Hung Lou Meng, by Cao Xueqin

CHAPTER XLIV.

By some inscrutable turn of affairs, lady Feng begins to feel the pangs of jealousy — Pao-yü experiences joy, beyond all his expectations, when P’ing Erh (receives a slap from lady Feng) and has to adjust her hair.

But to resume our narrative. At the performance of the ‘Record of the boxwood hairpin,’ at which all the inmates of the household were present, Pao-yü and his female cousins sat together. When Lin Tai-yü noticed that the act called, ‘The man offers a sacrifice’ had been reached, “This Wang Shih-p’eng,” she said to Pao-ch’ai, “is very stupid! It would be quite immaterial where he offered his sacrifices, and why must he repair to the riverside? ‘At the sight of an object,’ the proverb has it, ‘one thinks of a person. All waters under the heavens revert but to one source.’ So had he baled a bowlful from any stream, and given way to his lamentations, while gazing on it, he could very well have satisfied his feelings.”

Pao-ch’ai however made no reply.

Pao-yü then turned his head round and asked for some warm wine to drink to lady Feng’s health. The fact is, that dowager lady Chia had enjoined on them that this occasion was unlike others, and that it was absolutely necessary for them to do the best to induce lady Feng to heartily enjoy herself for the day. She herself, nevertheless, felt too listless to join the banquet, so simply reclining on a sofa of the inner room, she looked at the plays in company with Mrs. Hsüeh; and choosing several kinds of such eatables as were to her taste, she placed them on a small teapoy, and now helped herself to some, and now talked, as the fancy took her. Then allotting what viands were served on the two tables assigned to her to the elder and younger waiting-maids, for whom no covers were laid, and to those female servants and other domestics, who were on duty and had to answer calls, she urged them not to mind but to seat themselves outside the windows, under the eaves of the verandahs, and to eat and drink at their pleasure, without any regard to conventionalities. Madame Wang and Madame Hsing occupied places at the high table below; while round several tables outside sat the posse of young ladies.

“Do let that girl Feng have the seat of honour,” old lady Chia shortly told Mrs. Yu and her contemporaries, “and mind be careful in doing the honours for me, for she is subjected to endless trouble from one year’s end to another!”

“Very well,” said Mrs. Yu. “I fancy,” she went on to smile, “that little used as she is to filling the place of honour, she’s bound, if she takes the high seat, to be so much at a loss how to behave, as to be loth even to have any wine!”

Dowager lady Chia was much amused by her reply. “Well, if you can’t succeed,” she said, “wait and I’ll come and offer it to her.”

Lady Feng with hasty step walked into the inner room. “Venerable ancestor!” she smiled, “don’t believe all they tell you! I’ve already had several cups!”

“Quick, pull her out,” old lady Chia laughingly cried to Mrs. Yu, “and shove her into a chair, and let all of you drink by turns to her health! If she then doesn’t drink, I’ll come myself in real earnest and make her have some!”

At these words, Mrs. Yu speedily dragged her out, laughing the while, and forced her into a seat, and, directing a servant to fetch a cup, she filled it with wine. “You’ve got from one year’s end to another,” she smiled, “the trouble and annoyance of conferring dutiful attentions upon our venerable senior, upon Madame Wang and upon myself, so, as I’ve nothing to-day, with which to prove my affection for you, have a sip, from my hand, my own dear, of this cup of wine I poured for you myself!”

“If you deliberately wish to present me a glass,” lady Feng laughed, “fall on your knees and I’ll drink at once!”

“What’s this you say?” Mrs. Yu replied with a laugh. “And who are you, I wonder? But let me tell you this once for all and finish that though we’ve succeeded, after ever so many difficulties, in getting up this entertainment to-day, there’s no saying whether we shall in the future be able to have anything more the like of this or not. Let’s avail ourselves then of the present to put our capacity to the strain and drink a couple of cups!”

Lady Feng saw very well that she could not advance any excuses, and necessity obliged her to swallow the contents of two cups. In quick succession, however, the various young ladies also drew near her, and lady Feng was constrained again to take a sip from the cup each held. But nurse Lai Ta too felt compelled, at the sight of dowager lady Chia still in buoyant spirits, to come forward and join in the merriment, so putting herself at the head of a number of nurses, she approached and proffered wine to lady Feng who found it once more so difficult to refuse that she had to swallow a few mouthfuls. But Yüan Yang and her companions next appeared, likewise, on the scene to hand her their share of wine; but lady Feng felt, in fact, so little able to comply with their wishes, that she promptly appealed to them entreatingly. “Dear sisters,” she pleaded, “do spare me! I’ll drink some more to-morrow!”

