August 17, 2017 at 8:18 am #1875ISCBJKeymaster
第十五回 王凤姐弄权铁槛寺 秦鲸卿得趣馒头庵 话说宝玉举目见北静王世荣头上戴着净白簪缨银翅王帽，穿着江牙海水 五爪龙白蟒袍，系着碧玉红鞓带，面如美玉，目似明星，真好秀丽人物。 宝玉忙抢上来参见，世荣从轿内伸手搀住。见宝玉戴着束发银冠，勒着双龙 出海抹额，穿着白蟒箭袖，围着攒珠银带，面若春花，目如点漆。北静王笑 道：“名不虚传，果然如‘宝’似‘玉’。”问：“衔的那宝贝在那里？”宝玉 见问，连忙从衣内取出，递与北静王细细看了，又念了那上头的字，因问： “果灵验否？”贾政忙道：“虽如此说，只是未曾试过。”北静王一面极口称 奇，一面理顺彩绦，亲自与宝玉带上，又携手问宝玉几岁，现读何书。宝玉 一一答应。北静王见他语言清朗，谈吐有致，一面又向贾政笑道：“令郎真 乃龙驹凤雏，非小王在世翁前唐突，将来 ‘雏凤清于老凤声’，未可量也。” 贾政陪笑道：“犬子岂敢谬承金奖。赖藩郡馀恩，果如所言，亦荫生辈之幸 矣。”北静王又道：“只是一件：令郎如此资质，想老太夫人自然钟爱。但吾 辈后生，甚不宜溺爱，溺爱则未免荒失了学业。昔小王曾蹈此辙，想令郎亦 未必不如是也。若令郎在家难以用功，不妨常到寒邸，小王虽不才，却多蒙 海内众名士凡至都者，未有不垂青目的。是以寒邸高人颇聚，令郎常去谈谈 会会，则学问可以日进矣。”贾政忙躬身答道：“是。”北静王又将腕上一串 念珠卸下来，递与宝玉道：“今日初会，仓卒无敬贺之物，此系圣上所赐鹡 苓香念珠一串，权为贺敬之礼。”宝玉连忙接了，回身奉与贾政。贾政带着 宝玉谢过了。于是贾赦、贾珍等一齐上来，叩请回舆。北静王道：“逝者已 登仙界，非你我碌碌尘寰中人。小王虽上叨天恩，虚邀郡袭，岂可越仙輀而 进呢？”贾赦等见执意不从，只得谢恩回来，命手下人掩乐停音，将殡过完， 方让北静王过去。不在话下。 且说宁府送殡，一路热闹非常。刚至城门，又有贾赦、贾政、贾珍诸同 寅属下各家祭棚接祭，一一的谢过，然后出城，竟奔铁槛寺大路而来。彼时 贾珍带着贾蓉来到诸长辈前让坐轿上马，因而贾赦一辈的各自上了车轿，贾 珍一辈的也将要上马。凤姐因惦记着宝玉，怕他在郊外纵性不服家人的话， 贾政管不着，惟恐有闪失，因此命小厮来唤他。宝玉只得到他车前。凤姐笑 道：“好兄弟，你是个尊贵人，和女孩儿似的人品，别学他们猴在马上。下 来，咱们姐儿两个同坐车好不好？”宝玉听说，便下了马，爬上凤姐车内， 二人说笑前进。 不一时，只见那边两骑马直奔凤姐车来，下马扶车回道：“这里有下处， 奶奶请歇歇更衣。”凤姐命请邢王二夫人示下，那二人回说：“太太们说不歇 了，叫奶奶自便。”凤姐便命歇歇再走。小厮带着轿马岔出人群，往北而来。 宝玉忙命人去请秦钟。那时秦钟正骑着马随他父亲的轿，忽见宝玉的小厮跑 来请他去打尖。秦钟远看着宝玉所骑的马，搭着鞍笼，随着凤姐的车往北而 去，便知宝玉同凤姐一车，自己也带马赶上来，同入一庄门内。 那庄农人家，无多房舍，妇女无处回避。那些村姑野妇见了凤姐、宝玉、 秦钟的人品衣服，几疑天人下降。凤姐进入茅屋，先命宝玉等出去玩玩。宝 玉会意，因同秦钟带了小厮们各处游玩。凡庄家动用之物，俱不曾见过的， 宝玉见了，都以为奇，不知何名何用。小厮中有知道的，一一告诉了名色并 其用处。宝玉听了，因点头道：“怪道古人诗上说：‘谁知盘中餐，粒粒皆辛 苦！’正为此也。”一面说，一面又到一间房内。见炕上有个纺车儿，越发以 为稀奇。小厮们又说：“是纺线织布的。”宝玉便上炕摇转。只见一个村妆丫 头，约有十七八岁，走来说道：“别弄坏了！”众小厮忙上来吆喝。宝玉也住 了手，说道：“我因没有见过，所以试一试玩儿。”那丫头道：“你不会转， 等我转给你瞧。”秦钟暗拉宝玉道：“此卿大有意趣。”宝玉推他道：“再胡说， 我就打了！”说着，只见那丫头纺起线来，果然好看。忽听那边老婆子叫道： “二丫头，快过来！”那丫头丢了纺车，一径去了。 宝玉怅然无趣。只见凤姐打发人来，叫他两个进去。凤姐洗了手，换了 衣服，问他换不换，宝玉道：“不换。”也就罢了。仆妇们端上茶食果品来， 又倒上香茶来，凤姐等吃了茶，待他们收拾完备，便起身上车。外面旺儿预 备赏封赏了那庄户人家，那妇人等忙来谢赏。宝玉留心看时，并不见纺线之 女。走不多远，却见这二丫头怀里抱着个小孩子，同着两个小女孩子，在村 头站着瞅他。宝玉情不自禁，然身在车上，只得眼角留情而已。一时电卷风 驰，回头已无踪迹了。 说笑间，已赶上大殡。早又前面法鼓金铙，幢幡宝盖，铁槛寺中僧众摆 列路旁。少时到了寺中，另演佛事，重设香坛，安灵于内殿偏室之中，宝珠 安理寝室为伴。