The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 92

0
206

CHAPTER 92

Qiao-jie studies the Lives of Noble Women
and shows a precocious enthusiasm for Virtue
Jia Zheng admires a Mother Pearl
and reflects on the vicissitudes of Life

‘What does Father want me for?’ asked Bao-yu in some alarm, as they left the Naiad’s House. Ripple smiled.
‘He doesn’t. Aroma told me to fetch you, and I was afraid you wouldn’t come, so I made it up…’
Bao-yu was greatly relieved.
‘I would have come. There’s really no need to scare me like that.’
He arrived hack at Green Delights, to be interrogated by Aroma:
‘Where have you been all this time?’
‘At Miss Lin’s. I got delayed. We were chatting about Aunt Xue and Cousin Chai’s illness.’
‘What were you saying?’ asked Aroma inquisitively.
Bao-yu described his Zen dialogue with Dai-yu.
‘You two are so silly,’ was Aroma’s comment. ‘Why can’t you have a normal conversation about ordinary things, or discuss something nice like poetry? What do you have to go talking about Zen for? You’re not a monk!’
‘You don’t understand,’ replied Bao-yu. ‘We have our Zen secrets. No one else could join in our conversations.’
‘I dare say,’ returned Aroma, with a scornful sniff. ‘I’m sure that if you two went on Zennifying at each other till you were both blue in the face, we should still be standing here quite as much in the dark as ever.’
‘When I was younger,’ said Bao-yu, ignoring her jibes, ‘and Dai-yu was rather more childish in her ways, some?how I always managed to upset her by saying the wrong thing. Nowadays I think more about what I say, and she takes offence less easily. But all the same I have noticed that when we meet, which is not very often, as she seldom visits me and I have to spend so much time studying, we almost seem to have grown apart in some way.
‘I should hope so too,’ said Aroma. ‘Now that the two of you are older, of course you must learn to be more dis?creet.’
Bao-yu nodded his head irritably.
‘I know – let’s not talk any more about that now. What I want to know is, has anyone come over from Grand?mother’s with a message?’
‘No.’
‘Then she must have forgotten!’ said Bao-yu. ‘Tomor?row’s the First of the Eleventh, isn’t it? Every year Gran?nie has a party and invites the whole family over to cele?brate the beginning of the Lessening Cold season, when the days start to get longer. I’ve already asked for the day off school, in fact. What am I to do? Should I go to school or not? If I do, that will be my day-off wasted. If I don’t, and Father finds out, he’ll scold me for playing truant.’
‘I think you should go,’ replied Aroma. ‘You’ve lust started to make progress with your studies, and this is no time to be thinking of letting up. You should be working as hard as you can. Only yesterday I heard Her Ladyship say how well young Lan is doing at his studies. When he gets back from school lie settles straight down to his texts and compositions all on his own, and never goes to bed till the small hours. You’re his uncle, and several years older than him. If you let him overtake you Her Old Ladyship will be very displeased. So I say, off to school early in the morning.’
Musk did not agree, however.
‘In this cold weather?’ she objected. ‘lf you go now, they’ll wonder why you asked for the day off in the first place. It will look as though you were inventing an excuse to get off school. I think you should make the most of it and have a day’s rest. If Her Old Ladyship has forgotten to have a party, we can always have one here instead…’
‘Now he’ll never go, and it will all be your fault,’ complained Aroma.
‘I believe in taking each day as it comes and having fun whenever you can,’ said Musk defiantly. ‘I don’t believe in sucking up to people and working myself to death for a two-tael bonus every month like you do, Aroma dear…’
Aroma spat at her:
‘You little hussy! Interfering in a serious discussion in such a silly manner…’
‘On the contrary, I was saying it for your sake, dear…’
‘For my sake?’
