The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 75

0
190

CHAPTER 75

Midnight revellers are startled
by a sound of evil omen
And Mid-Autumn moon-watchers listen
to quatrains of unequal merit

When You-shi swept angrily out of Xi-chun’s apartment, it had been her intention to visit Lady Wang, but one of the old women in her suite whispered in her ear to advise her against going there.
‘Some people from the Zhen family have just arrived there, madam, with a lot of things. I think it’s something secret they’ve come about. It probably wouldn’t be very convenient for you to go there now.’
‘That’s funny,’ said You-shi. ‘I heard your master saying last night that he had read in the Gazette that the Zhens had been attainted. It said that there was a search and confiscation order on their estate and that the family were being brought under arrest to the capital for questioning. What can any of them be doing here?’
‘You may well ask, madam. It was some of the women?folk we saw there. They were in a terrible state, very worried and frightened. I expect they are doing something they ought not to be.’
You-shi abandoned her idea of visiting Lady Wang and went back to see Li Wan, with whom she had been talking a little earlier when Xi-chun called her away. Li Wan had been visited in the meantime by her doctor; and as she was feeling much livelier than she had done for some days, she had remained sitting up after her visit. You-shi found her propped up on pillows and with the bedclothes pulled up round her, eager for conversation. Unfortunately You-shi, who had been so affable on her earlier visit, was now in no mood to talk and sat at Li Wan’s bedside silent and pre?occupied. Li Wan wondered if she was feeling hungry.
‘Have something to eat,’ she said. ‘What would you like?’ She turned to Candida. ‘What nice little snack have we got that we could offer Mrs Zhen?’
‘Please don’t bother,’ said You-shi. ‘You’re hardly likely to have interesting snacks in the house after being an invalid for so many days. And in any case I’m not hungry.’
‘Someone sent me some rather good wheatmeal tea yesterday,’ said Li Wan. ‘Why don’t you try a bowl of that?’
She told Candida to mix some for her with sugar and boiling water. You-shi made no reply and continued to brood. The women and maids who had come with her tried to think of some means of distracting her.
‘You haven’t done your face yet since this morning, madam,’ said one of them. ‘Why not take this opportunity of having a wash?’
You-shi nodded. Li Wan at once sent Candida for her dressing-case and mirror. Candida offered You-shi the use of her own make-up.
‘Our mistress doesn’t use make-up, Mrs Zhen. If you don’t mind using my stuff, you’re very welcome to some of this.’
‘It’s true that I haven’t got any,’ said Li Wan, ‘but you ought to have borrowed some from one of the young ladies to lend her. Fancy offering her your own, and in front of everyone else! It’s a good job it was Mrs Zhen. Some people would have been most offended.’
‘Oh, that’s all right,’ said You-shi, and began to wash. The maid with the basin bent down to hold it out to her.
‘Where are your manners, girl?’ said Li Wan reprovingly, whereupon the maid at once went down on her knees.
‘Manners!’ said You-shi. ‘The outward frills of respectability! Those are the things our servants are so good at. What they actually get up to doesn’t bear much investigating.’
Li Wan realized that she must be referring to the events of the previous night.
‘Why do you say that?’ she asked smilingly. ‘What has who got up to that doesn’t bear investigating?’
‘Need you ask?’ said You-shi. ‘You’ve not been so ill that you’ve lost the use of your faculties!’
Before Li Wan could reply, Bao-chai’s arrival was announced. Li Wan and You-shi both called out to her to come in. You-shi, hurriedly wiping the water from her face, got up to welcome her and made her sit down with her at the side of the bed.
‘On your own?’ she asked her. ‘Where are all the others?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Bao-chai. ‘I haven t seen them yet. Mother isn’t very well today, and as her two senior maids are also both ill in bed and I don’t trust any of the others, I thought I had better go and stay with her for a few days. At first I was going to tell Lady Jia and Aunt Wang, but then I thought that as this is rather a small matter and I shall in any case be coming back again as soon as Mother is better I wouldn’t bother them but simply have a word about it with Cousin Wan.’
Li Wan and You-shi exchanged smiles and glances. Presently, when You-shi had finished her toilet, the three of them each had a bowl of wheatmeal tea.
‘I must send someone to see how your mother is and find out what she is suffering from,’ said Li Wan. ‘I can’t go in person, unfortunately, because I am ill myself. Don’t worry about anything here. I’ll send someone to look after your apartment while you are away. Do come back soon, though, or I shall be blamed for your going.’
‘Whyever should you be?’ said Bao-chai. ‘There’s noth?ing unusual about my going. You are not being asked to connive at a gaol-break. And incidentally, I don’t see why it should be necessary to send anyone to my apartment. Why not simply invite Cousin Shi to stay with you for a few days? Wouldn’t that be simpler?’
‘While we are on the subject, where is Cousin Shi?’ said You-shi.
‘I sent her off just now to look for Cousin Tan,’ said Bao-?chai. ‘She was to bring Cousin Tan here so that I could explain to her about going to Mother’s too.’
By coincidence ‘Miss Shi and Miss Tan’ were at that very moment announced. As soon as they were seated, Bao-chai told Tan-chun about her intention of moving outside for a few days to look after her mother.
‘Very wise,’ said Tan-chun. ‘But why only stay outside until Aunt is better? Why not move outside altogether?’
