The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 71



Lady Xing deliberately humiliates her
And Faithful inadvertently interrupts
a pair of love-birds

It was the news of Jia Zheng’s imminent homecoming that had caused the maidservants’ agitation. As an Education Officer, Jia Zheng was supposed to report on his commission as soon as he arrived and, being a very conscientious man, he would have thought it improper even to look in on his family before doing so. When, therefore, at the news of his coming, Cousin Zhen, Jia Lian and Bao-yu went out to the first poststage beyond the walls to welcome him, he merely inquired after his mother’s health, bowing respectfully in her direction as he did so, and told them to go back and wait for him at home. After his interview next day with the All-highest, his mission was formally completed and he could return with a good conscience to his family. The All-highest had been graciously pleased to grant him a whole month’s leave of absence in which to rest and recuperate at home.
Jia Zheng was beginning to age now, and the worries and responsibilities of office had taken their toll of his health. It was good to be back after so long an absence from those nearest and dearest to him; he was determined to relax and enjoy himself to the utmost, refused even to think about money matters or domestic responsibilities, and spent all his time reading, or, when he felt in need of company, drinking and playing Go with his literary gentlemen, or enjoying the de?lights of family life with his wife and mother in the women’s apartments inside.
This year the third day of the eighth month was Grandmother Jia’s eightieth birthday. A formidable number of people would have to be invited and there was even some doubt whether they would be able to accommodate them all.
After discussion by the menfolk of both mansions, it was decided that there should be eight days of entertaining, beginning on the twenty-eighth of the seventh month and ending on the fifth day of the eighth on each of these days banquets would be given in both mansions: in the Ning-guo mansion for male guests and in the Rong-guo mansion for female ones. The Painted Chamber, Prospect Hall and one or two other of the larger buildings in Prospect Garden would be used as rest?rooms for the ladies. The programme of entertaining would be as follows: the twenty-eighth would be for Imperial kinsmen, Princes and Princesses of the Blood and their consorts, Royal Highnesses, Serene Highnesses and members of the high nobility; the twenty-ninth would be for Ministers of State and Civil and Military Governors and their wives; the thirtieth for official colleagues and their wives and members of other clans related to the Jia family by marriage; on the first of the eighth month a family party would be given by Jia She, on the second one by Jia Zheng and on the third one by Cousin Zhen and Jia Lian; on the fourth a joint entertainment would be given by all members of the Jia clan irrespective of age and seniority; and on the fifth there would be another joint enter?tainment organized by Lai Da, Lin Zhi-xiao and the other senior domestics.
Ever since the beginning of the seventh month presents had been coming in almost continuously. From the highest source of all an order was received by the Board of Rites authorizing the bestowal of the following:
a ru-yi sceptre of gold and jade four lengths of tribute satin
four gold and jade cups
five hundred taels of silver from the Imperial Treasury
Yuan-chun’s gifts, which were delivered to the mansion by eunuchs, were:
a golden figurine of Old Longevity
a staff of aloeswood
a rosary of putchuk beads
a box of Fu Shou incense
a pair of golden medallions
four pairs of silver ingots
twelve lengths of tribute satin
four jade cups
And there were presents too numerous to mention from princes and princesses and from the families of a host of civil and military officials both great and small who were on visiting terms with the Jias. Several long tables were carried into the main reception hall and covered with red baize and the choicest presents set out on them every day for Grandmother Jia’s inspection. She went along for the first day or two and took some pleasure in examining her gifts, but soon grew tired of this and told Xi-feng to look after them for her: she would look at them herself some other day, when she had nothing better to do.
By the twenty-eighth both mansions had been hung with lanterns and festooned all over with garlands. Painted phoenixes gambolled on folding screens, embroidered lotuses blossomed on drapes and covers, and the sound of fluting and piping could be heard several streets away. The only guests that day at the Ning-guo mansion were the Prince of Bei-jing, the Prince of Nan-an, Princess Yang-chang’s Consort, the Prince of Luo-shan and a number of noblemen whose families had long been on friendly terms with the Jias. At the Rong-guo mansion the guests were the Dowager Princess of Nan-an, the Prince of Bei-jing’s Consort, and the ladies of the various aforementioned noblemen. Grandmother Jia and the others were dressed in full court rig to receive them. After the initial salutations were over, the visitors were conducted to Prospect Hall inside the Garden, where they took tea and ‘changed their clothes’. From there they were conducted to the Hall of Exalted Felicity, where they offered formal con?gratulations to Grandmother Jia before finally, after much polite bowing and deferring, taking their places at the banquet. The Dowager Princess of Nan-an and the Prince of Bei?jing’s Consort sat at the two central tables at the back of the hall; the two rows of tables arranged at right-angles to left and right of theirs were occupied in order of precedence, the Marchioness of Jin-xiang and the Countess of Lin-an heading the row upon the left, while Grandmother Jia, as hostess, occupied the first of the right-hand ones. Lady Xing and Lady Wang stood in attendance behind Grandmother Jia’s chair, with You-shi, Xi-feng and a number of other Jia ladies fanning out to left and right behind them. Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife and Lai Da’s wife stood by the bamboo curtain on one side of the hall supervising the transportation of dishes and wine-kettles by a small army of serving-women, while Zhou-Rui’s wife directed the waitresses from the other side of the folding screens. Meanwhile the attendants brought with them by the lady visitors were being entertained elsewhere.