“Quite so! we’re a mean lot,” Yüan Yang laughed. “But now that we stand in the presence of your ladyship, do condescend to look upon us favourably! We’ve always enjoyed some little consideration, and do you put on the airs of a mistress on an occasion like the present, when there’s such a crowd of people standing by? Really, I shouldn’t have come. But, as you won’t touch our wine, we might as well be quick and retire!”

While she spoke, she was actually walking away, when lady Feng hastened to lay hold of her and to detain her. “Dear sister,” she cried, “I’ll drink some and have done!”

So saying, she took the wine and filled a cup to the very brim, and drained it. Yüan Yang then at length gave her a smile, (and she and her friends) dispersed.

Subsequently, the company resumed their places at the banquet. But lady Feng was conscious that the wine she had primed herself with was mounting to her head, so abruptly staggering to the upper end, she meant to betake herself home to lie down, when seeing the jugglers arrive, “Get the tips ready!” she shouted to Mrs. Yu. “I’m off to wash my face a bit.”

Mrs. Yu nodded her head assentingly; and lady Feng, noticing that the inmates were off their guard, left the banquet, and wended her steps beneath the eaves towards the back entrance of the house. P’ing Erh had, however, been keeping her eye on her, so hastily she followed in her footsteps. Lady Feng at once propped herself on her arm. But no sooner did they reach the covered passage than she discerned a young maid, attached to her quarters, standing under it. (The girl), the moment she perceived them, twisted herself round and beat a retreat. Lady Feng forthwith began to give way to suspicion; and she immediately shouted out to her to halt. The maid pretended at first not to hear, but, as, while following her they called out to her time after time, she found herself compelled to turn round. Lady Feng was seized with greater doubts than ever. Quickly therefore entering the covered passage with P’ing Erh, she bade the maid go along with them. Then opening a folding screen, lady Feng stated herself on the steps leading to the small courtyard, and made the girl fall on her knees. “Call two boy-servants from among those on duty at the second gate,” she cried out to P’ing Erh, “to bring a whip of twisted cords, and to take this young wench, who has no regard for her mistress, and beat her to shreds.”

The servant-maid fell into a state of consternation, and was scared out of her very wits. Sobbing the while, she kept on bumping her head on the ground and soliciting for grace.

“I’m really no ghost! So you must have seen me! Don’t you know what good manners mean and stand still?” lady Feng asked. “Why did you instead persist in running on?”

“I truly did not see your ladyship coming,” the maid replied with tears in her eyes. “I was, besides, much concerned as there was no one in the rooms; that’s why I was running on.”

“If there’s no one in the rooms, who told you to come out again?” lady Feng inquired. “And didn’t you see me, together with P’ing Erh, at your heels, stretching out our necks and calling out to you about ten times? But the more we shouted, the faster you ran! You weren’t far off from us either, so is it likely that you got deaf? And are you still bent upon bandying words with me?”

So speaking, she raised her hand and administered her a slap on the face. But, while the girl staggered from the blow, she gave her a second slap on the other side of the face, so both cheeks of the maid quickly began to get purple and to swell.

P’ing Erh hastened to reason with her mistress. “My lady!” she said, “be careful you’ll be hurting your hand!”

“Go on, pommel her,” urged lady Feng, “and ask her what made her run! and, if she doesn’t tell you, just you take her mouth and tear it to pieces for her!”

At the outset, the girl obstinately prevaricated, but when she eventually heard that lady Feng intended to take a red-hot branding-iron and burn her mouth with, she at last sobbingly spoke out. “Our Master Secundus, Mr. Lien, is at home,” she remarked, “and he sent me here to watch your movements, my lady; bidding me go ahead, when I saw you leave the banquet, and convey the message to him. But, contrary to his hopes, your ladyship came back just now!”

Lady Feng saw very well that there lurked something behind all she said. “What did he ask you to watch me for?” she therefore eagerly asked. “Can it be, pray, that he dreaded to see me return home? There must be some other reason; so be quick and tell it to me and I shall henceforward treat you with regard. If you don’t minutely confess all to me, I shall this very moment take a knife and pare off your flesh!”

Threatening her the while, she turned her head round, and, extracting a hairpin from her coiffure, she stuck it promiscuously about the maid’s mouth. This so frightened the girl that, as she made every effort to get out of her way, she burst out into tears and entreaties. “I’ll tell your ladyship everything,” she cried, “but you mustn’t say that it was I who told you.”