外面贾珍款待一应亲友，也有坐住的，也有告辞的，一一谢 了乏；从公、侯、伯、子、男，一起一起的散，至未末方散尽了。里面的堂 客皆是凤姐接待，先从诰命散起，也到未正上下方散完了。只有几个近亲本 族，等做过三日道场方去的。那时邢王二夫人知凤姐必不能回家，便要带了 宝玉同进城去。那宝玉乍到郊外，那里肯回去？只要跟着凤姐住着，王夫人 只得交与凤姐而去。 原来这铁槛寺是宁荣二公当日修造的，现今还有香火地亩，以备京中老 了人口，在此停灵。其中阴阳两宅俱是预备妥贴的，好为送灵人口寄居。不 想如今后人繁盛，其中贫富不一，或性情参商。有那家道艰难的，便住在这 里了，有那有钱有势尚排场的，只说这里不方便，一定另外或村庄或尼庵寻 个下处，为事毕宴退之所。即今秦氏之丧，族中诸人，也有在铁槛寺的，也 有别寻下处的。凤姐也嫌不方便，因遣人来和馒头庵的姑子静虚说了，腾出 几间房来预备。——原来这馒头庵和水月寺一势，因他庙里做的馒头好，就 起了这个浑号，离铁槛寺不远。当下和尚工课已完，奠过晚茶，贾珍便命贾 蓉请凤姐歇息。凤姐见还有几个妯娌们陪着女亲，自己便辞了众人，带着宝 玉秦钟往馒头庵来。只因秦邦业年迈多病，不能在此，只命秦钟等待安灵罢， 所以秦钟只跟着凤姐宝玉。一时到了庵中，静虚带领智善、智能两个徒弟出 来迎接，大家见过。凤姐等至净室更衣净手毕，因见智能儿越发长高了，模 样儿越发出息的水灵了，因说道：“你们师徒怎么这些日子也不往我们那里 去？”静虚道：“可是这几日因胡老爷府里产了公子，太太送了十两银子来 这里，叫请几位师父念三日《血盆经》，忙的就没得来请奶奶的安。” 不言老尼陪着凤姐。且说那秦钟宝玉二人正在殿上玩耍，因见智能儿过 来，宝玉笑道：“能儿来了。”秦钟说：“理他作什么？”宝玉笑道：“你别弄 鬼儿！那一日在老太太屋里，一个人没有，你搂着他作什么呢？这会子还哄 我！”秦钟笑道：“这可是没有的话。”宝玉道：“有没有也不管你，你只叫他 倒碗茶来我喝，就撂过手。”秦钟笑道：“这又奇了，你叫他倒去，还怕他不 倒？何用我说呢！”宝玉道：“我叫他倒的是无情意的，不及你叫他倒的是有 情意的。”秦钟没法，只得说道：“能儿倒碗茶来。”那能儿自幼在荣府走动， 无人不识，常和宝玉秦钟玩笑，如今长大了，渐知风月，便看上了秦钟人物 风流，那秦钟也爱他妍媚，二人虽未上手，却已情投意合了。智能走去倒了 茶来。秦钟笑说：“给我。”宝玉又叫：“给我。”智能儿抿着嘴儿笑道：“一 碗茶也争，难道我手上有蜜！”宝玉先抢着了，喝着，方要问话，只见智善 来叫智能去摆果碟子，一时来请他两个去吃果茶。他两个那里吃这些东西？ 略坐坐仍出来玩耍。 凤姐也便回至净室歇息，老尼相伴。此时众婆子媳妇见无事，都陆续散 了自去歇息，跟前不过几个心腹小丫头，老尼便趁机说道：“我有一事，要 到府里求太太，先请奶奶的示下。”凤姐问道：“什么事？”老尼道：“阿弥 陀佛！只因当日我先在长安县善才庵里出家的时候儿，有个施主姓张，是大 财主。他的女孩儿小名金哥，那年都往我庙里来进香，不想遇见长安府太爷 的小舅子李少爷。那李少爷一眼看见金哥就爱上了，立刻打发人来求亲，不 想金哥已受了原任长安守备公子的聘定。张家欲待退亲，又怕守备不依，因 此说已有了人家了。谁知李少爷一定要娶，张家正在没法，两处为难；不料 守备家听见此信，也不问青红皂白，就来吵闹，说：‘一个女孩儿你许几家 子人家儿？’偏不许退定礼，就打起官司来。女家急了，只得着人上京找门 路，赌气偏要退定礼。我想如今长安节度云老爷，和府上相好，怎么求太太 和老爷说说，写一封书子，求云老爷和那守备说一声，不怕他不依。要是肯 行，张家那怕倾家孝顺，也是情愿的。”凤姐听了笑道：“这事倒不大。只是 太太再不管这些事。”老尼道：“太太不管，奶奶可以主张了。”凤姐笑道：“我 也不等银子使，也不做这样的事。”静虚听了，打去妄想，——半晌叹道：“虽 这么说，只是张家已经知道求了府里，如今不管，张家不说没工夫、不希图 他的谢礼，倒象府里连这点子手段也没有似的。” 凤姐听了这话，便发了兴头，说道：“你是素日知道我的，从来不信什 么阴司地狱报应的，凭是什么事，我说要行就行。你叫他拿三千两银子来， 我就替他出这口气。”老尼听说，喜之不胜，忙说：“有！有！这个不难。” 凤姐又道：“我比不得他们扯篷拉纤的图银子。这三千两银子，不过是给打 发说去的小厮们作盘缠，使他赚几个辛苦钱儿，我一个钱也不要。就是三万 两我此刻还拿的出来。”老尼忙答应道：“既如此，奶奶明天就开恩罢了。” 凤姐道：“你瞧瞧我忙的，那一处少的了我？我既应了你，自然给你了结啊。” 