The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 86

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CHAPTER 86


Bribery induces an old mandarin to tamper
with the course of justice
And a discourse on the Qin provides a young lady
with a vehicle for romantic feelings

It was told in the last chapter how Bao-chai read Xue Ke’s letter aloud to her mother, who then summoned the boy and told him to ~peat whatever Xue Pan had said about his misadventure.
‘I couldn’t make out every word, ma’am,’ he began, ‘but I did hear Mr Pan tell Master Ke that…’
He glanced quickly round the room, and having satisfied himself that there was no one else present, continued:
that he couldn’t stand any more of the terrible scenes at home, and had decided to go on a business trip in the South. He knew someone in this town about seven?ty miles south of the capital, and was thinking of asking him along on his travels. On his way to this man’s house, who should he meet but that fellow Jiang Yu-han he used to be friendly with, on his way to the capital with some young actors. The two of them went into a bar for a jug of wine and a bite to eat, and that’s when things started to go wrong. The waiter kept making eyes at Jiang, which made Mr Pan angry. Well, Jiang left that same day. But the next day, Mr Pan took this other man – the one he was plan?ning to travel with – to the same bar for a drink. After a few rounds he remembered the waiter’s cheeky behav?iour and made a point of complaining about the wine. The waiter took a long time coming with a fresh jug; Mr Pan picked up his cup and aimed it at the waiter’s face. Well, the waiter turned out to be a daring sort of rogue himself he stuck his head out and challenged Mr Pan to hit him. Next thing, wham! Mr Pan smashed the cup right down on top of his head. Blood came spurting out, and the wai?ter went down, cursing and swearing. Then he came over all quiet…’
‘But why on earth did nobody try to stop them?’ asked Aunt Xue.
‘I didn’t hear Mr Pan say anything about that, ma’am. That’s all I know.’
‘All right. You may go and rest now.
‘Thank you ma’am.’
So saying, the boy went out.
Aunt Xue went first to her sister and entrusted her with the task of enlisting Jia Zheng’s support. When Lady Wang brought the matter up and gave Jia Zheng a detailed account of what had happened, he hummed and hawed and said that he could do nothing until Xue Ke’s appeal had gone through the normal channels and the judge had issued his rescript.
Aunt Xue had the five hundred taels weighed out in the family pawnshop and gave it to the boy to deliver post?haste to Xue Ke.
Three days later, the letter they were waiting for arrived. It was handed to Aunt Xue, who setit a lunior maid at once to fetch Bao-chai. She hurried over, and this is what she read:
‘Dear Aunt. Tls. 500 received and distributed as tips among the yamen staff. Pan is being reasonably treated in jail, so please don’t worry.
‘Our problem is that the people here are being very awkward. Neither the dead man’s family nor the eye?witnesses will cooperate. Even Pan’s so-called friend – the one he invited to travel with him – is on their side. It’s especially hard for Li Xiang and myself, as strangers, but luckily we have managed to find a good scrivener who has agreed to help us – for a pretty stiff fee. His advice was that we should get to work on Wu Liang (that’s the “friend”). First, since he was being held in custody as a primary witness, we should get someone to stand bail for him; then offer him money to corroborate our plea of death by mischance. If Wu refused to cooperate we were to try accusing him of being the murderer himself and of using an outsider as a scapegoat. He’d be too scared then not to play along.
‘So far so good. We got Wu out on bail, bribed the family and various other witnesses, and lodged our appeal the day before yesterday. The rescript was issued today. It speaks for itself.’
Bao-chai went on to read out the copy of the appeal and appended rescript.

APPEAL

brought by Xue Ke, younger cousin of and proxy for the defen?dant, Xue Pan, wrongfully convicted of the Intentional Homi?cide by Blows of Zhang San, late of this county.

