Hung Lou Meng, by Cao Xueqin

CHAPTER XLVI.

An improper man with difficulty keeps from improprieties — The maid, Yüan Yang, vows to break off the marriage match.

Lin Tai-yü, to resume our story, dropped off gradually to sleep about the close of the fourth watch. As there is therefore nothing more that we can for the present say about her, let us take up the thread of our narrative with lady Feng.

Upon hearing that Madame Hsing wanted to see her, she could not make out what it could be about, so hurriedly putting on some extra things on her person and head, she got into a carriage and crossed over.

Madame Hsing at once dismissed every attendant from her suite of apartments. “I sent for you,” she began, addressing herself to lady Feng, in a confidential tone, “not for anything else, but on account of something which places me on the horns of a dilemma. My husband has entrusted me with a job; and being quite at my wits’ ends how to act, I’d like first to consult with you. My husband has taken quite a fancy to Yüan Yang, who is in our worthy senior’s rooms; so much so, that he’s desirous to get her into his quarters as a secondary wife. He has deputed me therefore to ask her of our venerable ancestor. I know that this is quite an ordinary matter. Yet I can’t help fearing that our worthy senior may refuse to give her. But do you perchance see your way to bring this concern about?”

Lady Feng listened to her. “You shouldn’t, I say, go and bang your head against a nail!” she then vehemently exclaimed. “Were our old ancestor separated from Yüan Yang, she wouldn’t even touch her rice! How ever could she reconcile herself to part from her? Besides, our worthy senior has time and again said, in the course of a chat, ‘that she can’t see the earthly use of a man well up in years, as your lord and master is, having here one concubine, and there another? That cooping them up in his rooms, is a mere waste of human beings. That he neglects his constitution and doesn’t husband it; and that he doesn’t either attend diligently to his official duties, but spends his whole days in boozing with his young concubines. When your ladyship hears these nice doings of his, don’t you feel enamoured with that fine gentleman of ours? Were he even to try, at this juncture, to beat a retreat, he couldn’t, I fear, effectively do so. Yet, instead of (making an effort to turn tail), he wants to go and dig the tiger’s nostrils with a blade of straw. Don’t, my lady, be angry with me; but I daren’t undertake the errand. It’s clear as day that it will be a wild goose chase. What’s more, it will do him no good; but will, contrariwise, heap disgrace upon his own head! Our Mr. Chia She is now so stricken in years, that in all his actions he unavoidably behaves somewhat as a dotard. It would be well therefore for your ladyship to advise him what to do. It isn’t as if he were in the prime of life to be able to do all these things with impunity! He’s got at present a whole array of brothers, nieces, sons, and grandsons; and should he still go on in this wild sort of way, how will he be able to face any of them?”

Madame Hsing gave a sardonic smile. “There are endless wealthy families with three and four concubines,” she said, “and is it in ours that such a thing won’t do? But were I even to tender him as much advice as I can, it isn’t at all likely that he’ll abide by it! Even though that maid be one beloved by our venerable senior, it doesn’t follow that she’ll very well be able to give a rebuff to a hoary-bearded elderly son, and, erewhile, an official, were he to express a wish to have her as an inmate of his household! I sent for you for no other purpose than to deliberate with you, and here you take the initiative and enumerate a whole array of shortcomings. But is there any reason why I should commission you to go? Of course I’ll go and speak to her! You make a bold statement that I don’t give him any good counsel; but don’t you yet know that with a disposition, such as his, he rushes, before I can very well open my lips to advise him, into a tantrum with me?”

Lady Feng was well alive to the fact that Madame Hsing was, by nature, simple and weak-minded, and that all she knew was to adulate Chia She so as to ensure her own safety. That she was, in the next place, ever ready, so greedy was she, to grasp as much hard cash and as many effects, as she could lay hold of, for her own private gain. That she left all family matters, irrespective of important or unimportant, under the sole control of Chia She; but that, whenever anything turned up, involving any receipts or payments, she extorted an unusual percentage, the moment the money passed through her clutches, giving out as a pretence: ‘Well Chia She is so extravagant that I have to interfere and effect sufficient economies to enable us to make up our deficits.’ And that she would not trust any one, whether son, daughter or servant, nor lend an ear to a single word of remonstrance. When she therefore now heard Madame Hsing speak as she did, she concluded that she must be in another of her perverse moods, and that any admonitions would be of no avail. So hastily forcing a smile: “My lady,” she observed, “you’re perfectly right in your remarks! But how long can I have lived, and what discrimination can I boast of? It seems to me that if a father and mother do not bestow, not a mere servant-girl like she is, but a living jewel of the size of her, on one like Mr. Chia She, to whom are they likely to give her? How can one give faith to words spoken behind one’s back? So what a fool I was (in cramming what I heard down my throat)! Just take our Mr. Secundus, (my husband), as an instance. If ever he does anything to incur blame, Mr. Chia She and you, my lady, feel so wrath with him as to only wish you could lay hands upon him there and then and give him such a blow as would kill him downright, but the moment you set eyes on his face, your whole resentment vanishes, and lo, you again let him have, as of old, everything, and anything, much though both of you might relish it in your hearts! Our worthy ancestor will certainly therefore behave in the present instance, with equal liberality, towards Mr. Chia She! So if her ladyship feels in the humour to-day, she’ll let him have her, I fancy, at once this very day, if he makes the proper advances. But I’ll go ahead and coax our venerable senior; and, when your ladyship comes over, I’ll find some pretence to get out of the way, and take along with me those too who may be present in her rooms, so as to make it convenient for you to broach the subject. If she gives her, so much the better. But if even she doesn’t, it won’t matter; for none of the inmates will have any idea what the object of your mission could have been.”

