August 1, 2017 at 4:55 am #1400ISCBJKeymaster
第七回 送宫花贾琏戏熙凤 宴宁府宝玉会秦钟
Zhou Rui’s wife delivers palace flowers and finds Jia
Lian pursuing night sports by day
Jia Bao-yu visits the Ning-guo mansion and has an
agreeable colloquy with Qin-shi’s brother
When Zhou Rui’s wife had finished seeing off Grannie Liu, she went to Lady Wang’s place to report. Lady Wang, how-ever, was not in her apartment. The maids said that she had gone off to visit Aunt Xue. Zhou Rui’s wife accordingly went out by the gate in the east corner of the compound, crossed the eastern courtyard, and made her way to Pear Tree Court. As she reached the gate of the Court, she came upon Lady Wang’s maid, Golden, playing on the front steps with a young girl. Golden realized that Zhou Rui’s wife must have come with a message for Lady Wang and indicated that her mistress was inside by turning her chin towards the house and shooting out her lips.
Zhou Rui’s wife gently raised a side of the portiere and entered. She found the two sisters in the midst of a seemingly interminable discussion of some domestic odyssey. Not daring to interrupt it, she passed on into the inner room, where Xue Bao-chai, dressed in workaday clothes, her hair unadorned and twisted in a knot on top of her head, sat with her maid Oriole over a little table towards the back of the kang, tracing a pattern for her embroidery. Seeing Zhou Rui’s wife enter, she laid down her tracing brush, turned towards her with a smile, and invited her to sit with them.
‘How are you, Miss? asked Zhou Rui’s wife, returning her smile and sitting down on the edge of the kang. ‘I haven’t seen you over our side these last two or three days. Has Master Bao been upsetting you?’
‘Good gracious, no!’ said Bao-chai with a laugh. ‘I’ve had an attack of my old sickness again and thought I had better rest quietly at home for a day or two. That’s the only reason.’
‘Very sensible!’ said Zhou Ruj’s wife. ‘But what is this sickness of yours, Miss? Oughtn’t you to call in a doctor and get it properly seen to? It’s no joke when a young person of your age lets an illness get its grip on them.’
‘Oh, don’t talk about my illness I’ said Bao-chai. ‘I don’t know how many doctors we must have consulted about it, and how many medicines I must have swallowed, or how much money we must have spent on it – all without any benefit whatsoever. In the end we were fortunate enough to hear of a monk who specialized in treating illnesses that other people couldn’t diagnose and asked him to have a look at me. He said that I had a congenital tendency to overheatedness, but that fortunately, as my constitution was a strong one, it wasn’t serious. He said the usual medicines wouldn’t do it any good, and he gave us a prescription supposed to have been handed down from the Immortals of the Islands. He also gave us a packet of powder with a very unusual fragrance which he said was to be used as the base. He said that if each time I had a turn I took just one of the pills made up from this prescription, the sickness would go away. And the remarkable thing is that they really have proved quite effective.’
‘What was this prescription, Miss? If you will tell me, I shall try to remember it so that I can pass it on to others. If I ever met anyone else who had the same sort of illness, I could do them a charity, couldn’t I?’
‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ said Bao-chai. ‘It’s such a finicky prescription, it would drive anyone mad trying to make it up. It’s not so much the materials. There is, after all, a limit to the number of drugs from one part of the world or another that are available. It’s the timing involved that is so difficult.
‘You have to take twelve ounces of stamens of the spring-flowering white tree-peony, twelve ounces of stamens of the summer-flowering white water-lily, twelve ounces of stamens of the autumn-flowering white lotus, and twelve ounces of stamens of the winter-flowering white plum and dry them all in the sun on the day of the spring equinox of the year immediately following the year you picked them in. Then you have to mix them with the powder I told you about and pound them all up together in a mortar. Then you must take twelve drams of rain water that fell on the Rain Days in the second month…
Zhou Rui’s wife laughed.
‘Why, that’s already three years it would take! And suppose it didn’t rain that year on the Rain Days?’