STATEMENT OF FACTS: The defendant, registered domicile Nanking, at present resident in the capital, on the ___of the ___month, left home intending to do business in the Southern
Provinces. Not many days later, his servant returned home with the news that the defendant had been involved in an incident in which another party had lost his life. The appellant came hither in all haste, to discover that the above-mentioned Mr Zhang had indeed met his death at the hand of the defendant, but that it was a case of Fatal Bodily Harm by Mischance and not of Intentional Homicide by Blows, as previously alleged.
PLEA: On arrival at the County Jail, the appellant was a witness to the most earnest protestations of innocence on the part of the defendant, and hearty denial of any previous animosity to-wards ‘Zhang, with whom indeed he had not been in the slightest degree acquainted before the incident in question, which had occurred solely as the result of a trivial disagreement over a jug of wine. The defendant, by way of complaint, emptied the con?tents of his cup onto the floor. At precisely the same instant, the deceased bent down to retrieve some object from an adjacent spot, slipping as he did so, with the unfortunate, but entirely accidental consequence that a fatal collision occurred between the defendant’s cup and the deceased’s os bregmatis.
When Your Honour saw fit to apprehend the defendant and subject him to judicial interrogation, his terror of the rack was so extreme that he rashly admitted the charge of Homicide by Blows, thus bringing upon himself the sentence of Strangula?tion, with possibility of Commutation to Exile. Your Honour, in your great Wisdom and Clemency, aware no doubt of some latent injustice, has delayed passing sentence until the present time. The defendant, being in custody, is prevented by law from appealing pro sua parte. The appellant has therefore been embold?ened by considerations of family loyalty to act on his behalf, most humbly and earnestly beseeching Your Honour to reopen the case and subject all parties concerned to a second examina?tion. This would be a magnanimous course of action, and one that would earn the never-ending gratitude and lifelong devotion of the appellant and his entire family.

Bao-chai now came to the judge’s rescript, which read as follows:

RESCRIPT

An inquest was held at the scene of the crime, and the evidence heard was conclusive. No torture of any kind was applied to the defendant, who freely admitted the charge, viz. Homicide by Blows. His admission of guilt has now been officially entered in the records.
You, the appellant, an outsider with no first-hand knowledge of the case, in presuming to fabricate this unfounded appeal are guilty of contempt of court. In view of the mitigating circum?stances of family loyalty, your offence will be overlooked in this instance.

