The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 69

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CHAPTER 69

A scheming woman kills
with a borrowed knife
And one who has ceased to hope
swallows gold and dies

Er-jie was full of gratitude when she heard what Xi-feng was planning to do for her and gladly accompanied her to the inner mansion. You-shi, feeling that – in spite of what had been agreed – she could hardly stay away when her own step-sister was being formally presented to the family, went along with them, on the express understanding that she herself would say nothing and that, in the event of there being any opposi?tion, Xi-feng would take sole responsibility.
When the three of them arrived in Grandmother Jia’s apartment, the old lady was talking to Bao-yu and the girls – such conversations, enlivened by much joking and laughter, being nowadays her principal source of amusement. Seeing Xi-feng come in accompanied by a beautiful young woman, she screwed up her eyes and peered at the latter with curiosity.
‘Well now, who is this charming young person?’
‘Have a good look, Grandma,’ said Xi-feng, taking Er-jie by the hand and drawing her forwards. ‘Tell me what you think of her. – Quick, make your kotow!’ she whispered to Er-jie. ‘This is Lian’s grandmother.’
When Er-jie had completed her obeisance, Xi-feng pointed to each of the cousins in turn and told her their names.
‘You can make your curtseys to them later, after you have been to see Their Ladyships,’ she said.
Er-lie had to greet each of the cousins by name, as if she were meeting them for the first time. After that she stood, with head demurely lowered, to one side.
Having studied her face for some moments, Grandmother Jia raised her head to think, but presently gave up with a laugh.
‘It’s no good,’ she said. ‘I can’t think who it is. But I’m sure I’ve seen her somewhere else before.’
‘Never mind about that, Grandma,’ said Xi-feng laughing. ‘Just tell me what you think of her. Is she prettier than me?’
Grandmother Jia put on a pair of spectacles.
‘Bring the child a little closer,’ she told Faithful and Amber. ‘Let me have a look at her skin.’
Amid suppressed titters from the others present, Er-jie was hustled forward. Grandmother Jia looked her up and down very carefully.
‘Hold her hand out,’ she said to Amber. ‘Let me look at her hand.’
When the hand had been inspected, Grandmother Jia took off her spectacles and laughed.
‘Flawless. Yes, she’s prettier than you.’
Xi-feng laughed too, then, kneeling down, proceeded to repeat, more or less word for word, what she had told You-shi she would say.
‘Will you be very kind and let her stay here, Grandma? She wouldn’t begin living with Lian until next year, when she is out of mourning.’
‘Yes, that’s perfectly all right,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Very good of you to have suggested it. I’m very glad. Provided, as you say, that she and Lian don’t start sleeping together until next year.’
Xi-feng kotowed. Then she asked Grandmother Jia if she would mind deputing two of her women to take Er-jie round to see Lady Xing and Lady Wang, and whether it would be all right for them to say that Er-jie was being installed on Grandmother Jia’s initiative. The old lady consented and Er-jie was led off to see the other ladies. Xi-feng’s failure to take adequate steps for procuring her husband an heir had for some time now been a source of anxiety to Lady Wang, for she knew that her niece’s reputation must be suffering as a consequence. She was therefore delighted, when Er-jie was presented to her as Jia Lian’s new concubine, to learn that it was Xi-feng herself who was responsible for the arrangements. Now that Er-jie’s union with Jia Lian had been brought into the open, it was possible to move her from the Garden into the apartment in Xi-feng’s courtyard that had been prepared for her.
Meanwhile Xi-feng’s agents were secretly inciting Zhang Hua to claim his affianced wife, promising that she would come to him with a generous trousseau and that they would give him a substantial sum of money to set up house with. It was no easy task persuading him, since from the very start he had had little stomach for this case. His apprehensions seemed justified when, in answer to the summons, Jia Rong’s repre?sentative eventually appeared in court and made the following statement:
‘Zhang Hua had already broken off his engagement with the young lady before she entered our house. She did so, in any case, merely as a kinswoman, already related to the family by her sister’s marriage. There was never any talk of forcing her into matrimony. Zhang Hua trumped up this case against my master because my master was attempting to recover some money owing to him which Zhang Hua was unable to pay.’
The Censor, whose past connections with both the Jia and Wang families, not to mention the substantial bribe he had pocketed only the night before, inclined him to accept this as a reliable version of the facts, ruled that Zhang Hua was a person of untrustworthy character, driven by destitution to make a number of malicious and defamatory accusations against the defendants, none of which could be substantiated. The charges in the indictment were dismissed and Zhang Hua was sentenced to be flogged and driven from the court. By distributing money in the right quarters, Cheerful was able to ensure that the flogging administered was a light one and got to work again on Zhang Hua as soon as it was over.