‘That’s rather a strange way to talk,’ said You-shi, laughing. ‘It’s as though you wanted to drive our kinswoman out.’
‘Well, why not?’ said Tan-chun bitterly. ‘Better be driven out now by me than by someone else later on. Kinsfolk are lucky. They don’t have to stay here. Not like the members of this happy family – all glaring at each other like angry fighting-cocks, wondering which will be the first one to strike!’
You-shi laughed.
‘I think today must be my unlucky day. I seem to have caught all you young ladies in a thoroughly unpleasant mood.’
‘If you don’t like the heat, you should stay away from the fire,’ said Tan-chun. ‘Who’s been upsetting you then?’ She thought for a bit. ‘It’s not likely to have been Cousin Feng. Not this time. So who was it?’
You-shi’s vague answer evaded the question. Tan-chun knew that she was afraid to speak openly for fear of causing trouble.
‘Come on!’ she said tauntingly. ‘Don’t act the innocent! It’s not high treason to tell us. No one’s going to chop your head off. Look at me. Last night I slapped Wang Shan-bao’s wife’s face. That’s an offence deserving hard labour at the very least, yet nothing’s happened so far, bar a bit of muttering. I don’t think anyone is going to give me a beating.’
‘Did you really slap her face?’ Bao-chai asked incredulously.
Tan-chun treated them all to a lively account of what had happened, after which You-shi, seeing that there was no longer any point in concealment, proceeded to tell them about her recent encounter with Xi-chun.
‘Oh, she’s always like that,’ said Tan-chun. ‘It’s her nature. Xi-chun is so peculiar, nothing the rest of us say or do is ever going to alter her. By the way’ – she returned to the subject that was uppermost in her mind – ‘I made some in?quiries first thing this morning to find out why nothing was happening. Apparently it’s because Cousin Feng is ill again. I also sent someone to inquire about Wang Shan-bao’s wife. It seems that she has been given a beating. For interfering.’
‘Quite right, too!’ said You-shi and Li Wan. But Tan?-chun took a more cynical view.
‘It would be a comparatively easy way of disarming suspicion. We must wait and see.’
You-shi and Li Wan looked thoughtful, but neither made any comment.
Shortly after this the maids came in to say that dinner was ready. Xiang-yun and Bao-chai went back to their apart?ment to pack, in preparation for their respective moves. Our narrative leaves them at this point.
You-shi and Tan-chun, after taking their leave of Li Wan, made their way to Grandmother Jia’s apartment. The old lady was reclining on her couch listening, while Lady Wang told her about the Zhens: the offences they had been charged with, the confiscation of their property and their coming up to the capital now for questioning. Grand?mother Jia was obviously much shaken by what she heard, but brightened up somewhat when You-shi and Tan-chun arrived.
‘Where have you both come from?’ she asked them. ‘I suppose you know that Feng and Wan are both ill now? I wonder how they are today.’
‘They are both a little better,’ said You-shi.
Grandmother Jia nodded and sighed.
‘I think we’ve heard enough about other people’s troubles for the time being. It’s time we started thinking about the arrangements for our Mid-Autumn party.’
‘The catering arrangements have all been made,’ said Lady Wang. ‘It only remains for you to decide where you want it. I suppose the nights are getting too chilly now for us to have it out in the Garden.’
‘We can always put on a bit more clothing,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Of course we must have it in the Garden. That’s what the Garden is for.’
While they were speaking, some of the women came in carrying the dinner-table between them. Lady Wang and You-shi laid chopsticks and carried in the rice. When all was ready, Grandmother noticed that in addition to her own dishes there were two large food-boxes containing dishes from the other apartments. It was a long-established custom that the occupants of other apartments should send her samples of what they were planning to eat that day themselves as a way of showing her their respect.
‘I’ve told you all a number of times to stop doing this,’ she said. ‘Why won’t you ever do as I say?’
‘These are only very ordinary things here,’ said Lady Wang, referring to her own contribution. ‘It’s one of my fast-days today, so I have only vegetarian dishes. I know you don’t much like bean-curd fried in batter, which is one of the things I am having. The only thing of mine I think you might like is a salad pickle of chopped water-mallow in pepper sauce.’
‘That sounds rather nice,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘I think I’d like to try some of that.’
Faithful quickly took the saucer containing it out of the box and put it down in front of her. Bao-qin, having first apologized to each of her seniors for sitting down in their presence, took her place at one side of the table. Grandmother Jia said that Tan-chun should eat with her as well, where?upon Tan-chun too made her apologies and sat down. She sat at the other side of the table opposite Bao-qin. Scribe quickly fetched her a bowl and chopsticks. Meanwhile Faithful was pointing out the other dishes to Grandmother Jia.
‘I can’t make out what these two here are. They are from Sir She. The stuff in this bowl is creamed chicken and bamboo. It’s from Mr Zhen.’
She brought the bowl of sliced bamboo-shoot over and put it down on the table. Grandmother Jia made a couple of dips into it with her chopsticks. She ordered all the other dishes to be taken back to their senders.
‘Tell them thank you very much I’ve tried some, but not to send things to me any more. If I ever want anything, I shall let them know.’
The women made some reply and went off with the boxes.
‘Now bring me my rice-gruel and I’ll have a bit of that,’ said Grandmother Jia.