‘Exactly,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Rain is seldom so obliging. You would just have to wait till the next year. Then you have to collect twelve drams of dew on the day White Dew in the ninth month, twelve drams of frost at Frost Fall in the tenth, and twelve drams of snow at Lesser Snow in the last month of the year, stir these four kinds of water into the mixture, make it up into pills about the size of a longan, and store the pills in an old porcelain jar. The jar is supposed to be buried in a flower bed and only dug up when you have an attack of the illness. Then one of the pills is taken out and swallowed in hot water into which one and a quarter drams of tincture of phellodendron has been stirred.’
‘God bless my soul!’ Zhou Rui’s wife exclaimed. ‘You would certainly need some patience! Why, you might wait ten years before getting all those things at the proper times!’
‘Well,’ said Bao-chai, ‘we were lucky. Within only a year or two of the monk’s visit we had managed to get all the ingredients together and were able to make up the pills without trouble. We brought them with us when we came to live here and have buried them under one of the pear-trees in the garden.’
‘Has this medicine got a name?’ Zhou Rui’s wife asked.
‘Yes,’ said Bao-chai. ‘The monk said the pills are called “Cold Fragrance Pills”.’
Zhou Rui’s wife nodded appreciatively.
‘Tell me, Miss, what exactly is this illness of yours?’
‘It doesn’t really bother me very much. It makes me cough and wheeze a bit. But as soon as I have taken one of the pills, it goes away.’
Zhou Rui’s wife was about to ask. something else when they were interrupted by a call from Lady Wang:
‘Who have you got in there?’
She hurried back into the outer room to make her report on Grannie Liu. Having finished it, she waited for some comment from Lady Wang, but finding that none was forthcoming, was on the point of withdrawing when Aunt Xue smilingly enjoined her to stay.
‘Just a moment! There is something I should like you to take for me.’
She called to someone outside.
The rings of the portiere rattled and the young girl whom Zhou Rui’s wife had seen a few minutes before playing on the steps with Golden came into the room.
‘You called, Madam?’
‘Bring me that box with the flowers in!’
Caltrop went into a side room and returned with a small embroidered box.
‘There are twelve artificial flowers in here,’ said Aunt Xue. ‘They were made in the Imperial Palace, all in the latest fashion. I suddenly thought to myself yesterday what a pity it was to leave them lying around here doing nothing, and how much nicer it would be to give them to the girls to wear. I meant to send them round yesterday but forgot. It’s lucky that you came here today, because you will be able to take them for me. There are two each for each of the Jia girls. That leaves six. Then two for Miss Lin, and the remaining four for Mrs Lian.’
‘Keep them for Bao-chai to wear,’ said Lady Wang. ‘What do you want to go bothering about our girls for?’
‘You don’t know our Bao-chai. She is funny about these things. She has never liked ornaments or make-up or anything of that sort.’
Zhou Rui’s wife took up the box and went Out into the courtyard, where she came once more upon Golden, sunning herself on the steps.
‘Tell me,’ she asked her, ‘is that little Caltrop the one they are always talking about who was bought just before they came to the capital? The one they had the murder trial about?’
‘That’s her,’ said Golden.
At that moment Caltrop herself came skipping up with a sunny smile on her face, and Zhou Rui’s wife took her by the hand and studied her curiously. Then she turned to Golden again.
‘You know, there’s something about this child’s face that reminds me of Master Rong’s wife over at the Ning mansion.’
‘That’s just what I’ve said,’ Golden agreed.
Zhou Rui’s wife asked Caltrop how old she was when she became a slave. Then she asked her where her parents were, what her age was, and what part of the country she came from. But to all of these questions Caltrop only shook her head and said that she didn’t remember.
Zhou Rui’s wife and Golden exchanged glances and sighed sympathetically.