‘There’s no question you were betrothed to this girl. If you go back and tell them that it’s the girl you want and nothing else, they’re sure to give judgement in your favour.’
Zhang Hua was induced to do this and the court, after further persuasions from Wang Xin, did in fact give judgement in his favour.
‘Zhang Hua is to repay the full amount owed by him to the Jia family within the period specified. But provided that he does so, his affianced wife is to be restored to him as soon as he is in a position to receive her.’
This judgement was confirmed in the presence of Zhang Hua’s father, who was specially summoned to the Court of Censors to hear it. When Cheerful explained to the old man that this meant that he and his son were to get not only the promised money but also Er-jie and her trousseau as well, he was naturally delighted and at once went along to the Jia mansion to claim the bride. Xi-feng went in feigned alarm to report this latest development to Grandm6ther Jia.
‘It’s all the fault of Cousin Zhen’s wife,’ she said. ‘It seems that the Zhang family had never agreed to break off this earlier engagement, and now they have sued us and the court has given judgement against us.’
Grandmother Jia summoned You-shi from the other man?sion and rebuked her for her carelessness.
‘It seems that your sister’s betrothal before she was born to this Zhang person was never properly broken off, and now his family are suing us. I can’t imagine what you thought you were at when you made this arrangement!’
‘But it was broken off,’ You-shi protested. ‘They even took our money.’
‘When Zhang Hua was giving evidence, he said he’d never seen any money,’ Xi-feng chipped in. ‘He said no one had ever approached him about breaking off the engagement. His father said your step-mother mentioned something about breaking it off but there was nothing final. He said that when your step-mother died, you moved your sister in regardless and married her to Lian as his Number Two. No one present at the time was able to refute those statements, so they were able to get away with them. It’s a good job Lian hasn’t slept with the girl yet. As far as that goes, there is nothing to stop her going back to Zhang. The only thing is, it would be a frightful loss of face for us to let her go again having once moved her in.’
‘Yes, but as you say, Lian hasn’t touched her yet,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘It would be even worse for our reputation to hold on to someone who by rights is somebody else’s wife. Much better hand her over to him. We can easily find someone else for Lian.’
‘The engagement really was broken off,’ said Er-jie, and named the date on which it had occurred. ‘My mother gave the Zhangs twenty taels for doing it. It must be because they are so hard up that they have brought this case against you. The things they have been saying are quite untrue. My sister made no mistake.’
It only goes to show how dangerous people like this are to provoke,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Well, in that case, Feng, you had better go and see what you can do about it.’
Whatever reluctance she may have felt, Xi-feng was obliged to say that she would. She had Jia Rong summoned to her room to talk to him about it. Jia Rong knew her feelings well enough – but after all, how could a family like the Jias really contemplate handing over one of their women to a beggar? The idea was preposterous. When he reported the conversa?tion to his father, Cousin Zhen sent someone to have a word privately with Zhang Hua.
‘Look here, you’ve had a lot of money out of them,’ the man said. ‘Why do you have to have the woman as well? If you insist too hard, my master is likely to start getting angry with you, and frankly I wouldn’t give much for your chances if he does. Why don’t you and your father go back to where you came from? With the money you’ve already got you’d have no difficulty in finding yourself a very nice little wife, and if you decide to go away, I can promise you some more money towards your travel expenses.’
This sounded to Zhang Hua like good advice, and after talking it over with his father, he agreed that if the money he had already received were to be made up to a total of one hundred taels, he and his father would undertake to make themselves scarce. The money was handed over, and father and son rose at four o’clock next morning to begin the journey back to their native village. As soon as he had made sure of their departure, Jia Rong went round to tell Grandmother Jia and Xi-feng.
‘Zhang Hua and his father have run away. The charges in the indictment were all fabricated and they lost their nerve because they thought they were going to be found out. The court knows all the facts now but has decided not to prosecute. So that is the end of the affair.’
Xi-feng was not as put out by this as might have been expected.
‘After all,’ she told herself, ‘even if I had insisted on Zhang Hua taking her away, there was always the possibility that Lian might get back in time to reclaim her. He would only have had to give Zhang a little money and Zhang would surely not have refused to give her back. Perhaps it’s just as well that she’s staying here. I have her here safely under my thumb while I think of some other way of dealing with her. But I don’t like this idea of Zhang going off nobody knows where. Suppose he talks? Or suppose one day he finds some means of reopening the case? Everything I have done up to now will turn out to have been simply working towards my own downfall. Oh, I should never have put a weapon like this into somebody else’s hand!’