After listening to her suggestion, Madame Hsing began again to feel in a happier frame of mind. “My idea is,” she observed, “that I shouldn’t start by mentioning anything to our venerable senior, for were she to say that she wouldn’t give her, the matter would be simply quashed on the head. I can’t help thinking that I should first and foremost quietly approach Yüan Yang on the subject. She will, of course, feel extremely ashamed, but when I explain everything minutely to her, she’ll certainly have nothing to say against the proposal, and everything will be all right. I can then speak to our old senior; and, despite any desire on her part not to accede to our wishes, she won’t be able to put the girl off, provided she herself be willing; for as the adage says: ‘If a person wishes to go, it’s no use trying to keep him.’ Thus needless to say, the whole thing will be satisfactorily settled!”

“You’re really shrewd in your devices, my lady!” lady Feng smilingly ejaculated. “This is perfect in every respect! For without taking Yüan Yang into account, what girl does not long to rise high, or hope to exalt herself, or think of pushing herself forward above the rest as to cast away the chances of becoming half a mistress, and prefer instead being a maid, and merely becoming by and bye the mate of some servant-lad?”

“Quite so!” Madame Hsing smiled. “But let’s put Yüan Yang aside. Who is there, even among the various elderly waiting-maids, who look after the house, who wouldn’t be only too willing to step into these shoes? You’d better then go ahead. But, mind, don’t let the cat out of the bag! I’ll join you as soon as I can finish my evening meal.”

“Yüan Yang,” thereupon secretly reflected lady Feng, “has always been an extremely shrewd-minded girl; to such a degree, that there is notwithstanding all our arguments, no saying positively whether she’ll accept or refuse. So were I to go ahead, and Madame Hsing to follow me by and bye, there won’t be any occasion for her to grumble or complain, so long as she assents; but, if she doesn’t, why, Madame Hsing, who is so suspicious a creature, will possibly imagine that I’ve been gassing with her, and been the means of making her put on side and assume high airs. When Madame Hsing finds then that my conjectures have turned out true again, her shame will be converted into anger, and she’ll so vent her spite upon me that I shall, after all, be put in a false position. Would it not be better then that she and I should go together; for, if she says ‘yes,’ I’ll be all right; and, if she replies ‘no,’ I’ll be on the safe side; and no suspicion, of any kind, will fall upon me!”

At the close of her reflections, “As I was about to cross over here,” she remarked laughingly, “our aunt yonder sent us two baskets of quails, and I gave orders that they should be fried, with the idea that they should be brought to your ladyship, in time for you to have some at your evening repast. Just as I was stepping inside the main entrance, I saw the servant-boys carrying your curricle; they said that it was your ladyship’s vehicle, that it had cracked, and that they were taking it to be repaired. Wouldn’t it be as well then that you should now come in my carriage, for it will be better for you and me to get there together?”

At this suggestion, Madame Hsing directed her servants to come and change her costume. Lady Feng quickly waited upon her, and in a while the two ladies got into one and the same curricle and drove over.

“My lady,” lady Feng went on to say, “it would be well for you to look up our worthy senior, for were I to accompany you, and her ladyship to ask me what was the object of my visit, it would be rather awkward. The best way is for your ladyship to go first, and I’ll join you, as soon as I divest myself of my fine clothes.”

Madame Hsing noticed how reasonable her proposal was, and she readily betook herself to old lady Chia’s quarters. But after a chat with her senior, she quitted the apartment, under the pretence that she was going to Madame Wang’s rooms. Then making her exit by the back door, she passed in front of Yüan Yang’s bedroom. Here she saw Yüan Yang sitting, hard at work at some needlework. The moment she caught sight of Madame Hsing, she rose to her feet.

“What are you up to?” Madame Hsing laughingly inquired. “Let me see! How much nicer you embroider artificial flowers now!”

So speaking, she entered, and, taking the needlework from her hands, she scrutinised it, while extolling its beauty. Then laying down the work, and scanning her again from head to foot, she observed that her costume consisted of a half-new, grey thin silk jacket, and a bluish satin waistcoat with scollops; that below this came a water-green jupe; that her waist was slim as that of a wasp; that her shoulders sloped as if pared; that her face resembled a duck’s egg; that her hair was black and shiny; that her nose was very high, and that on both her cheeks were slightly visible several small flat moles.

Yüan Yang realised how intently she was being passed under scrutiny, and began to feel inwardly uneasy; while utter astonishment prevailed in her mind. “Madame,” she felt impelled to ask, “what do you come for at this impossible hour?”

At a wink from Madame Hsing, her attendants withdrew from the room. Madame Hsing forthwith seated herself, and grasped Yüan Yang’s hand in hers. “I’ve come,” she smiled, “with the special purpose of presenting you my congratulations.”

This reply enabled Yüan Yang at once to form within herself some surmise more or less correct of the object of her errand, and suddenly blushing crimson, she lowered her head, and uttered not a word.