Outside, on the temporary stage that had been erected in the courtyard, the players were due to begin their performance. In honour of the occasion they began by kneeling in a row at the front of it and offering their birthday congratulations to the old lady, while twelve little maids, dressed up as page-boys in identical costumes, stood solemnly to attention below the stage. When the players had finished, one of these little girl-pages advanced to the foot of the steps leading up to the hall with a playbill in her hands. She was relieved of it by a serving-woman who had been stationed there for the sole purpose of receiving and carrying messages. This woman handed it to Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife, who put it on a salver, edged herself through the bamboo curtain, and carried it to Cousin Zhen’s concubine, Lovey. Lovey handed it to You-shi, and You-shi walked up and offered it to the Dowager Princess of Nan-an. The Dowager Princess, after first, for politeness’ sake, de?clining, chose one of those congratulatory pieces which are customarily performed on these occasions. The Prince of Bei-jing’s Consort, whose turn it was next, did exactly the same. The rest of the ladies insisted that the players themselves should put on whatever they thought best, for it was sure to be good.
After four courses of various dishes and one of soup, the visitors’ attendants gave their mistresses’ largesse to the players, and the ladies returned to the Garden to ‘change their clothes’ and sample a very special tea. The Dowager Princess of Nan-an asked Grandmother Jia about Bao-yu.
‘Several temples are reading the Immaculate Diamond for me today,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘He has gone to kneel a while in each one of them while they do the reading.’
‘And what about your granddaughters?’ said the Princess.
‘Oh, this one is ill and that one is weakly and the other is too shy to see anyone. They are looking after my room for me today. We have more players than we need, so I thought we might as well let them have a troupe to themselves. I expect they are at this moment sitting with their cousins and watching a play in my courtyard.’
‘Do send for them!’ said the old princess coaxingly.
Grandmother turned to where Xi-feng was standing behind her.
‘Go and fetch your Cousin Shi and the two Xue girls and your Cousin Lin, will you? Oh, and you can bring your Cousin Tan with you as well.’
Xi-feng went to Grandmother Jia’s place. All the girls were there, nibbling sweets and watching a play, as Grandmother Jia had said they would be. Bao-yu had just got back from his kneeling. In obedience to her message, Bao-chai, Bao-qin, Dai-yu, Tan-chun and Xiang-yun followed her back into the Garden and made their curtseys to the assembled ladies. Some of the guests had seen them before, some had not; but all alike exclaimed admiringly at their beauty. Of the five girls Xiang?yun was the most familiar to those present.
‘Naughty girl!’ said the Dowager Princess waggishly. ‘You should have come yourself to see me when you heard that I was here, not waited to be called! I shall have a bone to pick with your uncle now, next time I see him!’
She took Tan-chun by one hand and Bao-chai by the other and drew them towards her.
‘And how old are you girls?’ she asked.
She released them, after several times commenting what ‘fine girls’ they were, and then subjected Dai-yu and Bao?-qin to the same treatment, taking them by the hand, scrutiniz?ing each of them in turn, and extravagantly praising their good looks.
‘Dear me, they are all such lovely girls!’ she said laughing. ‘I really don’t know which of them I prefer.’
Suitable presents had now been made ready by an attendant: five gold rings, five jade rings and five wristlets of aromatic beads.
‘Rather trifling presents I am afraid, my dears,’ said the Dowager Princess. ‘Perhaps you could give them to your maids.’
The five girls kotowed their thanks. There were more presents from the Prince of Bei-jing’s Consort and from the other ladies present – but there is no need to enumerate them.
When they had finished their tea, the ladies walked for a while in the Garden, after which Grandmother Jia invited them to return to the banquet; but the Dowager Princess of Nan-an took her leave. ‘To tell you the truth, I am not feeling very well today,’ she said. ‘I would not have stayed away for the world, but I am sure you will understand if I leave a little early.’
Under the circumstances, Grandmother Jia could not very well press her to stay, and after some polite skirmishing when the Princess protested that she could perfectly well find her way off the premises alone, the entire company saw her to the gate of the Garden, where she climbed into her palanquin and was carried away. The Prince of Bei-jing’s Consort returned with the rest of them to the Hall of Exalted Felicity and sat with them there for some minutes, but then she too took her leave. Of the other ladies some stayed on to the end, others left when a decent interval had elapsed after the departure of the two princesses.
The day’s entertaining left Grandmother Jia exhausted and next day she was unable to see anyone and stayed in her own room. Lady Xing and Lady Wang had to receive the female guests on her behalf. As for the male ones, those of them who wanted to offer their birthday congratulations had to do so in the outer reception hall. Their salutations were returned, obeisance for obeisance and bow for bow, by Jia She, Jia Zheng and Cousin Zhen, who then conducted them to the banquet prepared for them in Ning-guo House. But that is enough of banquets.