‘Yes. As soon as Master Bao’s gone to school, you’ll sit around mooning and moaning again, longing for him to come home and bring the sunshine back into your life. Don’t think you can fool me with that holier-than-thou attitude of yours…’
Aroma was on the point of giving Musk a large piece of her mind when one of Grandmother Jia’s maids arrived and said:
‘Her Old Ladyship says Master Bao’s not to go to school tomorrow. Mrs Xue’s been invited round to spend the day, and all the young ladies will probably be coming too. Miss Shi, Miss Xing and Mrs Zhu’s cousins have all been invited. It’s to celebrate the “lessening cold” or some such thing…’
‘I told you so!’ cried Bao-yu with glee before she could finish. ‘It’s always been one of Grannie’s favourite occa?sions. Now I can have the day off and a clear conscience!’
Aroma said nothing, and Grandmother Jia’s maid returned.
Bao-yu’s recent stint of self-application had in fact left him more or less gasping for a respite of this sort. He was also delighted to hear that Aunt Xue was coming, as that would surely mean a chance to see Bao-chai.
‘Let’s have an early night,’ he said. ‘I want to be up first thing tomorrow.’
The night passed uneventfully, and early next morning, true to his resolution, Bao-yu went to pay his respects to Grandmother Jia and then to his father and mother, to whom he reported that ‘Grannie had given him the day off school’. Jia Zheng raised no objection and Bao-yu with?drew from his presence at a snail’s pace, waiting till he was a few yards from the study before breaking into a run and racing to Grandmother Jia’s apartment. The other guests had not yet arrived, but he saw a nurse and a few younger maids enter the room with Xi-feng’s little girl Qiao-jie, who walked up to her great-grandmother, paid her re?spects and said:
‘Mama told me to come and say my good-morning and sit with you first, Great-grannie. She says she’ll be here by and by.’
The old lady laughed.
‘Bless you child! Here I’ve been sitting since cockcrow, and none of my guests has turned up, except your Uncle Bao.’
Qiao-jie’s nurse did some discreet prompting:
‘Say good morning to your uncle, Miss.’
Qiao-jie did so, and Bao-yu returned the greeting.
‘My Mama wants to see you, Uncle Bao,’ said Qiao-jie. ‘She said so yesterday.’
‘What about?’ asked Bao-yu.
‘She says she wants to find out if I’ve learnt my charac?ters properly after all my lessons with Nannie Li. I prom?ised her I had and offered to read them out for her. But she thought I was guessing and didn’t believe me. She said I couldn’t have learnt them because all I do all day long is play. But I don’t think learning characters is hard. I can even read my Girl’s Classic of Filial Piety – it’s ever so easy. Mama thinks I’m making it up, so she wants you to go over it with me when you’ve got the time.’
Grandmother Jia laughed.
‘Bless you darling! Your mother can’t read a word, that’s why she couldn’t tell if you were cheating her or not. Tomorrow your uncle Bao will go over it with you, and she can listen in. Then she’ll have to believe you.’
‘How many characters do you know by now?’ asked Bao-yu.
‘Over three thousand,’ replied Qiao-jie. ‘I’ve finished the Girl’s Classic, and a fortnight ago I started on Lives of Noble Women Present and Past.’
‘Do you understand it all?’ asked Bao-yu. ‘If there’s anything you’re not clear about, you must tell me and I’ll try and explain it for you.’
‘What a nice idea,’ commented Grandmother Jia. ‘As her uncle, you should help her with her studies.’
Bao-yu cleared his throat.
‘Let us leave aside,’ he began, ‘such household names as the worthy queen and consorts of Good King Wen, and pass on to those two other Models of Queenly Capability:
Queen Jiang, who in order to rebuke her sovereign for his excessive attentions removed all her ornaments and stood like a prisoner awaiting sentence; and the Lady Hunch?back of Wu-yan, whose earnest remonstrations restored order in the kingdom of Qi.’
‘Yes,’ said Qiao-jie, and Bao-yu went on:
‘For Talent, we have the lady-historian Ban Zhao, Ban Jie-yu literary concubine of Emperor Cheng-di of Han, and the two poetesses Cai Wen-ji and Xie Dao-yun.’
