The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 79

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CHAPTER 79


Xue Pan finds to his sorrow that he is
married to a termagant
And Ying-chun’s parents betroth her
to a Zhong-shan wolf

At the end of the last chapter our story had reached a point at which, just as Bao-yu and the little maid were beginning to walk away after completing the sacrifice to Skybright, they were startled by the sound of a human voice coming from the direction of the flowering hibiscus bushes. When Bao-yu looked, he saw that the person who had called out was Dai-yu. She advanced towards him smiling.
‘A highly original elegy! It deserves to have a permanent place in literature alongside the Elegy for the Shaman’s Daughter by Han-dan Chun!’
Bao-yu blushed and laughed sheepishly.
‘Most elegies one sees are so stale and derivative, I thought I’d try my hand at writing something a bit different. It was only for my own amusement; I hadn’t intended that anyone else should hear it. Perhaps now that you have heard it, you will let me know of any glaring errors you may have noticed and help me to correct them.’
‘Where is the original text?’ said Dai-yu. ‘I should need to have a careful look at the text first before venturing on any criticism. It was such a long piece, I could barely make out what most of it was about. There were a couple of lines somewhere near the middle that caught my attention:

The young man in his crimson-curtained bed must seem most cruelly afflicted;
And the maiden beneath the yellow earth must seem most cruelly ill-fated.

The general sentiment is all right, but I thought “crimson-curtained bed” a trifle shop-worn. I don’t see why you used that image when there is a much better one to hand.’
‘Oh, what’s that?’ said Bao-yu.
‘We’ve all got this rose-coloured haze diaphene in our windows,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Instead of “the young man in his crimson-curtained bed”, why not say ‘the young man at his rosy-misted casement”?’
Bao-yu stamped his foot and laughed delightedly.
‘Excellent! How clever of you to have thought of it! It only goes to show that there is always something to hand if only one will take the trouble to look. Stupid people like me fail to think of the obvious. Actually though, I haven’t got that sort of gauze in my windows; so though “rosy-misted case?ment” is a great improvement, I don’t think I had better use it. It would be fine for you to use it, but I think if I did it would be a bit presumptuous.’
‘But why?’ said Dai-yu, smiling. ‘My window is your window. It is unfriendly to be so punctilious. Look at the ancients who used to “lend furs and horses and feel no resentment when they came back the worse for wear”. And that was to mere acquaintances: we two are members of the same family.’
‘I agree with you that one ought to share with one’s friends,’ said Bao-yu, ‘and not only furs and horses, but even more precious things if one has them. But for a mere male to arrogate to himself what properly belongs to you girls would be quite a different matter. It would be better to alter “young man” and “maiden” and let it be your elegy. After all, you were always very well-disposed towards Skybright. I’d rather give the elegy to someone else than throw away your “rosy-misted casement”. Let’s make it:

The mistress by her rosy-misted casement must seem most cruelly afflicted;
And the maid beneath the yellow earth must seem most cruelly ill-fated.

I should be very happy to alter it in that way, even though it would mean that the elegy would cease to have anything to do with me.’
‘She wasn’t my maid,’ said Dai-yu. ‘It doesn’t make sense. Besides, “mistress” and “maid” are such an unpoetical combination. I might want to use this version when Nightingale is dead, but that won’t be for a long while yet, I imagine.’
‘Come now, it’s not very nice to talk about Nightingale dying,’ said Bao-yu, laughing.
‘You started it,’ said Dai-yu.
‘I know what,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I’ve got a still better solution. Why don’t we just say:

I by my rosy-misted casement seem most cruelly afflicted;
And you beneath the yellow earth seem most cruelly ill-fated?’

Dai-yu momentarily changed colour; yet though the words filled her with an almost unbearable feeling of premonitory dread, she masked it with a smile and nodded approvingly at his suggestion.
‘Yes, that’s a great improvement. Better not tamper with the words any more or you will spoil them. You ought in any case to be getting back now. I’m sure you must have more important things to attend to. When I saw your mother just now, she was briefing someone to tell you that you are to go to your Aunt Xing’s place first thing tomorrow morning. It seems that your Cousin Ying’s betrothal has been decided on. I expect they want you there for the ceremony.’
‘What’s the hurry?’ said Bao-yu, a trifle pettishly. ‘I’ve not been feeling particularly well lately. I may not be well enough to go there tomorrow.’
‘How typical!’ said Dai-yu. ‘I should try to grow out of these childish ways if I were you. You are getting too old -’
She broke off in a fit of coughing. Bao-yu at once became concerned about her.
‘There’s a nasty wind here. I don’t know why we are standing around in the cold like this. We’d better be getting back now. There’s no sense in making ourselves ill.’
‘I ought to be going back now in any case,’ said Dai-yu. ‘It’s time I went to bed. We’ll see each other again tomorrow.’
She began to walk away. Bao-yu began gloomily walking off in the opposite direction. Suddenly it occurred to him that Dai-yu was unaccompanied and he told the little maid to run after her and see her back to her apartment.
Back at Green Delights he found some old women with a message from his mother. It was as Dai-yu had said. He was to go over first thing next morning to his Uncle She’s house.