Ping Erh, who stood by, exhorted her to obey; but she at the same time impressed on her mind to speak out without delay.

“Mr. Secundus himself arrived only a few minutes back,” the maid began. “The moment, however, he came, he opened a bog, and, taking two pieces of silver, two hairpins, and a couple of rolls of silk, he bade me stealthily take them to Pao Erh’s wife and tell her to come in. As soon as she put the things away, she hurried to our house, and Master Secundus ordered me to keep an eye on your ladyship; but of what happened after that, I’ve no idea whatever.”

When these disclosures fell on lady Feng’s ears, she flew into such a rage that her whole person felt quite weak; and, rising immediately, she straightway repaired home. The instant she reached the gate of the courtyard, she espied a waiting-maid peep out of the entrance. Seeing lady Feng, she too drew in her head, and tried at once to effect her escape. But lady Feng called her by name, and made her stand still. This girl had ever been very sharp, so when she realised that she could not manage to beat a retreat, she went so far as to run out to her. “I was just going to tell your ladyship,” she smiled, “and here you come! What a strange coincidence!”

“Tell me what?” lady Feng exclaimed.

“That Mr. Secundus is at home,” the girl replied, “and has done so and so.” She then recounted to her all the incidents recorded a few minutes back.

“Ts’ui!” ejaculated lady Feng. “What were you up to before? Now, that I’ve seen you, you come and try to clear yourself!”

As she spoke, she raised her arm and administered the maid a slap, which upset her equilibrium. So with hurried step, she betook herself away. Lady Feng then drew near the window. Lending an ear to what was going on inside, she heard some one in the room laughingly observe: “When that queen-of-hell sort of wife of yours dies, it will be a good riddance!”

“When she’s gone,” Chia Lien rejoined, “and I marry another, the like of her, what will I again do?”

“When she’s dead and gone,” the woman resumed, “just raise P’ing Erh to the rank of primary wife. I think she’ll turn out considerably better than she has.”

“At present,” Chia Lien put in, “she won’t even let me enjoy P’ing Erh’s society! P’ing Erh herself is full of displeasure; yet she dares not speak. How is it that it has been my fate to bring upon myself the influence of this evil star?”

Lady Feng overheard these criticisms and flew into a fit of anger, which made her tremble violently. When she, however, also caught the praise heaped by both of them upon P’ing Erh, she harboured the suspicion that P’ing Erh too must, as a matter of course, have all along employed the sly resentful language against her. And, as the wine bubbled up more and more into her head, she did not so much as give the matter a second thought, but, twisting round, she first and foremost gave P’ing Erh a couple of whacks, and, with one kick, she banged the door open, and walked in. Then, without allowing her any time to give any explanation in her own defence, she clutched Pao Erh’s wife, and, tearing her about, she belaboured her with blows. But the dread lest Chia Lien should slip out of the room, induced her to post herself in such a way as to obstruct the doorway. “What a fine wench!” she shouted out abusingly. “You make a paramour of your mistress’ husband, and then you wish to compass your master’s wife’s death, for P’ing Erh to transfer her quarters in here! You base hirelings! You’re all of the same stamp, thoroughly jealous of me; you try to cajole me by your outward display!”

While abusing them, she once more laid hold of P’ing Erh and beat her several times. P’ing Erh was pummelled away till her heart thrilled with a sense of injury, but she had nowhere to go, and breathe her woes. Such resentment overpowered her feelings that she sobbed without a sign of a tear. “You people,” she railingly shouted, “go and do a lot of shameful things, and then you also deliberately involve me; but why?”

So shouting, she too clutched Pao Erh’s wife and began to assail her. Chia Lien had freely primed himself with wine, so, on his return home, he was in such exuberance of spirits that he observed no secresy in his doings. The moment, however, he perceived lady Feng appear on the scene, he got to his wits’ end. Yet when he saw P’ing Erh also start a rumpus, the liquor he had had aroused his ire. The sight of the assault committed by lady Feng on Pao Erh’s wife had already incensed him and put him to shame, but he had not been able with any consistency to interfere; but the instant he espied P’ing Erh herself lay hands on her, he vehemently jumped forward and gave her a kick. “What a vixen!” he cried. “Are you likewise going to start knocking people about?”

P’ing Erh was of a timid disposition. At once, therefore, she withheld her hands, and melted into tears. “Why do you implicate me,” she said, “in things you say behind my back?”