As long as the birthday celebrations continued, You-shi did not go back to the Ning-guo mansion to sleep. During the daytime she helped the others to entertain the guests. In the evenings, after some time spent in Grandmother Jia’s apartment chatting with the old lady, she would help Xi-feng supervise the getting out and putting away of the porcelain, gold and silver ware and other things that had been used that day or would be on the next, and the going over and setting out on display of the most recently-arrived batch of presents. After that she would go to Li Wan’s place to spend the night.
On one of these evenings she had just finished waiting on Grandmother Jia while she took her evening meal, when the old lady exempted her from further services.
‘You must be tired,’ she said. ‘I know I am. Why don’t you go and have a bite to eat yourself now and then go to bed? You will have to be up early again tomorrow.’
You-shi thanked her and went off to Xi-feng’s room hoping for some supper. Xi-feng was in the upstairs storage-room, however, supervising the putting away of some screens that had just arrived. Only Patience was at home, folding up some of Xi-feng’s clothes. Remembering Patience’s many kindnesses to Er-jie while she was still alive, You-shi nodded her head sympathetically.
‘You are a good-hearted girl, Patience. I am afraid you have a great deal to put up with.’
Patience’s eyes reddened, but she forbore to say anything. You-shi asked her if Xi-feng had eaten yet. Patience smiled.
‘She wouldn’t eat without first asking you,’ she said.
‘In that case I’ll go and look for a bite elsewhere,’ said You?-shi. ‘I don’t know why, but I’m absolutely ravenous.’
‘Don’t go!’ said Patience. ‘We’ve got some mince rolls. Why not make do with one or two of those now and have supper with Mrs Lian when she gets back?’
‘No, I can see you’re busy,’ said You-shi. ‘I think I shall go into the Garden to see the girls.’
Since she obviously wanted to go, Patience made no further effort to detain her.
When You-shi came to the Garden she found the main gate and all the side gates still open and blazing with lights. Turning to the maid who accompanied her, she told her to go and fetch one of the women who were supposed to be on duty. The maid went into the duty room in the gatehouse, but not a soul was anywhere to be seen. She came back and told You?-shi. Very well, said You-shi, then she should go and fetch one of the stewardesses from the mansion. The maid went back into the mansion to the corner-house inside the inner gate which was used by the stewardesses as a meeting-place, but its only occupants on this occasion were two women busily engaged in sharing out some left-overs for their supper.
‘Where are the stewardesses, then?’ the girl asked them. ‘My mistress from the Ning-guo is waiting for someone to give an order to.’
The women continued with their sharing-out. They felt little inclined to put themselves out for a visitor from the other mansion.
‘The stewardesses have all gone home,’ said one of them.
‘In that case you’d better go and get one from her lodgings,’ said the maid.
‘Our job is to look after the rooms here, not to run errands,’ said the woman. ‘If you want someone fetched, you’d better go and find someone whose job it is to fetch them.’
‘But this is rank mutiny!’ said the maid. ‘Not your job to run errands? You might fool a newcomer with such talk, but you don’t fool me! If I’d asked you to go to one of the stewardesses with a private message or tell her to come and collect a tip, you’d be trotting off like a little puppy-dog to its master. There’d be no talk then about it not being your job to do errands. I’d like to hear you give Mrs Lian such an answer!’
Partly because they had had a drop to drink and partly because what the girl said was uncomfortably close to the truth, the women’s resentment quickly flared into anger.
‘Impertinent little baggage! We know very well what our job is; we don’t need you to tell us. And before you start criticizing us, you might take a look at your own parents. The way they suck up to the stewards and stewardesses at your place is downright disgusting. You keep to your mansion and we’ll keep to ours. Go and make trouble for your own people if you have a mind to, but keep away from us!’
The maid had become white-faced with anger.
‘Good!’ she said ‘Very good!’ and turning about, walked straight back into the Garden to report all this to her mistress.
On entering the Garden some minutes previously, You-shi had come upon Aroma, Bao-qin and Xiang-yun laughing at a story that two nuns from the Convent of the Saviour King were telling them. When You-shi told them how hungry she was, they invited her to sit with them in the courtyard of Green Delights while Aroma went indoors to get her something to eat. Aroma found some rolls with meat and some with vege?table stuffing in them and put them in a food-box to carry out to her. She also brought out some tea for Bao-qin and Xiang-?yun to sip while You-shi was eating the rolls. The nuns con?tinued with their story. At that moment the maid arrived, still bursting with indignation, and proceeded to tell You-shi about her encounter and what the two women had said. You-shi was silent for some moments before she made any comment.
‘What extraordinary behaviour!’ she said finally.
One of the nuns gave the maidservant a prod.
‘You are too quick-tempered, my child! You don’t want to go repeating what those silly old women said to you. Your mistress is quite worn out from all her exertions during these past few days. What she needs is a little pick-me-up, something to cheer her up a bit. That’s what we’re trying to do, cheer her up. This is no time to come troubling her with that sort of talk!’