APPEAL REJECTED

‘There’s no hope left then!’ cried Aunt Xue. ‘What can we do now?’
‘That isn’t all,’ said Bao-chai. ‘There’s a P.S.’
She read on:
‘For confidential instructions, ask the boy – urgent.’
Aunt Xue immediately questioned the boy, who sup?plied the following information:
‘The people at the yamen know how rich we are, ma’am, and Master Ke says we’ll have to use family con?nections here in the capital, and send another large bribe, if we’re to get a rehearing and a lighter sentence. He says you must act quickly, ma’am, as delay now could mean hardship for Mr Pan.’
Aunt Xue dismissed the boy and went at once to see her sister again. Lady Wang pleaded strenuously with Jia Zheng, but the most he was prepared to do was send someone to ‘have a word’ with the judge. He refused to contemplate the use of ‘pecuniary considerations’. Aunt Xue, fearing that this gesture would prove ineffective, begged Xi-feng to speak to Jia Lian. The judge’s price was high – the figure ran into several thousands of taels; but in the end an agreement was reached, and the way was clear for Xue Ke to proceed with his plan.
The case was officially re-opened, and all the parties concerned were summoned once more to the district ya?men – the beadle, eye-witnesses, relatives of the deceased, etc. Xue Pan was brought out from the cells. The clerk of the court called the roll, and the judge ordered the chief beadle to verify the original depositions. Then Mrs Zhang (nee Wang) and Zhang Er, the deceased’s mother and uncle, were called to give evidence.
‘May’t please Yeronner,’ began Mrs Zhang, punctuating her delivery with sobs, ‘we Zhangs are country folk and live to the south of town. Papa Zhang’s been gone these eighteen years. We had the three boys, but our eldest and second have both passed away. The only one as I had left was our third, and now he’s gone too!’ (More sobs.)
‘Twenty-three this year he’d’ve been, anitplease Yeron?ner, and still a single lad. He’d took this job at Li’s Bar by way o’ helpin’ me out, seem’ as we’d so little comin’ in. It’d’ve been ‘bout midday when this man come to the door-I can see ‘im now -“There’s been a fight at Li’s Bar!” says he, “And your boy’s been killed!” My poor heart, Yeronner! I was took that bad! I runned to Li’s and there was my boy lyin’ on the ground, the blood runnin’ out ‘is poor ‘ead! I tried askin’ ‘im what ‘ad ‘appened, but ‘e couldn’t say nothing, ‘e was ‘ardly breathin’, and then … well, then ‘e was gone! If I could only get my hands on that wickedevilmurderin’
A growl of disapproval rippled through the ranks of the court underlings. Mrs Zhang rapidly kotowed to the bench:
‘All I’m askin’ for is reglar justice Yeronner! He was all I ‘ad left in the world!’
‘Next witness – Gaffer Li!’ called the judge peremp?torily.
Gaffer Li, proprietor of Li’s Bar, came forward and knelt before the bench.
‘Was this fellow Zhang employed for casual work on your premises?’ asked the judge.
‘He was a regular waiter,’ replied Li.
‘I see here that in your original deposition, as recorded at the Inquest, you state that Xue Pan dealt Zhang San a fatal blow on the head. Tell me, did you personally observe this blow?’
‘No, Your Honour. I was behind the counter at the time, in the tap-room. I heard that one of the customers in a private room had ordered some wine. Then a little later I heard that someone had been hurt. I ran in and saw Zhang San lying on the floor. He couldn’t speak. I informed the beadle, and sent someone to tell Mrs Zhang. I have no idea how the fight started. There was a gentleman sitting at Mr Xue’s table, Your Honour. Perhaps he could supply the necessary information…’
‘What!’ thundered the judge impressively. ‘In your orig?inal deposition it says quite plainly that you saw the inci?dent with your own eyes. Are you now trying to tell me that you saw nothing?’
‘When I made that first statement, Your Honour, I was in such a fluster that I must have got my facts a bit mud?dled…’
Another growl through the ranks.
‘Next witness!’ ordered the judge.
The next witness was Wu Liang, Xue Pan’s ‘friend’.
‘Tell me,’ said the judge, ‘were you sitting drinking with the defendant at the time of the crime? Exactly how did the fatal blow occur? Be sure to speak the truth.’
‘On the day in question, Your Honour,’ replied Wu, ‘Mr Xue called at my house and kindly invited me out for a drink. As he was dissatisfied with the quality of the wine, he ordered a fresh jug to be brought. But the waiter, Zhang San, refused to oblige. This annoyed Mr Xue, and by way of protest he threw the contents of his cup in the waiter’s face. It all happened very fast, and somehow the cup must have slipped from Xue’s hand and collided with Zhang’s head. This is a true account of the incident as I saw it with my own eyes.’
‘Nonsense!’ cried the judge. ‘Why, at the Inquest the defendant himself admitted to “assaulting Zhang and deal?ing the fatal blow with the cup”, and you verified the admission yourself. This is perjury! Slap his face!’