“You know well enough,” she next heard Madame Hsing resume, “that there’s not a single reliable person with my husband; but much though we’d like to purchase some other girl we fear that such as might come out of a broker’s household wouldn’t be quite spotless and taintless. Nor would one be able to get any idea what her failings are, until after she has been purchased and brought home; when she too will be sure, in two or three days, to behave like an imp and play some monkey tricks! That’s why we thought of choosing some home-born girl out of those which throng in our mansion, but then again we could find none decent enough; for if her looks were not at fault, her disposition was not proper; and if she possessed this quality, she lacked that one. Hence it is that after repeatedly choosing with dispassionate eye, during half a year, (he finds) that there’s only you among that whole bevy of girls, who’s worth anything; that in looks, behaviour and deportment, you’re gentle, trustworthy, and perfection itself in every respect. His intention therefore is to ask your hand of our old lady and take you over and attach you to his quarters. You won’t be treated as one newly-purchased, or newly-sought for outside; for the moment you put your foot into our house, you’ll at once have your face shaved and be promoted to a secondary wife; so you’ll thus attain as much dignity as honour. More, you’re one who is anxious to excel; and, as the proverb says, ‘gold will still be exchanged for gold.’ My husband has, who’d have thought it, taken a fancy to you, so when you now enter our threshold, you’ll fulfil the wish you’ve cherished all along with such high purpose and lofty aim, and stop the mouths of those persons, who are envious of your lot. Follow me therefore and let’s go and lay the matter before our venerable ancestor.”

Arguing the while, she dragged her by the hand with the idea of hurrying her off there and then. Yüan Yang, however, blushed to her very ears, and, snatching her hand out of her grip she refused to budge.

Madame Hsing was conscious that she was under the spell of intense shame. “What’s there in this to be ashamed?” she continued, “You needn’t besides breathe a word! All you have to do is to follow me, that’s all.”

Yüan Yang continued to droop her head and to decline to go with her. Madame Hsing, perceiving her behaviour, went on to exhort her. “Is it likely, pray,” she said, “that you still hesitate? If you actually don’t feel inclined to accept the offer, you’re, in real truth, a foolish girl; for here you let go the chances of becoming the secondary consort of a master, and choose instead to continue a servant-girl. You’ll be united, in two or three years, to no one higher than some young domestic, and remain as much a bond-servant as ever! If you come along with us, you know that my disposition too is gentle; that I’m not one of those persons, who don’t show any regard for any one; that my husband will also treat you as well as he does every one else, and that when, in the course of a year or so, you give birth to a son or daughter, you’ll be placed on the same footing as myself. And of all the servants at home, will any you may wish to employ not deign to move to execute your orders? If now that you have a chance of becoming a mistress, you don’t choose to, why, you’ll miss the opportunity, and then you may repent it, but it will be too late!”

Yüan Yang still kept her head bent against her chest and spake not a syllable by way of reply.

“How is it,” added Madame Hsing, “that you, who’ve ever been so quick have now too begun to be so infirm of purpose? What is there that doesn’t fall in with your wishes? Just tell me; and I can safely assure you that you’ll have everything done to satisfy you.”

Yüan Yang observed, as hitherto, perfect silence.

“I suppose,” laughed Madame Hsing, “that having a father and mother, you yourself don’t wish to speak, for fear of being put to the blush, and that you want to wait until such time as they consult you about it, eh? This is quite right! But you’d better let me go and make the proposal to them and tell them to come and ascertain your wishes; and whatever your answer then may be just entrust it to them.”

This said, she sped into lady Feng’s suite of rooms.

Lady Feng had long ago changed her attire, and availed herself of the absence of any bystander in her apartments to confide the whole matter to P’ing Erh.

P’ing Erh nodded her head and smiled. “According to my views, success is not so certain,” she observed. “She and I have often secretly talked this matter over, and the arguments I heard her propound don’t make it the least probable that she’ll consent. But all we can say now is: ‘We’ll see!’”

“Madame Hsing,” lady Feng remarked, “is sure to come over here to consult with me. If she has assented, well and good; but, if she hasn’t, she’ll bring displeasure upon her own self, and won’t she feel out of countenance, if all of you are present? So tell the others to fry several quails, and get anything nice, that goes well with them, and prepare it for our repast, while you can go and stroll about in some other spot, and return when you fancy she has gone.”

Hearing this, P’ing Erh transmitted her wishes word for word to the matrons; after which, she sauntered leisurely all alone, into the garden.

When Yüan Yang saw Madame Hsing depart, she concluded that she was bound to go into lady Feng’s rooms to consult with her, and that some one was sure to come and ask her about the proposal, so thinking it advisable to cross over to this side of the mansion to get out of the way, she consequently repaired in quest of Hu Po.

“Should our old mistress,” she said to her, “ask for me, just say that I was so unwell that I couldn’t even have any breakfast; that I’ve gone into the garden for a stroll, but that I will be back at once.”

Hu Po undertook to tell her so, and Yüan Yang then betook herself too into the garden. While lolling all over the place, she, contrary to her expectations, encountered P’ing Erh. P’ing Erh looked round to see that there was no one about. “Here comes the new secondary wife!” she smilingly exclaimed.

Yüan Yang caught this greeting, and promptly the colour rose to her face. “How strange it is,” she rejoined, “that you’ve all colluded together to come, with one accord, and scheme against me! But wait until I’ve had it out with your mistress, and then I’ll set things all right.”

When P’ing Erh observed the angry look on Yüan Yang’s countenance, her conscience was so stricken with remorse, on account of the inconsiderate remark she had passed, that drawing her under the maple tree, she made her sit on the same boulder as herself, and then went so far as to recount to her, from beginning to end, all that transpired, and everything that was said on lady Feng’s return, a short while back, from the off mansion.