*

The family that Jia She was proposing to marry his daughter into was called Sun. They were a Da-tong family whose menfolk had all, for several generations, been Army officers. A former head of the family had placed himself under the patronage of the Ning and Rong brothers, so their claim to a special relationship with the Jia family was a strong One. Only one member of the family was at present living in the capital, a young man called Sun Shao-zu who had been given the post of Military Provost in the metropolitan garrison as an heredi?tary entitlement. He was a tall, powerfully-built, impressive-looking young man; he drew a good bow, had a good seat on a horse, and knew how to bear himself well in company and please those whom it was important to please. Still under thirty and with his family’s not inconsiderable wealth behind him, he had excellent prospects. Already the War Department had marked him out for promotion. And he was unmarried. From every point of view – the special relationship between their two houses, the Sun family’s wealth, and the personality of the young man himself – Jia She regarded this as being the almost perfect match and informed Grandmother Jia of his choice. Grandmother Jia by no means shared his enthusiasm; however, after reflecting that the couplings of young people are to a large extent fated and that, as Jia She was after all the girl’s father, it was not really for her to interfere, she made some neutral response such as ‘I see’ or ‘Oh, are you?’ and left it at that.
Jia Zheng felt a much more positive antipathy to the match. He detested the Suns. Though the connection between the two families was a long-standing one, it had come about because Sun Shao-zu’s grandfather, who had been the worst possible sort of social climber, had wormed his way into the patronage of Jia Zheng’s grandfather and great-uncle for the sole purpose of concluding some dubious business that he could not have brought off on his own. In Jia Zheng’s view they lacked both education and breeding. He spoke to Jia She on two separate occasions advising him very strongly against the match; but as Jia She refused to take the slightest bit of notice, there was nothing much he could do.
Bao-yu had never met Sun Shao-zu before. Obliged to do so at his uncle’s place next day and to make such small-talk as he was capable of, he was appalled, in the course of conversation, to discover just how soon the marriage was to be: it seemed that Ying-chun would be going to her husband’s house before the end of that year. When some time later Lady Ying came over to tell Grandmother Jia that she now wanted to move Ying-chun out of the Garden for good, he became even more depressed. That strange apathy they had observed in him on previous occasions again came over him. The news that Ying-chun would be taking four maids with her to the Sun household provoked some stamping and groans and the remark that ‘five more decent people were now lost to the world’; but it was only a momentary outburst.
He took to wandering about for hours on end in the neighbourhood of Amaryllis Eyot, now shuttered and forlorn and with only one or two women of the night-watch on duty in it. The very reeds and knotgrass along its banks and the caltrops and pondweed in the water seemed to have taken on a wilting, dejected look, as if they too were missing the presence of their former tenant. All the charm and colour which had once endeared the spot to him seemed now to have abandoned it. So strong was this feeling, that it eventually began forming itself into a poem, the words of which came almost unbidden to his lips.

The pool’s pink-petalled lotus crowns have gone,
By one night’s nipping wind of autumn blown;
Like stricken mourners, knotgrass and caltrop-heads
Under the weight of frost and dew bow down;
And the board whose Go-stones clicked the long day through
With mud of sluttish swallows is blotched brown.
Old poets for parted friends made such a din:
What grief must mine be then for closest kin?