You-shi stepped forward with a bowl of gruel. It was made with red ‘Emperor’ rice, she told her. After drinking about half of it, Grandmother Jia ordered the other half to be taken to Xi-feng. She pointed to one of the dishes.
‘And this is for Patience.’ She turned to You-shi. ‘I’ve finished. Now you can eat.’
‘Thank you,’ said You-shi, but waited all the same until the old lady had rinsed her mouth and washed her hands and was walking up and down on Lady Wang’s arm for her digestion before she ‘begged to be seated’. By this time Bao?qin and Tan-chun had finished eating. They got up as You?-shi sat down, excusing themselves from keeping her company while she ate.
‘Oh,’ said You-shi, ‘I’m not used to eating at a big table like this all on my own.’
‘Faithful and Amber can eat with you for company,’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘Good!’ said You-shi. ‘I was about to suggest that.’
‘I like to see people eating together,’ said Grandmother Jia. She pointed to Butterfly. ‘Now here’s a good girl. Why shouldn’t she eat with you as well? Go on, child! Go and eat with your mistress. As long as you are here with me, it doesn’t matter if you break the rules for once.’
‘Come on!’ said You-shi to the maid encouragingly. ‘Don’t pretend to be bashful!’
Grandmother Jia stopped walking up and down and stood with her hands clasped behind her back to watch them eat. It suddenly struck her that the rice being served was the plain white rice normally eaten by the servants and that You-shi, too, was eating it.
‘Why are you giving Mrs Zhen this stuff?’ she asked them.
‘There isn’t any of Your Old Ladyship’s rice left,’ said the maids. ‘You had an extra young lady eating with you today, don’t forget.’
‘Meals are made to measure nowadays,’ said Faithful. ‘We can’t afford to be extravagant the way we used to be.’
‘There have been so many floods and droughts during the past few years,’ said Lady Wang. ‘Our farms haven’t been able to make up their quotas. These special kinds of rice are particularly hard to come by. We have had to start rationing them rather carefully.’
‘Even the cleverest housewife can’t make rice-gruel without rice.’ Grandmother Jia quoted the proverb amidst general laughter.
Faithful turned to address the women waiting outside the door.
‘If Her Old Ladyship’s rice is all finished, you can get the rice that Miss Tan would have eaten if she hadn’t been eating with us and bring it here for Mrs Zhen.’
‘No need,’ said You-shi. ‘What I’ve got here is quite enough for me.’
‘I dare say it is,’ said Faithful, ‘but what about me?’
The women hurried off to fetch the rice.
Presently Lady Wang went off to have dinner in her own apartment, leaving You-shi to entertain Grandmother Jia. The time passed quickly, with much good-humoured teasing and laughter, and the first watch had already begun before Grandmother Jia noticed how late it was getting.
‘You’d better be getting back now,’ she told You-shi.
You-shi took her leave. Outside the inner gate she got into her waiting carriage. Her women pulled the blind down, then, taking all the maids with them except Butterfly, who was riding in the carriage with her mistress, hurried on ahead so that they could be waiting for You-shi when she arrived in the other mansion. The men from both gates walked some way along the street to keep it clear of pedestrians while six or seven pages pushed and pulled the carriage (it seemed too short a distance and too late an hour for mules) as far as the interior of the Ning-guo gateway. There the pages retired, old women came forward and raised the blind, and Butterfly dismounted and helped out her mistress. You-shi noticed that there were four or five large carriages waiting below the stone lions which flanked the gate and commented to Butterfly on their presence.
‘I wonder how many horses there are in the stables? If this number came by carriage, you may be sure that a much greater number will have come on horseback.’
As she and Butterfly entered the outer courtyard, Jia Rong’s wife at the head of a party of maids and older women carrying lanterns advanced to meet them.
‘I’ve been dying for I don’t know how long to have a look at the men while they are gambling,’ said You-shi, ‘but so far I haven’t had an opportunity. Tonight is the best chance I shall ever get. Let’s go along the wall in front of the windows so that we can peep in at them.’
The women with lanterns made a detour towards the building in which the men were congregated. One of them went ahead and warned the pages waiting outside not to announce their arrival to the men or make any other noise that would warn those inside of their coming. You-shi and her party were thus able to steal right up to the windows and could hear everything that was going on inside. Among the medley of sounds that met their ears, numbers seemed to predominate, some uttered exultantly and with raucous shouts of laughter, others angrily or despairingly and to the accompaniment of curses and profanities.
Cousin Zhen had found the ban on amusements during the seemingly interminable period of mourning for Jia Jing which convention imposed on him extremely irksome. Archery, for some reason, was permitted, and a few months previously he had hit on archery as a means of getting round the ban. A number of young men from the wealthy and aristocratic households of his acquaintance were invited round to the Ning-guo mansion to participate. Shooting was to be competitive.
‘Random shooting is quite useless,’ he explained to them. ‘You not only don’t make any progress; it actually spoils your form. You’ve got to have incentives of some kind to keep you on your toes, and the best way of doing that is to bet on something.’