She began to grow more and more worried and eventually thought of a plan. Calling Brightie to her she told him to find out where Zhang Hua was and procure his death, either by laying a false accusation of robbery against him and leaving it to the magistrates and yamen runners to finish him off judicially, or else by employing an assassin. Only by such root-and-branch methods, she felt, could her fears be allayed and the threat to her reputation be removed.
Brightie went off agreeing to do what she had asked, but when he got home and had time to think about it, he began to feel misgivings.
‘The fellow’s already gone away,’ he thought. ‘Surely that’s the end of the matter? Why does she need to make such a great issue of it? Taking a man’s life is no children’s game; it’s a serious business. I’ll just have to humour her for the time being and think of some way out of this later.’
Having so resolved, he went into hiding for a few days before coming back and reporting to Xi-feng.
‘Three days after Zhang Hua and his father ran away, somewhere near Jing-kou in the early hours of the morning Zhang Hua was knocked down and killed by a highwayman for the sake of the money he was carrying. The old man died of a heart-attack shortly afterwards in a near-by inn. There was an inquest on the bodies and both of them were buried there, where it happened.’
Xi-feng did not believe him.
‘I’ll probably be sending someone to make inquiries shortly,’ she said. ‘If I find out that you’ve been lying, I’ll have every tooth in your head broken.’
But in the event she did nothing and let the matter drop.
From that time onwards her demeanour towards Er-jie was affable in the extreme. No sister could have shown a greater interest in her well-being.
*
A day came when Jia Lian’s business was at last transacted and he was able to start on his much-delayed journey back home. On his arrival in the city he called in first at the new house in order to see Er-jie, but he found the place locked and empty with only an aged caretaker in occupation. When, in answer to his questions, the old man told him what had happened, he stamped in his stirrups with vexation; but there was no time for indulging his feelings, for he had shortly to present himself before his parents and report to them on the successful conclusion of his mission.
Jia She was for once very pleased with him and praised him for his capability. He gave him a hundred taels as a reward and a seventeen-year-old girl from his own room called Autumn as a concubine. Jia Lian kotowed to receive his presents. He felt enormously pleased with himself; but there was a slightly hang-dog expression on his face when, after he had seen Grandmother Jia and the rest, he appeared once more before his wife.
To his surprise there were none of the expected recriminations. Xi-feng seemed, indeed, to have become a different per?son. She came out to meet him with Er-jie at her side, con?fined herself to questions about his health, his stay in Ping-an and the journey back home, and made not a single reference to his deception. When the time came for him to tell her about Autumn, he was unable to prevent a certain pleased smugness from stealing over his face. At once Xi-feng ordered two of the married servants to go round in a carriage to collect her. Here was another thorn in her bosom, even before the first one had been extracted! Yet not a trace of what she felt was allowed to show itself in her expression. With the same unchanging smile she ordered a ‘welcome home’ dinner for her husband and took Autumn to make her kotows to Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang. Jia Lian privately marvelled at the extra?ordinary change that had come over her.
It need hardly be said that Xi-feng harboured feelings about Er-jie very different from the ones her outward show of friendliness might have suggested. Once or twice when they were alone together she confided to her (in a sisterly manner, of course) that her reputation in the family was a very unsavoury one.
‘There is a nasty little story going around, my dear, that you weren’t all you should have been before you were married. They say you were much too thick with Cousin Zhen. I’m afraid even Lady Jia and Lady Wang seem to have got hold of it. They are beginning to ask me why I picked someone whom no one else would have, and why I don’t put you away and choose somebody more suitable. Needless to say, when I first heard this story I was flabbergasted. I’ve tried to find out who started it, but I’ve had no success. Oh, these servants! Just as I thought I’d done something to feel proud of, I find that I’ve got a fish’s head like this on my plate to contend with!’
Xi-feng’s sympathy for Er-jie was so great that, after telling her all this a couple of times, her indignation against these anonymous traducers caused her to become quite ill; she re?fused all food and drink and began to spend the greater part of her time lying down in her room. The servants, with the sole exception of Patience, speculated freely about the cause of their mistress’s illness, and Er-jie, though seldom named, came in for frequent criticism.
Because Autumn had been presented to Jia Lian by his father, she had a very high opinion of her own importance, showing scant respect for Patience or even for Xi-feng, let alone for a poor, unwanted creature like Er-jie, who was commonly known to have been a fallen woman before she married. When Xi-feng noticed this she was secretly pleased.