老尼道：“这点子事要在别人，自然忙的不知怎么样；要是奶奶跟前，再添 上些，也不够奶奶一办的。俗语说的：‘能者多劳。’太太见奶奶这样才情， 越发都推给奶奶了。只是奶奶也要保重贵体些才是。”一路奉承，凤姐越发 受用了，也不顾劳乏，更攀谈起来。 谁想秦钟趁黑晚无人，来寻智能儿。刚到后头房里，只见智能儿独在那 儿洗茶碗，秦钟便搂着亲嘴。智能儿急的跺脚说：“这是做什么！”就要叫唤。 秦钟道：“好妹妹，我要急死了！你今儿再不依我，我就死在这里。”智能儿 道：“你要怎么样，除非我出了这牢坑，离了这些人，才好呢。”秦钟道：“这 也容易，只是 ‘远水解不得近渴’。”说着一口吹了灯，满屋里漆黑，将智能 儿抱到炕上。那智能儿百般的扎挣不起来，又不好嚷，不知怎么样就把中衣 儿解下来了。这里刚才入港，说时迟，那时快，猛然间一个人从身后冒冒失 失的按住，也不出声。二人唬的魂飞魄散。只听“嗤”的一笑，这才知是宝 玉。秦钟连忙起来抱怨道：“这算什么？”宝玉道：“你倒不依？——咱们就 嚷出来。”羞的智能儿趁暗中跑了。宝玉拉着秦钟出来道：“你可还强嘴不 强？”秦钟笑道：“好哥哥，你只别嚷，你要怎么着都使的。”宝玉笑道：“这 会子也不用说，等一会儿睡下咱们再慢慢儿的算账。” 一时宽衣安歇的时节，凤姐在里间，宝玉秦钟在外间，满地下皆是婆子 们打铺坐更。凤姐因怕通灵玉失落，等宝玉睡下，令人拿来在自己枕边。 却不知宝玉和秦钟如何算账，未见真切，此系疑案，不敢创纂。 且说次日一早，便有贾母王夫人打发了人来看宝玉，命多穿两件衣服， 无事宁可回去。宝玉那里肯？又兼秦钟恋着智能儿，调唆宝玉求凤姐再住一 天。凤姐想了一想，丧仪大事虽妥，还有些小事，也可以再住一日：一则贾 珍跟前送了满情，二则又可以完了静虚的事，三则顺了宝玉的心。因此便向 宝玉道：“我的事都完了。你要在这里逛，少不得索性辛苦了。明儿是一定 要走的了。”宝玉听说，千姐姐万姐姐的央求：“只住一日，明儿必回去的。” 于是又住了一夜。凤姐便命悄悄将昨日老尼之事说与来旺儿。旺儿心中俱已 明白，急忙进城，找着主文的相公，假托贾琏所嘱，修书一封，连夜往长安 县来。不过百里之遥，两日工夫，俱已妥协。那节度使名唤云光，久悬贾府 之情，这些小事岂有不允之理，给了回书。旺儿回来，不在话下。 且说凤姐等又过了一日，次日方别了老尼，着他三日后往府里去讨信。 那秦钟和智能儿两个，百般的不忍分离，背地里设了多少幽期密约，只得含 恨而别，俱不用细述。凤姐又到铁槛寺中照望一番。宝珠执意不肯回家，贾 珍只得派妇女相伴。后事如何，且听下回分解。
At Water-moon Priory Xi-feng finds how much profit may
procured by the abuse of power
And Qin Zhong discovers the pleasures that are to
be had under the cover of darkness
Looking up, Bao-yu saw that Shui Rong’s princely headgear was embellished by way of mourning with white bands, a white hatpin, and filigree silver ‘wings’. As a further token of mourning his robe, though heavily bordered with a ‘tooth and wave’ design of rainbow-coloured stripes and gold-em-blazoned with the royal five-clawed dragon, was of a white material. It was confined at the waist by a red leather belt, studded with green jade. The splendid costume, the luminous eyes, the finely chiselled features really did make him an arrestingly handsome young man. Bao-yu started forward impulsively to make his salutation, but the prince extended an arm from the palanquin and prevented him from kneeling.