When lady Feng descried in what fear and dread P’ing Erh was of Chia Lien, she lost more than ever control over her temper, and, starting again in pursuit of her, she struck P’ing Erh, while urging her to go for Pao Erh’s wife.

P’ing Erh was driven to exasperation; and forthwith rushing out of the apartment, she went in search of a knife to commit suicide with. But the company of old matrons, who stood outside, hastened to place impediments in her way, and to argue with her.

Lady Feng, meanwhile, realised that P’ing Erh had gone to take her life, and rolling, head foremost, into Chia Lien’s embrace, “You put your heads together to do me harm,” she said, “and, when I overhear your designs, you people conspire to frighten me! But strangle me and have done.”

Chia Lien was driven to despair; to such a degree that unsheathing a sword suspended on the wall, “There’s no need for any one of you to commit suicide!” he screamed. “I too am thoroughly exasperated, so I’ll kill the whole lot of you and pay the penalty with my own life! We’ll all then be free from further trouble!”

The bustle had just reached a climax beyond the chance of a settlement, when they perceived Mrs. Yu and a crowd of inmates make their appearance in the room. “What’s the matter?” they asked. “There was nothing up just now, so why is all this row for?”

At the sight of the new arrivals, Chia Lien more than ever made the three parts of intoxication, under which he laboured, an excuse to assume an air calculated to intimidate them, and to pretend, in order to further his own ends, that he was bent upon despatching lady Feng.

But lady Feng, upon seeing her relatives appear, got into a mood less perverse than the one she had been in previous to their arrival; and, leaving the whole company of them, she scampered, all in tears, over to the off side, into dowager lady Chia’s quarters.

By this time, the play was over. Lady Feng rushed consequently into the old lady’s presence and fell into her lap. “Venerable ancestor! help me!” she exclaimed. “Mr. Chia Lien wishes to kill me.”

“What’s up?” precipitately inquired dowager lady Chia, Mesdames Hsing and Wang and the rest.

“I was just going to my rooms to change my dress,” lady Feng wept, “when I unexpectedly found Mr. Chia Lien at home, talking with some one. Fancying that visitors had come, I was quite taken aback, and not presuming to enter, I remained outside the window and listened. It turned out, in fact, to be Pao Erh’s wife holding council with him. She said that I was dreadful, and that she meant to poison me so as to get me out of the way and enable P’ing Erh to be promoted to be first wife. At this, I lost my temper. But not venturing, none the less, to have a row with him, I simply gave P’ing Erh two slaps; and then I asked him why he wished to do me harm. But so stricken did he get with shame that he tried there and then to despatch me.”

Dowager lady Chia treated every word that fell on her ear as truth. “Dreadful!” she ejaculated. “Bring here at once that low-bred offspring!”

Barely was, however, this exclamation out of her lips, than they perceived Chia Lien, a sword in hand, enter in pursuit of his wife, followed closely by a bevy of inmates. Chia Lien evidently placed such thorough reliance upon the love, which old lady Chia had all along lavished upon them, that he entertained little regard even for his mother or his aunt, so he came, with perfect effrontery, to stir up a disturbance in their presence. When Mesdames Hsing and Wang saw him, they got into a passion, and, with all despatch, they endeavoured to deter him from his purpose. “You mean thing!” they shouted, abusing him. “Your crime is more heinous, for our venerable senior is in here!”

“It’s all because our worthy ancestor spoils her,” cried Chia Lien, with eyes awry, “that she behaved as she did and took upon herself to rate even me!”

Madame Hsing was full of resentment. Snatching the sword from his grasp, she kept on telling him to quit the room at once. But Chia Lien continued to prattle foolish nonsense in a drivelling and maudlin way. His manner exasperated dowager lady Chia. “I’m well aware,” she observed, “that you haven’t the least consideration for any one of us. Tell some one to go and call his father here and we’ll see whether he doesn’t clear out.”

When Chia Lien caught these words, he eventually tottered out of the apartment. But in such a state of frenzy was he that he did not return to his quarters, but betook himself into the outer study.

During this while, Mesdames Hsing and Wang also called lady Feng to task.

“Why, what serious matter could it ever have been?” old lady Chia remarked. “But children of tender years are like greedy kittens, and how can one say for certain that they won’t do such things? Human beings have, from their very infancy, to go through experiences of this kind! It’s all my fault, however, for pressing you to have a little more wine than was good for you. But you’ve also gone and drunk the vinegar of jealousy!”

This insinuation made every one laugh.