Since Xi-feng’s pretended illness, she had ceased to eat with Er-jie, whose meals, on Xi-feng’s instructions, were now served to her in her own room. Invariably the food that was given her was inedible. Patience was so disgusted that she took to buying her things to eat with her own money, or, on the pretext of going for a walk with her in the Garden, taking her to the Garden kitchen where she could be given nourishing soups to eat under her supervision. Because it was Patience who did this, none of the other servants dared to inform against her. Unfortunately Autumn once came upon them there and, feeling no such compunction, went straight off to denounce her to Xi-feng.
‘Patience is going out of her way to give you a bad name, Mrs Lian. That Er woman wastes the good food you give her and goes into the Garden with Patience every day to sneak food from the kitchen.’
Xi-feng abused Patience angrily.
‘Most people keep a cat to keep down the mice for them. My cat seems to eat the chickens!’
Patience dared not answer back, and from then on kept away from Er-jie; but she secretly hated Autumn because of this.
Bao-yu and the girls were privately concerned about Er-jie. Though none of them would venture to speak out openly on her behalf, they all of them felt sorry for her. Sometimes, when no one else was about, one or other of them would get into conversation with her. Invariably she would be crying and wiping her eyes all the time they were talking to her; but she never uttered a word of complaint against Xi-feng – indeed, since Xi-feng was careful never to reveal herself in her true colours, it is hard to see what she could have complained of.
Jia Lian for his part failed to notice that anything was wrong. Since his return he had been completely taken in by Xi-feng’s show of magnanimity towards her rival; and in any case he was at present somewhat preoccupied. The sight of his father’s many maids and concubines had often in the past aroused libidinous feelings in him which he had perforce repressed; while on her side Autumn had often in the past, by flutterings of the eyelids and various other signals, ex?pressed a marked interest in her master’s handsome son. It may be imagined what sort of blaze was kindled in the brush-wood when two such eager bedfellows were brought together with full parental approval of their union. Day after day he spent in Autumn’s company –
aye sporting with his new-won bride
in the words of the poet. He seemed, indeed, scarcely able to prise himself away from her. Gradually, as Autumn became more and more the only centre of his concern, his former feelings towards Er-jie began to cool.
Xi-feng detested Autumn but was glad to have her as a means of ridding herself of Er-jie. She would ‘kill with a borrowed knife’ – or rather she would watch the killing from a safe distance, like a traveller reclining on a mountainside who watches two tigers tearing each other to pieces in the valley below. And when Autumn had disposed of Er-jie, Xi-?feng herself would take care of Autumn. Once she had settled on this strategy, she lost no opportunity, whenever she found herself alone with Autumn, of stirring her up against her rival.
‘You are so young and headstrong. You ought to be more careful,’ she told her. ‘She is his second wife, after all. He is very, very fond of her. Even I have to give way to her a bit. It’s suicide to go constantly provoking her in the way you do.’
This had the desired effect of releasing a stream of abuse against Er-jie, uttered in a voice that could be heard from one end of the courtyard to the other.
‘You’re too soft with people, Mrs Lian. I wouldn’t behave so meekly if I was in your place. Where’s all your old authority gone to? You can be forgiving if you like, but if I’ve got a smut in my eye, I like to get it out. You just let me get at that whore, I’ll give her a piece of my mind!’
Xi-feng pretended to be too scared of Autumn to rebuke her; but Er-jie, listening in her room, spent the whole day crying and was too upset to eat. She did not dare to tell Jia Lian what the matter was when he called in to see her, and next morning, when Grandmother Jia noticed that her eyes were red and swollen with weeping and asked her what the matter was, she would not say.
This was just the sort of opportunity that Autumn was waiting for. ‘She’s very good at putting on this dying duck act,’ she confided to Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang when Er-jie had gone. ‘We get this from her all the time. It’s because she hates sharing. She wishes that Mrs Lian and I were dead so that she could have Mr Lian all to herself.’
‘It’s possible to be too attractive,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘They say that a jealous nature often goes with it. How contemptible to be like that, though – especially when Feng has gone out of her way to be nice to her! One can see that she has no breeding.’