An answering cry came from the appropriate section of the court, and the punishment was about to be adminis?tered, when Wu protested:
‘Mr Xue never started a fight, sir! The cup slipped from his hand and collided with Zhang’s head! It was all an accident! Question the defendant himself! Have mercy!’
The judge summoned Xue Pan.
‘Now, Xue, for the last time, tell me: what was your grudge against Zhang San? And how did he meet with his death? I want the whole truth!’
‘Your Honour, be merciful I beseech you!’ pleaded Xue Pan. ‘I never raised a hand to strike the man. All I did was empty my cup on the floor because he refused to bring the wine I had ordered. Before I knew it, the cup slipped from my hand and struck him on the head. I did all I could to staunch the wound, but it was hopeless. The loss of blood was so great that he died in a matter of minutes. At the Inquest I was in such fear of torture that I made a false confession of assault. I beg Your Honour to show mercy accordingly!’
‘Miserable wretch!’ bellowed the judge. ‘You have already pleaded guilty to intentional assault. Are you now trying to say that it was no more than an accidental colli?sion?’
He went on in this fashion, making a series of suitably august noises, threatening Pan with the rod one minute and the rack the next, if he would not confess. This time, however, Pan persisted in his denial.
The coroner was now called upon to make public the results of his post-mortem.
‘May it please Your Honour, I have duly examined the corpse of Zhang San, and find no trace of injury but a single scalp-wound, caused by a porcelain artifact. The wound is approximately one and three-quarter inches in length, penetrating to a depth ~f half an inch. The bregmatic bone has sustained a fracture approximately one third of an inch in length. The type of wound points unmistakably to a collision of an accidental nature.’
The judge checked the coroner’s certificate, which (as he knew quite well) had been altered by his clerk, and without raising any objections casually asked all con?cerned to sign their statements.
‘But Yeronner!’ wailed Mrs Zhang. ‘What about all them other wounds? Ever so many there was! Coronary said so himself last time, I remember! Where’ve they all got to now?’
‘Foolish woman!’ exclaimed the judge. ‘Here is the certificate, duly signed – see for yourself.’
He called the dead man’s uncle forward (a more coop?erative witness):
‘Zhang Er, will you tell the court how many wounds there were on your nephew’s corpse?’
‘Just the one on his skull, sir,’ replied Zhang.
The judge turned to Mrs Zhang:
‘What further need have you of proof!’
He told the clerk of the court to hand Mrs Zhang the certificate, and instructed the chief beadle and Zhang Er to explain it to her. The other documents in the case were now collated – the proceedings of the inquest, duly auth?enticated with the signatures of those present at the time, and the depositions of the witnesses, which were now unanimous in stating that there had been no quarrel, ergo no assault, ergo Xue Pan was only guilty of ‘causing fatal bodily harm by mischance’, a lesser degree of manslaugh?ter redeemable by payment of a fine. The parties were now required to affix their signature or mark to the docu?ment, Xue Pan was detained until confirmation of his sentence was received, and Wu Liang and his guarantor were released. The court was adjourned.
As the judge was leaving, Mrs Zhang broke into another untimely bout of wailing and sobbing, and he ordered the court lictors to send her packing. Uncle Zhang also did what he could to bring her to her senses:
‘It really was an accident,’ he said, ‘so why hold an innocent man guilty? His Honour has passed sentence now, so for goodness’ sake pipe down.’
Xue Ke had been waiting outside, and was greatly re?lieved to hear that all had gone according to plan. He sent a letter home, saying that he planned to stay on until the confirmation came through, when he would pay Xue Pan’s fine.
Walking through the town later that day, he became aware of a buzz of excited conversation in the street:
‘Have you heard? One of the Imperial Concubines has passed away, and there’s to be a three-day Recess at Court…’
Since the Imperial Mausoleum was not far from the town, Xue Ke thought to himself, the judge would now be busy preparing for the funeral and repairing the road with yellow earth for the procession. He would hardly have time to think about routine legal matters, and conse?quently he himself would achieve little by hanging around. So he went to the jail and explained to Pan that he was going home for a few days. Pan was glad for his mother’s sake, and sent a brief note to reassure her. ‘I’m fine,’ he wrote. ‘A few more taels in the right pockets and I’ll be home! But be sure to keep the cash flowing!’ Xue Ke left the boy Li Xiang behind just in case, and set off home straight away.