Bao-yu was wearing a little silver coronet on the top of his head and a silver headband round his brow in the form of two dragons emerging from the sea. He had on a narrow-sleeved, full-skirted robe of white material and a silver belt inlaid with pearls. After studying these and admiring the flowerlike face and coal-black eyes, the prince’s face broke into a smile.
‘If “Bao-yu” means “precious jade”, you are appropriately named,’ he said. ‘But where is the famous stone you were born with?’
Bao-yu hurriedly extracted the jade from inside his clothing and taking it off, handed it to the prince, who scrutinized it carefully, reciting the words of the inscription as he deciphered them.
‘And does it really have these powers?’ he asked.
‘It is only alleged to,’ Jia Zheng put in hastily. ‘We have never put them to the test.’
The prince pronounced the stone a great wonder and with his own hands refastened its plaited silken cord round Bao-yu’s neck. Then, taking one of Bao-yu’s hands in his own, he asked him how old he was, what books he was studying, and other such questions, to all of which Bao-yu gave prompt replies.
Delighted that everything Bao-yu said was so clear and to the point, the prince observed to Jia Zheng that ‘the young phoenix was worthy of his sire.
‘I trust I shall not offend you by saying so to your face,’ he said, ‘but I venture to prophesy that this fledgling of yours will one day “sing sweeter than the parent bird”.’
Jia Zheng smiled politely.
‘My son is doubtless unworthy of the compliment Your Highness is good enough to pay him. If; thanks to your encouragement, he turns out as you say, we shall count ourselves truly fortunate.’
‘There is only one drawback in possessing such charm,’ said the prince. ‘I am sure it must make his grandmother dote upon him; and, unfortunately, being the object of too much affection is very bad for people of our years. It leads us to neglect our studies. This used at one time to be the case with me, and I suspect is now the case with your son. If he does find difficulty in working at home, he would be very welcome to come round to my palace. I do not pretend to be a gifted person myself; but I am fortunate in counting distinguished writers from all over the empire among my acquaintances, and my palace is a rendezvous for them when they are in the capital, so that I never want for intellectual company. By constantly mixing and conversing with such people at my palace, your son could do much to improve his education.’
‘Yes.’ Jia Zheng bowed deferentially.
The Prince of Bei-jing removed a rosary from his wrist and handed it to Bao-yu.
‘Today is our first meeting, but as it was an unforeseen one, I have not come prepared with a suitable gift. All I can offer you is this rosary made of the aromatic seeds of some Indian plant. It was given me by his Imperial Majesty. I hope you will accept it as a little token of my esteem.’
Bao-yu took the rosary and turning back offered it respectfully to Jia Zheng, who made his son loin him in formally thanking the prince for his gift.
At this point Jia She and Cousin Zhen knelt before the prince and invited him to return.
‘The Departed is now in paradise,’ said the prince. ‘Though I enjoy imperial favour and princely rank, I would not presume to go past her carriage~ Heavenly honours take precedence over earthly ones!’
When they saw that the prince was adamant, Jia She and the test bowed their thanks, then, having ordered the musicians to vail their instruments and march by in silence, they caused the front part of the procession and the hearse to pass over the junction. As soon as the hearse had gone over, the prince and his retinue crossed in the other direction, after which the rear part of the procession moved forward and caught up with the rest.
The liveliness which attended the procession during the whole of its progress through the city reached a climax as it approached the city gate, for it was along this last stretch that the colleagues and office juniors of Jia She, Jia Zheng and Cousin Zhen had arranged their bowers, and it was necessary to stop and thank each one of them as they made their offerings to the passing hearse. They did at last succeed in getting out of the city gate, however, after which a clear road lay ahead all the way to the Temple of the Iron Threshold. Cousin Zhen went round with Jia Rong to the senior men among the mourners and invited them to proceed from there onwards by the transport provided. The upshot was that those of Jia She’s generation got into carriages and sedans, while Cousin Zhen and the younger men mounted on horseback.