“Compose your mind!” proceeded dowager lady Chia. “To-morrow I’ll send for him to apologise to you; but, you’d better to-day not go over, as you might put him to shame!” Continuing, she also went on to abuse P’ing Erh. “I’ve always thought highly of that wench,” she said, “and how is it that she’s turned out to be secretly so bad?”

“P’ing Erh isn’t to blame!” Mrs. Yu and the others smiled. “It’s lady Feng who makes people her tools to give vent to her spite! Husband and wife could not very well come to blows face to face, so they combined in using P’ing Erh as their scapegoat! What injuries haven’t fallen to P’ing Erh’s lot! And do you, venerable senior, still go on blowing her up?”

“Is it really so!” exclaimed old lady Chia. “I always said that that girl wasn’t anything like that artful shrew! Well, in that case, she is to be pitied, for she has had to bear the brunt of her anger, and all through no fault of hers!” Calling Hu Po to her, “Go,” she added, “and tell P’ing Erh all I enjoin you; ‘that I know that she has been insulted and that to-morrow I’ll send for her mistress to make amends, but that being her mistress’ birthday to-day, I won’t have her give rise to any reckless fuss’!”

P’ing Erh had, we may explain, from an early hour, been dragged by Li Wan into the garden of Broad Vista. Here P’ing Erh gave way to bitter tears. So much so, that her throat choked with sobs, and could not give utterance to speech.

“You are an intelligent person,” exhorted her Pao-ch’ai, “and how considerately has your lady treated you all along! It was simply because she has had a little too much wine that she behaved as she did to-day! But had she not made you the means of giving vent to her spite, is it likely that she could very well have aired her grievances upon any one else? Besides, any one else would have laughed at her for acting in a sham way!”

While she reasoned with her, she saw Hu Po approach, and deliver dowager lady Chia’s message. P’ing Erh then felt in herself that she had come out of the whole affair with some credit, and she, little by little, resumed her equilibrium. She did not, nevertheless, put her foot anywhere near the front part of the compound.

After a little rest, Pao Ch’ai and her companions came and paid a visit to old lady Chia and lady Feng, while Pao-yü pressed P’ing Erh to come to the I Hung court. Hsi Jen received her with alacrity. “I meant,” she said, “to be the first to ask you, but as our senior lady, Chia Chu, and the young ladies invited you, I couldn’t very well do so myself.”

P’ing Erh returned her smile. “Many thanks!” she rejoined. “How words ever commenced between us;” she then went on, “when there was no provocation, I can’t tell! But without rhyme or reason, I came in for a spell of resentment.”

“Our lady Secunda has always been very good to you,” laughingly remarked Hsi Jen, “so she must have done this in a sudden fit of exasperation!”

“Our lady Secunda did not, after all, say anything to me,” P’ing Erh explained. “It was that wench that blew me up. And she deliberately made a laughing-stock of me. But that fool also of a master of ours struck me!”

While recounting her experiences, she felt a keener sense of injustice than before, and she found it hard to restrain her tears from trickling down her cheeks.

“My dear sister,” Pao-yü hastily advised her, “don’t wound your heart! I’m quite ready to express my apologies on behalf of that pair!”

“What business is that of yours?” P’ing Erh smiled.

“We cousins, whether male or female, are all alike.” Pao-yü smilingly argued. “So when they hurt any one’s feelings, I apologise for them; it’s only right that I should do so. What a pity;” he continued, “these new clothes too have been stained! But you’ll find your sister Hua’s costumes in here, and why don’t you put one on, and take some hot wine and spurt it over yours and iron them out? You might also remake your coiffure.”

Speaking, he directed the young maids to draw some water for washing the face and to heat an iron and bring it.

P’ing Erh had ever heard people maintain that all that Pao-yü excelled in was in knitting friendships with girls. But Pao-yü had so far been loth, seeing that P’ing Erh was Chia Lien’s beloved secondary wife, and lady Feng’s confidante, to indulge in any familiarities with her. And being precluded from accomplishing the desire upon which his heart was set, he time and again gave way to vexation. When P’ing Erh, however, remarked his conduct towards her on this occasion, she secretly resolved within herself that what was said of him was indeed no idle rumour. But as he had anticipated every one of her wants, and she saw moreover that Hsi Jen had, for her special benefit, opened a box and produced two articles of clothing, not much worn by her, she speedily drew near and washed her face.

Pao-yü stood by her side. “You must, dear girl, also apply a little cosmetic and powder,” she smiled; “otherwise you’ll look as if you were angry with lady Feng. It’s her birthday, besides; and our old ancestor has sent some one again to come and cheer you up.”