‘What about Paragons of Virtue?’ asked Qiao-jie.
‘Now let me see,’ replied Bao-yu, ‘for Virtue we have Meng Guang, the wife who wore a wooden hairpin and cotton skirts; we have Bao Xuan’s wife, who drew her own water from the well, and Tao Kan’s mother, who cut off her hair to buy wine for her son’s guests. Their Virtue lay in their Acceptance of Poverty.’
Qiao-jie nodded her head enthusiastically.
‘Then we have the famous cases of Hardship Endured,’ continued Bao-yu. ‘Princess Le-chang, who after a cruel separation was reunited with her husband by the strat?agem of the broken mirror; and Su Hui, who embroi?dered a lengthy palindrome to send to her husband exiled in the wastes of Tartary. Then come the Paragons of Filial Piety: Mu Lan marching to war in her ailing father’s place, Cao E throwing herself into the river after a fruitless search for her father’s corpse – and many others be?sides…’
Qiao-jie had become very quiet and thoughtful, and when Bao-yu went on to recount the tale of Lady Cao who after her husband’s death cut off her nose to deter any further suitors, and other tales of Widowed Virtue, her little face became more serious than ever. Thinking this might all be making her feel uncomfortable, Bao-yu introduced an apocryphal category of his own invention:
‘Then of course we have the Famous Beauties, romantic ladies such as Wang Zhao-jun, Xi-shi, Cherry Lips, Wil?low Waist, Crimson Fairy, Zhuo Wen-jun, Red Duster – all of these were…’
‘Enough!’ interrupted Grandmother Jia, seeing the blank look on Qiao-jie’s face. ‘No more! You’ve filled the poor child’s head to overflowing. How can she possibly remember all those names?’
‘I recognize some of the names Uncle Bao mentioned,’ said Qiao-jie. ‘And his talk has certainly helped me to understand the ones I know.’
‘I don’t think we need bother going over the written characters for all those names,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I’m sure you know them.’
‘Mama said that our Crimson used to be one of your maids,’ said Qiao-jie out of the blue. ‘And she says she still hasn’t found you anyone to replace her. She’s think?ing of giving you Mrs Liu’s daughter, Fivey I think her name is, if you’re happy about it…’
Bao-yu was delighted to hear this and said with a grin:
‘Your mother doesn’t have to ask me about things like that. She makes all the decisions.’
He turned with a smile to Grandmother Jia.
‘My young niece shows every sign of growing up to be a second Cousin Feng. Only I think she may be even cleverer, and will have the added advantage of being able to read.’
‘I’ve no objection to girls learning their letters,’ com?mented Grandmother Jia. ‘But needlework must always come first.’
‘Nannie Liu teaches me embroidery,’ said Qiao-jie. ‘I can do flowers and chain-patterns. I’m not very good yet, but I’m learning.’
‘In a family like ours,’ said Grandmother J ia, ‘we never need to do our own sewing, I know. But it’s as well to know how. Then you will never be at the mercy of others.’
‘Yes, Great-grannie,’ Qiao-jie smilingly replied. She would have welcomed some more Paragons of Virtue, but thought Bao-yu looked a little preoccupied and did not venture to ask.
What was preoccupying Bao-yu? The answer lies in Qiao-jie’s mention of Fivey. This attractive girl had been originally designated for Green Delights, but one obstacle after another had so far prevented her from entering ser?vice there. First it had been illness; then they had been wary of choosing a good-looking maid for Bao-yu in the puritanical phase that followed on Lady Wang’s expulsion of Skybright. A further opportunity of seeing her had pre?sented itself when she and her mother had arrived with gifts during his secret visit to Skybright at her cousin’s house – and his earlier favourable impression of her had been confirmed. She really was extremely pretty. What marvellous luck that Xi-feng should have remem?bered her now, and was arranging for her to take Crim?son’s place!