Blushes flew to Yüan Yang’s cheeks. Facing P’ing Erh, she gave a sardonic smile. “We’ve all ever been friends,” she said, “that is: Hsi Jen, Hu Po, Su Yün, Tzu Chüan, Ts’ai Hsia, Yü Ch’uan, She Yüeh, Ts’ui Mo, Ts’ui Lü, who was in Miss Shih’s service and is now gone, K’o Jen and Chin Ch’uan, now deceased, Hsi Hsüeh, who left, and you and I. Ever since our youth up, how many chats have the ten or dozen of us not had, and what have we not been up to together? But now that we’ve grown up, each of us has gone her own way! Yet, my heart is just what it was in days gone by. Whenever there’s anything for me to say or do, I don’t try to impose upon any of you; so just first treasure in your heart the secret I’m going to tell you, and don’t mention it to our lady Secunda! Not to speak of our senior master wishing to make me his concubine, were even our lady to die this very moment, and he to send endless go-betweens, and countless betrothal presents, with the idea of wedding me and taking me over as his lawful primary wife, I wouldn’t also go.”

P’ing Erh was at this point desirous to put in some observation, when from behind the boulder became audible the loud tones of laughter. “You most barefaced girl!” a voice cried. “It’s well you’re not afraid of your teeth falling when you utter such things!”

These words reached the ears of both girls, and, so unawares were they taken, that they got a regular start, and jumping up with all haste they went to see behind the boulder. They found no one else than Hsi Jen, who presented herself before them, with a smiling countenance, and asked: “What’s up? Do tell me!”

As she spoke, the trio seated themselves on a rock. P’ing Erh then imparted to Hsi Jen as well the drift of their recent conversation.

“Properly speaking, we shouldn’t pass such judgments,” Hsi Jen remarked, after listening to her confidences, “but this senior master of ours is really a most licentious libertine. So much so, that whenever he comes across a girl with any good looks about her, he won’t let her out of his grasp.”

“Since you don’t like to entertain his offer,” P’ing Erh suggested, “I’ll put you up to a plan.”

“What plan is it?” Yüan Yang inquired.

“Just simply tell our old mistress,” P’ing Erh laughed, “this answer: that you’ve already been promised to our master Secundus, Mr. Lien. Our senior master then won’t very well be able to be importunate.’”

“Ts’ui!” ejaculated Yüan Yang. “What a thing you are! Do you still make such suggestions? Didn’t your mistress the other day utter this silly nonsense! Who’d have thought it, her words have now come true!”

“If you won’t have either of them,” Hsi Jen smiled, “my idea is that you should tell our old lady point blank and ask her to give out that she promised you long ago to our master, number two, Pao-yü. Our senior master will then banish this fad from his mind.”

Yüan Yang was overcome with anger, shame and exasperation. “What dreadful vixens both of you are!” she shouted. “You don’t deserve a natural death! I find myself in a fix, and treat you as decent sort of persons and confide in you so that you should arrange matters for me; and not to say that you don’t bother yourselves a rap about me, you take turn and turn about to poke fun at me! You’re under the impression, in your own minds, that your fates are sealed, and that both of you are bound by and bye to become secondary wives; but I can’t help thinking that affairs under the heavens don’t so certainly fall in always with one’s wishes and expectations! So you’d better now pull up a bit, and not be cheeky to such an excessive degree!”

Both her companions then realised in what state of despair she was, and promptly forcing a smile, “Dear sister,” they said, “don’t be so touchy! We’ve been, ever since we were little mites, like very sisters! All we’ve done is to spontaneously indulge in a little fun in a spot where there’s no one present. But tell us what you’ve decided to do, so that we too should know, and set our minds at ease.”

“Decided what?” Yüan Yang cried. “All I know is that I won’t go; that’s finished.”

P’ing Erh shook her head. “You mightn’t go,” she interposed, “but it isn’t likely that the matter will drop. You’re well aware what sort of temperament that of our senior master’s is. It’s true that you’re attached to our old mistress’ rooms, and that he can’t, just at present, presume to do the least thing to you; but can it be, forsooth, that you’ll be with the old dame for your whole lifetime? You’ll also have to leave to get married, and if you then fall into his hands, it won’t go well with you.”

Yüan Yang smiled ironically. “I won’t leave this place so long as my old lady lives!” Yüan Yang protested. “In the event of her ladyship departing this life, he’ll have, under any circumstances, to also go into mourning for three years; for there’s no such thing as starting by marrying a concubine, soon after a mother’s death! And while he waits for three years to expire, can one say what may not happen? It will be time enough to talk about it when that date comes. But should I be driven to despair from being hard pressed, I’ll cut my hair off and become a nun. If not, there’s yet another thing: death! And as for a whole life time I shall not join myself to a man, what joy will not then be mine, for having managed to preserve my purity?”

“In very truth,” P’ing Erh and Hsi Jen laughed, “this vixen has no sense of shame! She has now more than ever spoken whatever came foremost to her lips!”

“What matters a moment’s shame,” Yüan Yang rejoined, “when things have reached this juncture? But if you don’t believe my words, well, you’ll be able to see by and bye; then you’ll feel convinced. Madame Hsing said a short while back that she was going to look up my father and mother, but I’d like to see whether she’ll proceed to Nanking to find them.”