On arrival, he gave Aunt Xue a full account of how the judge had managed the transition from ‘assault’ to ‘mis?chance’.
‘All that’s left now,’ he finished by saying, ‘is to give the Zhangs a bit more money. Then, when the commuta?tion is confirmed, it will all be over Aunt Xue breathed a sigh of relief.
‘I was hoping you would be able to come home,’ she said. ‘I have been wanting to go over and thank the Jias for all that they’ve done, and I thought it would be nice if I could go and keep an eye on things for Aunt Wang and spend some time with the girls. With the death of the Zhou’ Concubine the family is away every day and they must be rather lonely at home. But I couldn’t go until now because there was no one here to take charge.’
‘The funny thing is that on my way here I heard it was the Jia Concubine that had died,’ said Xue Ke. ‘That’s why I came back in such a hurry – though I must say I found it hard to credit.’
‘She was ill a while ago,’ replied Aunt Xue. ‘But she re?covered, and I have heard nothing about her being ill since. It’s odd, though: Lady Jia was not feeling well a few days ago, and whenever she closed her eyes she had a vision of Her Grace. Everyone was most concerned at first, and they even sent someone to Court to inquire, but were told that Her Grace was in good health Then, three days ago, in the evening, Lady Jia suddenly said out loud:
“Why have you come all this way on your own to see me, Your Grace?” This time they put it down to her illness and didn’t take it seriously. “If you don’t believe me,” said Lady Jia, “let me tell you what Her Grace said: Prosperity may all too soon be spent; draw back, draw back before it is too late.” They thought she was imagin?ing it all – it was just the sort of thing a lady of her years would be preoccupied with, after all – and paid no atten?tion. So can you imagine the panic the next morning, when somehow they heard from Court that one of the Concubines was critically ill, and that all members of the family with titles were to proceed to the Palace! They were in the most dreadful state when they set off! But be?fore they had even left the palace, we heard that it was the Zhou Concubine. It is odd, don’t you agree, that the rumour you heard should have tallied so exactly with Lady Jia’s premonitions?’
‘The public always gets its facts mixed up,’ commented Bao-chai, ‘and the Jias are so sensitive about the whole thing that they’ve only to hear the words “Her Grace” mentioned to start jumping to the most dire conclusions. It nearly always turns out to be a false alarm. During this latest excitement, I was chatting to one or two of their maids and older serving-women, and they told me they’d known all along that it couldn’t possibly have been Her Grace. I asked one of them how they could be so sure, and she told me of something that happened several years ago.
‘It was the first month of the year, and there was a for?tune-teller from one of the provinces here in the capital, who had been recommended to the family for his great accuracy. Lady Jia gave instructions to slip Her Grace’s Eight Stems and Branches in with some of the maids’, and to ask this man to tell their fortunes. He singled hers Out at once.’ “There must be some mistake here”, he said. “I see that this young lady was born on the first of the first month. If the Stem and Branch of her natal hour were cor?rect, she would have to be a person of high estate, and not a servant in this household.” Sir Zheng and the others urged him to cast the horoscope anyway, so he went on: “The Cyclical Year Jia Shen (Wood + Metal), the Prime Month Bing Yin (Fire + Wood). Both Failure and Decline are present. Although the Year Branch Shen shows Rank and Wealth, as it is not her fate to be raised within the household, the aspect of this Branch is not particularly favourable. The Day Yi Mao (Wood + Wood), com?mencement of Spring, Wood at its zenith. We have here a conflict, a Configuration of Peers. In this case it enhances the subject, just as fine timber is only fashioned into an in?strument of true greatness when it encounters the axe. The Hour Stem Xin (Metal) indicates Nobility, while the Hour Branch Si (Fire) indicates Rank and Fortune again, this time the High Degree known as Lucky Horse Rides the Sky. The Day Conjunction shows Supreme Rank and the Forces of Heaven and the Moon presiding over her fate. She will be favoured with residence in the Imperial Bedchamber. If the Hour Stem and Branch are correct, this subject must be an Imperial Concubine.”
‘As the maid said,’ Bao-chai continued, ‘the horoscope fitted Her Grace perfectly. They remembered the end part, too. “Alas!” he said, “such Glory cannot endure. When Hare meets Tiger, and Wood meets Wood, in a Mao Month of a Yin Year, her Peers will outshine her, the Decline will reach its nadir, and the fine wood, through being too prettily carved, will lose its heart and strength” Although the family in their panic forgot all about this final prediction, the maid remembered. As she said to Cousin Wan, “this is a Yin Year, and we’ve already passed the Mao Month, so it couldn’t be Her Grace!”