Bearing her box of flowers, Zhou Rui’s wife presently came to the part of the house behind Lady Wang’s quarters. Grandmother Jia had recently decided that her granddaughters were becoming too numerous and declared that she would retain only Bao-yu and Dai-yu in her own apartments to keep her amused. Ying-chun, Tan-chun and Xi-chun were to move out into the penthouse behind Lady Wang’s, with Li Wan to supervise them and keep them company. Thither, accordingly, Zhou Rui’s wife now directed her steps.
A number of little maids were sitting under the eaves there waiting to be called, and just as she arrived, Ying-chun’s maid Chess and Tan-chun’s maid Scribe came through the portiere, each carrying a teacup on a tray, from which she deduced that the two cousins must be inside together.
On entering the room, Zhou’s wife found Ying-chun and Tan-chun sitting by the window playing Go. She presented the flowers and explained who they were from, and the two girls stopped their game for a moment to bow their thanks, and gave orders to the maids to take charge of them.
‘Where is Miss Xi-chun?’ Zhou Rui’s wife inquired.
‘Isn’t she in the next room?’ said the maids; and there in fact she proved to be, playing with the little nun Sapientia from Water-moon Priory. She asked Zhou Rui’s wife what she had come for, and when Zhou Rui’s wife took the flowers from the box and explained, she laughed:
‘I was telling Sapientia that one of these day I am going to have my hair shaved and go off with her to be a nun, when just at that very moment you came in with these flowers. What shall I do with flowers when I have no hair to stick them in?’
Further pleasantries followed from the others present.
Xi-chun told one of the maids to take the flowers and look after them.
‘When did you arrive?’ Zhou Rui’s wife asked Sapientia. ‘And where’s that precious Mother Superior of yours gone off to, bald-headed old mischief?’
‘We arrived first thing this morning,’ said Sapientia. ‘Mother Euergesia went off to visit the Yu mansion after she had seen Her Ladyship. She told me to wait for her here.’
Have you had this month’s donation yet?’ said Zhou Rui’s wife. ‘It was due on the fifteenth.’
Sapientia said that she didn’t know.
‘Who looks after the monthly donations nowadays?’ asked Xi-chun.
‘Yu Xin,’ said Zhou Rui’s wife.
‘That explains it. As soon as Mother Euergesia arrived, Yu Xin’s wife was in here like a shot and they were chattering together for ages. I expect that’s what it was about.’
After gossiping a bit longer with Sapientia, Zhou Rui’s wife made her way to Xi-feng’s quarters. To get there she had to go down a passage-way between two walls, under the windows at the back of Li Wan’s apartments, along the foot of an ornamental wall, and through a gateway in the western corner of the compound. When she entered Xi-feng’s reception room, a maid sitting on the threshold of the inner room hurriedly waved her away and told her to go across to the other side of the house. Taking the hint, Zhou Rui’s wife tiptoed quietly into the room opposite, where she found the baby’s nurse patting her rhythmically to make her sleep.
‘Is the mistress taking her afternoon nap?’ she asked the nurse in a low whisper. ‘I think you’ll have to wake her, even if she is.’
The nurse smiled, grimaced, and shook her head. Zhou Rui’s wife was about to ask her what she meant when she heard a low laugh in what was unmistakably Jia Lian’s voice from the room opposite. It was followed almost immediately by the sound of the door opening, and Patience came out carrying a large copper basin which she asked one of the maids to fetch water in.
‘Ah, Mrs Zhou!’ she said, catching sight of Zhou Rul’s wife and crossing into the room opposite ‘What brings you back again?’
Zhou Rui’s wife hastily rose to her feet and picking up the box, proferred it to Patience and explained her mission. Patience opened the lid, selected four of the flowers, and slipped away again for several minutes. She came back with two still in her hand, which she gave to a little page called Sunshine.
‘Take these to Master Rong’s wife over in the Ning mansion and tell her they are for her to wear,’ she said. Then turning to Zhou Rui’s wife she asked her to convey Xi-feng’s thanks to the donor.
