea,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I should be the one to clear this mess up after all, since I am the one who got us into it. I shall ask Zhang Hua straight out what his inten?tions are. Is it definitely Aunt Er he wants, or is he willing to make do with someone else if we will give him the money? If it is definitely Aunt Er and no one else will do, I shall simply have to break it to her that she must go and join him.’
‘That’s all very well, but I don’t want to part with your Aunt Er,’ said Xi-feng hurriedly. ‘In fact, I refuse to hear of it. Even suppose she were willing, what would people think of us if we allowed her to go? No, I think we must keep her, even if it means giving him more money.’
Jia Rong knew perfectly well that although Xi-feng said this, she was secretly longing to get rid of Er-jie and was merely anxious that if she did so it should be with her reputation for womanly virtue untarnished. He deemed it safest not to dispute with her, however, but merely to agree with everything she said.
‘This outside part of the business should not be too hard to settle,’ said Xi-feng. ‘In the long run it’s here at home that we are going to have the difficulty. Hadn’t you better come with me to explain all about this to Grandmother and Lady Wang?’
This threw You-shi into another panic. She seized Xi-feng by the hand and earnestly entreated her to think of some lie which would obviate this necessity.
‘If you are not capable of dealing with the consequences, you ought not to do these things in the first place,’ said Xi-feng coldly. ‘Really! It quite disgusts me to hear you bleat like this! Oh well. I wasn’t going to help you out of this fix, but I am such a weak, soft-hearted creature. I suppose I shall have to. You’d better stay out of this, then. I’ll take your sister on my own to make her kotow to Grandmother and the ladies. I shall say that this is your sister and that I have taken a great fancy to her. I shall tell them that because I haven’t so far managed to give Lian a son, I had been thinking of buying two girls to serve him as chamber-wives, but that since seeing your sister I had thought how much nicer it would be to have her instead as his Number Two and keep it all inside the family. Then I shall say that since her mother and sister died she has been living in very reduced circumstances and would have found it impossible to hold out on her own until the end of the hundred days mourning, so I have taken it upon myself to invite her here to live with us. I shall tell them that I’ve already had a room made ready for her and would like her to move in there as a temporary measure until the mourning period is over and she is allowed to sleep with Lian. All lies, of course, but I am sufficiently brazen to get away with them. Even if there is any trouble, I promise that it shan’t come near you. Well, what about it? Do you think that will do?’
You-shi and Jia Rong were all smiles.
‘Very handsome of you, and very resourceful, too. But then you always were both of those things. When this affair is safely out of the way, we shall come round and make you a kotow.’
‘Fiddlestick! I don’t want your kotows,’ said Xi-feng. ‘She pointed her finger at Jia Rong. I know you now for what you are.’
Her face reddened as she said this, and for a moment she seemed on the point of tears. Jia Rong put on his most winning smile.
‘Come on now, forgive and forget, won’t you, just this once?’
He knelt once more, but she turned her head away and ignored him. He got to his feet again, still smiling.
You-shi made the servants bring a basin of water and a vanity-box, so that. Xi-feng could wash her face and hands and comb her hair, and gave orders to hurry on the dinner. Xi-feng insisted that she must go back, but You-shi was equally insistent that she should stay and eat with them.
‘If you go off now like this, how shall we ever have the face to visit you at your place in the future?’
Jia Rong added his own smiling persuasion.
‘Come on, Auntie! I promise that in future I shall serve you as a truly devoted nephew, strike me dead if I don’t!’
Xi-feng gave him a look.
‘Pshaw! Who believes -?’
But she did not finish.
The maids and old women had been busy meanwhile laying the table. You-shi made a selection from the dishes with her own chopsticks to put on Xi-feng’s plate and Jia Rong knelt down beside her and offered her a cupful of wine. When Xi-?feng and You-shi had eaten, a maid served them with tea to rinse their mouths with and then with a better tea to drink. After a couple of sips of the latter, Xi-feng rose to go. Jia Rong saw her all the way back to her own place.
As soon as she was back, Xi-feng went into the Garden to tell Er-jie about these latest developments. She told her how worried she had been when she heard about the lawsuit, and what she had found out as a result of her inquiries. Then she explained what had to be done now in order to ensure that none of the others got into trouble.
But if you want to know how Xi-feng’s plan turned out in the event, you will have to read the following chapter.

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