From that time onwards she appeared to have taken rather a dislike to Er-jie; and the servants, when they sensed that Grandmother Jia did not like her, were only too ready to press forwards and trample on her themselves. Now indeed life for the poor young woman became a burden, only occasionally alleviated when Patience, acting behind her mistress’s back and against her wishes, took up the cudgels on her behalf. How could so gentle a soul, one of those whom Nature, in the words of the poet,
did out of snow and rose-petals compound,
stand up to the barbarities to which she was now daily subjected? After suffering in silence for a month, she began to show the symptoms of an illness: there was a weakness and lassitude in her limbs which made moving them an effort; she could keep nothing down, either food or drink, and seemed to grow thinner and paler ail the time; and she could not sleep at night. One night, when she was trying to get to sleep, San-jie appeared to her, carrying the sword that she had cut her throat with.
‘Sister,’ she said, ‘you always were a silly, weak-willed creature. I knew you would suffer for it in the end. Don’t trust the honied words of that jealous woman! Outwardly she seems kind and virtuous, but she is treacherous and cunning under?neath. She hates you and will never rest until she has brought about your death. If I had been alive, I would never have allowed you to move inside here; or if I had, I would never have allowed her to treat you like this. But I was fated to kill myself and you were fated to suffer here alone. That is our punishment, because in our past lives our wantonness led other folk astray. Sister, you must do as J tell you. Take this sword, cut off that jealous woman’s head, and come with me to the tribunal of Disenchantment to await her judgement. You will die in any case, but if you do not do as I say, you will have died for nothing and no one will feel sorry for you.’
‘Sister,’ said Er-jie, weeping, ‘my whole life has been sinful. You yourself say that my present sufferings are a punishment. Why should I add the crime of murder to my other sins?’
San-jie left her sorrowfully, and Er-jie, waking up with a start, realized that she had been dreaming.
Next time Jia Lian came to see her she had a tearful disclosure to make.
‘This illness I am suffering from will not get better. It is half a year now since I came to you and already I am with child. It might be the son you want, though of course we cannot know that until it comes. If Heaven is merciful, I hope I may live long enough to bear it; but I fear I may die before, and the child with me.’
‘You mustn’t worry,’ said Jia Lian, weeping himself. ‘I’ll get a first-rate doctor to cure this illness.’
He lost no time in sending for one. Unfortunately the Dr Wang of the Imperial College who had attended Grandmother Jia and other members of the family in the past was at present with the Imperial Army in the field (he had some hopes of a baronetcy on his return) and the pages sent out to summon him ended up by calling in a colleague of his called Hu Jun-rong – that same doctor, in fact, who had been called in to attend Skybright a year or two previously. After taking Er-jie’s pulses he informed Jia Lian that her trouble was ‘irregularity of the menses caused by anaemia’.
‘But are you sure she isn’t pregnant?’ said Jia Lian. ‘It’s three months now since she had a period, and she is suffering all the time from morning-sickness.’
When he heard that, Hu Jun-rong asked the old women in attendance if he might have Er-jie’s arm again. It was thrust out through the curtain and he spent a long time feeling the pulses in it a second time.
‘It’s true that in a case of pregnancy the pulse from the liver would be a strong one,’ he said finally. ‘On the other hand wood in the ascendant generates fire, which can by itself cause the drying up of the menstrual fluid: so a strong liver pulse may be indicative only of an irregularity in the menses and not of pregnancy. I wonder if I might have a look at the lady’s face? Before I finally decide on the right treatment, I should like to see what sort of colour she has.’
The request was an unusual one, but Jia Lian felt he had no choice but to grant it. The bed-curtains were drawn back a few inches and Er-jie thrust her head out through the slit. The vision thus presented to him seemed to deprive the doctor temporarily of his senses, so that it is doubtful whether he was able to make any observations of diagnostic value while he was goggling at it. After a moment or two the curtains were drawn to again and Jia Lian accompanied the doctor outside and once more asked him for his opinion.
‘It isn’t pregnancy,’ said the doctor. ‘There is some clotted blood which is holding back the natural discharge. The important thing is to disperse the clot and get her men?struating again.’
He wrote a prescription out and took his leave. Jia Lian sent someone to pay him and also to purchase the drugs named in his prescription. The medicine was made up, infused and taken. From about midnight Er-jie began to suffer from con?tinuous abdominal pain, and after what seemed hours of agony, produced a foetus already sufficiently developed to be recognizable as a male child. This was followed by continuous bleeding in the course of which she fainted away.
Jia Lian cursed Hu Jun-rong bitterly when they told him. He sent someone immediately to call another doctor. He also sent someone to look for Hu Jun-rong; but Hu Jun-rong, having got wind of what had happened, had already packed his bags and disappeared.
The new doctor was not encouraging.