“Your parents are in Nanking looking after the houses,” P’ing Erh said, “and they can’t come up; yet, in the long run, they can be found out. Your elder brother and your sister-in-law are besides in here at present. You, poor thing, are a child born in this establishment. You’re not like us two, who are solitary creatures here.”

“What does it matter whether I be born here or not?” Yüan Yang exclaimed. “‘You can lead a horse to a fountain, but you can’t make him drink!’ So if I don’t listen to any proposals, is it likely, may I ask, that they’ll kill my father and mother?” While the words were still on her lips, they caught sight of her sister-in-law, advancing from the opposite side. “As they couldn’t at once get at your parents,” Hsi Jen remarked, “they’ve, for a certainty, told your sister-in-law.”

“All this wench is good for,” Yüan Yang shouted, “is ‘to rush about as if selling camels in the six states!’ If she heard what I said, she won’t feel flattered.”

But while she spoke, her sister-in-law approached them. “Where didn’t I look for you?” her sister-in-law smilingly observed. “Have you, miss, run over here? Come along with me; I’ve got something to tell you!”

P’ing Erh and Hsi Jen speedily motioned to her to sit down, but (Yüan Yang’s) sister-in-law demurred. “Young ladies, pray be seated; I’ve come in search of our girl to tell her something.”

Hsi Jen and P’ing Erh feigned perfect ignorance. “What can it be that it’s so pressing?” they said with a smile. “We were engaged in guessing puns here, so let’s find out this, before you go.”

“What do you want to tell me?” Yuan Yang inquired. “Speak out!”

“Follow me!” her sister-in-law laughed. “When we get over there, I’ll tell you. It’s really some good tidings!”

“Is it perchance what Madame Hsing has told you?” Yüan Yang asked.

“Since you, miss, know what it’s all about,” her sister-in-law added smilingly, “what else remains for me to do? Be quick and come with me and I’ll explain everything. Verily, it’s a piece of happiness as large as the heavens!”

Yüan Yang, at these words, rose to her feet and spat contemptuously with all her might in her sister-in-law’s face. Pointing at her: “Be quick,” she cried abusively, “and stop that filthy tongue of yours! It would be ever so much better, were you to bundle yourself away from this! What good tidings and what piece of happiness! Little wonder is it that you long and crave the whole day long to see other people’s daughter turned into a secondary wife as one and all of your family would rely upon her to act contrary to reason and right! A whole household has been converted into secondary wives! But the sight fills you with such keen jealousy that you would like to also lay hold of me and throw me into the pit-fire! If any honours fall to my share, all of you outside will do everything disorderly and improper, and raise yourselves, in your own estimations, to the status of uncles (and aunts). But if I don’t get any, and come to grief, you’ll draw in your foul necks, and let me live or die as I please!”

While indulging in this raillery, she gave vent to tears. P’ing Erh and Hsi Jen did all they could to reason with her so as to prevent her from crying.

Her sister-in-law felt quite out of countenance. “Whether you mean to accept the proposal, or not,” she consequently said, “you can anyhow speak nicely. It isn’t worth the while dragging this one in and involving that one! The proverb adequately says: ‘In the presence of a dwarf one mustn’t speak of dwarfish things!’ Here you’ve been heaping insult upon me, but I didn’t presume to retaliate. These two young ladies have however given you no provocation whatever; and yet by referring, as you’ve done, in this way and that way to secondary wives how can people stand it peacefully?”

“You shouldn’t speak so!” Hsi Jen and P’ing Erh quickly remonstrated. “She didn’t allude to us; so don’t be implicating others! Have you heard of any ladies or gentlemen who’d like to raise us to the rank of secondary wives? What’s more, we two have neither father nor mother, nor brothers, within these doors, to avail themselves of our positions to act in a way contrary to right and reason! If she abuses people, let her do so; it isn’t worth our while to be touchy!”

“Seeing,” Yüan Yang resumed, “that the abuse I’ve heaped upon her head has put her to such shame that she doesn’t know where to go and screen her face, she tries to egg you two on! But you two have, fortunately, your wits about you! Though quite impatient, I never started arguing the question; she it was who chose to speak just now.”

Her sister-in-law felt inwardly much disconcerted, and beat a retreat in high dudgeon. But Yüan Yang so lost her temper that she still went on to abuse her; and it was only after P’ing Erh and Hsi Jen had admonished her for ever so long that she let the matter drop.

“What were you hiding there for?” P’ing Erh then asked Hsi Jen. “We couldn’t see anything of you.”

“I went,” Hsi Jen explained, “into Miss Quarta’s rooms to see our Mr. Pao-yü, but, who’d have thought it, I got there a little too late, and they told me that he had gone home. But my suspicions were, however, aroused as I couldn’t make out how it was that I hadn’t come across him, and I was about to go and hunt him up in Miss Lin’s apartments, when I met one of her servants who said that he hadn’t been there either. Then just as I was surmising that he must have gone out of the garden, behold, you came, as luck would have it, from the opposite direction. But I dodged you, so you didn’t see anything of me. Subsequently, she too appeared on the scene; but I got behind the boulder, from the back of these trees. I, however, saw that you two had come to have a chat. Strange to say, though you have four eyes between you, you never caught a glimpse of me.”

Scarcely had she concluded this remark, than they heard some one else from behind, laughingly exclaim, “Four eyes never saw you, but your six eyes haven’t as yet found me out!”

The three girls received quite a shock from fright; but turning round, they perceived that it was no other person than Pao-yü.

Hsi Jen smiled, and was the first to speak. “You’ve made me have a good search,” she said. “Where do you hail from?”