Aroma took the girl by the hand.
‘Go off and calm down a bit, there’s a good girl! I’ll get someone to fetch one of the stewardesses.’
‘It isn’t necessary,’ said You-shi. She addressed herself to the maid. ‘Go and fetch those two women, and when you’ve done that, you can find out where Mrs Lian is and tell her I want to see her.’
‘I’ll go,’ said Aroma.
‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ said You-shi.
The two nuns rose to their feet with propitiatory smiles.
‘Come, Mrs Zhen! You are such a kind, forgiving person as a rule. Surely you are not going to lose your temper on Her Old Ladyship’s birthday? Whatever would people say?’
Bao-qin and Xiang-yun added their own smiling entreaties.
‘All right,’ said You-shi, ‘I’ll let them off – but only because it is Lady Jia’s birthday.’
Unfortunately Aroma had in the meantime already sent a junior maid outside the Garden to look for someone, and this girl was already pouring an account of what had happened into the receptive ear of Zhou Rui’s wife, who, as it happened, was the first person she ran into.
Although Zhou Rui’s wife was not actually a stewardess, she regarded herself as being of equal dignity with one on account of her special relationship with Lady Wang, who had brought her from the Wang household when she was married; moreover she was a somewhat insinuating woman, whose eagerness to please made her a popular servant with the younger mistresses. What the maid told her brought her flying over at once to Green Delights, brimming over with sympathy and concern.
‘How shocking! Poor Mrs Zhen! No wonder she is so angry! I wish I had been there. I should have boxed their ears for them on the spot and settled accounts with them later!’
These worthy sentiments were uttered by her on the way. You-shi was pleased to see her when she arrived.
‘Ah, my dear Zhou! Perhaps you will tell me whether or not I was right to feel concerned. When I came into the Garden just now, all the gates were wide open and candles were still burning in all the lanterns. Anyone would have been free to go in or come out as they pleased. I thought how awful it would be if anything were to happen, but when I gave orders for the duty-women to close the gates and put the lights out, not a single one was to be found.’
‘Good gracious!’ said Zhou Rui’s wife. ‘Mrs Lian gave special orders about this only a few days ago and already they’re disobeying them! She’ll have to flog a few of them when this is over; that’s the only way to cure this sort of thing.’
You-shi then told her what the two women had said to her maid.
‘Well, don’t let it upset you, Mrs zhen,’ said Zhou Rui’s wife. ‘Just wait until these celebrations are over: I’ll have a word with the stewardesses and we’ll take that precious pair and flog the daylights out of them. “You keep to your mansion and we’ll keep to ours” indeed! They’ll be singing a different tune from that by the time we’ve finished with them!’
In the midst of this excitement someone arrived from Xi?feng’s, inviting You-shi to come back for some supper.
‘I’m not hungry,’ said You-shi. ‘I’ve just been eating some rolls. Tell your mistress to have her supper without me.’
Zhou Rui’s wife went round herself to Xi-feng’s place shortly afterwards to repeat all this story to Xi-feng.
‘All you need do is make a note of the women’s names,’ Xi-feng told her. ‘When these celebrations are over, you can have them tied up and sent over to Mrs Zhen to punish or pardon as she sees fit. It isn’t a very serious matter.’
Now as it happened, Zhou Rui’s wife was on very bad terms with these two women, and in her impatience to proceed against them, she put a somewhat loose construction on the warrant given her by Xi-feng, for she first of all sent a boy round to Lin Zhi-xiao’s house to say that Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife was wanted by You-shi immediately, and then sent some other servants to apprehend the two women, tie them up, and hand them over to the grooms to be shut up in the stables and kept under guard there until further notice.
Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife, when she got the message, at once got into her carriage, wondering what on earth could be the matter, and hurried over to Xi-feng’s place to inquire; but when, on reaching the inner gate, she sent someone inside to announce her, a maid came out and told her that Xi-feng had already gone to bed.
‘It’s Mrs Zhen that wants to see you,’ said the girl. ‘She’s in the Garden now. You’d better look for her there.’
Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife went into the Garden and hurried through it to Sweet-rice Village. You-shi was quite put out when the maids announced her arrival. She had her invited in immediately and smiled at her apologetically as she entered.
‘I only asked for you because I wanted to give an order and nobody could be found. It wasn’t anything serious. It certainly wasn’t serious enough to call you out for specially. It is all over and done with now, in any case.’
Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife smiled, a trifle grimly.
‘But madam, Mrs Lian sent someone round to my place to say that you were asking for me.’
‘If I was, it was under the impression that you were still here,’ said You-shi. ‘I suppose it must be Zhou’s wife who told Mrs Lian about this. She need not have done so. It was really nothing of any consequence. Please go back home to bed.’
Li Wan was on the point of telling Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife what the trouble was, but You-shi would not let her. Since evidently neither lady was going to tell her, Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife took her leave. Just as she was coming out of the Garden gate, she ran into Aunt Zhao.
‘Good gracious me! Still on your feet at this hour, Mrs Lin?’ said Aunt Zhao. ‘I’d have thought you’d be at home and tucked up in bed by now!’