‘Obviously your lady’s constitution was not very robust to start with. It looks to me as if in the course of her pregnancy she must have been subjected to some sort of emotional dis?tress resulting in a congestion of the pneuma. By mistakenly attacking this with a far too drastic dispersant, I am afraid the previous consultant has done a lot of damage. The vital essence has been eighty or ninety per cent impaired. As things look at present, I am afraid I really cannot guarantee a cure. I propose a treatment using both liquid and solid medicines simultaneously. If you can make quite sure that she neither sees nor hears anything likely to upset her during the treat?ment, there might be some hope of improvement.’
Having given his diagnosis he departed, but not before writing out two prescriptions, one for an infusion and one for some pills.
Jia Lian was beside himself. He insisted that the culprit responsible for calling in Hu Jun-rong should be discovered, and had him beaten within an inch of his life. But Jia Lian’s distress was as nothing compared with the transports of grief displayed by Xi-feng.
‘It is beginning to look as if we are fated not to have a son,’ she lamented. ‘To think that a doctor’s incompetence should ruin everything, just as we were so near to having one!’
She had a little ‘altar to Heaven and Earth’ set up on which she burned incense and in front of which she knelt down and prayed with the utmost fervency for Er-jie’s recovery.
‘Let me be ill instead of her,’ she prayed. ‘Only let You-shi’s sister get well again and bear us a man-child, and I vow to spend all my remaining days in prayer and fasting.’
Jia Lian and all the others who saw her and heard her pray were filled with admiration.
While Jia Lian and Autumn were alone together, Xi-feng had all sorts of soups and invalid slops made specially for Er-jie. She even sent the characters of Er-jie’s nativity to a fortune-teller to have her fortune told. The fortune-teller sent word back that Er-jie’s stars were temporarily in collision with those of some other female born under the sign of the Rabbit. A rapid investigation revealed that Autumn was the only person in the household born under that sign. It was her astral influence that was harming Er-jie.
The sight of Jia Lian rushing agitatedly about, calling for doctors, ordering medicines, dispensing curses and floggings among the servants, and in general showing a most singular devotedness to Er-jie, had already caused Autumn’s system to secrete several gallons of vinegar. Her jealous fury when she was informed that Er-jie’s illness was due to her influence and when she was urged by Xi-feng to move elsewhere for a few days in Er-jie’s interest can be imagined.
‘Who pays any attention to what those beggarly swindlers tell you?’ she said. ‘It’s all rubbish anyway. How can I have any influence on her? I have nothing to do with her.
The water in the well
And the water in the sea:
I’ve naught to do with you
Or you to do with me.
Precious little darling! She saw plenty of all sorts when she was living outside. She didn’t suffer from any influences then, why should she start suffering from them now, I wonder? Anyway, there’s something I’d like to ask her. I’d like to ask her where she got that child from. She may fool that cotton?eared master of ours. As long as she gave him a child, it would be all one to him whether it was a Zhang or a Wang. But do you really care about that whore’s brat, Mrs Lian? I’m damned if I do! What’s so special about having a baby? Give me a year or ten months and I’ll have one myself – and it won’t have half the city for its father, either!’
The servants hearing her were at some pains not to laugh. It happened that Lady Xing had come over that day to pay her respects to Grandmother Jia. Autumn took the opportunity of complaining to her.
‘Mr and Mrs Lian are trying to drive me out of here. I don’t know which way to turn. Put in a good word for me, Your Ladyship, I beg of you!’
This led Lady Xing to give Xi-feng a severe telling-off, after which she proceeded to give a piece of her mind to Jia Lian.
‘Ungrateful wretch! Whatever the girl’s like, she was given to you by Sir She. Fancy trying to turn her out for the sake of an outsider! Have you no respect for your father at all?’
She walked off in a huff, giving him no opportunity to explain. Autumn, now thoroughly cock-a-hoop, stood outside Er-jie’s window and favoured the world at large with an expanded and even more abusive version of what she had said earlier to Xi-feng. Er-jie, lying inside, heard every word of it, as she was meant to, and was deeply distressed.
That night, when Jia Lian and Autumn were in bed together and Xi-feng was asleep in her own room, Patience went to see Er-jie and tried to comfort her.
‘You must try to get well,’ she said. ‘Don’t take any notice of that animal.’
Er-jie clutched her hand. She was crying weakly as she replied.
‘Sister, you have been so good to me, ever since I came to this place. I don’t know how much unpleasantness you haven’t had to put up with on my account. If I come out of this alive, I promise I shall do my best to repay your kindness. I fear I shan’t, though. I shall have to try and repay you in another life.’
Patience could not help crying too.