While Bao-yu was day-dreaming, Grandmother Jia was becoming more and more impatient at the lateness of her guests and sent word to hurry them along. A few minutes later the first contingent arrived: Li Wan and her two cousins Wen and Qi, Tan-chun, Xi-chun, Shi Xiang-yun and Lin Dai-yu. They all paid their respects to Grand?mother Jia and greeted one another. Aunt Xue had still not come, and Grandmother Jia sent for her. Finally she arrived, accompanied by Bao~q in. Bao-yu paid his re?spects, and said hello to Bao-qm, wondering why it was that neither Bao-chai nor Xing Xiu-yan had come. When Dai-yu asked outright, ‘Why couldn’t Cousin Chai come today?’, Aunt Xue pretended that she was not feeling well. Xiu-yan had stayed away because she knew that Aunt Xue (her future mother-in-law) would be there. Bao-chai’s absence caused a momentary depression in Bao-yu’s spirits, which was however soon dispelled by the presence of Dai-yu.
Lady Xing and Lady Wang arrived shortly afterwards. Xi-feng, who heard that they were there before her and was embarrassed at the thought of being late, sent Patience ahead to apologize for her.
‘Mrs Lian was meaning to come, but she has had a bit of a fever and won’t be coming till later,’ said Patience.
‘If she’s not feeling well, she needn’t bother to come at all,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘We ought to start our lunch now.’
The maids moved the charcoal brazier to the back of the room and placed two tables in front of Grandmother Jia’s couch, at which the party now arranged itself for lunch. After lunch they sat once more round the brazier chatting pleasantly, and there for the present we must leave them.
*

What was really detaining Xi-feng? It had at first been no more than her embarrassment at being later than Ladies Xing and Wang. But this had been further complicated by the arrival of Brightie’s wife, who informed her that one of Ying-chun’s women-servants had come to pay her re?spects. The woman had come straight to Xi-feng’s apartment and had not notified the main mansion of her pres?ence. Xi-feng was puzzled, and summoned her into the room.
‘Is your mistress well?’ she asked.
‘Anything but well,’ replied the woman. ‘But that’s not what I’ve come about, ma’am. Really it was Chess’s mother who begged me to come and ask you for a favour.’
‘But Chess has been dismissed,’ said Xi-feng. ‘What have her affairs to do with me now?’
‘It’s a long story, ma’am. From the day she was dismiss?ed Chess did nothing but cry her heart out. Then one day that cousin of hers, her boy-friend Pan You-an, turned up again. Her mother was terribly rude to him when she saw him, swearing that he’d been her daughter’s ruin. She took hold of him and tried to hit him, while he stood there meek and mild not saying a word. Chess heard what was going on and came rushing out and cried defiantly: “It was because of him I was dismissed – I don’t need remind?ing! I know he acted wrong! But now that he’s come back, why start hitting him? You may as well strangle me instead…” “You shameless slut!” cries the m6ther, “what do you want then?” “A girl can only marry once,” replies Chess defiantly. “It was my mistake, I let him take me, and right or wrong I’m his now and no one else shall have me. If he could only have shown a little more cour?age then and stood by me instead of running away! But I’d wait for him now even if I had to die waiting. I’d rather die than let you marry me to someone else. Now that he’s here, ask him if he’ll take me for his wife. If he still wants me, I’ll make you my farewell kotow and you can forget that I ever existed. I’ll follow him to the ends of the earth. I’ll beg in the streets if need be!” This put her mother in a terrible rage. Weeping and cursing she cried: “You’re my daughter and if I say you can’t marry him then you can’t, and that’s that!” But Chess was an obstinate creature. No sooner had her mother said this than she took a run at the wall and dashed her head against it. She split her skull open, the blood came pouring out and in a moment she was dead! Her mother began howling, but it was too late. Next she started screaming at him that he’d have to pay with his life. He replied – and this is the strangest part of the story -“Don’t worry. I’m a wealthy man now. I never forgot your daughter, and came back today to find her. I have always been true to her. To prove that I’m telling