Zhou Rui’s wife now made her way towards Grandmother jia’s apartments. Just as she was coming out of the covered passage-way, she ran head-on into her daughter, all dressed up in her best clothes having just arrived on a visit from her mother-in-law’s.
‘What’s suddenly brought you here at a time like this?’ she asked her daughter.
‘How have you been keeping, Mother? I’ve been waiting at your place for hours for you to come back. What’s been keeping you all this time? I got tired of waiting. I thought I’d go and say “hullo” to Her Old Ladyship, and now I was just on my way to see Her Ladyship. Have you still not finished then? What’s that you’ve got in your hand?’
Zhou Rui’s wife laughed.
‘Today is not my lucky day! First of all someone called Grarnie Liu turned up, so like a fool I spend half the day rushing around with her. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, Her Ladyships sister sees me and gets me delivering flowers to the young ladies. I haven’t finished yet. Now what have you come here today for? Something’s gone wrong, I’ll be bound!’
‘I don’t know how you always manage to guess, Mother, but you’re right: it has. I’ll be honest with you. My man had a cup too much to drink the other day and got into a fight with someone, and now, Out of spite, they are trying to stir up trouble for him. They say his papers aren’t in order, and they’ve reported him to the yamen and want to get him deported back South to his old village. So I thought I’d come and ask your advice, Mother, and see if you couldn’t get someone here to put a word for him. Do you think there’s anyone who would be able to help?’
‘I knew it would be something like this,’ said Zhou Rui’s wife. ‘Well, cheer up, it’s not so serious as all that! You just go back and wait while I take these flowers to Miss Lin. You can’t see Her Ladyship now. She and the young mistress are both busy.’
The daughter obediently turned back to her mother’s quarters. As she went, she said pleadingly,
‘Be as quick as you can, Mother, won’t you?’
‘Yes, yes, yes. I’ll be as quick as I can! You young people take everything so tragically! Lack of experience, that’s what it is!’ said Zhou Rui’s wife, and moved on to Dai-yu’s room.
Dai-yu was not in her own room, but with Bao-yu, trying to undo metal puzzles.
‘Miss Lin,’ said Zhou Rui’s wife with a smile, ‘Mrs Xue asked me to give you these flowers.’
‘What flowers ?’ said Bao-yu. ‘Let me see!’
He stretched Out his arm, took the box from Zhou Rui’s wife, and looked. Two artificial flowers, exquisitely fashioned by Palace craftsmen out of silk gauze, lay inside it. Dai-yu glanced over his arm into the box.
‘Am I the only one getting these, or have the others had some too?’
‘All the young ladies are getting them,’ said Zhou Rui’s wife. ‘These two are for you, Miss.’
‘I thought as much,’ said Dai-yu sneeringly. ‘I get the leavings when everyone else has had their pick.’
Zhou Rui’s wife received this sally in silence, not daring to retort.
‘What were you doing at my aunt’s place, Zhou?’ Bao-yu asked.
‘Her Ladyship was there, and I had something to tell her.
Then while I was over there, Mrs Xue took the opportunity of giving me these flowers to deliver for her.’
Was Miss Bao-chai there?’ Bao-yu asked. ‘Why hasn’t she been round these last few days?’
‘She’s not very well.’
Bao-yu turned to his maids.
‘Which of you will go and see Miss Bao-chai for me? Say that Miss Lin and I send our regards to her and her mother, and ask her if her illness is any better and what she’s taking for it. Say that I really ought to go myself, but that as I’ve just got back from my lessons and have caught a bit of a cold, I shall be coming round another day.’
Snowpink said that she would go, and she and Zhou Rui’s wife left the room together and went their separate ways.
This son-in-law of Zhou Rui’s who had got himself into trouble was none other than Jia Yu-cun’s old friend, Leng Zi-xing. He had recently become involved in a lawsuit arising out of the sale of some antiques, and had asked his wife to get strings pulled for him at the mansion. Zhou Rui’s wife made light of the affair, confident of her employers’ power to influence. A word to Xi-feng in the evening, and it would be as good as settled.