Hearing how reasonable his suggestions were, P’ing Erh readily went in search of powder; but she failed to notice any about, so Pao-yü hurriedly drew up to the toilet-table, and, removing the lid of a porcelain box made at the “Hsüan” kiln, which contained a set of ten small ladles, tuberose-like in shape, (for helping one’s self to powder with), he drew out one of them and handed it to P’ing Erh. “This isn’t lead powder,” he smiled. “This is made of the seeds of red jasmine, well triturated, and compounded with suitable first class ingredients.”

P’ing Erh emptied some on the palm of her hand. On examination, she really found that it was light, clear, red and scented; perfect in all four properties; that it was easy to apply evenly to the face, that it kept moist, and that it differed from other kinds of powder, ordinarily so rough. She subsequently noticed that the cosmetic too was not spread on a sheet, but that it was contained in a tiny box of white jade, the contents of which bore the semblance of rose-paste.

“The cosmetic one buys in the market isn’t clean;” Pao-yü remarked smilingly. “Its colour is faint as well. But this is cosmetic of superior quality. The juice was squeezed out, strained clear, mixed with perfume of flowers and decocted. All you need do is to take some with that hair-pin and rub it on your lips, that will be enough; and if you dissolve some in a little water, and rub it on the palm of your hand, it will be ample for you to cover your whole face with.”

P’ing Erh followed his directions and performed her toilette. She looked exceptionally fresh and beautiful. A sweet fragrance pervaded her cheeks. Pao-yü then cut, with a pair of bamboo scissors, a stalk, with two autumn orchids, which had blossomed in a flower pot, and he pinned it in her side-hair. But a maid was unexpectedly seen to enter the room, sent by Li Wan to come and call her, so she quitted his quarters with all possible despatch.

Pao-yü had not so far been able to have his wishes to revel in P’ing Erh’s society gratified. P’ing Erh was furthermore a girl of a high grade, most intelligent, most winsome, and unlike that sort of vulgar and dull-minded beings, so that he cherished intense disgust against his fate.

The present occasion had been the anniversary of Chin Ch’uan-erh’s birth, and he had remained, in consequence, plunged in a disconsolate frame of mind throughout the whole day. But, contrary to his expectations, the incident eventually occurred, which afforded him, after all, an opportunity to dangle in P’ing Erh’s society and to gratify to some small degree a particle of his wish. This had been a piece of good fortune he so little expected would fall to his share during the course of his present existence, that as he reclined on his bed, his heart swelled with happiness and contentment. Suddenly, he reflected that Chia Lien’s sole thought was to make licentious pleasures the means of gratifying his passions, and that he had no idea how to show the least regard to the fair sex; and he mused that P’ing Erh was without father or mother, brothers or sisters, a solitary being destined to dance attendance upon a couple such as Chia Lien and his wife; that Chia Lien was vulgar, and lady Feng haughty, but that she was gifted nevertheless with the knack of splendidly managing things; and that (P’ing Erh) had again to-day come across bitter sorrow, and that her destiny was extremely unfortunate.

At this stage of his reverie, he began to feel wounded and distressed. When he rose once more to his feet, he noticed that the wine, which she had spurted on the clothes, she had a few minutes back divested herself of, had already half dried, and, taking up the iron, he smoothed them and folded them nicely for her. He then discovered that she had left her handkerchief behind, and that it still bore traces of tears, so throwing it into the basin, he rinsed it and hung it up to dry, with feelings bordering on joy as well as sadness. But after a short time spent in a brown study, he too betook himself to the Tao Hsiang village for a chat; and it was only when the lamps had been lit that he got up to take his leave.

P’ing Erh put up in Li Wan’s quarters for the night. Lady Feng slept with dowager lady Chia, while Chia Lien returned at a late hour to his home. He found it however very lonely. Yet unable to go and call his wife over, he had no alternative but to sleep as best he could for that night. On the morrow, he remembered, as soon as he opened his eyes, the occurrence of the previous day, and he fell a prey to such extreme unhappiness that he could not be conscience-stricken enough.

Madame Hsing pondered with solicitude on Chia Lien’s drunken fit the day before. The moment therefore it was light, she hastily crossed over, and sent for Chia Lien to repair to dowager lady Chia’s apartments. Chia Lien was thus compelled to suppress all timidity and to repair to the front part of the mansion and fall on his knees at the feet of his old senior.

“What was the matter?” inquired old lady Chia.

“I really had too much wine yesterday,” Chia Lien promptly answered with a forced smile. “I must have given you a fright, worthy ancestor, so I come to-day to receive condign punishment.”