no lie. . .” As he said this he brought out a casket from in?side his gown, full of gold and precious stones. One look at them and Chess’s mother changed her tune. “Why oh why didn’t you say all this earlier?” she asked. “I know the ways of women,” he replied, “how easily swayed they are by the idea of wealth. Now at least I know for sure that she was a girl in a million. These are ours,” he added, handing her the casket. “I will go and buy the coffin now, and see to it that she is buried properly.” The mother took the casket and left all the arrangements to her nephew. She seemed to have quite forgotten about Chess. When he returned, she saw to her astonishment that the bearers he had employed were bringing not one but two coffins. She asked him what he needed two coffins for, and he replied with a strange laugh that one would not be enough. He showed not the least sign of crying, and the mother decided his mind must have been deranged by the shock of his grief. For a while he was busy preparing Chess’s corpse, dry-eyed and silent, when all of a sudden before anyone had time to take in what was happening he pulled out a knife and slit his throat and that was the end of him. The mother realized too late what a terrible thing she had done, and broke down in floods of tears. The whole neighbourhood knows, and they want to report the case to the magistrate. In her distress she begged me to ask you to use your influence to help her, ma’am, and said she would come herself and kotow to you in gratitude.’
‘What a story!’ exclaimed Xi-feng, aghast at this recital. ‘That fate should have brought two such examples of folly together! Now I understand that look of calm indifference on her face when she was caught during the search of the Garden. What a determined young thing she must have been at heart. I don’t really have time to meddle in such things, but your story has touched my heart! Tell her mother that I will speak to Mr Lian and send Brightie to sort the thing out for her.’
Xi-feng sent the woman on her way and herself departed to join the gathering at Grandmother Jia’s.
*

One day, Jia Zheng was engrossed in a game of Go with one of his literary gentlemen, Zhan Guang. It had been quite a level game, and the outcome now hung on a ko that was in progress on one corner of the board. As they were playing, a page from the gate came in to report that Mr Feng had arrived and was waiting outside to see Sir Zheng.
‘See him in,’ instructed Jia Zheng.
The page did as bidden and Feng Zi-ying was shortly to be observed walking in through the inner gateway. Jia Zheng hurried out to receive him and conducted him through to the study. As he sat down, Feng noticed that they were playing Go.
‘Please carry on with your game,’ he said. ‘I shall be very happy to watch.’
‘My poor play is hardly a worthy spectacle for so dis?tinguished an observer,’ protested Zhan Guang with an obsequious smile.
‘You are too modest,’ said Feng. ‘Carry on please.’
‘What brings you here today?’ inquired Jia Zheng.
‘Oh, nothing of any importance,’ replied Feng. ‘Carry on, sir. I shall benefit greatly from watching your play.’
Jia Zheng turned to his partner.
‘As Feng is an old friend and has not come on any pressing business, we may as well finish our game first. He can sit and watch.’
‘Are you playing for stakes?’ asked Feng.
‘We are,’ replied Zhan Guang.
‘Then silence! On with the game!’
‘I don’t think we need be too strict about that,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘I may be a dozen taels up by the end, but I doubt very much if I shall see the colour of my money. I think friend Zhan will have to stand us a few drinks instead.’
‘An excellent idea,’ said Zhan with a laugh.
‘Are you and friend Zhan on a par, sir?’ inquired Feng.
Jia Zheng laughed.
‘We used to play level, but he always lost, so I gave him a handicap of two. He still loses. And the trouble is, he thinks he can take his moves back all the time, and gets quite upset when I wave the rules at him.’
Zhan laughed.
‘You exaggerate, Sir Zheng…’
‘Well, we shall see…’
On this note of light-hearted banter, they continued their game. When it was finished and they counted up the pieces, Zhan was seven down.
‘It all depended on that last ko,’ commented Feng. ‘You gained the advantage, sir, because you were less vulnerable to a ko threat.’
Jia Zheng turned to Feng.
‘Please forgive us. How are you keeping?’