“I was just leaving cousin Quarta’s,” Pao-yü laughed, “when I noticed you coming along, just in front of me; and knowing well enough that you were bent upon finding me, I concealed myself to have a lark with you. I saw you then go by, with uplifted head, enter the court, walk out again, and ask every one you met on your way; but there I stood convulsed with laughter. I was only waiting to rush up to you and frighten you, when I afterwards realised that you too were prowling stealthily about, so I readily inferred that you also were playing a trick upon some one. Then when I put out my head and looked before me, I saw that it was these two girls, so I came behind you, by a circuitous way; and as soon as you left, I forthwith sneaked into your hiding place.”

“Let’s go and look behind there,” P’ing Erh suggested laughingly; “we may possibly discover another couple; there’s no saying.”

“There’s no one else!” Pao-yü laughed.

Yüan Yang had long ago concluded that every word of their conversation had been overheard by Pao-yü; but leaning against the rock, she pretended to be fast asleep.

Pao-yü gave her a push. “This stone is cold!” he smiled. “Let’s go and sleep in our rooms. Won’t it be better there?”

Saying this, he made an attempt to pull Yüan Yang to her feet. Then hastily pressing P’ing Erh to repair to his quarters and have some tea, he united his efforts with those of Hsi Jen, and tried to induce Yüan Yang to come away. Yüan Yang, at length, got up, and the quartet betook themselves, after all, into the I Hung court.

Pao-yü had caught every word that had fallen from their lips a few minutes back, and felt, indeed, at heart so much distressed on Yüan Yang’s behalf, that throwing himself silently on his bed, he left the three girls in the outer rooms to prosecute their chat and laugh.

On the other side of the compound, Madame Hsing about this time inquired of lady Feng who Yüan Yang’s father was.

“Her father,” lady Feng replied, “is called Chin Ts’ai. He and his wife are in Nanking; they have to look after our houses there, so they can’t pay frequent visits to the capital. Her brother is the Wen-hsiang, who acts at present as our senior’s accountant; but her sister-in-law too is employed in our worthy ancestor’s yonder as head washerwoman.”

Madame Hsing thereupon despatched a servant to go and call Yüan Yang’s sister-in-law. On Mrs. Chin Wen-hsiang’s arrival, she told her all. Mrs. Chin was naturally pleased and left in capital spirits to find Yüan Yang, in the hope that the moment she communicated the offer to her, the whole thing would be satisfactorily arranged. But contrary to all her anticipations, she had to bear a good blowing up from Yüan Yang, and to be told several unpleasant things by Hsi Jen and P’ing Erh, so that she was filled with as much shame as indignation. She then came and reported the result to Madame Hsing. “It’s no use,” she said, “she gave me a scolding.” But as lady Feng was standing by, she could not summon up courage enough to allude to P’ing Erh, so she added: “Hsi Jen too helped her to rate me, and they told me a whole lot of improper words, which could not be breathed in a mistress’ ears. It would thus be better to arrange with our master to purchase a girl and have done; for from all I see, neither can that mean vixen enjoy such great good fortune, nor we such vast propitious luck!”

“What’s that again to do with Hsi Jen? How came they to know anything about it?” Madame Hsing exclaimed upon learning the issue. “Who else was present?” she proceeded to inquire.

“There was Miss P’ing!” was Chin’s wife’s reply.

“Shouldn’t you have given her a slap on the mouth?” lady Feng precipitately shouted. “As soon as I ever put my foot outside the door, she starts gadding about; and I never see so much as her shadow, when I get home. She too is bound to have had a hand in telling you something or other!”

“Miss P’ing wasn’t present,” Chin’s wife protested. “Looking from a distance it seemed to me like her; but I couldn’t see distinctly. It was a mere surmise on my part that it was she at all.”

“Go and fetch her at once!” lady Feng shouted to a servant. “Tell her that I’ve come home, and that Madame Hsing is also here and wants her to help her in her hurry.”

Feng Erh quickly came up to her. “Miss Lin,” she observed, “despatched a messenger for her, and asked her in writing three and four times before she at last went. I advised her to get back so soon as your ladyship stepped inside the gate, but ‘tell your mistress,’ Miss Lin said, ‘that I’ve put her to the inconvenience of coming round, as I’ve got something for her to do for me.’”

This explanation satisfied lady Feng and she let the matter drop. “What has she got to do,” she purposely went on to ask, “that she will trouble her day after day?”

Madame Hsing was driven to her wits’ ends. As soon as the meal was over, she returned home; and, in the evening, she communicated to Chia She the result of her errand. After some reflection, Chia She promptly summoned Chia Lien.

“There are other people in Nanking to look after our property,” he told him on his arrival; “there’s not only one family, so be quick and depute some one to go and summon Chin Ts’ai to come up to the capital.”

“Last night a letter arrived from Nanking,” Chia Lien rejoined, “to the effect that Chin Ts’ai had been suffering from some phlegm-obstruction in the channels of the heart. So a coffin and money were allowed from the other mansion. Whether he be dead or alive now, I don’t know. But even if alive, he must have lost all consciousness. It would therefore be a fruitless errand to send for him. His wife, on the other hand, is quite deaf.”

Hearing this, Chia She gave vent to an exclamation of reproof, and next launched into abuse. “You stupid and unreasonable rascal!” he shouted. “Is it you of all people, who are up to those things? Don’t you yet bundle yourself off from my presence?”