Just as he had finished reciting this poem, Bao-yu heard a laugh behind him.
‘What are you mooning about for this time?’
Bao-yu glanced back and saw that it was Caltrop. He turned to greet her.
‘My dear Caltrop! What brings you here today? You are becoming quite a stranger in this Garden.’
Caltrop clapped her hands as if she found his question a great joke.
‘I am always longing to come here,’ she said, ‘but now that your Cousin Pan is home again, I am no longer a free agent. Just now Mrs Xue was trying to get hold of Mrs Lian and they told her that she was in the Garden. I asked for the job of going to look for her simply as an excuse for coming here. I have just seen Mrs Lian’s maid and she told me that her mistress is with Mrs Zhu in Sweet-rice Village. I’m on my way there now. Tell me, how is Aroma these days? And how was it that Skybright died so suddenly? What was wrong with her? And Miss Ying – she moved out very suddenly, didn’t she? Just look at this place, it already looks deserted!’
Bao-yu did his best to answer her. He also invited her to accompany him back to Green Delights and have some tea there.
‘I can’t at the moment,’ said Caltrop. ‘Wait till I’ve seen Mrs Lian and given her my message and I’ll come and see you then.’
‘What’s this important message that you are in such a hurry to give her?’ said Bao-yu.
‘It has to do with your Cousin Pan getting married.’
‘I see,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Who did they finally settle on? They seemed to be wrangling about it for months. It seemed to be Miss Zhang one day, Miss Li the next, and the day after that Miss Wang. One wondered what the unfortunate girls had done to deserve being considered for such a fate.’
‘Well you can forget about them now,’ said Caltrop, ‘because it’s all been settled.’
‘What family does the one they’ve chosen belong to?’ said Bao-yu.
‘A family that was related to our family by marriage once before,’ said Caltrop. ‘Your Cousin Pan called in on them last year during his travels. They are Imperial Purveyors like us, registered with the Ministry of Finance, and one of the wealthiest families in the capital. All your folk here seemed to have heard of them when we told them. In fact everyone in the city, from Imperial Princes to shopkeepers, has heard of the Cassia Xias.’
‘Oh,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Why do they call them that?’
‘They are, as I say, very, very rich,’ said Caltrop, ‘and they own a great deal of land. Several hundred acres of their land are devoted just to growing cassia alone. All the cassia sold in shops in the city is supplied by them, and all the cassia, both cut flowers and potted plants, on display in the Palace. That’s how they got the nickname. Old Mr Xia that used to be head of the business is dead now. There’s only his widow left and a young Miss Xia. No son. It’s sad to think that the family may die out.’
‘Spare your sorrow,’ Said Bao-yu. ‘What about this young lady? Why did Mr Xue take a fancy to her?’
‘Partly I suppose it was because they were destined for each other and partly it was a case of “beauty in the eye of the beholder”,’ said Caltrop smiling. ‘Years ago when they were little and their two families were often visiting each other, your cousin and Miss Xia used to play together and call each other’s parents “Auntie” and “Uncle”. When your cousin went to call on them last year, Mrs Xia, having no son of her own and seeing him now for the first time as a grown-up man, felt more as if she was welcoming a long-lost son. She was quite overcome, laughing and crying by turns; and of course she insisted that he and her daughter should see each other. Well it seems that the daughter has grown into a great beauty, and is educated, too, having been taught by a private tutor. Your cousin was quite bowled over. Mrs Xia even had the older men from the shop who were travelling with your cousin to stay with her. They must have spent three or four days in her house. She’d like to have kept them even longer and they had quite a job persuading her that they needed to be getting back. When they did get back, your cousin could speak of nothing else. Almost as soon as he’d set foot in the door he was telling Mrs Xue that she must get him the young lady for his wife. Mrs Xue was quite agreeable. She’d seen Miss Xia when she was a little girl, and she knew the families were well-matched. So after talking it over with Her Ladyship and Mrs Lian, she sent someone to see Mrs Xia about the betrothal and it was settled almost immediately. The only snag is, they’ve fixed the date for the wedding a bit on the early side, which means a terrible rush to get ready. Still, I’m longing for her to be here. Think of it: another person to write poetry with!’
‘Hmn, maybe,’ said Bao-yu. ‘All the same, I am a bit worried for you.’
‘What do you mean?’ said Caltrop. ‘I’m afraid I don’t understand you.’
‘I should have thought it was obvious enough,’ said Bao- yu. ‘Isn’t there a fear that if somebody else appears on the scene Cousin Pan will lose interest in you?’
Caltrop’s face reddened and she stared back at him coldly.
‘What sort of talk is that? I used to think that we respected each other, you and I. Now I am beginning to understand what people mean when they say that you are the kind of person with whom it is impossible to be friendly.’
She turned on her heel and walked away, giving him no chance to reply.