“You mean fellow!” shouted dowager lady Chia, spitting at him disdainfully. “You go and glut yourself with spirits, and, not to speak of your not going to stretch yourself like a corpse and sleep it off, you contrariwise start beating your wife! But that vixen Feng brags away the whole day long, as if she were a human being as valiant as any tyrant, and yet yesterday she got into such a funk that she presented a woeful sight! Had it not been for me, you would have done her bodily harm; and what would you feel like now?”

Chia Lien was at heart full of a sense of injury, but he could not master sufficient courage to say anything in his own defence. The only course open to him was therefore to make a confession of fault.

“Don’t lady Feng and P’ing Erh possess the charms of handsome women?” dowager lady Chia resumed. “And aren’t you yet satisfied with them that you must, of a day, go slyly prowling and gallavanting about, dragging indiscriminately into your rooms frowsy and filthy people? Is it for the sake of this sort of wenches that you beat your wife and belabour the inmates of your quarters? You’ve nevertheless had the good fortune of starting in life as the scion of a great family; and do you, with eyes wide open, bring disgrace upon your own head? If you have any regard for me, well, then get up and I’ll spare you! And if you make your apologies in a proper manner to your wife and take her home, I’ll be satisfied. But if you don’t, just you clear out of this, for I won’t even presume to have any of your genuflexions!”

Chia Lien took to heart the injunctions that fell on his ear. Espying besides lady Feng standing opposite to him in undress, her eyes swollen from crying, and her face quite sallow, without cosmetic or powder, he thought her more lovable and charming than ever. “Wouldn’t it be well,” he therefore mused, “that I should make amends, so that she and I may be on friendly terms again and that I should win the good pleasure of my old ancestor?”

At the conclusion of his reflections, he forthwith put on a smile. “After your advice, venerable senior,” he said, “I couldn’t be so bold as not to accede to your wishes! But this is shewing her more indulgence than ever!”

“What nonsense!” exclaimed dowager lady Chia laughingly. “I am well aware that with her extreme decorum she couldn’t hurt any one’s susceptibilities. But should she, in the future, wrong you in any way, I shall, of course, take the law into my own hands and bid you make her submit to your authority and finish.”

Chia Lien, at this assurance, crawled up and made a bow to lady Feng. “It was really my fault, so don’t be angry, lady Secunda,” he said.

Every one in the room laughed.

“Now, my girl Feng,” lady Chia laughingly observed, “you are not to lose your temper; for if you do, I’ll lose mine too!”

Continuing, she directed a servant to go and call P’ing Erh; and, on her arrival, she advised lady Feng and Chia Lien to do all they could to reconcile her. At the sight of P’ing Erh, Chia Lien showed less regard than ever for the saying that ‘a primary wife differs from a secondary wife,’ and the instant he heard old lady Chia’s exhortation he drew near her. “The injuries,” he remarked, “to which you were subjected yesterday, Miss, were entirely due to my shortcoming. If your lady hurt your feelings, it was likewise all through me that the thing began. So I express my regret; but, besides this, I tender my apologies as well on behalf of your mistress.”

Saying this, he made another bow. This evoked a smile from dowager lady Chia. Lady Feng, however, also laughed. Their old ancestor then desired lady Feng to come and console P’ing Erh, but P’ing Erh hastily advanced and knocked her head before lady Feng. “I do deserve death,” she urged, “for provoking your ladyship to wrath on the day of your birthday!”

Lady Feng was at the moment pricked by shame and remorse for having so freely indulged in wine the previous day as to completely have lost sight of longstanding friendships, and for allowing her temper to so thoroughly flare up as to lend a patient ear to the gossip of outsiders, and unjustly put P’ing Erh out of countenance, so when she contrariwise now saw her make advances, she felt both abashed and grieved, and, promptly extending her arms, she dragged her up and gave way to tears.

“I’ve waited upon your ladyship for all these years,” P’ing Erh pleaded, “and you’ve never so much as given me a single fillip; and yet, you beat me yesterday. But I don’t bear you any grudge, my lady, for it was that wench, who was at the bottom of it all. Nor do I wonder that your ladyship lost control over your temper.”

As she spoke, tears trickled down her cheeks too.

“Escort those three home!” dowager lady Chia shouted to the servants. “If any one of them makes the least allusion to the subject, come at once and tell me of it; for without any regard as to who it may be, I shall take my staff and give him or her a sound flogging.”

The trio then prostrated themselves before dowager lady Chia and the two ladies, Mesdames Hsing and Wang. And assenting to her old mistress’ injunctions, an old nurse accompanied the three inmates to their quarters.