‘It has been a long while since we last met,’ said Feng. ‘My visit today is partly of a social nature, and partly occasioned by the presence in the capital of a deputy-prefect from Kwangsi province, who is here for an audi?ence with His Majesty and has brought with him four curios, some of them imported, that would make excellent palace-offerings. The first is a folding screen of twenty-four panels, carved of pure blackwood. Though the stone used for the carved inlay – landscapes, figures, buildings, birds and flowers – is not jade, it is a high quality serpen?tine. Each panel has a palace scene, with fifty or sixty palace-ladies. It is called “Spring Morning in the Han Palace”. The features, gestures and costumes are rendered with great clarity. The finish is quite exquisite, the detail and composition of the highest order. It would be perfect for the main hall of Prospect Garden, sir. The second item is a large wall-clock over three feet high. This is a most unusual item. It has a little figure of a boy on the face that indicates the hour with a pointer, and inside it has a little mechanical orchestra. Those two heavier articles I was not able to bring with me. I have however brought the other two, which I think you will find quite fascinating.’
Feng produced an embroidered casket wrapped in several layers of white damask-silk. Unwrapping it, he raised the lid, removed the protective pad of silk-wool be?neath it and displayed its contents. In the top compart?ment of the casket lay a little glass container with a fitted lid. In this container, on a piece of crimson silk that lined its inner casing of gold, lay a magnificent lustrous pearl, as large as a longan.
‘This,’ announced Feng, ‘is known as a Mother Pearl.’
He asked for a tray and Zhang Guang handed him a tea?tray of black lacquer, asking:
‘Will this do?’
‘Perfectly,’ replied Feng, taking from the inner pocket of his gown a white silk bundle. This too contained pearls, of an ordinary size, which he tipped out onto the tray. He then placed the ‘Mother Pearl’ in their midst and put the tray down on the table. Like so many perfect drops of water the smaller pearls rolled across the tray towards the large central pearl. And when Feng lifted the ‘Mother’, all the little ones clung to her. Not a single one was left on the tray.
‘Amazing!’ exclaimed Zhan Guang.
‘An interesting phenomenon,’ observed Jia Zheng. ‘And most appropriately named.’
‘Where is the other casket?’ asked Feng turning to his page, who promptly came forward with a rosewood cas?ket held aloft in both hands. The three men gathered round as it was opened. On its lining of tiger-brocade lay a length of blue gauze-like material, many times folded.
‘And what is this?’ asked Zhan Guang.
‘This,’ replied Feng, ‘is called Byssus Net.’
He took it from the casket and laid it on the table. Folded as it was, it occupied a space no more than five inches long and less than half an inch thick. Feng began to unfold it. When he had done so a dozen times, it extended over the edge of the table.
‘There are still two folds to come,’ he explained. ‘To unfold it to its full extent we would need to hang it in a room with a high ceiling. This fabric is woven from the Byssus, the so-called Mermaid’s Tears. In extreme heat it would make a perfect fly and mosquito-net for use in a large reception hall. As you can see, it is extremely light and transparent.’
‘Please do not unfold it fully,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘It might prove hard to fold again.’
Feng and Zhan Guang carefully folded the net and replaced it in its casket.
‘The price being asked for these four curios is really very reasonable,’ said Feng. ‘I think he would be willing to part with the four for twenty thousand taels. Ten thousand for the Mother Pearl, five thousand for the Bys?sus Net and two thousand five hundred each for the screen and striking clock.’
‘We could not possibly buy them, I’m afraid,’ said Jia Zheng.
‘But with your connections in the palace,’ said Feng, ‘surely they would make an ideal presentation.’
‘I dare say they would,’ replied Jia Zheng. ‘I dare say all sorts of things would. But we simply haven’t the money. I would like Lady Jia to see them, all the same.’
‘By all means.’
Jia Zheng sent a page to fetch Jia Lian, who was instructed to take the pearl and the precious net through to Grandmother Jia’s apartment. He also sent a servant to invite Lady Xing, Lady Wang and Xi-feng to come and view them.