‘I was at home,’ said Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife, and proceeded to tell Aunt Zhao why she had been called out (for she had privately found out the reason for the summons before going into the Garden).
‘Well, fancy calling you out for a piddling little thing like that!’ said Aunt Zhao indignantly. ‘She should either have ignored it altogether, if she was feeling generous, or if she was in an unforgiving mood, had the women given a few whacks and that would have been the end of the matter. There was no need to drag you out specially. I won’t ask you in for a cup of tea now, you’ll probably be wanting to get back to bed.’
Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife continued on her way to the side gate where her carriage was waiting. The young daughters of the two imprisoned women were lying in wait for her there and, when they saw her coming, tearfully entreated her to intercede for their mothers. Liin Zhi-xiao’s wife merely laughed at them.
‘Silly children! Those mothers of yours ought not to drink so much or be so free with their tongues – that’s the cause of all this trouble. I don’t know what makes them do it. It’s Mrs Lian who had them tied up and I’m in trouble myself now, so I don’t know what I can do to help them.’
The two daughters, being only little girls and of very limited understanding, continued to blubber and entreat and clung so obstinately to Lin Zhi-xiao’s wife that she was unable to get into her carriage. She rounded on one of the two girls exasperatedly.
‘Stupid creature!’ she said. ‘What do you want to come hanging around me for when you could find help elsewhere? Wasn’t your elder sister married to Mrs Fei’s boy recently? Mrs Fei came here with Lady Xing when she was married. If you were to tell your sister about this and get her to have a word with Mrs Fei and Mrs Fei spoke about it to Lady Xing, that would be the end of the matter.’
Glad to be reminded, the girl went scampering off immediately; but the other girl continued to entreat. Lin Zhi?xiao’s wife shoved her off impatiently.
‘You really are a stupid child! Didn’t I just say that if she has a word with her sister that will be the end of the matter? That means they’ll both be let off. You surely don’t think they’d let her mother off and give yours a beating?’
She got into her carriage then and drove back home.
The first little girl went and told her sister, as Lin Zhi?-xiao’s wife had told her to, and the sister at once repeated the story to her mother-in-law, Goody Fei. This Goody Fei was a notorious trouble-maker, whose first reaction to the story was a stream of invective, fully audible to the occupants of all the neighbouring courtyards, after which she went to solicit help from Lady Xing.
‘It’s my boy’s mother-in-law, my lady: she only had a few words with a maid of Mrs Zhen’s, but that Zhou woman told such a pack of lies about her to Mrs Lian that she had my boy’s mother-in-law and the woman that was with her tied up and shut in the stables and in a few days’ time she’s going to have them both beaten. Do, please, my lady, put in a good word with Mrs Lian and ask her to let them off.’
Ever since the Faithful fiasco Grandmother Jia’s attitude towards Lady Xing seemed to have hardened, whilst Xi-feng’s stature seemed to have grown at her mother-in-law’s expense. The jealousy and resentment that Lady Xing felt as a conse?quence of this had recently been exacerbated by an imagined slight: the passing over of Ying-chun when the Dowager Princess of Nan-an asked to see the Jia girls and Tan-chun was the only one of the three to be called. Mischief-makers were not wanting to play upon her resentment, in this case repre?senting Xi-feng’s action as a deliberate attack on her authority.
Her hatred of Xi-feng had now reached a degree of intensity that went beyond all reason.
Early next morning she went to pay her respects to Grandmother Jia. This was the junior clansmen’s day. When Lady Xing got there, the junior clansmen had already arrived and the players were waiting to begin. Grandmother Jia always enjoyed meeting young people, and so today she was appear?ing in person to receive their congratulations, dressed in her ordinary clothes, since this was a family party and the guests were all her juniors. She was reclining in the middle of the rear part of the hall on a large wooden couch furnished with a back-rest and bolsters and a footstool in front of it in case she should wish to sit upright. Around her couch were ranged a number of identical stools on which Bao-chai, Bao-qin, Dai-Yu, Xiang-yun, Ying-chun, Tan-chun and Xi-chun were sitting. Of the twenty or so girls of their generation whose mothers had brought them there on this occasion two, Jia Bin’s sister Xi-luan and Jia Qiong’s sister Si-jie, had, on account of their good looks, well-spokenness and charming manners, found particular favour with Grandmother Jia and been invited to sit on stools with the other seven. Bao-yu sat up on the couch with his grandmother and massaged her legs for her. Aunt Xue had been given the place of honour in the ordering of the feast and the two lines of tables which rayed out on either side were occupied by the other ladies according to their husbands’ seniority in the clan. The men sat on the verandah at either side of the hall, also in order of seniority.
Presently the birthday ceremony began. The female members of the clan were the first to make their kotows. The males would have come next, but Grandmother Jia lay back on the couch and sent someone outside to excuse them. Then Lai Da arrived with the male domestics. They knelt down, row upon row of them, from the ornamental gate all the way up to the steps at the foot of the hall, to make their kotows. After them it was the turn of the married women, and after them of the maids. Something like the time it would take to eat two or three meals must have elapsed before all the kotowing was over. Next a number of bird-cages were set down in the middle of the courtyard and the birds released from them. Then Jia She and the other seniors supervised the burning of paper offerings to Heaven-and-Earth and Old Longevity. Only then did the drinking and the play-acting begin.