Chia Lien withdrew out of the room in a state of trepidation. But in a short while, (Chia She) gave orders to call Chin Wen-hsiang. Chia Lien (meanwhile) remained in the outer study, for as he neither ventured to go home, nor presumed to face his father, his only alternative was to tarry behind. Presently, Chin Wen-hsiang arrived. The servant-lads led him straightway past the second gate; and he only came out again and took his departure after sufficient time had elapsed to enable one to have four or five meals in.

Chia Lien could not for long summon up courage enough to ask what was up, but when he found out, after a time, that Chia She had gone to sleep, he eventually crossed over to his quarters. In the course of the evening lady Feng told him the whole story. Then, at last, he understood the meaning of the excitement.

But to revert to Yüan Yang. She did not get, the whole night, a wink of sleep. On the morrow, her brother reported to dowager lady Chia that he would like to take her home on a visit. Dowager lady Chia accorded her consent and told her she could go and see her people. Yüan Yang, however, would have rather preferred to stay where she was, but the fear lest her old mistress should give way to suspicion, placed her under the necessity of going, much against her own inclinations though it was. Her brother then had no course but to lay before her Chia She’s proposal, and all his promises that she would occupy an honourable position, and that she would be a secondary wife, with control in the house; but Yüan Yang was so persistent in her refusal that her brother was quite nonplussed and he was compelled to return, and inform Chia She.

Chia She flew into a dreadful passion. “I’ll tell you what,” he shouted; “bid your wife go and tell her that I say: ‘that she must, like the goddess Ch’ang O herself who has from olden times shown a predilection for young people, only despise me for being advanced in years; that, as far as I can see, she must be hankering after some young men; that it must, most likely, be Pao-yü; but probably Lien Erh too! If she fosters these affections, warn her to at once set them at rest; for should she not come, when I’m ready to have her, who will by and bye venture to take her? This is the first thing. Should she imagine, in the next place, that because our venerable senior is fond of her, she may, in the future, be engaged to be married in the orthodox way, tell her to consider carefully that she won’t very well be able to escape my grip, no matter in what family she may marry. That it’s only in case of her dying or of her not wedding any one throughout her life that I shall submit to her decision. Under other circumstances, urge her to seize the first opportunity and change her mind, as she’ll come in for many benefits.’”

To every remark that Chia She uttered, Chin Wen-hsiang acquiesced. “Yes!” he said.

“Mind you don’t humbug me!” Chia She observed. “I shall to-morrow send again your mistress round to ask Yüan Yang. If you two have spoken to her, and she hasn’t given a favorable answer, well, then, no blame will fall on you. But if she does assent, when she broaches the subject with her, look out for your heads!”

Chin Wen-hsiang eagerly expressed his obedience over and over again, and withdrawing out of the room, he retraced his footsteps homeward. Nor did he have the patience to wait until he could commission his womankind to speak to her. Indeed he went in person and told her face to face the injunctions entrusted to him. Yüan Yang was incensed to such a degree that she was at a loss what reply to make. “I’m quite ready to go,” she rejoined, after some cogitation, “but you people must take me before my old mistress first and let me tell her something about it.”

Her brother and sister-in-law flattered themselves that reflection had induced her to alter her previous decision, and they were both immeasurably delighted. Her sister-in-law there and then led her into the upper quarters and ushered her into the presence of old lady Chia. As luck would have it, Madame Wang, Mrs. Hsüeh, Li Wan, lady Feng, Pao-ch’ai and the other girls were, together with several respectable outside married women who acted as housekeepers, having some fun with old lady Chia. Yüan Yang observed where her mistress was seated, and hastily dragging her sister-in-law before her, she fell on her knees, and explained to her, with tears in her eyes, what proposal Madame Hsing had made to her, what her sister-in-law, who lived in the garden, had told her, and what message her brother had recently conveyed to her. “As I would not accept his advances,” (she continued), “our senior master has just now gone so far as to insinuate ‘that I was violently attached to Pao-yü; or if that wasn’t the case, my object was to gain time so as to espouse some one outside. That were I even to go up to the very heavens, I couldn’t, during my lifetime, escape his clutches, and that he would, in the long run, wreak his vengeance on me.’ I have obstinately made up my mind, so I may state in the presence of all of you here, that I’ll, under no circumstances, marry, as long as I live, any man whatsoever, not to speak of his being a Pao-yü, (precious jade); but even a Pao Chin, (precious gold), a Pao Yin, (precious silver); a Pao T’ien Wang, (precious lord of heaven); or a Pao Huang Ti, (precious Emperor); and have done! Were even your venerable ladyship to press me to take such a step, I couldn’t comply with your commands, though you may threaten to cut my throat with a sword. I’m quite prepared to wait upon your ladyship, till you depart this life; but go with my father, mother, or brother, I won’t! I’ll either commit suicide, or cut my hair off, and go and become a nun. If you fancy that I’m not in earnest, and that I’m temporarily using this language to put you off, may, as surely as heaven, earth, the spirits, the sun and moon look upon me, my throat be covered with boils!”

Yüan Yang had, in fact, upon entering the room, brought along a pair of scissors, concealed in her sleeve, and, while she spoke, she drew her hand back, and, dishevelling her tresses, she began to clip them. When the matrons and waiting-maids saw what she was up to, they hurriedly did everything they could to induce her to desist from her purpose; but already half of her locks had gone. And when they found on close inspection, that with the thick crop of hair she happily had, she had not succeeded in cutting it all, they immediately dressed it up for her.