Butts were set up in the shooting gallery below the Celestial Fragrance Pavilion and every day after lunch the young men came along to compete. Since, as Bereaved Son, it would have been unseemly for Cousin Zhen himself to have been named in this connection, the nominal convenor and organ?izer of these gatherings was Jia Rong. All those invited were rich, profligate, dashing young fellows, accustomed to spend?ing their time in cock-fighting, dog-racing and even more questionable amusements. After some discussion it was decided that the responsibility for providing dinner after the day’s archery should fall to each one of them in turn. It became a point of honour to make these dinners as lavish as possible, so that the daily junketings at Ning-guo House came more and more to resemble the Diet of Lintong in the well-known play of that name, except that whereas Duke Mu’s princely guests competed in the bravery of their com?manders and the magnificence of their regalia, it was in the skill of their chefs and in masterpieces of culinary art that the members of the Ning-guo archery club strove to outdo each other.
When this had been going on for a couple of weeks or so, Jia Zheng and Jia She got to hear about it. The report that reached them cannot have been a very accurate one, however, for, far from being critical of these goings-on, they spoke of them with approval.
‘Since Rong obviously has no aptitude for book-learning,’ Jia Zheng observed, ‘Cousin Zhen does right to encourage him in the martial arts. The boy does, after all, hold a military commission.
They even made Bao-yu, Jia Huan, Jia Cong and Jia Lan participate. The four of them had to go over every day after lunch and not return until each of them had taken his turn at the butts.
But it was not of course in the archery that Cousin Zhen was interested. On the grounds that resting the muscles was an important part of one’s training, he was soon advocating a little cards or dice in the evenings as a means of relaxation. At first they played only for drinks, but soon they were play?ing more and more for money; the time spent on gaming gradually encroached on the time devoted to archery; betting became more open; and finally, with the formal opening of a ‘bank’ some three or four months previously, regular, organized gambling for heavy stakes had become a daily routine. The Ning-guo servants, who grew fat on the pickings, were delighted with these new arrangements and, anxious that they should go on, if possible, for ever, took very good care that no one outside the mansion should get to hear about them.
Lady Xing’s brother, Xing De-quan, himself a keen gambler, had lately become a frequenter of this establish?ment; so, inevitably, had Xue Pan, who was never so happy as when he was throwing away his money.
Xing De-quan was very unlike his sister. Drinking, gambling and debauchery were his only interests; consequently whenever any money came into his hands, he spent it like water. The singular obtuseness he showed in all his dealings had earned him the nickname of ‘Uncle Dumbo’. And since Xue Pan was already known to all and sundry as ‘the Oaf King’, the two of them when they were together were referred to by the young men as ‘Uncle Dumbo and Cousin Oaf’.
The situation when You-shi peeped inside was as follows. Cousin Oaf and Uncle Dumbo, each with a partner, were playing six-dice Grabs on the kang in the outer room. Simultaneously another dicing game, Driving the Sheep, was being played by several players sitting round a large table on the floor below. The inner room, where a slightly more intellectual group were playing Tin Kau, was devoted to dominoes. The servants were all pages of fifteen or under. There was also a pair of male prostitutes, powdered, over-dressed youths of seventeen or eighteen, whose duty was to ply the guests with drink. It was this pair who first caught You-shi’s eye when she looked in.
Xue Pan had been having the sulks earlier on because he was losing, but then his luck had changed: he had not only recouped his losses but made a lot of extra money. He was therefore in a very good mood indeed. Cousin Zhen sug?gested that this might be a good point at which to stop and have dinner. They could go on playing afterwards if they wanted to.
‘What about the two other lots?’ he inquired.
It transpired that the Tin Kau players in the next room were in process of settling up after finishing the game and were in fact beginning to think about their dinner, but that the group at the big table playing Driving the Sheep had not yet reached a suitable point at which to break off. Cousin Zhen ordered dinner to be served for all those, himself included, who were ready. Jia Rong was to wait and have dinner with the other players when they had finished.
Xue Pan, elated by his success, sat with a cup of wine in one hand and his arm round the shoulders of one of the pretty pot-boys. With a victor’s expansive generosity he ordered the other boy to pour some wine ‘with his compliments’ for Uncle Dumbo. But Uncle Dumbo was thoroughly out of temper at having lost the game, and the two cupfuls he drank now in rapid succession served merely to make him tipsily aggressive. He vented his anger on the two young ganymedes, who, he claimed, had treacherously withdrawn their favours from him and transferred them to the winner.
‘Heartless brood of unnatural little whore’s gits!’ he grumbled. ‘You’ve had plenty of favours off me in the past – and off everyone else here. Now, just because I’ve lost a few taels, I’m not good enough for you. What makes you so certain you won’t ever need my help again in the future?’
The other guests all knew that he was drunk. Those of them who were losers themselves smiled wryly and said nothing, but one or two of the winners magnanimously expressed their sympathy.
‘That’s right, Uncle. Rotten little bastards! That’s just the way they do behave.’
‘Why don’t you pour Uncle a drink and tell him you’re sorry?’ said another of them.
The two young ganymedes, practised professionals in every trick of the trade, were on their knees at Uncle Dumbo’s side in a moment, offering him wine, fondling his thigh, and gazing with simpering archness into his eyes.
‘Don’t be angry with us, dear old friend. We are only children. We have to do as we are told. Our teacher always tells us, “It doesn’t matter what they are like or what your own feelings are, the person who at any moment has the most money is the one you must be nice to.” Just win a lot of money later on this evening, old friend, and you’ll see how nice we shall be to you!’
The disarming frankness of this made everyone laugh. Even Uncle Dumbo, though he tried hard not to, was forced to join in.