Bao-chai had hardly finished when Xue Ke exclaimed:
‘Forget about the Jias for a minute; if there is such a good fortune-teller around, why not ask him about Pan? Perhaps he could tell us what evil force has crossed his path and brought him such bad luck this year? Give me Pan’s Stems and Branches, and I’ll go and find out if the future holds any mote upsets in store for him.’
‘The fortune-teller was from one of the provinces. Who knows where he is now?’ replied Bao-chai.
During this conversation, they had already started to pack Aunt Xue’s things. She went over to the main man?sion, to find that, as she had supposed, Li Wan, Tan-chun and the girls had been left on their own. They welcomed her and asked. after Xue Pan. They were greatly relieved when she told them that he was out of danger and only waiting for confirmation of his sentence.
‘Mother was saying only yesterday,’ said Tan-chun, ‘that she’d always relied on you in the past, Auntie, whenever there was any sort of crisis, to come over and keep an eye on things. But this time she felt she could hardly ask you, as you had enough to cope with. She was rather uneasy about leaving us here on our own, all the same.
‘I’ve been worrying about you myself,’ replied Aunt Xue. ‘But you know how it’s been this last week or two. Your Cousin Ke has been away trying to sort out Pan’s affairs, and really 1 couldn’t leave Bao-chai on her own, she’d never be able to manage. Especially as Pan’s young wife is so incompetent. What with one thing and another, I simply haven’t been able to get away. The only reason Ke has been able to come home and relieve me now is that the judge in charge of the case is going to be tied up with the Zhou Concubine’s funeral arrangements for a few days’.
‘We’d be so pleased if you could stay for a day or two,’ said Li Wan.
Aunt Xue nodded.
‘I should very much like to be here and keep you girls company. The only thing is, I am a little worried that Bao-chai may feel lonely without me.
‘Well why not ask her to come over as well?’ suggested Xi-chun.
Aunt Xue gave a little laugh.
‘Oh, I couldn’t do that.’
‘But why not? She used to live here, didn’t she?’
Li Wan replied for Aunt Xue.
‘You don’t understand. It’s not the same now. They’re very busy at present, so she can’t possibly come.
Xi-chun supposed that this was the real reason for Bao?chai’s absence, and dropped the matter.
As they were talking, Grandmother Jia and the rest of the family arrived back from their visit of condolence. When they saw that Aunt Xue was there, preliminary courtesies were dropped for once and everyone wanted to know the latest in the Pan affair. Aunt Xue told them the whole story. Bao-yu was present, and pricked up his ears when he heard Jiang Yu-han’s name mentioned. Although he thought it inadvisable to show much interest in front of the others, secretly he asked himself why his old actor-friend had not been to look him up, if he was back in town. Then, noticing that Bao-chai had not accompanied her mother, and trying to imagine what could be keeping her at home, he began to drift into one of his brown stud?ies, and was only aroused and restored to a more cheer?ful frame of mind by the unexpected arrival of Dai-yu. He stayed for dinner with the others at Grandmother Jia’s. After dinner everyone retired to their respective apart?ments, except for Aunt Xue, who stayed the night in Grandmother Jia’s guest-room.
Bao-yu returned to Green Delights, and was divesting himself of his going-out clothes, when suddenly he re?membered the cummerbund Jiang Yu-han had once given him as a first-meeting present.
‘Do you remember that crimson cummerbund I gave you?’ he asked Aroma. ‘The one you wouldn’t wear? Have you still got it?’
‘I’ve put it away somewhere. Why do you ask?’
‘Oh, I just wondered.’
‘Didn’t you hear what terrible trouble Mr Pan got into, all because he made friends with such riffraff! Will you never learn? Haven’t you more sense than to go bringing up a thing like that? Instead of filling your head with such stuff, what you should be doing is quietly concentrating on your studies.’
‘Oh for goodness’ sake! I’m not the one that’s got into trouble! I just happened to think of it, that’s all. I couldn’t care less whether you’ve still got it or not. If I’d known you were going to start giving me a lecture…’
Aroma smiled.
‘I’m not giving you a lecture. It’s just that you know what people say about actors. Now that you’re studying the classics and learning all the proper rules of behaviour, you should try to conform and get on in the world. When your sweetheart comes along, surely you’ll want to make a good impression then?’