When they got home, lady Feng assured herself that there was no one about. “How is it,” she next asked, “that I’m like a queen of hell, or like a ‘Yakcha’ demon? That courtesan swore at me and wished me dead; and did you too help her to curse me? If I’m not nice a thousand days, why, I must be nice on some one day! But if, poor me, I’m so bad as not even to compare with a disorderly woman, how can I have the face to come and spend my life with you here?”

So speaking, she melted into tears.

“Aren’t you yet gratified?” cried Chia Lien. “Just reflect carefully who was most to blame yesterday! And yet, in the presence of so many people, it was I who, after all, fell to-day on my knees and made apologies as well. You came in for plenty of credit, and do you now go on jabber, jabber? Can it be that you’d like to make me kneel at your feet before you let matters rest? If you try and play the bully beyond bounds, it won’t be a good thing for you!”

To these arguments, lady Feng could find no suitable response.

P’ing Erh then blurted out laughing.

“She’s all right again!” Chia Lien smiled. “But I’m really quite at a loss what to do with this one.”

These words were still on his lips, when they saw a married woman walk in. “Pao Erh’s wife has committed suicide by hanging herself,” she said.

This announcement plunged both Chia Lien and lady Feng into great consternation. Lady Feng, however, lost no time in putting away every sign of excitement. “Dead, eh? What a riddance!” she shouted instead. “What’s the use of making such a fuss about a mere trifle?”

But not long elapsed before she perceived Lin Chih-hsiao’s wife make her appearance in the room. “Pao Erh’s wife has hung herself,” she whispered to lady Feng in a low tone of voice, “and her mother’s relatives want to take legal proceedings.”

Lady Feng gave a sardonic smile. “That’s all right!” she observed. “I myself was just thinking about lodging a complaint!”

“I and the others tried to dissuade them,” Lin Chih-hsiao’s wife continued. “And by having recourse to intimidation as well as to promises of money, they, at last, agreed to our terms.”

“I haven’t got a cash,” lady Feng replied. “Had I even any money, I wouldn’t let them have it; so just let them go and lodge any charge they fancy. You needn’t either dissuade them or intimidate them. Let them go and complain as much as they like. But if they fail to establish a case against me, they’ll, after all, be punished for trying to make the corpse the means of extorting money out of me!”

Lin Chih-hsiao’s wife was in a dilemma, when she espied Chia Lien wink at her. Comprehending his purpose, she readily quitted the apartment and waited for him outside.

“I’ll go out and see what they’re up to!” Chia Lien remarked.

“Mind, I won’t have you give them any money!” shouted lady Feng.

Chia Lien straightway made his exit. He came and held consultation with Lin Chih-hsiao, and then directed the servants to go and use some fair means, others harsh. The matter was, however, not brought to any satisfactory arrangement until he engaged to pay two hundred taels for burial expenses. But so apprehensive was Chia Lien lest something might occur to make the relatives change their ideas, that he also despatched a messenger to lay the affair before Wang Tzu-t’eng, who bade a few constables, coroners and other official servants come and help him to effect the necessary preparations for the funeral. The parties concerned did not venture, when they saw the precautions he had adopted, to raise any objections, disposed though they may have been to try and bring forward other arguments. Their sole alternative therefore was to suppress their resentment, to refrain from further importunities and let the matter drop into oblivion.

Chia Lien then impressed upon Lin Chih-hsiao to insert the two hundred taels in the accounts for the current year, by making such additions to various items here and there as would suffice to clear them off, and presented Pao Erh with money out of his own pocket as a crumb of comfort, adding, “By and bye, I’ll choose a nice wife for you.” When Pao Erh, therefore, came in for a share of credit as well as of hard cash, he could not possibly do otherwise than practise contentment; and forthwith, needless to dilate on this topic, he began to pay court to Chia Lien as much as ever.

In the inner rooms, lady Feng was, it is true, much cut up at heart; but she strained every nerve to preserve an exterior of total indifference. Noticing that there was no one present in the apartment, she drew P’ing Erh to her. “I drank yesterday,” she smiled, “a little more wine than was good for me, so don’t bear me a grudge. Where did I strike you, let me see?”

“You didn’t really strike me hard!” P’ing Erh said by way of reply.

But at this stage they heard some one remark that the ladies and young ladies had come in.

If you desire, reader, to know any of the subsequent circumstances, peruse the account given in the following chapter.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cao_xueqin/c2359h/chapter44.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:29