Xi-feng was worried about Bao-yu. Out in the country, she thought, he was liable to become wild and disobedient. She felt sure that he would get up to some kind of mischief now that he was removed from Jia Zheng’.s restraint. Accordingly she sent one of her pages to summon him, and presently he rode up to her carriage.
‘Bao dear,’ said Xi-feng, ‘a person of your refinement belongs here with us. You don’t want to go clomping around the countryside like apes on horseback with those horrid men! Why not get in with me? The two of us will keep each other company.’
Bao-yu at once dismounted and climbed up into the carriage, and the two of them drove on, laughing and chattering as they went. They had not been driving very long when two horsemen galloped up beside them, dismounted, and leaning into the carriage, informed Xi-feng that they were now near her stopping-place, in case she wished to get Out and ‘stretch her legs’. Xi-feng sent them on ahead to ask Lady Xing and Lady Wang for instructions. The latter sent back word that they had no desire to stop, themselves, but that Xi-feng was welcome to do so if she wished. Xi-feng accordingly gave orders for a short halt. At once the pages led the horses out of the main stream of traffic and headed northwards down a small side-road.
Bao-yu hurriedly sent someone off to fetching Zhong, who was riding along behind his father’s sedan. As the page came hurrying up and asked him to stop with Bao-yu for a little refreshment, he turned round and saw Bao-yu’s horse in the distance, jogging along in a northerly direction with an empty saddle on its back behind Xi-feng’s carriage, and he realized that Bao-yu must be inside the carriage with Xi-feng. Turning lils horse’s head about, he hurried after, and followed them into the gateway of a farm.
Apart from the barns and outhouses, the farmhouse consisted of little more than a single large room, so that there was nowhere the farmer’s womenfolk could go to be Out of the way of the visitors. The sudden appearance in their midst of Xi-feng, Bao-yu and Qin Zhong with their fashionable clothes and delicate city faces seemed to these simple countrywomen more like a celestial visitation than a human one.
As soon as they were inside the thatched central building, Xi-feng asked the boys to amuse themselves outside. Bao-yu realized that she needed to be alone, and conducted Qin Zhong and the pages on a tour of the farmyard. He had never in his life seen any of the farming implements before, and was very curious. One of his pages who had some experience of country matters was able to name each implement for him and explain its functions. Bao-yu was impressed.
‘Now I can understand the words of the old poet,’ he said:
‘Each grain of rice we ever ate
Cost someone else a drop of sweat.’
At that moment they came to an outhouse in which was a kang with a spinning-wheel on it. Bao-yu was even more intrigued.
‘That’s for spinning yarn with to make cloth out of,’ said the pages.
Bao-yu at once got up on the kang and had just started to turn It when a country lass of seventeen or eighteen summers came running up:
‘Don’t! You’ll spoil ir!’
She was shouted at fiercely by the pages, but Bao-yu had already stayed his hand.
‘I’m sorry. I’ve never seen one before. I was just turning it for fun, to see how it works.’
‘You don’t know how to turn it properly,’ said the girl. 1Let me show you how ‘tis done.’
Qin Zhong gave Bao-yu a sly tug:
‘A comely damosel, thinkest thou nottest?’
‘Shut up, or I’ll clout you!’ said Bao-yu, pushing him.
During this muttered exchange the girl had begun spinning. She did, indeed, make a charming picture as she bent over her work. Suddenly an old woman’s voice called out from the other side of the yard:
‘Ertie! Come here at once my gal.’
The girl jumped up from her spinning and hurried over. Bao-yu’s spirits were quite dashed by her abrupt departure.
But just then someone came from Xi-feng inviting the boys indoors. They found her washed and changed. She asked them if they wanted to ‘change’ too, but Bao-yu replied that they did not. Then a variety of cakes and sweets were brought in by the servants, and fragrant tea was poured for them to drink. When the three had taken their fill of these refreshments and everything had been cleared away and repacked by the servants, they rose up and got back into their carriage.
Outside in the yard Brightie handed the farmer’s family their payment, which he had brought with him ready-wrapped in coloured paper, and the womenfolk hurried up to the carriage to express their thanks. Bao-yu scanned their faces carefully, but could not see his spinning-girl amongst them. They had not driven far, however, when he caught sight of her at the end of the village. She was standing watching for him beside the road, a baby brother in her arms and two little girls at her Bide. Bao-yu could not repress a strong emotion on seeing her, but sitting there in the carriage there was not much he could do but gaze back at her soulfully; and soon, as the carriage bowled along at a smarter pace, Ertie was lost to sight for ever.
With talk and laughter to beguile them, the journey passed quickly. Soon they had caught up with the main procession; soon the sound of drums and cymbals was heard and they could see ahead of them the banners and umbrellas of the monks from the Temple of the Iron Threshold who had come out in procession and lined either side of the road to welcome them; and soon they were inside the temple, where further ceremonies awaited them, a new staging having been erected for this purpose. The coffin was installed in one of the side-chapels leading off the inner hall, and Jewel arranged her sleeping-quarters near by to continue her watch over it.