At lighting-up time that evening Xi-feng came in partial negligee (having removed her ornaments for the night) to report on the day’s affairs to Lady Wang.
Today I received the things sent us by the Zhen family. The Zhens have their own boat delivering seasonal produce for the New Year, so I have given their people our presents to the Zhens to take back on their return journey.’
Lady Wang nodded.
‘I’ve got our birthday presents ready for the Earl of Linan’s mother,’ continued Xi-feng. ‘Who would you like us to send with them ?’
‘Just see which women are free and send four of them,’ replied Lady Wang. ‘You don’t have to ask me about things like that I’
‘Today Cousin Zhen’s wife invited me to spend tomorrow with them at the other house,’ Xi-feng continued. ‘Is there anything tomorrow that needs doing here ?’
‘Whether there is or not,’ said Lady Wang, ‘I don’t see that it matters. Generally when she brings an invitation it is for all of us, and you are naturally too busy to go. This time the invitation is to you personally, which shows that she had deliberately arranged this in order to give you a rest. The thought is a kind one, and it would be ungrateful to refuse. I think you ought to go.’
By now Li Wan and the three girls had also arrived for their evening duty, and when all had wished Lady Wang good night they departed to their different rooms.
Next day, as soon as Xi-feng had completed her toilet, she first reported to Lady Wang and then went to take her leave of Grandmother Jia. Hearing that she was going to the other house, Bao-yu said he wanted to go too, and Xi-feng was obliged to say that she would take him and to stand waiting for him while he changed his clothes. The two then got into a mule-cart and were soon inside the Ning-guo mansion, where Cousin Zhen’s wife You-shi, her son Jia Rong, her little daughter-in-law Qin-shi, and a large number of women attendants and maids were standing outside the inner gate ready to welcome them.
You-shi’s encounters with Xi-feng were always the occasion of good-humoured banter. Taking Bao-yu by the hand and chatting to Xi-feng, she conducted them both into the main reception room, where they all sat down and were served tea by Qin-shi.
‘Well,’ said Xi-feng, ‘what have you asked me here for? Something nice, I hope! If it’s a present, you’d better bring it now; I’m a busy woman!’
Before You-shi could think of a suitable retort, one of the women attendants replied for her:
‘You ought not to have come, Mrs Lian! Now that you’re here, we’ve got you in our power and you’ll have to do what we say for a change!’
At that moment Jia Rong came in and paid his respects to the visitors. Bao-yu asked what had happened to Cousin Zhen.
‘He’s gone into the country to see Father,’ said You-shi. Then she added, ‘It’s not much fun for you sitting here. Why don’t you go off and amuse yourself inside?’
‘You’ve chosen a good day to come, Uncle Bao,’ said little Qin-shi. ‘Last time you were here you wanted to see my brother. Well, today he’s here. He’s sitting in the study at this very moment. Why don’t you go in and see him?’
Bao-yu was for rushing off straight away. You-shi hurriedly ordered some servants to go after him in discreet attendance.
‘Well now, just a minute I’ said Xi-feng. ‘Why not ask him in here so that I can see him too?’
‘Oh dear, I don’t think that would do at all!’ said You-shi. ‘Some people’s children aren’t used to rackety ways like ours. Some people’s children are quiet and refined. If they were to meet a termagant like you, they might die of laughing.’
‘He’ll be lucky if I don’t laugh at him,’ said Xi-feng cheer-fully. ‘He’d better not try laughing at me!’
‘He’s very, very shy, Auntie,’ said Jia Rong. We are afraid that if you saw him it might only irritate you.’
‘Fiddlestick!’ said Xi-feng. ‘I don’t care if he’s a three-faced wonder with eight arms, I still want to see him. Stop fatting about and bring him in, or I’ll box your ears!’
Jia Rong cringed in mock alarm.
‘Yes, Auntie! No need to get so fierce! We’ll bring him in straight away.’