‘All right, I forgive you,’ he growled as he took the proffered winecup. ‘Though I don’t mind telling you, if I hadn’t been so fond of you two, I’d have kicked the stuffing out of your little tum-tums!’
He shot his foot up as he said this, by way of demonstration. The two boys scrambled to their feet in mock alarm. Each of them carried a long woman’s handkerchief of flowered silk. With mincing gestures, still holding their handkerchiefs in their hands, they guided the winecup towards his lips. Uncle Dumbo’s loud gurgles of delight were briefly interrupted while he threw his head back and drained the cup. Then, still laughing, he pinched their cheeks.
‘Little dears!’ he said. ‘How I loves them!’
His mood changed abruptly as he remembered a grievance. He smote the table angrily and glared at Cousin Zhen.
‘I had a quarrel with your Uncle She’s wife yesterday, did you know that?’
‘With Aunt Xing?’ said Cousin Zhen. ‘No, I hadn’t heard that.’
Uncle Dumbo sighed self-pityingly.
‘About damned money, as usual. You don’t know the history of our Xing family, dear boy. When my old mother died, I was still too young to know what was going on. I have three elder sisters. The eldest is your precious aunt. When your aunt married, she took everything we had with her. Everything. My second sister had to marry without a dowry. She and her husband are paupers. My third sister is still unmarried. She lives on a pittance paid out to her by that old whore, Wang Shan-bao’s wife, who has charge of all our money. Well, I went along yesterday to ask her for a few coppers. Not Jia money, mind you: our Xing money is good enough for me. But would she give me any? Not she! And that’s the reason why I get treated by you lot like a poor relation.’
Cousin Zhen knew that he was drunk, but as it was embarrassing that these unsavoury details of family history should be paraded in front of outsiders, he did his best to mollify Uncle Dumbo and get him onto another tack.
All this was clearly audible to You-shi outside.
‘Did you hear that?’ she whispered to Butterfly, who was standing beside her. ‘That’s Lady Xing they’re talking about. If her own brother talks about her in that way, you can hardly wonder that other people complain about her.’
She would have said more, but checked herself in order to attend to what was going on inside. The group playing Driving the Sheep had now broken off and were calling for wine.
‘Who was upsetting Uncle Dumbo just now?’ asked one of them. ‘We couldn’t quite catch what it was about. Tell us what happened, Uncle, and we’ll see you get fair play.’
Uncle Dumbo proceeded to tell them how the two boys had forsaken him because he had no money.
‘Good grief!’ said the young man who had asked the question. ‘I don’t blame you for being angry – What do you mean by it?’ he asked the boys. ‘He’s only lost a bit of money, hasn’t he? He hasn’t lost his prick!’
The company roared with laughter. Uncle Dumbo’s mouthful of rice was spattered over half the floor.
‘You dirty bugger!’ he said. ‘Can’t you open your mouth without being crude?’
You-shi gave a little snort of disgust.
‘Just listen to those animals! By the time they’ve swilled a few more cups of wine, heaven knows what filth they’ll be coming out with!’
She moved on her way – having seen and heard quite as much as she wanted to – returned to her apartment, un?dressed, and went to bed. Cousin Zhen did not get to bed until after two. He spent what remained of the night in Lovey’s room.
As soon as he was up next morning, someone came in with a message to say that the melons and mooncakes he had ordered were now ready and it only remained for him to say who they were to be sent to.
‘Ask your mistress to see to it,’ said Cousin Zhen. ‘I have got other business to attend to.’
Lovey took this message to You-shi, who proceeded to go through the list deciding how much should go to whom and making arrangements for the delivery. She had barely finished doing this when Lovey came back again with another message.
‘The master wants to know if you are going out today, madam. He says we can’t keep Mid-Autumn properly on the fifteenth because we are in mourning still, but there would be no harm in having a little family party tonight.’
‘I don’t want to go out,’ said You-shi, ‘but with Mrs Zhu and Mrs Lian both ill in bed, I don’t see how I can refuse to go next door and lend a hand.’
‘The master says, if you have to go out, will you at any rate try to get back as early as you can?’ said Lovey.
‘Better hurry up with the lunch then,’ said You-shi. ‘The sooner I can get away, the sooner I’ll be back.’
‘The master’s having lunch in the front today, madam. He says please have your lunch here without him.’
‘Who’s he got there?’ said You-shi.
‘Somebody told me it’s two people just arrived from Nan-king,’ said Lovey, ‘but I don’t know who they are.’
Jia Rong’s wife came in while Lovey was talking. Shortly after that lunch was served. After lunch, You-shi changed into her going-out clothes and went over to Rong-guo House. She did not return until evening.
While she was away, Cousin Zhen went ahead with arrange?ments for an intimate family party. He had a whole pig boiled, a whole sheep roasted, and an infinite number of vegetable dishes and entremets prepared. When You-shi got back that evening, he conducted her and the little con?cubines and Jia Rong and Jia Rong’s wife to the Bosky Verdure Pavilion where it was all laid out. This was in the All-Scents Garden, as they continued to call the little rem?nant still left them after the main part was incorporated in Prospect Garden.