In the outer hall Cousin Zhen was busy attending to his guests, some of whom were staying on, while others wished to leave immediately. To each he tendered formal thanks for their trouble in coming. They left in order of seniority; duke’s kin going first, then those of marquises, then those of earls, then those of viscounts, then those of barons, and so on downwards. It was three o’clock by the time the last of them had gone.
Xi-feng received the lady guests inside. They, too, left in order of precedence and had not finally dispersed until around two o’clock. Only members of the clan and a few very close friends stayed behind to see the ceremonies through to their conclusion two days later.
Lady Xing and Lady Wang were among those who left. They could see that Xi-feng would be unable to return that day and wanted to take Bao-yu back with them into town. But Bao-yu, after his first taste of the countryside, was extremely loth to return and begged to stay with Xi-feng; so Lady Wang went without him, leaving him in Xi-feng’s charge.
The Temple of the Iron Threshold was a private foundation of the Dukes of Ning-guo and Rong-guo which still had some land of its own in which members of the clan who died in the capital could be given temporary burial. The thoughtful Dukes had provided accommodation not only for the dead but also for the living, in the form of guest-rooms in which mourners might temporarily reside until their funereal business was over What the old gentlemen had not foreseen was that their multitudinous progeny would come in time to exhibit differences of wealth and temperament so extreme as often to render their possessors mutually intolerable and that, whereas the more hard-up members of the clan gladly occupied the accommodation provided, the more affluent or pretentious found it ‘inconvenient’ to stay there and preferred to seek alternative accommodation in the farmsteads and con-vents round about.
Xi-feng was among those who found the Iron Threshold accommodation ‘inconvenient’. Some time previously she had sent someone to Wheat-cake Priory to make arrangements on her behalf with the prioress Euergesia, and the old nun had turned out several rooms in readiness for her arrival. ‘Wheat-cake Priory’ (so-called because of the excellent steamed wheat bread made in its kitchens) was the popular name for Water-moon Priory, an offshoot of Water-moon Abbey situated at no great distance from the Temple of the Iron Threshold.
Presently, when the monks had finished their service and the evening offering of tea had been made, Cousin Zhen sent Jia Rong in to Xi-feng with a message inviting her to retire. Having first glanced round to ascertain that a sufficient number of Jia ladies were present to look after the still remaining guests, Xi-feng bade the company good night and left for Wheat-cake Priory with Bao-yu and Qin Zhong. Qin Zhong had attached himself to the other two when his father Qin Bang-ye, unable by reason of his age and frail state of health to risk a night away from home, had gone back to the city, leaving him to await the conclusion of the requiem services on his own.
They soon arrived at the priory and were met by Euergesia, who had brought her two little disciples Benevolentia and Sapientia to welcome them. As soon as the first greetings were over, Xi-feng retired to her room to wash and change. Emerging refreshed, she observed how much taller Sapientia had grown and how radiantly good-ooking, and inquired of Euergesia why she and her two charges had lately not been into town to see them.
‘It is on account of Mr. Hu’s good lady,’ said the old nun. ‘She has lately been brought to bed of a boy, and sent us ten taels of silver for a three-day recital of the Lake of Blood sutra by some of the sisters to purge the stain of childbirth. We have been so busy with the arrangements that we haven’t had time to call.’
Let us leave Xi-feng in conversation with the prioress and turn to the other two.
Qin Zhong and Bao-yu were amusing themselves in the main hall of the priory when Sapientia happened to pass through.
‘Here’s Sappy,’ said Bao-yu with a meaningful smile.
‘Well, what about it?’ said Qin Zhong.
‘Now, now, stop play-acting!’ said Bao-yu. ‘I saw you holding her that day at Grandma’s when you thought nobody else was about. You needn’t think you can fool me after that!’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘All right then. Never mind whether you know what I’m talking about or not. Just ask her to pour me out a cup of tea, will you, and then we’ll let the subject drop.’
‘What sort of joke is this? Why can’t you ask her yourself? She’d pour it out just the same for you. Why ask me to tell her?’
‘I couldn’t do it with the same feeling as you. There’ll be much more feeling in it if you ask her.’
He finally prevailed upon Qin Zhong to make the request.
‘Oh, all right! – Sappy, pour us a cup of tea, will you?’
Sapientia had been a regular visitor at the Rong-guo mansion ever since she was a little girl and was familiar with all its inmates. The innocence of her childish rompings with Bao-yu and Qin Zhong had latterly, however—now that she had reached adolescence—given way to a more mature emotion. She had fallen in love with Qin Zhong, whose every feature and lineament now inspired her with romantic feelings; and Qin Zhong, captivated by her developing charms, had responded by loving her back. Although nothing serious had as yet passed between them, in their inclinations and affections they were already united.