‘There are two other items,’ Jia Lian explained to the ladies. ‘A folding screen and a musical clock. The whole lot is going for twenty thousand taels.’
‘What!’ said Xi-feng sharply. ‘I grant you they’re fine pieces. Hut we definitely haven’t the cash to spare. Besides we’re not like provincial viceroys and governors, who are expected to make such offerings. No; over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that the most sensible way to secure our financial future is to invest in land and property-trust-land for provision of sacrificial funds, and free burial-grounds for the clan with permanent caretakers’ quarters. Such things would be there for the family to fall back on in hard times, an insurance against ruin. I don’t know if Grannie, Father and Mother agree with me or not? Of course, if Sir Zheng and Father want to buy these things, it’s entirely their decision.’
Grandmother Jia led the chorus in Xi-feng’s support.
‘You’re absolutely right, my dear.’
‘Give them back to me then,’ said Jia Lian grumpily. ‘Sir Zheng only sent me to show them to Grandmother as a possible palace-offering. No one said anything about buying them for ourselves. Trust you to pour cold water on the whole idea before Grandmother has even had a chance to speak!’
Jia Lian returned to the study with the curios, and reported that Grandmother Jia did not wish to buy them.
‘No one denies their quality,’ he said to Feng Zi-ying. ‘But we just can’t afford them. I’ll keep my eyes open though, and if I come across a likely buyer I’ll definitely let you know.’
Feng packed them away again, evidently disappointed. He sat and chatted for a while without much enthusiasm, and soon made motions of leaving.
‘Won’t you stay to dinner?’ asked Jia Zheng.
‘I have already taken up too much of your time…’
‘Not at all. We should be delighted.’
As they were speaking Jia She was announced. He was already in the room, and after greeting Feng engaged him in conversation for a few minutes. Presently wine was served and various delicacies were set on the table. After the fourth or fifth round of wine, the subject of the curios came up again.
‘Actually it’s rather hard to sell stuff like this,’ confess?ed Feng. ‘The market is restricted to the few illustrious families such as yours.’
‘Oh come, I am sure you will find someone,’ Jia Zheng consoled him.
‘Besides,’ observed Jia She in a rather maudlin tone, ‘we are not exactly the great and glorious house we once were, you know. Nothing but a hollow facade…’
‘How is Mr Zhen over at Ning-guo House by the way?’ asked Feng. ‘I saw him the other day and in the course of conversation he mentioned this new wife of his son’s. Not a patch on his first, so he was saying. Who is she anyway? I never did ask her name.’
‘She’s a Hu-they’re an old local family. Her father was once Taotai of the Metropolitan Circuit,’ Jia Zheng informed him.
‘Oh, I know Intendant Hu….’ said Feng. ‘Heard that he lets some pretty rum things go on in his house too. Still, the main thing is that the gal should have turned out all right.’
‘I heard from someone at the Grand Secretariat that Yu-cun is to be promoted again,’ put in Jia Lian.
‘Really?. I’m glad to hear that,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘Has it been made official yet?’
‘Most probably,’ said Jia Lian.
‘Yes, I heard the same myself when I was at the Board of Civil Office earlier today,’ said Feng. ‘Am I right in thinking that he is a relation of yours, sir?’
‘He is,’ answered Jia Zheng.
‘A close one?’
‘It is a long story,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘He comes originally from Hu-zhou in Chekiang. He left home and was lodg?ing in Soochow, eking out a rather unsatisfactory existence, when he was befriended by a gentleman named Zhen Shi-yin, who provided the means or him to better him?self. Yu-cun later went on to become a palace graduate, and passed out with flying colours and an immediate post?ing as a magistrate in one of the provinces. He took one of this benefactor’s maidservants as his concubine; she is now, I believe, his principal wife. Old Zhen himself was reduced to destitution by a strange series of calamities, and finally disappeared without trace.’