They had dinner first. The wine was brought in after they had finished eating, so that they could apply themselves single-mindedly to games and mirth and the enjoyment of the Mid-Autumn moon, which now (for by this time it was already the beginning of the first watch) shone brightly in a clear, fresh sky, filling the world above and below with its silver light. Cousin Zhen invited the four little concubines to sit at the same table as him and You-shi and join with them in games of Plumstones and Guess-fingers. Presently – for the drink was beginning to make him sentimental – he called to them for some music, and Flower sang for them in a clear, sweet voice, accompanied by Lovey on the vertical bamboo flute. Everyone was deeply moved by the perform?ance. After it was over the games continued.
The hours slipped by. Soon it was nearly midnight. Cousin Zhen was by now more than a little drunk. They had all just put on some extra clothes and had some hot tea; the wine-cups had been cleared and clean ones put in their place and a fresh lot of newly heated wine was just being poured, when suddenly a long-drawn-out sigh was heard from the foot of one of the garden walls. It was heard by all of them, quite clearly and unmistakably, and they could feel the hair on their scalps rise as they listened to it.
‘Who’s there?’ Cousin Zhen shouted in a voice that he tried to make fierce and challenging. But though he repeated the question several times, there was no reply.
‘It’s probably one of the servants,’ said You-shi.
‘Nonsense!’ snapped Cousin Zhen. ‘There are no servants living behind any of these walls. In any case, that’s the Hall of the Ancestors over there. What would anyone be doing behind that wall?’
A rustle of wind passed, at that very moment, along the foot of it and a distant sound like the opening and closing of a door could be heard from inside the ancestral temple. An oppressive feeling of dread came over them; the night air seemed suddenly to have grown colder; the moon appeared less bright than it had been a few minutes before; and they could feel their skins crawling with terror.
Shock had made Cousin Zhen almost sober; but though he managed to keep better control of himself than the others, he was very much shaken and had lost all appetite for enjoy?ment. Nevertheless he forced himself and the others to sit a little longer before retiring finally to bed.
He rose quite early next morning. It was the fifteenth, one of the two days in each month on which offerings have to be made to the ancestors. Entering the ancestral temple with the other male members of the family, he took the opportunity of looking round inside it very carefully; but everything was as it should be; there was no sign whatever of anything untoward having happened. He put down the previous night’s terror to the effects of drunkenness – a mild attack of the horrors – and resolved to make no further mention of it. When the service was over, he shut the temple up again and made sure that the doors were securely locked and barred.
*
After dinner that evening Cousin Zhen went over with You?-shi to Rong-guo House. He found Jia She and Jia Zheng in Grandmother Jia’s room. The two of them were sitting on the kang, talking and laughing with the old lady, while Jia Lian, Bao-yu, Jian Huan and Jia Lan stood on the floor below. After greeting them and exchanging a word or two with each of them in turn, he sat, or rather half-sat, in polite discomfort, on a stool next to the door. Grandmother Jia vouchsafed a gracious smile in his direction.
‘How is your Cousin Bao’s archery these days?’
Cousin Zhen jumped to his feet to reply.
‘Greatly improved, Lady Jia. It isn’t only his form that is better; he is beginning to handle the bow with much greater strength.’
‘That’s the point at which to stop then,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘We don’t want him straining himself.’
‘No, no, certainly not,’ said Cousin Zhen. ‘I quite agree.’
‘Those mooncakes you sent yesterday were very good,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘The melons looked all right, but there’s not much inside them when you cut them open.’
‘Those mooncakes are good, aren’t they?’ said Cousin Zhen. ‘They were made by our new pastry-cook. I tried them myself to make sure they were all right before venturing to send you any. As for the melons: we’ve been lucky in previous years, but for some reason none of them this year seem to be any good.’
‘I think we must blame the weather,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘The rains this year were excessive.
‘The moon must be up by now,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Let’s go and make our Mid-Autumn offering.’
She got up and, leaning on Bao-yu’s shoulder, led the way into the Garden. The main gate was wide open and hung with great horn lanterns. When they reached Prospect Hall, they found servants with lighted lamps waiting for them on the terrace and a table on which incense smoked in a square container and on which offerings of melons and other fruit and mooncakes had been set out on dishes. Lady Xing and all the other female members of the family were waiting inside the hall.
Moonlight and lanterns gleaming pale
Through a thin aromatic veil –
It was indeed a scene of indescribable beauty. A carpet for kneeling on had been laid on the terrace at the foot of the table on the side nearest the hall. Grandmother Jia washed her hands, lit some sticks of incense, knelt down on the carpet, bowed down, and offered up the incense. The others followed her example.
‘The best place for enjoying the moon from is the top of a hill,’ she told them when they had finished. She suggested the pavilion on the summit of the ‘master mountain’ behind Reunion Palace (of which Prospect Hall was a part) as the place to have their party. The servants at once went off to make it ready. Meanwhile Grandmother Jia sat talking with the others inside Prospect Hall, resting and drinking tea. Presently the servants came back to report that the mountain-top pavilion was now ready. The old lady stood up again and, supported on either side by her maids, prepared to make the ascent.
‘I’m afraid the moss on the steps might make them rather slippery,’ said Lady Wang. ‘Wouldn’t it be better if you went up in a chair?’
‘The servants sweep them every day,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘How can there be any moss? They are good, level steps and not too steep. The exercise will be good for me.’