‘All these things that have happened to you – it’s all my fault. I was so stupid. I always told myself that I’d never deceive my mistress, and so when I heard about you and Mr Lian living together outside, I thought I had to tell her. I never thought it would all turn out like this.’
‘You’re wrong to blame yourself,’ said Er-jie. ‘She would have found out sooner or later, even if you hadn’t told her. It was only a question of time. And anyway, I wanted to come here. I wanted so much to be respectable. It really had nothing to do with you.’
The two young women wept a while in silence. Once more Patience tried to comfort her and urged her to get better; then, because it was long past midnight, she left her to go and get some sleep.
After Patience had gone, Er-jie lay thinking.
‘This illness seems to have got its grip on me. I’m losing rather than gaining all the time. It doesn’t look as if I shall ever get better. And now that I’ve lost the baby, there’s nothing much left for me to live for. I don’t have to put up with all this hatred and malice. Why don’t I just die and get it over with? They say you can die by swallowing gold. It would be a better way of dying than hanging oneself or cutting one’s throat.’
She struggled out of bed, opened one of her boxes, and hunted out a nugget of raw gold. Then she wept a little. It was four o’clock in the morning. Summoning up all the will-power she could muster, she forced herself to swallow it. She had to hold her head back and swallow many times before it would go down; but in the end it did. Then she dressed herself hurriedly in her best clothes, put on her jewellery and ornaments, laid herself down upon the kang, and sank at once into unconsciousness.
Hearing no call from her next morning, the maids – Xi-feng and Autumn having gone off to Grandmother Jia’s place for their morning duty – were only too pleased to get on with their toilets undisturbed. Patience was disgusted by their callousness and reproached them bitterly.
‘What you girls need is a really hard-hearted mistress – one who would curse you and beat you every day. There’s a sick woman in there: can’t you feel any sympathy for her at all? Even though she’s so easily put upon, I’m surprised you don’t show her a little consideration, if only for appearance’s sake. “Everyone helps to push over a falling wall” they say; but don’t you think you carry it a bit too far?’
Shamed by her reproaches, the maids pushed open Er-jie’s door and went inside to look. They found her dressed up in all her finery and stretched out dead upon the kang. Their frightened screams brought Patience running in as well. She could not help weeping out loud when she saw the cause. The other servants, too, when they remembered how sweet and gentle Er-jie had been and how unfailingly kind to her inferiors, were moved to tears by her death, but they were all so scared of Xi-feng that they dared not let her see their tears.
Soon everyone in the household had heard the news. When Jia Lian arrived he clung to the corpse and wept uncontrollably. Xi-feng made a show of weeping too and hypo?critically reproached Er-jie for her ‘cruelty’.
‘Hard-hearted sister!’ she wailed. ‘How could you bear to leave me like this when you knew how much I cared for you?’
You-shi and Jia Rong also came and wept a while, after which they urged Jia Lian to cease his lamentations and begin to perform his duties. The first of these was to report Er-jie’s death formally to Lady Wang and ask if he might lay out the body in Pear-tree Court for five days and after that move it to the Temple of the Iron Threshold. Lady Wang gave her permission, whereupon he at once sent servants to open up Pear-tree Court and make the principal room in it ready to receive the corpse.
Jia Lian did not like the idea of Er-jie’s leaving the mansion for the last time by way of the rear gate and into the back streets beyond. He therefore opened up the gate in the outer wall of Pear-tree Court giving on to the passage-way between the two mansions which led into Two Dukes Street. Awnings were put up on either side of this gate to accommodate sūtra-chanting monks.
A beautifully-embroidered satin pall was draped over a camp-bed and Er-jie’s body laid on it and covered over with a sheet. On this it was carried by eight pages, followed by a number of married womenservants, along the foot of the inside walls and all the way to the room in Pear-tree Court which had been made ready for it. The official geomancer had been summoned and was waiting there in readiness. He lifted the coverlet back to look at Er-jie’s face. She looked almost alive – if anything even more beautiful than in life. The sight provoked a fresh outburst of grief from Jia Lian. Once more he clung to her and wept.
‘My poor wife!’ he sobbed. ‘You should never have died. I blame myself for allowing this to happen.’
Jia Rong nervously urged restraint.
‘There, there, Uncle! Take it easy! She was unlucky, poor Auntie. That’s all you can say about it.’
He pointed in the direction of the wall separating Pear-tree Court from the mansion. Jia Lian, understanding his meaning, lowered his voice, though he continued to reproach himself.
‘I was too careless. I should have noticed what was going on.’ He addressed himself to the dead woman. ‘One of these days I shall get to the bottom of this and you shall be revenged.’