They both laughed, and Jia Rong disappeared for a while and presently came back leading a youth who, though somewhat thinner than Bao-yu, was mote than his equal in freshness and liveliness of feature, in delicacy of complexion, handsomeness of figure, and grace of deportment, but whose painful bashfulness created a somewhat girlish impression. He approached Xi-feng and made his bow with a shy confusion which delighted her.
‘You’ve met your match!’ she said to Bao-yu with a laugh, nudging him playfully. Then, leaning forward and gripping the boy’s hand in her own, she drew him down beside her and proceeded in a very deliberate manner to ask him how old he was, what books he was reading, and various other matters -among them his name, which was Qin Zhong.
When the maids and womenfolk in attendance on Xi-feng realized that she was about to meet Qin Zhong and that they had come without the requisite material for a First Meeting present, they had sent some of their number back to consult Patience in the other house. Patience had, at her own discretion, selected a suitable length of material and two little ‘Top of the List’ solid gold medallions to give the messengers. These gifts now arrived for Xi-feng (who thought them somewhat on the meagre side) to give to Qin Zhong. When he and his sister had formally thanked her, the company sat down to lunch, after which You-shi, Xi-feng and Qinshi settled down to a game of cards, while Bao-yu and Qin Zhong left the table to converse elsewhere.
When Bao-yu first set eyes on Qin Zhong it had been as though part of his soul had left him. For a while he stared blankly, oblivious to all around him, while a stream of idle fancies passed through his mind.
‘How perfect he is! Who would have believed there could be such perfection? Now that I have seen him I know that I am just a pig wallowing in the mud, a mangy dog! Why, why did I have to be born in this pretentious aristocratic household? Why couldn’t I have been born in the family of some poor scholar or low-grade clerk? Then I could have been near him and got to know him, and my life would have been worth living. Though I am so much richer and more nobly born than he, what use are my fine clothes but to cover up the dead and rotten wood beneath? What use the luxuries I eat and drink but to fill the cesspit and swell the stinking sewer of my inside? 0 rank and riches! How you poison everything!’
At the same time, Qin Zhong, struck by Bao-yu’s rare good looks and princely beating and— even more perhaps—by the golden coronet and embroidered clothing and the train of pretty maids and handsome pages who attended him, was thinking:
‘No wonder my sister raves about him whenever his name is mentioned! Why did I have to he born in a poor respectable family? How I should have liked to get to know him: to have shared moments of warmth and affection with him! But it was not to be!’
Each, plunged in reverie, for a while said nothing. Then Bao-yu asked Qin Zhong about his reading, and Qin Zbong replied—a full, frank reply, without the trappings of politeness: and presently they were in the midst of a delightful conversation and were already like old friends.
After a while tea and various confections were brought in. ‘We two shan’t be drinking any wine,’ Bao-yu said to the ladies. ‘May we have a plate or two of these things set out on the little kang in the other room? We can talk in there without disturbing you,’
The two boys moved into the inner room for their tea.
In between plying Xi-feng with wine and delicacies, Qinshi slipped in for a word with Bao-yu.
‘My brother’s quite young, Uncle Bao. Please, for my sake, don’t mind him if he does anything to offend you! He may be shy, but he’s got quite a nasty temper. He’s not really easy to get on with at all.
‘You go along I’ said Bao-yu with a smile. ‘We shall be all right!’
After a few admonitory words to her brother, Qin-shi went back to look after xi-feng.
Some minutes later Xi-feng and You- shi sent a servant in to inquire whether the boys would like anything else to eat, adding that they had only to ask if they wanted anything. Bao-yu promised that they would; but his mind was not on eating and drinking, and he continued to question Qin Zhong about his life at home.