Jia She and Jia Zheng led the way, followed by a couple of old women with horn lanterns. Faithful, Amber and You-shi supported the old lady on either side, and Lady Xing, Lady Wang and all the others followed in a close procession behind. It was only a hundred or so steps up the zig-zag path to the summit.
The pavilion was a rectangular building with one completely open side looking onto a terrace. Because it was situated on the convex grassy summit of the little ‘mountain’, it was called Convex Pavilion. Two tables with chairs round them had been set out on the terrace, separated from each other by a large screen. The tables and chairs, like the moon and melons and mooncakes, were all round, in honour of the occasion. Grandmother Jia sat at the head of one of the tables with Jia She, Cousin Zhen, Jia Lian and Jia Rong on her left hand and Jia Zheng, Bao-yu, Jia Huan and Jia Lan on her right. Between them they filled only about half the places round the table.
‘I never felt in the past on these occasions that we were a small family,’ Grandmother Jia commented. ‘Looking at us today, though, I must say we do make a very miserable turn?out. I can remember Mid-Autumns when there were thirty or forty of us sitting down together. Ah, what times we had then! We shan’t ever have numbers like that again. Let’s have the girls to sit with us. See if we can’t fill up that gap!’
Someone went over to the table presided over by Lady Xing on the other side of the screen to fetch Ying-chun, Tan?-chun and Xi-chun. Jia Lian, Jia Rong, Bao-yu and the other boys got up while the chairs were rearranged and the girls were installed at the table. Then they reseated themselves in their proper order, Jia Lian and Jia Rong with Ying-chun and Xi-chun between them, and Bao-yu and Jia Huan on either side of Tan-chun.
Grandmother Jia asked someone to fetch a spray of cassia and made one of the women sit behind the screen and drum for them, so that they could play Passing the Branch. Anyone whose hand the branch was in when the drumming stopped had first to drink a cup of wine and then tell a funny story. The drumming started and the branch passed from Grandmother Jia to Jia She and so on round the table. It stopped just as the branch had reached Jia Zheng’s hand on its second time round. He raised the winecup to his lips to the accom?paniment of much secret nudging and pinching among the younger folk, to whom the notion of Jia Zheng telling a joke was in itself unbelievably funny.
Jia Zheng could see how much the old lady was enjoying herself and was anxious not to spoil her pleasure. Before he could begin his story, however, she saw fit to give him notice that he must expect to be punished if he did not make her laugh.
‘I can only think of one joke,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘If you don’t find it amusing, you will just have to punish me.’
‘Very well, tell us your one joke then,’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘It is about a hen-pecked husband,’ said Jia Zheng.
He got no further. Already his audience were convulsed. It was not that what he had said was the least bit funny, simply that they had never heard him talking about such things before.
‘This is sure to be good,’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘In that case,’ said Jia Zheng, laughing himself, ‘let me persuade you to drink a cup of wine.’
‘Very well,’ said Grandmother Jia.
At once Jia She and Jia Zheng rose to their feet. Jia She held a winecup in both his hands while Jia Zheng poured wine into it from a wine-kettle. Then Jia Zheng took the cup from Jia She and ceremoniously set it down in front of Grandmother Jia. The two men stood in stiffly deferential attitudes beside her while she drank some, then, having completed their little pantomime, resumed their places.
Jia Zheng proceeded with his story.
‘This hen-pecked husband was so afraid of his wife that he never dared stay long away from the house. But one Mid-Autumn Festival he chanced to be out shopping in the street when a friend caught sight of him and insisted on dragging him off to his house for a drink. Without meaning to, the husband became very drunk – so much so that he had to stay at his friend’s house for the night. When he woke up the next morning, he was full of remorse. However, there was nothing for it but to hurry back home and apologize. When he got back, his wife was washing her feet.
“‘Very well,” she said when he had finished apologizing, “if you will lick my feet clean, I will forgive you.”
‘The man began to lick, but a feeling of nausea overcame him and he showed signs of wanting to be sick. When his wife saw this, she was furious.
“‘How dare you?” she screamed, and looked as if she was about to give him a beating.
‘The husband knelt down in terror and begged to be forgiven.
“‘Please, my dear! It isn’t that I find your feet in the least distasteful. It’s just that I drank rather a lot of yellow wine last night and ate lots of very rich mooncakes, so today I am feeling a little queasy.”’
Grandmother Jia and the rest all laughed and Jia Zheng poured Grandmother Jia another cup of wine.
‘Someone had better change this yellow wine for samshoo,’ she said. ‘We don’t want you husbands having this sort of trouble with your wives tomorrow!’
This produced another laugh.
The drumming recommenced and the branch, starting from Jia Zheng, began circulating again. This time it stopped with Bao-yu. Bao-yu had been feeling uncomfortable to start with because of Jia Zheng’s presence, but became ten times more so when he found himself stuck with the branch.
‘If I tell a joke and it’s no good,’ he thought, ‘he will say I’ve no invention. But if I tell a good one, he’ll say I have no aptitude for serious things, only frivolous ones, and that will be even worse. I’d much better not tell one at all.’
Having reached this decision, he stood up and asked his father to excuse him.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I can’t tell jokes. May I do something else, please?’
‘You may compose a poem on the theme of “Mid-Autumn Moon”,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘If it is good, I shall reward you; if it is not – I shall deal with you tomorrow.’
‘This is a game we are playing,’ said Grandmother Jia testily. ‘Do you have to make the boy write poetry?’