At last the coverlet was replaced and the geomancer made his pronouncement.
‘I am assuming that she died at the end of the fifth watch. In that case you won’t be able to take her out of here on the fifth day, I’m afraid. It will have to be either the third or the seventh. For the encoffining, the best time would be four o’clock tomorrow morning.’
‘The third day is much too soon,’ said Jia Lian. ‘It will have to be the seventh. I couldn’t keep her here much longer than that, because my uncle and my cousin are both away and I should need to have their permission; but I am planning to do much more for her when we get her to the temple outside. I’d like to keep her there for the full thirty-five days and give her a really decent funeral with a requiem and so forth at the end of it. We can take her south to Nanking and bury her in the family graveyard next year.’
The geomancer agreed to all this, wrote out the burial licence, and took his leave.
Various male kinsmen – Bao-yu was the first – came over to help Jia Lian mourn. When they had gone, he went back to his own apartment to look for Xi-feng and ask her for some money to buy timber for a coffin with and pay for the funeral.
Now Xi-feng had used her illness as a pretext for not accompanying the others to Pear-tree Court. She claimed that she had received strict instructions from Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang that until she had fully recovered she was to avoid all places connected in any way with birth, sickness or death. She refused to go into mourning for the same reason. The ban did not however prevent her from slipping out into the Garden when everyone else had gone, making her way round it between the rocks and the perimeter wall to the foot of the wall that separated it from Pear-tree Court, and eavesdropping on what was going on inside. She could not hear very much, but enough to send her scurrying back to Grandmother Jia to report on what Jia Lian was up to. Grandmother Jia was indignant.
‘I never heard such nonsense! When a consumptive child dies, one just burns it and scatters the ashes. Burying her in Nanking indeed! What can the man be thinking of? If he feels he has to do something special for her because she was his wife, let him observe the Thirty-Five Days. But after that he should either have her carried out and burned or else buried in the common graveyard. Nanking, indeed!’
Xi-feng laughed.
‘That’s what I thought, but it wasn’t for me to say.’
Just then a maid arrived from Jia Lian, looking for her.
‘Mr Lian’s back, madam. He’s waiting for you to give him some money.’
Xi-feng went back to see him.
‘What’s this about wanting money?’ she asked him. ‘Don’t you know how difficult things are lately? Every month now our allowance falls short of our expenditure. I managed to raise three hundred taels yesterday to pay some of the bills with by pawning two of my gold necklaces. There’s still twenty or thirty taels of that left that you can have if you like.’
She told Patience to get it out and give it to him; then, muttering something about Grandmother Jia having something more to say, she went away again, leaving Jia Lian speechless with resentment. He was obliged to go through Er-jie’s drawers and cupboards looking for the savings he had entrusted to her. But someone seemed to have been through them before him, for all he could find were a few bits of broken jewellery and a few far from new silk dresses. The sight of these clothes which she had worn brought on another outburst of anguished weeping. He felt sure there was something suspicious about her death but dared not utter what he thought. He made the things up into a bundle and was appar?ently intending to take them outside and sell them, for he had called no servant, and when Patience saw him was carrying the bundle himself. She found the sight of him carrying it both pathetic but also a trifle ludicrous. Hurriedly abstracting a packet containing two hundred taels of miscellaneous bits and pieces of silver from one of Xi-feng’s chests, she drew him into one of the side rooms where no one could see them and gave it to him.
‘Psst! Not a word! And by the way, if you want to cry, you can cry as much as you like outside, but for goodness’ sake don’t make an exhibition of yourself here, where everyone can see you!’
‘You are right,’ said Jia Lian, taking the money. He handed her a skirt out of the bundle. ‘Here, take this. It’s something she often used to wear. Keep it to remember her by.’
As he was insistent, she took it from him and put it away with her things.
Now that Jia Lian had some money, he sent someone to buy timber for the coffin. Unfortunately the best planks turned out to be too expensive and the more modestly priced ones did not meet with his approval. In the end he got on his horse and insisted on going to see for himself. The outcome was that a set of planks costing five hundred taels and obtained by him on credit were delivered from the timber-merchant’s that evening. The carpenters were set to work on them immediately and ordered to go on working through the night so that the coffin should be ready in time.
He ordered some of the servants to dress in mourning and keep vigil at Er-jie’s side. He himself did not return to his own apartment that evening, but spent that and every other night of the seven at Pear-tree Court. Towards the end of this sojourn he was somewhat surprised to receive a summons from Grandmother Jia.
The reason for the summons will be revealed in the chapter which follows.

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