‘My private tutor resigned last year,’ Qin Zhong told him. ‘Father is quite old, and as his health is not very good and his job keeps him terribly busy, he hasn’t been able to do anything yet about getting me another one. At the moment I am lust going over old lessons on my own at home. The trouble is, though, that if you want to get on in a subject, you really need one or two like-minded people to study with you, so that every so often you can all discuss what you have been reading…’
‘Exactly!’ Bao-yu put in eagerly, not waiting for him to finish. ‘We have a private school in our family to which any members of the clan who can’t manage private tuition may send their children, and boys from related families who aren’t in the clan can also be admitted. I have been at a loose end ever since my tutor went home on leave, and Father would have liked me to go to this school for revision until he gets back next year and I can be taught privately again. But Grandmother said that with so many boys in the school I should be sure to get up to mischief, and it would do me more harm than good. She also said I couldn’t in any case go then, because I’d only just recovered after several days in bed. And so it got put off.
‘From what you say, your father is worried about the same problem as mine; so why not tell him about this school when you get back today and ask him if you can join? I should be there to keep you company, and we could both help each other. I think it would be a marvellous idea.’
‘The other day when the question of engaging a tutor came up, Father mentioned this school of yours as a possible alternative,’ said Qin Zhong. ‘He was going to come over and have a word with my sister’s father-in-law about it and get him to recommend me; but they were busy here at the time and it didn’t seem the right moment to bother them with a little thing like this. However, if you are really of the opinion that I could be of some service to you, even if it’s only grinding your ink or cleaning your ink-stone, do please arrange it as soon as you can, before we both get too rusty! We should be relieving our parents of an anxiety and having the pleasure of each other’s company at one and the same time; so it would be a good arrangement from every point of view.’
‘Don’t worry!’ said Bao-yu. ‘I’ll tell Cousin Lian’s wife presently, when we join the others. Then when we get back home tonight, you must tell your father and I shall tell my grandmother. There’s no reason that I can see why this shouldn’t be settled immediately.’
They had concluded their discussion in gathering dusk, and now moved back into the lamplit outer room and watched the ladies at their cards for a while. When the latter had finished and had added up their scores, it appeared that Qin-shi and You-shi had lost to Xi-feng and owed her a dramatic entertainment at which the players and the drinks were to be provided at their expense. In the course of dinner, which was now served and at which they were joined by the two boys, it was decided that this should take place in two days’ time.
As it was now quite dark, You-shi gave her women orders to see that two menservants were detailed to attend Qin Zhong on his way back home. The women were gone on their errand an unusually long time and eventually Qin Zhong rose to take his leave.
‘Who has been chosen to go with him?’ You-shi asked.
‘They have asked Big Jiao,’ said the women, ‘but it seems that he is terribly drunk and swearing at everybody.’
You-shi and Qin-shi were indignant.
‘Whatever did they want to go and ask him for? Any of the younger ones would have done. What was the point of provoking him?’
‘I always said you were too soft with people,’ said Xi-feng. ‘You really mustn’t let servants get away with it like this. I never heard of such a thing I’
‘You don’t know Big Jiao,’ said You-shi. ‘Even Father couldn’t do anything with him, let alone Then. When he was young he went with Grandfather on three or four of his campaigns and once saved his life by pulling him from under a heap of corpses and carrying him to safety on his back. He went hungry himself and stole things for his master to eat; and once when he had managed to get half a cupful of water, he gave it to his master and drank horse’s urine himself. Because of these one or two acts of heroism he was always given special treatment during Grandfather’s lifetime; so naturally we don’t like to upset him now. But since he’s grown old he has let himself go completely. He drinks all the time, and when he’s drunk he starts abusing everybody—literally everybody. I’ve repeatedly told the steward not to give him jobs to do—to behave exactly as though he were dead and ignore him completely. Why on earth should he have chosen him today?’
‘I know this Big Jiao all right,’ said Xi-feng, ‘and I still say that you are too weak. You ought to send him away. Right away. Send him to live on one of your farms: that would put a stop to his nonsense I’ She turned to the women and asked if her own carriage was ready yet. The women replied that it was waiting, and she rose to take her leave and, taking Bao-yu by the hand, went out on to the steps, attended by You-shi and the rest.