‘He can do it if he wants to,’ said Jia Zheng. He was smiling.
‘Very well, let him do it then,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Fetch him a brush and. paper somebody.’
‘No padding, now!’ Jia Zheng told Bao-yu. ‘No “crystal”, “ice”, “jade”, “silver”, “light”, “bright”, “white” – anything of that sort. I want something original that will give me some idea of what you have been doing with your mind during this past year or two.’
Bao-yu found these injunctions by no means uncongenial, and having succeeded, in quite a short time, in thinking of a quatrain, he wrote it out and handed it to his father. Jia Zheng said nothing, but was observed to nod after he had finished reading it, which Grandmother Jia interpreted to mean that he could not have found the poem too bad.
‘Well?’ she asked him.
Jia Zheng wanted to make her happy.
‘Not at all bad,’ he said. ‘It’s a pity he won’t study, but his verses are really quite elegant.’
‘Well, that’s all right then,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘You ought to encourage the boy, so that next time he tries even harder.’
‘You are quite right,’ said Jia Zheng. He turned to one of the old women in attendance. ‘Tell my boys to get out two of the fans I brought back with me from the South, will you, and give them to Bao-yu for me.’
Bao-yu came forward and kotowed. After he had gone back to his seat, the game continued. This time the branch stop?ped in Jia She’s hand. He drank his wine and then told the following story.
‘This one is about a dutiful son whose mother was ill. He tried everywhere to get a doctor for her, but couldn’t find one, so in the end he was reduced to calling in an old woman who practised acupuncture. Now this old dame knew nothing of physiology, nevertheless she assured the son that it was inflammation of the heart that his mother was suffering from and that she could cure it instantly with her needle. The son became very alarmed.
“‘If metal in any form comes into contact with the heart,” he said, “it means death. Surely you’re not going to put a needle in her heart?”
“‘No, no, I shan’t put it in the heart,” said the old woman. “I mean to put it in here, over the ribs.”
“‘But that’s too far from the heart,” said the son. “Surely if you put it in there, it won’t do any good?”
“‘Oh yes it will,” said the old woman. “A mother’s heart always inclines towards one side.”’
The others all laughed, and Grandmother Jia was persuaded to drink another half cup of wine. After a long pause she said somewhat wryly,
‘Perhaps I could do with a bit of the old dame’s acupuncture myself.’
Jia She realized, too late, that his somewhat tactless choice of story could be interpreted as a criticism of his own mother. Hurriedly rising to his feet, he held up his cup to toast her with and did what he could to change the subject. Fortunately the old lady made no further reference to his gaffe and the game soon continued. This time the branch stopped with Jia Huan.
Jia Huan had lately been making modest progress in his studies. He was even beginning to show a certain interest in verse, though his tastes in it were decidedly peculiar. When Bao-yu’s poem was praised earlier on, he had been dying to demonstrate his own talent, but had not dared risk the charge of showing off in his father’s presence. Now that the luck of the game had given him free licence, he called for paper and writing-brush and, in a matter of moments, wrote out a quatrain which he handed to his father. Jia Zheng was not impressed. It was a somewhat weird little poem, and whatever advances Jia Huan might lately have made in his schoolwork, they certainly did not reveal them?selves in his choice of words.
‘It is easy to see that you and Bao-yu are brothers,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘Whether in your ideas or the language you express them in, you show the same distaste for sound classical models. The “Two Incomparables” we should call you, not because you are incomparable in virtue like Chen Yuan-fang and his brother, but because you are incomparably hard to knock any sense into: though whereas Bao-yu seems to think that he has inherited the mantle of the Airy Fairy school and fancies himself as a second Wen Ting-yun, you apparently prefer the Spooks and Spectres style of poetry and see yourself as a latter-day Cao Tang.’
This (not because anyone understood it, but because it sounded funny) provoked general laughter.
‘Let me see that poem,’ said Jia She. He took it from Jia Zheng and almost immediately began praising it.
‘I like this poem, it’s got guts in it. Boys from families like ours don’t need to read themselves half blind in order to get started on a career. Provided they’ve read enough to show that they are better educated than the rabble and are capable of holding down a job, they can hardly fail to get on. Why waste a lot of time and energy on turning the boy into a book-worm? What I like about this poem is that it is just the sort of good amateur, not-too-brainy poem you’d expect a young chap of our class to write.’
He sent someone to fetch various objects of his to give to Jia Huan as a reward and smilingly patted him on the head.
‘You go on writing poems like this, young fellow! We’ll have no trouble getting you a posting when the time comes, don’t you worry!’
Jia Zheng protested.
‘Whatever you think of the poem, it hardly justifies talking in this way about the boy’s future.’
Meanwhile the servants had begun pouring more wine so that the game could continue; but Grandmother Jia intervened.
‘Why don’t you two go now? I’m sure your gentlemen must be waiting for you, and it would be discourteous to neglect them. Besides, it must be all of ten o’clock and if you go now it will give the children a chance to enjoy them?selves unconstrainedly for a while before they go to bed.’
The two brothers at once got up to go, and after a parting cup offered to them on behalf of all the rest, they went off, taking Cousin Zhen and Jia Lian with them, but leaving Bao?yu and the two younger boys with the womenfolk.
What happened after their departure will be related in the following chapter.

Previous articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 76
Next articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 74
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.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here