Grandmother Jia remained until the players’ mid-day interval before retiring to rest in her own room. She insisted that those of them who had escorted her there should go back and enjoy themselves, and asked Xi-feng to arrange for Xi-luan and Si-jie to stay on for a couple of nights after the party.
Xi-feng went off to speak to the girls’ mothers. Both had received favours from her in the past and were only too happy to comply with anything she asked them, and the girls themselves were of course delighted at the prospect of playing in the Garden all day and not having to go home for the night.
Lady Xing bided her time until the evening; then, just as everyone was getting ready to go, she went up to Xi-feng in front of all the others and made her a request.
‘I understand that you became angry with two old women last night and sent Zhou Rui’s wife to have them tied up. I don’t know what crime they had committed and it isn’t of course my business to interfere, but it does seem to me that Lady Jia’s birthday is an occasion when we should all be doing our utmost to help those less fortunate than ourselves – giving money and free rice to the old and needy and that sort of thing – hardly a time for maltreating aged domestics. Could you not see your way to releasing them, for Lady Jia’s sake, if not for mine?’
Having said that, she got into her carriage and drove away.
The humiliation of being addressed like this in front of so many people filled Xi-feng with anger and confusion. Her face turned a dusky red colour and for some moments she was so taken aback that she was unable to speak; then, turning to Lai Da’s wife, she said, with a forced laugh:
‘But this is ridiculous! Last night I heard that some of our people had been rude to Mrs Zhen, and as I was afraid that she might be feeling vexed about it, I naturally had them tied up so that they could be placed at her disposal. It wasn’t me they had offended. I wonder what tale-bearing busybody is res?ponsible for carrying this story next door?’
‘What exactly happened last night?’ asked Lady Wang.
Xi-feng explained.
‘I didn’t even know about this myself,’ said You-shi, laughing. ‘Really, Feng, I think you were a trifle officious.’
‘I was concerned about you,’ said Xi-feng. ‘You had been insulted. It was a natural courtesy to place them at your disposal. Suppose I was at your place and some of your people insulted me? Wouldn’t you send them over to me for me to deal with? I thought that was a general principle which all of us observed, even if the servant in question was a highly valued one. Some meddlesome person has blown this incident up out of all proportion for the sake of stirring things up next door. I shouldn’t have thought myself that it was worth mentioning even.’
‘Your mother-in-law was quite right,’ said Lady Wang. ‘Cousin Zhen’s wife is one of us. There was no need for such empty courtesies in her case. Grandmother’s birthday is much more important. The women ought to be released.’
Xi-feng’s humiliation was now complete. A feeling of such wretchedness came over her that she could no longer hold back the tears of anger that had been collecting in her eyes. Not wishing them to be seen, she rushed back to her own apartment to weep alone.
She had hardly got back, though, when Grandmother Jia sent Amber round to summon her. Amber noticed with surprise that she had been crying.
‘Hullo, what’s all this about? She’s waiting to ask you about something.’
Xi-feng wiped away her tears, washed and dried her face, and put on a fresh lot of make-up before accompanying Amber back to Grandmother Jia’s apartment.
‘How many of the people who sent presents gave me screens ?’ the old lady asked Xi-feng when she arrived.
‘Sixteen,’ said Xi-feng. ‘There were twelve big screens and four little kang screens. The biggest screen was from the Zhens of Nanking: a twelve panel folding screen with a scene in silk tapestry on crimson satin from A Heap of Honours on one side and Symbols of Longevity in powder-gold on the other. There’s also quite a good enamelled screen from Admiral Wu’s lady.’
‘Yes, well don’t do anything with those two, then,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Just put them by somewhere where they will be safe. I want to give them to someone as a present.’
Faithful went over to Xi-feng and peered into her face.
‘What are you staring at her like that for?’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Haven’t you seen her before?’
‘I was wondering why her eyes are so swollen,’ said Faithful.
‘Come over here,’ Grandmother Jia commanded, and scrutinized Xi-feng herself.
‘It’s because my eyes were itching and I’ve been rubbing them,’ said Xi-feng.
‘Are you sure someone hasn’t been upsetting you?’ said Faithful, laughing.
‘Who would dare?’ said Xi-feng. ‘And even if they had, I wouldn’t dare to cry on Her Old Ladyship’s birthday.’
‘I should think not indeed,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘I’m just going to have dinner now. You can stay with me and watch me eat it, and then you and Zhen’s wife can share what’s left over. The two of you can help these sisters here to pick up Buddha beans.’ She indicated the pair of nuns whose presence Xi-feng had been vaguely aware of on entering. ‘It will add some years to your life. I let Bao-yu and the girls do it the other day. Now you two must have a go as well, so that no one can accuse me of favouritism.’