‘Goodness!’ exclaimed Bao-yu, aroused by the mention of the word sweetheart, ‘that reminds me! There was such a crowd at Grannie’s, I didn’t have a chance to speak to Cousin Lin, and she didn’t speak to me either. She left before I did, so she’s probably home by now. I’ll be back in a minute.’
He was gone.
‘Don’t stay too long!’ Aroma called after him. ‘Now I’ve done it! I should never have opened my mouth!’
Bao-yu did not reply, but made his way directly to the Naiad’s House, head bowed in thought. On arrival there, he found Dai-yu at her table, poring over a book.
‘Have you been back long, coz?’ he asked, walking over and standing by her side.
‘As you were ignoring me,’ she said, returning his smile, ‘there was little point in my staying…
He laughed.
‘Everyone was talking at once, and I couldn’t get a word in.’
Looking down at the page open in front of her, Bao-yu found that he couldn’t understand a single character on it. Some of them seemed familiar, like the characters for Peony and Vast; but on closer inspection he saw that even they had been in some way changed. There was the char?acter for Hook, with a Five inside it, and a Nine and Big on top; and there was a Five next to a Six, with Wood be?low and another Five at the very bottom. It was all very puzzling.
‘You must be very advanced, to be able to decipher this esoteric script!’ he said.
Dai-yu gave a little ‘chee!’
‘Not much of a scholar really are you! Fancy never hav?ing seen a Qin tablature before!’
‘It’s music! Of course! But why don’t I know any of the characters? Do you know what they mean?’
‘No, of course not; that’s why I’m reading it…’
‘Do you really? I never knew you could play. Did you know about the Qins hanging on the wall in the main lib?rary? There are quite a few. I remember the year before last Father had a friend who was a Qin player – Antiquar?ian Ji I think be was called. Father asked him to play a piece, but when he tried the instruments he said they were none of them fit to play. He said that if Father really wanted to hear him play, he would come back another day with his own instrument. But he never did. I think he must have decided Father was tone-deaf. Well! So all this time you’ve been hiding your light under a bushel!’
‘Oh no,’ replied Dai-yu. ‘I’m no good. It just happened that a day or two ago, when I was feeling a little better, I was looking through my bookcase and came across an old Qin Handbook. It seemed such a fine thing, and made such fascinating reading. It began with a preface on the general philosophy of the Qin, which I found most pro?found, and then it explained the technical side in great de?tail. I realized that playing the Qin is a form of meditation and spiritual discipline handed down to us from the ancients.
‘I had a few lessons when we lived in Yangchow, and made some progress. But since then I’ve become so out of practice, and now my fingers are all “overgrown with brambles”, as they say! The first Qin Handbook I found only had the names of the Airs, it didn’t have the words and music. But now I’ve found another with the Airs written out in full. It’s so interesting! Of course, I realize that I shall never be able to do justice to the score. To think what the great Master Musicians of the past could do – like Master Kuang, whose playing could summon wind and thunder, dragon and phoenix! And to think that Confucius could tell from his Music Master Xiang’s first notes that he was listening to a musical portrait of King Wen! To play a Rhapsody of Hills and Streams and share its inner meaning with a fellow music-lover…
Dai-yu fluttered her eyelids and slowly bowed her head.
Bao-yu was completely carried away:
‘Oh coz! How wonderful it all sounds! But I’m afraid I still don’t understand these peculiar characters. Please teach me how to read some of them.’
‘I don’t need to teach you. It’s easy.’
‘But I’m such a fool! Please help me! Take that one there – all I can make out is Hook, with Big on top and Five in the middle.’
Dai-yu laughed at him.
‘The Big and Nine on top mean you stop the string with the thumb of your left hand at the ninth fret. The Hook and Five mean you hook the middle finger of your right hand slightly and pull the fifth string towards you. So you see, it’s not what we would call a character, it’s more a cluster of signs telling you what the next note is and how to play it. It’s very easy. Then there are signs for all the graces – the narrow and the wide vibrato, the rising and the falling glissando, the mordent,, the tremulo, the falling glissando with open-string drone…’
Bao-yu was beside himself with joy.
‘As you understand it so perfectly, coz’, why don’t we start studying the Qin together?’
‘The essence of the Qin,’ replied Dai-yu, (is restraint. It was created in ancient times to help man purify himself and lead a gentle and sober life, to quell all wayward pas?sions and to curb every riotous impulse. If you wish to play, then you must first