Sapientia hurried out and returned with a cup of tea.
‘Give it to me, Sappy!’ said Qin Zhong.
‘No, give it to me, Sappy I’ said Bao-yu.
She stood between them, pouting prettily, and gave a little laugh:
‘Surely you’re not going to fight over a cup of tea? I must have honey on my hands I’
Bao-yu snatched the cup before Qin Zhong could do so and began drinking. He was about to say something when Benevolentia came in and fetched Sapientia away to help her lay the table. She was back again presently to invite the two boys to tea and cakes; but neither of them felt much enthusiasm for such feminine repasts, and after sitting a short while for the sake of politeness, were soon off to amuse themselves elsewhere.
Xi-feng, too, soon left, and retired to her private room to rest, Euergesia accompanying her. By this time the older servants, seeing that there was nothing further for them to do, had one by one drifted off to bed, leaving only a few personal maids, all of whom were in Xi-feng’s confidence, in attendance. The old nun deemed it safe to broach a private matter in their hearing.
‘There is something I have been meaning to call at your house and ask Her Ladyship about, but I should like to have your opinion on it first before I see her.’
‘What do you want to ask her?’ said Xi-feng.
‘Bless his Holy Name!’ the prioress began piously. ‘When I was a nun at the Treasures in Heaven Convent in Chang-an, one of the convent’s benefactors was a very wealthy man called Zhang, who had a daughter called Jin-ge. A certain young Mr. Li, who is brother-in-law to the Governor of Chang-an, met her once when she was making an incense offering in our temple and took a violent liking to her. He at once sent someone to the parents to ask for her hand in marriage, but unfortunately she was already betrothed to the son of a captain in the Chang-an garrison and the betrothal-presents had already been accepted. The Zhangs would have liked to cancel the betrothal but were afraid that the captain would object, so they told. Li’s matchmaker that the girl was already engaged. But oh dear! young Mr. Li wouldn’t take no for an answer, and the Zhangs were quite at their wit’s end, being now in trouble with both parties. You see, when the captain got to hear of these goings-on he was most unreasonable. He came rushing along in a great rage and made a most terrible scene. ‘Just how many young men is this girl betrothed to?” he said, and so on and so forth. He refused outfight to take back the betrothal-gifts and straightway began an action for breach of promise. By now the Zhangs were really upset and sent to the capital for some moral support – for they are now quite determined to break off their daughter’s engagement, seeing that the captain has been so unreasonable.
‘Well, it occurred to me that the Area Commander for Chang-an, General Yun, is on very good terms with your husband’s family, and I thought I might try to find some way of persuading Her Ladyship to talk to Sir Zheng about this and get him to write a letter to General Yun and ask him to have a word with this captain. It is hardly likely that he would refuse to obey his commanding officer. The Zhangs would gladly pay anything—even if it meant bankrupting themselves -in return for this kindness.’
‘It doesn’t sound very difficult. The only difficulty is that Lady Wang doesn’t touch this kind of thing any more.’
‘If Her Ladyship won’t, what about you, Mrs Lian?’
Xi-feng laughed again.
‘I’m not short of money; and besides, I don’t touch that Sort of thing either.’
Euergesia’s face assumed an expression of great benignity. After sitting for a while in silence she sighed.
‘It’s a pity I let the Zhangs know that I was going to talk to you about this,’ she said. ‘Now if you don’t do this favour for them, they will never believe that it is because you haven’t the time or don’t want the money; they will take it as a sign that you are not able.’
This put Xi-feng on her mettle.
‘You’ve known me a long time,’ she said. ‘You know that I’ve never believed all that talk about hell and damnation. If I decide that I want to do something I do it, no matter what it is. Tell them that if they are prepared to pay out three thousand taels of silver, I will undertake to relieve them of their trouble.’
The prioress was delighted.
‘They will! They will I No doubt about it!’
‘Mind you,’ said Xi-feng, ‘I’m not one of your money-grubbing run-of4he-miii go-betweens. I’m not doing this for the money. Every bit of this three thousand taels will go into the pockets of my boys or towards their expenses. I shan’t touch a penny of it. If it was money I wanted, I could lay my hands on thirty thousand taels at this very moment.’
‘Well, that’s nicely settled!’ said the prioress. ‘So can we lo6k forward to your kind help in this matter tomorrow? We may as well get it over and done with.’
‘You can see how busy I am and how impossible it is for me to get away,’ said Xi-feng. ‘I’ve told you I’ll do it, and so I will – in my own time. Surely that is enough for you?’
‘A little thing like this might seem a great deal of trouble to some people;’ said the old nun artfully, ‘but even if it involved more than it does, it would still be nothing to a capable person like you, Mrs Lian. You know what they say: “The able man gets little leisure” that’s why Her Ladyship leaves everything to you. She knows how capable you are. Of course, you have to be careful that you don’t overtax yourself. Your health is precious!’
Soothed by such flatteries, Xi-feng forgot her weariness, and the conversation continued with animation.