While she was speaking, the table had been laid and a meat?less meal served for the two nuns. Then, when they had eaten, a meal with meat in it was served for Grandmother Jia. When she in turn had finished, the remains of her meal were carried into the outer room for Xi-feng and You-shi to eat. They had already started when Grandmother Jia had Xi-luan and Si-jie sent for to join them. After they had finished and washed their hands, some incense was lit and a pint of beans brought in, over which the two nuns chanted some prayers. The two young women, each armed with a pair of chopsticks, then had to pick the beans up one by one and drop them into a basket, to be boiled next day and given away to passers-by in the street.
While they were thus engaged, Grandmother Jia reclined on her couch and listened to edifying stories told her by the two nuns.
Faithful had heard from Amber about Xi-feng’s crying and had been over to Xi-feng’s apartment herself to find out the reason for it from Patience. Late that evening, when everyone else had left, she spoke about it to Grandmother Jia.
‘Mrs Lian is still crying. It’s because she was shamed in front of everyone by Lady Xing.’
‘Oh?’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Why was that?’
Faithful told her.
‘I think Feng acted quite correctly,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Surely we’re not going to allow our slaves to insult everyone with impunity just because it’s my birthday? I expect this was Lady Xing’s way of getting her own back for some grudge or other that she hadn’t had the courage to tackle her about at the time. It’s hard to see what other motive she could have had for humiliating her in public.’
Just at that moment Bao-qin came in and the subject had to be dropped. Bao-qin’s presence reminded Grandmother Jia of her two young visitors. She called one of her women to her and gave her a message about them which she was to convey to the principal womenservants in the Garden.
‘Tell them they must treat them just as they do our own young ladies. Anyone I hear of behaving disrespectfully to either of them will be punished mercilessly.’
‘Better let me go,’ said Faithful, before the woman had had time to get away. ‘They’ll never listen to her.’
She went off at once into the Garden. Her first call was at Sweet-rice Village; but neither Li Wan nor You-shi was there. The maids there told her that they were in Tan-chun’s apartment with the others, so she retraced her footsteps and called in at Autumn Studio. She found Li Wan and You-shi in the Paulownia Room engaged in a conversation, punctuated by frequent bursts of laughter, with the rest of the Garden’s little society. They welcomed Faithful with smiles and urged her to be seated.
‘What are you doing here at this late hour?, they asked her.
‘I suppose I’m allowed to walk in the Garden if I want to,’ said Faithful, and passed on Grandmother Jia’s message about Xi-luan and Si-jie.
Li Wan rose respectfully to receive it and at once sent some?one to transmit it to the heads of all the apartments and instruct them to pass it on to their subordinates.
‘Lady Jia has wonderful foresight,’ You-shi commented drily. ‘We energetic younger ones may tie up a dozen servants, but we are still not so effective as her.’
‘I don’t know,’ said Li Wan. ‘Cousin Feng may not quite come up to Lady Jia’s standard, but she doesn’t do too badly. Personally I find her foresight quite uncanny. Certainly I could never hope to match it.’
‘You should have said “poor Cousin Feng”,’ said Faithful. ‘She’s in a bad way at the moment. During all the years she has been managing things she may not have put a foot wrong as far as Their Ladyships are concerned, but she has given a great deal of offence elsewhere. A daughter-in-law’s life must be pretty impossible. If she is too meek and mild her in-laws will complain that she is stupid and the servants won’t respect her, yet if she shows any initiative, there is always another set of problems rising up behind her back for every one that she deals with. In our household, where there are a certain number of mistresses who used once themselves to be maids, it’s particularly difficult. Such people are so full of their own importance that they are always taking offence, and if they are the slightest bit crossed in anything they begin spreading stories about you or finding other ways of stirring up trouble. I haven’t so far liked to say anything to Her Old Ladyship about this for fear of making her angry. If I ever do, people had better watch out, because then the sparks will begin to fly, I can tell you! Perhaps I shouldn’t say this in front of you, Miss Tan, but you know how certain people are always carrying on about the way Her Old Ladyship makes a favourite of Bao-yu. Well now apparently that doesn’t matter any more. That’s just a “natural preference”. Now it seems they’re angry because Her Old Ladyship has been favouring you. Did you ever hear of anything so ridiculous?’
‘There are a lot of very silly people about,’ said Tan-chun. ‘One really can’t be bothered with what they say. I often think how nice it would be to live in a smaller household, even if it meant being poorer. Think how delightful it would be to have just oneself and one’s parents and one or two brothers and sisters living together as one happy little family! People look at our great household and all its wealth and think how happy we must be; they don’t realize that the vexations far outweigh the advantages.’
‘You’re much too thin-skinned, Tan,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I’m always telling you: you should pay no attention to what vulgar people say or do but concentrate on enjoying the luxuries and opportunities that wealth and position make available to us. Others who lack these things have some reason to com?plain. Why make yourself miserable when you have got them?’
‘We can’t all be as happy-go-lucky as you are,’ said You-shi. ‘All you think about is amusing yourself with the girls, eating when you are hungry and sleeping when you are tired. Each year to you is like the last. You haven’t a thought in your head about the future.’