A sense of desolation came over Bao-yu. It was as if a part of him had been irretrievably lost. For some minutes he stood vacantly staring after her, like an idiot. Returning at last in great dejection to Green Delights, he shortly afterwards went to bed. But he did not sleep well that night. Several times in the course of it he called out Skybright’s name in his sleep or woke up in terror from some frightful dream. His body next morning was feverish and he seemed to have lost all appetite for food and drink.
The events of the past few weeks – the raid on the Garden, Chess’s dismissal, Ying-chun’s departure, Skybright’s death and all the attendant humiliation, shock and grief had been too much for him. They now combined with the effects of the chill he had taken in his recent loiterings in the autumnal Garden to lay him on his back for several weeks. Grandmother Jia came over daily to Green Delights to visit him and Lady Wang began to regret that her concern about Skybright had caused her to deal with him so harshly. However, she gave no outward indication of this change of heart beyond renewing her orders to the womenservants to take special care of him. Twice every day the doctor called to take his pulses and. supervise his dosing. It was a whole month before he began to show signs of improvement, and even then the doctor insisted that he would require a hundred days of convalescence before he could return to a normal diet or be allowed to set foot outside his courtyard.
The restraints of this period of convalescence, during which all his amusements had to be taken inside his own room, soon proved extremely irksome. By the time forty or fifty of the hundred days had gone by, he was already fairly exploding with impatience; but all his pleading and all the ruses he adopted to get the sentence altered were in vain. Both Grand?mother Jia and Lady Wang were adamant. Resigned at last to another fifty days of confinement, he concentrated his energies on thinking up ever more ingenious and outrageous ways in which he and his maids could pass the time.
News reached him in his confinement of the superb plays and banquets with which Xue Pan celebrated the arrival of his new bride. Everyone said she was good-looking, and not only that, but literate and able to write a tolerable hand. Bao?-yu would have given anything to go over and meet her; but of course he could not.
Not long after that came news of Ying-chun’s wedding, and Bao-yu realized with a pang that the affectionate, brother-and-sister-like relationship of their childhood years was now at an end: from now on, even if they ever met, they would have to be formal and distant with each other. It made him doubly despondent when he reflected that he had not even been able to see her before she left. However, he decided to keep his troubles to himself. For the time being he continued to con?centrate on thinking up new ways of passing the time. At least there was one good thing about his confinement: he no longer had Jia Zheng urging him and threatening him about his studies. During those hundred days of convalescence he and the maids all but took Green Delights apart. No form of diversion was too wild or hare-brained for him to try, and things were done then that cannot have been thought of before or since. We will not tax the reader’s credulity by attempting to describe them.
*
After delivering her snub for what she mistakenly believed to be a deliberate rudeness, Caltrop decided that in future it would be best to keep away from Bao-yu as much as possible, even to the extent of avoiding visits to the Garden altogether. This was not difficult, since she was at the time fully occupied with preparations for Xue Pan’s wedding.
Caltrop had persuaded herself that when there was another woman in the house – someone who would take a share of the responsibilities and whose authority she herself could fall back on – life would be somehow easier for her than it was at present. The young lady Xue Pan was marrying was said to be not only beautiful but educated; it followed, in Caltrop’s reasoning, that she must be gentle and ladylike as well. Caltrop awaited her arrival even more impatiently than Xue Pan, and resolved to serve her, when she came, with all the devotion and care of which she was capable.
The young lady of whom Caltrop entertained such high expectations was still only seventeen. It is true that she was not at all bad-looking; she could even read quite a number of words; and if subtle deviousness of character had been an examinable qualification, she might have come out a good second to Xi-feng. Her chief drawback sprang from the fact that she had lost her father at a very early age; and as her widowed mother had no other child of her own and doted on her excessively, she had been thoroughly spoiled. By treating her every whim as law and gainsaying her nothing, her mother had turned her into a monster. In her own estimation Miss Xia was a bodhisattva; all other creatures were as dust beneath her feet. The exterior she presented to the world made one think of the flowers in spring; underneath it there were light?nings and tornadoes. At home, in the bosom of the family, her maids learned to gauge the severity of her tantrums: if she was only slightly vexed, she would curse them; if she was gravely displeased, they would be beaten. As for her views on matrimony: Miss Xia – or Xia Jin-gui to give her her full name – considered that if she wanted to be mistress in her own house, it behoved her to put her maidenly modesty and the gentleness that was habitual with her aside and show a little authority. It would be necessary to keep the others in their place. Xue Pan in particular, because of his wilfulness and intransigence, must be broken in as quickly as possible, or she would never be able to establish her dominion and plant her flag in this new territory. The discovery that there was a beautiful and intelligent young concubine in this household she was entering aroused feelings in her akin to those expressed by the founder of the Song dynasty when he likened the world to a bedroom and declared that none but he should snore in it.