Meanwhile Qin Zhong had taken advantage of the darkness and the fact that there was no one much about to prosecute his designs on Sapientia. He found her on her own in one of the rooms at the back of the priory washing up tea-things. Throwing his arms around her from behind, he gave her a kiss. Sapientia stamped with vexation:
‘What are you doing? Stop it!’
She was about to call out, but Qin Zhong spoke entreatingly:
‘Darling Sappy! I want you so desperately! If you won’t let me, I’ll just lie down and die!’
‘If you want me,’ said Sapientia, ‘you must first get me out of this hole and away from these people. Then you can do what you like.’
‘That’s easy,’ said Qin Zhong. ‘But “distant water is no cure for a present thirst” …’
And with that he blew out the light, plunging the room into inky darkness, and carried Sapientia on to the kang. She struggled hard to get up—though still not daring to call out; but soon, almost before she knew it, her breech-clout was off and the ship was in the harbour.
Suddenly, in less time than it takes to tell, a third person bore down on them from above and held them fast. The intruder made no sound, and for some moments the other two lay underneath his weight, half dead with fright. Then there was a splutter of suppressed laughter and they knew that it was Bao-yu.
‘What do you think you’re playing at?’ said Qin Zhong crossly, as he scrambled to his feet.
‘If you won’t let me, darling,’ Bao-yu mimicked, ‘I’ll call Out!’
Poor Sapientia was so overcome with shame that she slipped away in the dark. Bao-yu hauled Qin Zhong from the room.
‘Now,’ he said: ‘are you still going to pretend that Sappy means nothing to you?’
‘Look, be a good chap! I’ll do anything you say as long as you promise not to shout.’
‘We won’t say any more about it just now,’ said Bao-yu genially. ‘Wait until we are both in bed and I’ll settle accounts with you then.’
Bedtime soon came and they partially undressed and settled down for the night, Xi-feng in an inner room and Bao-yu and Qin Zhong in an outer room adjoining it. As there were numerous old women on night duty lying about everywhere on the floor wrapped up in their bedding, Xi-feng was afraid that the ‘Magic Jade’ might disappear in the course of the night; so as soon as Bao-yu was in bed she sent someone to fetch it from him, and put it under her own pillow for safety.
As for the ‘settling of accounts’ that Bao-yu had proposed to Qin Zhong, we have been unable to ascertain exactly what form this took; and as we would not for the world be guilty of a fabrication, we must allow the matter to remain a mystery.
Next day someone arrived from Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang to see how Bao-yu was getting on. He was counselled to dress up well against the cold and to come back home if there was nothing further to do. Bao-yu was most unwilling to return on his own account, and his unwillingness was reinforced by the promptings of Qin Zhong, who was anxious to see more of Sapientia and urged him to ask Xi-feng for another day.
Xi-feng reflected a little. The main business of the funeral was now over, but a sufficient number of minor matters still remained to be done to justify their staying on another day if they wanted to. Three arguments in favour of staying presented themselves to her mind:
1.It would be a gesture of considerateness to Cousin Zhen which would increase his indebtedness to her.
2.It would give her a breathing-space in which to get Euergesia’s business attended to.
3.It would make Bao-yu happy, which would put her in good odour with Grandmother Jia.
Having now made her mind up, Xi-feng acceded to Bao-yu’s request in the following terms:
‘My own business here is all finished now, but if you want to amuse yourselves a bit longer, I suppose I must resign myself to staying. However, we definitely must go back tomorrow.’
When Bao-yu heard this it was all ‘dearest Feng’ this and ‘darling Feng’ that, and he promised faithfully to return on the morrow without demur. Accordingly it was settled that they should stay for one more night.
Xi-feng immediately sent someone in great secrecy to explain Euergesia’s business to Brightie. Brightie grasped the situation at once, hurried into town, sought out a public letter-writer, had a letter written in Jia Lian’s name to the captain’s commanding officer, and set off for Chang-an overnight bearing the spurious missive with him.
Chang-an is only thirty or 50 miles from the capital, so that Brightie could finish his business and be back again within a couple of days. The general’s name was Yun Guang. He was indebted to the Jia family for a number of past kindnesses and was only too ‘pleased to be of service to them in a matter of such trifling importance. He said as much in the letter of reply which he gave Brightie to carry back with him. But that part of his mission is omitted from our story.
When their second day at the priory was over, Xi-feng and the boys took leave of Euergesia, and as she said good-bye, Xi-feng told the prioress to call at the Rong-guo mansion m two days’ time to hear the news from Chang-an.
This parting was an unbearably painful one for Sapientia and Qin Zhong, and all sorts of secret vows were exchanged and whispered contracts made before they could tear themselves apart. We omit all details of that harrowing scene.
Xi-feng called in at the Temple of the Iron Threshold on the way back to see that everything was in order. jewel, it seemed, refused absolutely to go back home, and Cousin Zhen was obliged to leave a woman or two at the temple to keep her company.
Their return, and the events which followed it, will be dealt with in the following chapter.
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