‘It’s the time I spend with the girls here that really matters,’ said Bao-yu. ‘If I die, I die. What do I care about the future?’
Li Wan and the others laughed.
‘That’s a silly way to talk. Even if you don’t do anything with your life and spend all the rest of it in here, you surely don’t think that the girls will be staying with you as well? They’ll all be going off to get married.’
‘I can understand why people say your growth has all gone into good looks,’ said You-shi. ‘You really are a silly fellow.’
‘Man’s life is uncertain,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Which of us knows when his time will come? Even if I die today or tomorrow or this year or next year, at least I shall have lived my life as I wanted to.’
The others would hardly let him finish what he was saying.
‘Worse and worse! Best not encourage him. What he was saying just now was simpleton’s talk, but this is raging lunacy!’
‘Don’t talk about dying, Cousin Bao,’ said little Xi-luan. ‘Lady Jia and Lady Wang are sure to feel lonely when all the girls have gone. I will come here and help you keep them company.’
Li Wan and You-shi both laughed.
‘Now you are talking like a simpleton, young lady. Don’t you think you will be getting married then as well?’
Xi-luan was overcome with bashfulness and hung her head. The first watch was just sounding. They got up then and returned to their various apartments for the night.
On her way back to Grandmother Jia’s, Faithful observed that one of the side gates of the Garden was shut but not yet barred. There was no one about. A faint light burned in the duty-room and a sliver of moon half-way up the sky shed a feeble radiance from above. As she had no companion to talk to, carried no lantern, and was walking softly, the women in the duty-room seemed not to have noticed her. She had for some time been wanting to empty her bladder, and this seemed as good an opportunity as any for doing so. She left the path and began looking for a place where the grass was not too high to squat down in.
She had found what looked like a good spot under a large osmanthus tree behind a Tai-hu rock and was just making her way round the side of the rock to reach it when a rustle of clothing caused her to jump almost out of her skin. By straining her eyes she could make out two human shapes. They melted into the bushes at her arrival, but Faithful had very sharp eyes, and before they disappeared, the faint moonlight had enabled her to identify one of them by the red top, bouf?fant hair-style, and tall, somewhat heavy build, as Ying-chun’s head maid, Chess. She assumed that Chess and some other girl had been using the place as a convenience and had hidden themselves in the bushes when they saw her coming, intending to jump out at her presently and give her a scare.
‘Chess, come out of there!’ she called. ‘If you frighten me I shall scream, and then you will be taken for a thief. This is no time to be playing monkey-tricks, a big girl like you!’
These words were spoken in jest with no other motive than to prevent Chess jumping out and scaring her, but to Chess’s guilty conscience they seemed to imply that the secret she was hiding had been discovered. She was terrified that Faithful might cry out and others get to know about it as well, which would be even more frightful: and as Faithful had always been kind to her in the past, she resolved to throw herself on her mercy. Running out of the bushes, she knelt down and clung to her imploringly.
‘Faithful, I beg of you, for God’s sake don’t cry out!’
Not knowing what to make of this exaggerated reaction to her words, Faithful hastily pulled her to her feet.
‘Well, well, what’s all this about?’
Chess seemed unable to reply, but her body was trembling all over. Faithful was more mystified than ever. She looked again in the direction from which Chess had just come and saw a figure lurking there. It looked like a boy’s. She began to guess the reason for Chess’s terror. A sickening embarrassment made her own heart beat faster and she could feel her face burning to the very tips of her ears. She was afraid, too. After a brief silence in which she managed to recover some of her composure, she asked Chess, in a tremulous whisper, who ‘that other person’ was. Chess sank once more to her knees.
‘He’s my cousin, Faithful,’ she said faintly, ‘my father’s sister’s son.’
Faithful made a scornful sound, as if she did not believe her; but she was still too embarrassed to say anything.
‘There’s no need to hide,’ Chess called out softly to the boy. ‘My friend here had already seen you. Come out quickly and kotow.’
The boy darted out from the cover of the tree, threw himself on his knees in front of Faithful, and began knocking his head on the ground as if he were pounding garlic in a mortar. Faithful wanted to turn away, but Chess clung to her tearfully and beseechingly.
‘Our lives are in your hands, Faithful. Be merciful!’
‘Of course I shall; you don’t need to ask,’ said Faithful. ‘Tell him to go away. Whatever happens, I shan’t tell anyone. There’s no need for all this drama.’
Before she had finished speaking, a voice could be heard from the direction of the corner gate.
‘Miss Faithful’s already gone out. We can bar the gate now.’
Chess was still clinging to her so hard that Faithful could not get away. She had to call out to the woman from where she stood.
‘No, I’m still here. I’ve been doing something. Just a second: I’ll be out directly.’
Chess, when she heard her say that, was obliged to let her go. The rest will be told in the following chapter.

Previous articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 72
Next articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 99
Discover the wonders of China through studying abroad - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand your horizons, immerse yourself in a rich and diverse culture, and gain a world-class education.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here