seek out a quiet chamber,
a studio with distant view,
or upper room;
or some secluded nook
‘mong rocks and trees,
on craggy mountain-top,
by water’s edge…

Let the weather be clear and calm, a gentle breeze, a moon?lit night. Light some incense, and sit in silent meditation. Empty the mind of outward thoughts. Poise Breath and Blood in Perfect Harmony. Your Soul may now com?mune with the Divine, and enter into that mysterious Union with the Way.
‘As the ancients said, true music-lovers have always been few. If there is no one able to share your music’s true delight, then sit alone, and

serenade the breeze and moonlight,
hymn the ancient pines
and weather-worn rocks;
let wild monkeys and venerable cranes
hear your song,

rather than the vulgar mob, whose dull ears would only sully the precious virtue of the Qin.
‘So much for the setting. The next two essentials are finger-technique and touch. And before you think of playing, be sure to dress in a suitable style – preferably in a swansdown cape or other antique robe. Assume the dig?nified manner of the ancients, a manner in keeping with the chosen instrument of the sages. Wash your hands. Light the incense. Sit on the edge of your couch. Place the Qin on the table before you, and sit with your chest opposite the fifth fret. Raise both hands slowly and gracefully. You are now ready, in body and mind, to begin.
‘You must while playing observe carefully the dynamic markings – piano, forte, allegro, adagio – and maintain a relaxed but serious manner at all times.’
‘Goodness me!’ cried Bao-yu. ‘I was thinking we could do it for fun! If it’s as complicated as that, I’m not sure I’d be up to it!’
While they were talking Nightingale came in, and on seeing Bao-yu in the room, inquired with a smile:
‘To what are we to attribute this joyful event, Master Bao?’
‘Cousin Dai has just been teaching me about the Qin. It’s as though scales had fallen from my eyes! I could go on listening for ever!’
‘I didn’t mean that,’ said Nightingale. ‘What I meant was, it’s so rarely that we see you at all nowadays, I won?dered if something out of the ordinary had happened to bring you here today?’
‘I suppose it must seem like that,’ replied Bao-yu. ‘But the only reason I’ve not been round more often is that I know Cousin Dai has not been well, and thought it best not to trouble her. And then I’ve been having to go to school…’
‘Well,’ interrupted Nightingale, ‘Miss Lin has only just started to feel better, so don’t you think you should let her rest now, and not wear her out giving you lessons?’
‘Why yes! How thoughtless of me!’ he exclaimed with a laugh. ‘I was so absorbed in what she was saying, that it never entered my head she might be tiring herself.’
‘I wasn’t,’ said Dai-yu, smiling. ‘Talking about music doesn’t tire one, on the contrary, it raises one’s spirits. I only wonder if what I was saying wasn’t beyond you…’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I’m sure if we take it slowly I’ll be able to understand.’
He stood up.
‘But seriously, I think I should leave you in peace now. Tomorrow I’ll ask Tan and Xi if they’ll come over with me. You three can learn together. I think I’ll just sit in. ..’
‘Why, you lazy thing!’ laughed Dai-yu. ‘Imagine if we three did learn to play, and you were as ignorant as ever; wouldn’t we then be casting our…’
She felt she was allowing herself to become too inti?mate, and suddenly stopped short. Bao-yu only laughed:
‘I’d be happy just to hear you play. I’d do anything for that – even be your swine!’
Dai-yu blushed, but laughed nonetheless. Nightingale and Snowgoose laughed too.
Bao-yu took his leave, and had reached the door, when Ripple appeared, followed by a junior maid bearing a small pot of orchid-plants.
‘Her Ladyship has been given four pots of these orchids,’ said Ripple, ‘and she thought that, as she was so busy at the palace and wouldn’t have time to appreciate them, she would give one to you, Master Bao, and one to you, Miss Lin.’
Dai-yu looked at the orchids. Among them were some of the double-headed kind, and looking at these, she had a strange sensation that they meant something. Whether it was joy or sorrow that they portended, she could not tell. But it was something of importance. She stood staring at them, lost in thought.
Bao-yu’s mind, by contrast, was still full of vibratos and glissandos, and as he left he said gaily:
‘Now that you have these orchids, coz, you’ll be able to compose your own Lonely Qrchid Pavan. And I’m sure it will be just as good as the one Confucius wrote!’
Dai-yu’s heart was too troubled to respond to this part?ing jest. She walked indoors, and staring once more at her orchids, thought to herself:
‘Flowers have their spring-time, a time for fresh blos?soms and young leaves. I am young, but frail as the wil?low that dreads the first breath of autumn… If all turns out for the best, I may grow stronger yet. But if not, my fate will be like that of the fallen petals at spring’s end, driven by the rain and tossed in the wind
These sombre reflections brought tears to her eyes. Nightingale was puzzled to see her cry. ‘Just now,’ she thought to herself, ‘when Master Bao was here, they were both in such high spirits; and now look at her! And all she’s done is look at those flowers!’
She was still trying in vain to think of some consolation to offer, when one of Bao-chai’s serving-women came into the room. But if you wish to know the purpose of her visit, you must read the next chapter.

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