Because of her name ‘Jin-gui’, which means ‘cassia’ and the abundance of cassia-trees cultivated by her family, Xia Jin-gui had always insisted on strict avoidance of the syllables ‘jin’ and ‘gui’ and the word ‘cassia’ by her maids and any other inferiors who had to do with her. Of course, cassia?flowers had from time to time to be referred to somehow or other, so, bearing in mind the myth about the cassia-tree that grows beside the palace of Chang E in the moon, she decreed that cassia should always be referred to in her presence as ‘Chang E’s flower’. The notion that in doing this she was in some way conferring on herself the status of a moon-goddess was perhaps not entirely absent from her mind. At all events, the luckless maid who carelessly let out a ‘jin’ or a ‘gui’ in her presence or who was incautious enough to utter the dread word ‘cassia’ was in for a savage beating and would probably lose her pay for a month or two as well.
Now Xue Pan was one of those fickle natures always ready to be ‘off with the old love and on with the new’; and in spite of all his bluster, he was only pot-valiant, having little stamina, or stomach either, for a long-drawn-out trial of strength. While the novelty of his marriage still lasted, he was, in any case, only too willing to defer in everything to his beautiful young bride. Jin-gui quickly grasped what sort of person she had to deal with and exploited her advantage to the utmost. During the first month of their marriage things stood about equally between them, but by the end of the second month Jin-gui’s star was definitely in the ascendant.
One day, after drinking rather more than was good for him, Xue Pan went to see Jin-gui about something he wanted them both to do. On meeting with determined opposition to his proposal, he finally lost patience with her and, after some angry shouting, walked out on her in a temper. Jin-gui wept abandonedly, refused to eat or drink, and eventually succeeded in persuading everyone that she was ill. A doctor was sum?moned who pronounced her to be suffering from a ‘collision of blood and air’ and prescribed a lenitive medicine to ease the clogged passages of the breath.
Aunt Xue gave Xue Pan a furious dressing-down.
‘You’re a married man now and soon you’ll be a father. I don’t know how you can carry on like this. Here’s a girl as rare as a phoenix chick, a beautiful, delicate creature, reared up with I don’t know how much loving care by her family – they only let her marry you because they thought you had enough human decency to look after her properly – and what do you do? Instead of making an effort to control yourself and settling down to live in peace and harmony with her as a husband ought to do, you carry on just as you always did, drinking too much and treating the girl like a barbarian. So now we have to spend money on expensive doctor’s bills and put up with this quite unnecessary anxiety, all because of you.’
Xue Pan felt thoroughly remorseful after this lecture and went back to Jin-gui to try and make it up with her. But Jin-gui had heard the lecture too and was encouraged by it to behave even more outrageously than before. Xue Pan’s pacific overtures were ignored. He had to humble himself still further. It took a fortnight of patient wheedling to talk his wife into a more satisfactory frame of mind. By that time the self?-assurance that had once been characteristic of him was very much in abeyance.
Having already, in this first encounter, caused her husband to lower his colours and at the same time discovered that her mother-in-law was harmless, Jin-gui began pressing forwards in quest of yet further victories. At first she would do no more than consolidate her ascendancy over Xue Pan; then, using her feminine charms to make him her instrument, she would extend her dominion over Aunt Xue; and finally Bao-chai too should be brought under her control. But Bao-chai saw through her sister-in-law’s little game very quickly and was able to meet ruse with ruse – even, by means of an occasional quiet but well-placed remark, to give her ambitions some check. Finding that she was not to be taken with cunning, Jin-gui began looking for occasions for a direct confrontation with her; but as Bao-chai was equally careful not to give her any, she was for the time being obliged, albeit reluctantly, to treat her with respect.
One day, having nothing better to do, Jin-gui engaged Caltrop in conversation. When, in answer to her questions, Caltrop told her that she had no recollection of her home and parents, Jin-gui was displeased. She felt sure that Caltrop knew really but was withholding the information out of malice.
‘Who gave you the name “Caltrop”?’ she asked her.
‘Miss Bao,’ said Caltrop.
Jin-gui sneered.
‘People are always saying how clever your Miss Bao is. I can’t see that she showed much cleverness in choosing you that name.’
‘If you say that of Miss Bao,’ said Caltrop warmly, ‘it must be because you have never had occasion to test her knowledge. Even Sir Zheng has often spoken admiringly of Miss Bao’s learning.’
Jin-gui’s reaction to that remark will be related in the chapter which follows.

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