Upon hearing of Chia She’s designs, dowager lady Chia was provoked to displeasure. Her whole body trembled and shook. “Of all the attendants I’ve had,” she cried, “there only remains this single one, upon whom I can depend, and now they want to conspire and carry her off!” Noticing then Madame Wang standing close to her, she turned herself towards her. “All you people really know is to impose upon me!” she resumed. “Outwardly, you display filial devotion; but, secretly, you plot and scheme against me. If I have aught that’s worth having, you come and dun me for it. If I have any one who’s nice, you come and ask for her. What’s left to me is this low waiting-maid, but as you see that she serves me faithfully, you naturally can’t stand it, and you’re doing your utmost to estrange her from me so as to be the better able to play your tricks upon me.”

Madame Wang quickly rose to her feet. She did not, however, dare to return a single syllable in self-defence.

Mrs. Hsüeh noticed that Madame Wang herself came in for her share of blame, and she did not feel as if she could any longer make an attempt to tender words of advice. Li Wan, the moment she heard Yüan Yang speak in the strain she did, seized an early opportunity to lead the young ladies out of the room. T’an Ch’un was a girl with plenty of common sense, so reflecting within herself that Madame Wang could not, in spite of the insult heaped upon her, very well presume to say any thing to exculpate herself, that Mrs. Hsüeh could not, of course, in her position of sister, bring forward any arguments, that Pao-ch’ai was unable to explain things on behalf of her maternal aunt, and that Li Wan, lady Feng or Pao-yü could, still less, take upon themselves the right of censorship, she thought the opportunity rendered necessary the services of a daughter; but, as Ying Ch’un was so quiet, and Hsi Ch’un so young, she consequently walked in, no sooner did she overhear from outside the window what was said inside, and forcing a smile, she addressed herself to her grandmother. “How does this matter concern Madame Wang, my mother?” she interposed. “Venerable senior, just consider! This is a matter affecting her husband’s eldest brother; and how could she, a junior sister-in-law, know anything about it? . . . ”

But before she had exhausted all her arguments, dowager lady Chia’s countenance thawed into a smile. “I’ve really grown stupid from old age!” she exclaimed. “Mrs. Hsüeh, don’t make fun of me! This eldest sister of yours is most reverent to me; and so unlike that senior lady of mine, who only knows how to regard her lord and master and to simply do things for the mere sake of appearances when she deals with her mother-in-law. I’ve therefore done her a wrong!”

Mrs. Hsüeh confined her reply to a ‘yes.’ “Dear senior, you’re so full of prejudices,” she afterwards observed, “that you love your youngest son’s wife more than any one of the others; but it’s quite natural.”

“I have no prejudices,” old lady Chia protested. “Pao-yü,” she then proceeded, “I unjustly found fault with your mother; but, how was it that even you didn’t tell me anything, but that you looked on, while she was having her feelings trampled upon?”

“Could I,” smiled Pao-yü, “have taken my mother’s part, and run down my senior uncle and aunt? If my mother did not bear the whole blame, upon whom could she throw it? And had I admitted that it was I who was entirely at fault, you, venerable ancestor, wouldn’t have believed me.”

“What you say is quite reasonable,” his grandmother laughed. “So be quick and fall on your knees before your mother and tell her: ‘mother, don’t feel aggrieved! Our old lady is so advanced in years. Do it for Pao-yü‘s sake!’”

At this suggestion, Pao-yü hastily crossed over, and dropping on his knees, he was about to open his lips, when Madame Wang laughingly pulled him up. “Get up,” she cried, “at once! This won’t do at all! Is it likely, pray, that you would tender apologies to me on behalf of our venerable ancestor?”

Hearing this, Pao-yü promptly stood up.

“Even that girl Feng didn’t call me to my senses,” dowager lady Chia smiled again.

“I don’t lay a word to your charge, worthy senior,” lady Feng remarked smilingly, “and yet you brand me with reproach!”

This rejoinder amused dowager lady Chia. “This is indeed strange!” she said to all around. “But I’d like to listen to these charges.”

“Who told you, dear senior,” lady Feng resumed, “to look after your attendants so well, and lavish such care on them as to make them plump and fine as water onions? How ever can you therefore bear people a grudge, if they ask for her hand? I’m, lucky for you, your grandson’s wife; for were I your grandson, I would long ere this have proposed to her. Would I have ever waited up to the present?”

“Is this any fault of mine?” dowager lady Chia laughed.

“Of course, it’s your fault, venerable senior!” lady Feng retorted with a smile.

“Well, in that case, I too don’t want her,” old lady Chia proceeded laughing. “Take her away, and have done!”

“Wait until I go through this existence,” lady Feng responded, “and, in the life to come, I’ll assume the form of a man and apply for her hand.”

“Take her along,” dowager lady Chia laughed, “and give her to Lien-Erh to attach to his apartments; and we’ll see whether that barefaced father-in-law of yours will still wish to have her or not.”

“Lien-Erh is not a match for her!” lady Feng added. “He’s only a fit mate for such as myself and P’ing Erh. A pair of loutish bumpkins like us to have anything to do with such a one as herself!”

At this rejoinder, they all exploded into a hearty fit of laughter. But a waiting-maid thereupon announced: “Our senior lady has come.” So Madame Wang immediately quitted the room to go and meet her.

But any further particulars, which you, reader may like to know, will be given in the following chapter; so listen to it.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cao_xueqin/c2359h/chapter46.html

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