In the flickering light of many lanterns the pages stood stiffly to attention on the pavement below, while Big Jiao, encouraged by Cousin Zhen’s absence to indulge his talent for drunken abuse, was getting to work on the Chief Steward, Lai Sheng, accusing him of being unfair, of always dropping on the weakest, and so on and so forth.
‘If there’s a cushy job going you give it to someone else, but when it’s a question of seeing someone home in pitch bloody darkness, you pick on me. Mean, rotten bugger! Call yourself a steward? Some steward! Don’t you know who Old Jiao is? I can lift my foot up higher than your head I Twenty years ago I didn’t give a damn for anybody, never mind a pack of little misbegotten abortions like you!’
He was just getting into his stride when Jia Rong came out to see Xi-feng off in her carriage. The servants shouted to Big Jiao to stop, but without success. Impatient of the old man’s insolence, Jia Rong cursed him angrily.
‘Tie him up,’ he said to the servants. ‘We shall see if he is still so eager for death tomorrow morning, when he has sobered up a bit.’
But Big Jiao was not to be intimidated by such as Jia Rong. On the contrary, he staggered up to him and bellowed even louder.
‘Oh ho! Little Rong, is it? Don’t you come the Big Master stuff with me, sonny boy! Never mind a little bit of a kid like you, even your daddy and your granddaddy don’t dare to try any funny stuff with Old Jiao. If it wasn’t for Old Jiao, where would you lot all be today, with your rank and your fancy titles and your money and all the other things you enjoy? It was your great-granddad, whose life I saved when he was given up for dead, that won all this for you, by the sweat of his brow. And what reward do I get for saving him? Nothing. Instead you come to me and you put on your Big Master act. Well, I’ll tell you something. You’d better watch Out. Because if you don’t, you’re going to get a shiny white knife inside you, and it’s going to come out red!’
‘You’d better hurry up and send this unspeakable creature about his business,’ said Xi-feng to Jia Rong from her carriage. ‘It’s positively dangerous to keep a man like this on the premises. If any of our acquaintance get to know that a family like ours can’t keep even a semblance of discipline about the place, we shall become a laughing-stock.’
Jia Rong assented meekly.
Several of the servants, seeing that Big Jiao had got quite out of hand and that something had to be done at all costs, rushed up and overpowered him, and throwing him face downward on the ground, frog-marched him off to the stables. By now even Cousin Zhen was being included in his maledictions, which became wilder and noisier as he shouted to his captors that he wanted to go to the ancestral temple and weep before the tablet of his old Master.
‘Who would ever have believed the Old Master could spawn this filthy lot of animals?’ he bawled. ‘Up to their dirty little tricks every day. I know. Father-in-law pokes in the ashes. Auntie has it off with newy. Do you think I don’t know what you’re all up to? Oh, we “hide our broken arm in our sleeve”; but you don’t fool me.’
Terrified out of their wits at hearing a fellow-servant utter such enormities, the grooms and pages tied him up and stuffed his mouth with mud and horse-dung.
Big Jiao’s last words had been clearly audible to Xi-feng and Jia Rong, though they were a considerable distance away, but they both pretended not to have heard. Bao-yu, sitting in the carriage with Xi-feng, was less inhibited.
‘Feng, what did he mean when he said “Father-in-law pokes in the ashes”?’
‘Hold your tongue!’ Xi-feng snapped back at him, livid. ‘It’s bad enough for a person in your position to even listen to such drunken filth, but to go asking questions about it, really! Just wait till I tell your mother! You’re going to get the biggest hiding you’ve ever had in your life!’
Terrified by her vehemence, Bao-yu implored forgiveness. ‘Please, Feng, don’t tell her! I promise never to say those words again.’
Xi-feng’s manner at once became soothing and indulgent.
‘That’s my good little cuzzy! When we get back I must tell Grandma to make them explain to the school about Qin Zhong and arrange for him to be admitted soon.’
As they talked, the carriage bore them back into Rong-guo House. But what happened there will be told in the chapter which follows.
Previous: Chapter 6
Next: Chapter 8
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