‘We only came to know Yu-cun,’ continued Jia Zheng, ‘when my brother-in-law, Lin Ru-hai, who at that time was the Yangchow Salt Commissioner, engaged him as private tutor for his daughter – this was after his dismissal. Then Yu-cun learned of the general reinstatement for dis?missed officials and planned to come up to the capital to take advantage of it. My niece – Ru-hai’s daughter – was, as it so happened, just about to come and visit us here, so her father persuaded her tutor to travel with her and act as her escort. He also sent me a letter of recommendation, asking me to put in a good word for him where I could. I formed a favourable impression of him, and from then on we saw a good deal of one another. One thing I remember finding most extraordinary about Yu-cun: he seemed to have familiarized himself with every detail of our family history. There was nothing he did not know. Who our ancestors were, how they won their titles, every ramifica?tion of the Rong-guo and Ning-guo family trees, exactly how many of us there are, who we all are, where we all live, what we all do – why, he was a mine of information! I liked him for it, I must say.
Jia Zheng smiled, and went on:
‘He’s done extremely well for himself in the last few years too. Promoted from Prefect to Censor, then in a few years to Vice-president of the Board of Civil Office, then President of the Board of War. He was demoted three grades for some incident, but now it seems he is to be promoted again.’
‘How hard it is to predict the vicissitudes of human life,’ commented Feng Zi-ying.
‘And yet there is a pattern in all things,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘Take your p earl for instance. The big one is like a man blessed with fortune; the little ones are his dependants, sheltering in the shade of his influence. If the big one goes, then the little ones are helpless. If the head of a family is in trouble, his wife and children are taken from him, his relations are left destitute, even his friends he may see no more. Prosperity may crumble in the twink?ling of an eye, like the passing of a spring cloud or the falling of an autumn leaf. What joy is there in public life? My kinsman Yu-cun has had a comparatively easy time of it. But take a case nearer home, the Zhen family, like our own in so many respects. They too were ennobled for their services to the Throne. Their style of life has always been very like ours. We used to see a great deal of them. I remember not many years ago when they were here in the capital, they sent one of their men round to convey their respects, and all seemed well. Yet not long afterwards their family estate was confiscated, and goodness alone knows what has become of them now. We have had no news of them for so long. My heart goes out to them.’
‘What’s this about a pearl?’ asked Jia She. Jia Zheng and Feng Zi-ying gave him a description of the ‘Mother Pearl’.
‘We need have no fears,’ said Jia She, resuming the pre?vious topic of conversation. ‘Nothing can happen to us.’
‘Of course not, sir,’ said Feng, ‘with Her Grace to pro?tect your interests at Court, with such enviable connec?tions and such a host of relations, and with a family that from Lady Jia down to the younger generation has such an impeccable record…’
‘Granted,’ said Jia Zheng somewhat grimly. ‘But our respectability is more than balanced by our lack of ability and positive achievement. We are living on borrowed time, and one day it will run out.’
‘Do let’s put an end to this depressing conversation,’ said Jia She, ‘and have another drink.’
They did so, and after a few more rounds dinner was served. After dinner, tea was brought in and Feng’s page came in and murmured something in his master’s ear. Feng took his leave.
‘What was that you said?’ asked Jia She of the page. ‘It’s snowing, sir, and they’ve sounded the first evening watch.’
Jia Zheng sent a servant out who came back to report that the snow was indeed already more than an inch thick on the ground.
‘I hope your two curios are well wrapped?’ said Jia Zheng.
‘They are,’ replied Feng. ‘Don’t forget, if you change your minds, I’m sure we can come to some agreement about the price.’
‘I’ll bear it in mind,’ said Jia Zheng.
‘I shall wait to hear from you then. It’s cold – please don’t bother to see me out. Goodbye.’
Jia She and Jia Zheng instructed Jia Lian to accompany Feng Zi-ying to the gate.
For the sequel, please read the following chapter.

Previous articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 93
Next articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 91
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