Mrs. Ch’in, to resume our narrative, upon hearing Pao-yü call her in his dream by her infant name, was at heart very exercised, but she did not however feel at liberty to make any minute inquiry.
Pao-yü was, at this time, in such a dazed state, as if he had lost something, and the servants promptly gave him a decoction of lungngan. After he had taken a few sips, he forthwith rose and tidied his clothes.
Hsi Jen put out her hand to fasten the band of his garment, and as soon as she did so, and it came in contact with his person, it felt so icy cold to the touch, covered as it was all over with perspiration, that she speedily withdrew her hand in utter surprise.
“What’s the matter with you?” she exclaimed.
A blush suffused Pao-yü‘s face, and he took Hsi Jen’s hand in a tight grip. Hsi Jen was a girl with all her wits about her; she was besides a couple of years older than Pao-yü and had recently come to know something of the world, so that at the sight of his state, she to a great extent readily accounted for the reason in her heart. From modest shame, she unconsciously became purple in the face, and not venturing to ask another question she continued adjusting his clothes. This task accomplished, she followed him over to old lady Chia’s apartments; and after a hurry-scurry meal, they came back to this side, and Hsi Jen availed herself of the absence of the nurses and waiting-maids to hand Pao-yü another garment to change.
“Please, dear Hsi Jen, don’t tell any one,” entreated Pao-yü, with concealed shame.
“What did you dream of?” inquired Hsi Jen, smiling, as she tried to stifle her blushes, “and whence comes all this perspiration?”
“It’s a long story,” said Pao-yü, “which only a few words will not suffice to explain.”
He accordingly recounted minutely, for her benefit, the subject of his dream. When he came to where the Fairy had explained to him the mysteries of love, Hsi Jen was overpowered with modesty and covered her face with her hands; and as she bent down, she gave way to a fit of laughter. Pao-yü had always been fond of Hsi Jen, on account of her gentleness, pretty looks and graceful and elegant manner, and he forthwith expounded to her all the mysteries he had been taught by the Fairy.
Hsi Jen was, of course, well aware that dowager lady Chia had given her over to Pao-yü, so that her present behaviour was likewise no transgression. And subsequently she secretly attempted with Pao-yü a violent flirtation, and lucky enough no one broke in upon them during their tête-à-tête. From this date, Pao-yü treated Hsi Jen with special regard, far more than he showed to the other girls, while Hsi Jen herself was still more demonstrative in her attentions to Pao-yü. But for a time we will make no further remark about them.
As regards the household of the Jung mansion, the inmates may, on adding up the total number, not have been found many; yet, counting the high as well as the low, there were three hundred persons and more. Their affairs may not have been very numerous, still there were, every day, ten and twenty matters to settle; in fact, the household resembled, in every way, ravelled hemp, devoid even of a clue-end, which could be used as an introduction.
Just as we were considering what matter and what person it would be best to begin writing of, by a lucky coincidence suddenly from a distance of a thousand li, a person small and insignificant as a grain of mustard seed happened, on account of her distant relationship with the Jung family, to come on this very day to the Jung mansion on a visit. We shall therefore readily commence by speaking of this family, as it after all affords an excellent clue for a beginning.
The surname of this mean and humble family was in point of fact Wang. They were natives of this district. Their ancestor had filled a minor office in the capital, and had, in years gone by, been acquainted with lady Feng’s grandfather, that is madame Wang’s father. Being covetous of the influence and affluence of the Wang family, he consequently joined ancestors with them, and was recognised by them as a nephew.
At that time, there were only madame Wang’s eldest brother, that is lady Feng’s father, and madame Wang herself, who knew anything of these distant relations, from the fact of having followed their parents to the capital. The rest of the family had one and all no idea about them.
This ancestor had, at this date, been dead long ago, leaving only one son called Wang Ch’eng. As the family estate was in a state of ruin, he once more moved outside the city walls and settled down in his native village. Wang Ch’eng also died soon after his father, leaving a son, known in his infancy as Kou Erh, who married a Miss Liu, by whom he had a son called by the infant name of Pan Erh, as well as a daughter, Ch’ing Erh. His family consisted of four, and he earned a living from farming.
As Kou Erh was always busy with something or other during the day and his wife, dame Liu, on the other hand, drew the water, pounded the rice and attended to all the other domestic concerns, the brother and sister, Ch’ing Erh and Pan Erh, the two of them, had no one to look after them. (Hence it was that) Kou Erh brought over his mother-in-law, old goody Liu, to live with them.
This goody Liu was an old widow, with a good deal of experience. She had besides no son round her knees, so that she was dependent for her maintenance on a couple of acres of poor land, with the result that when her son-in-law received her in his home, she naturally was ever willing to exert heart and mind to help her daughter and her son-in-law to earn their living.
This year, the autumn had come to an end, winter had commenced, and the weather had begun to be quite cold. No provision had been made in the household for the winter months, and Kou Erh was, inevitably, exceedingly exercised in his heart. Having had several cups of wine to dispel his distress, he sat at home and tried to seize upon every trifle to give vent to his displeasure. His wife had not the courage to force herself in his way, and hence goody Liu it was who encouraged him, as she could not bear to see the state of the domestic affairs.
“Don’t pull me up for talking too much,” she said; “but who of us country people isn’t honest and open-hearted? As the size of the bowl we hold, so is the quantity of the rice we eat. In your young days, you were dependent on the support of your old father, so that eating and drinking became quite a habit with you; that’s how, at the present time, your resources are quite uncertain; when you had money, you looked ahead, and didn’t mind behind; and now that you have no money, you blindly fly into huffs. A fine fellow and a capital hero you have made! Living though we now be away from the capital, we are after all at the feet of the Emperor; this city of Ch’ang Ngan is strewn all over with money, but the pity is that there’s no one able to go and fetch it away; and it’s no use your staying at home and kicking your feet about.”
“All you old lady know,” rejoined Kou Erh, after he had heard what she had to say, “is to sit on the couch and talk trash! Is it likely you would have me go and play the robber?”
“Who tells you to become a robber?” asked goody Liu. “But it would be well, after all, that we should put our heads together and devise some means; for otherwise, is the money, pray, able of itself to run into our house?”
“Had there been a way,” observed Kou Erh, smiling sarcastically, “would I have waited up to this moment? I have besides no revenue collectors as relatives, or friends in official positions; and what way could we devise? ‘But even had I any, they wouldn’t be likely, I fear, to pay any heed to such as ourselves!”
“That, too, doesn’t follow,” remarked goody Liu; “the planning of affairs rests with man, but the accomplishment of them rests with Heaven. After we have laid our plans, we may, who can say, by relying on the sustenance of the gods, find some favourable occasion. Leave it to me, I’ll try and devise some lucky chance for you people! In years gone by, you joined ancestors with the Wang family of Chin Ling, and twenty years back, they treated you with consideration; but of late, you’ve been so high and mighty, and not condescended to go and bow to them, that an estrangement has arisen. I remember how in years gone by, I and my daughter paid them a visit. The second daughter of the family was really so pleasant and knew so well how to treat people with kindness, and without in fact any high airs! She’s at present the wife of Mr. Chia, the second son of the Jung Kuo mansion; and I hear people say that now that she’s advanced in years, she’s still more considerate to the poor, regardful of the old, and very fond of preparing vegetable food for the bonzes and performing charitable deeds. The head of the Wang mansion has, it is true, been raised to some office on the frontier, but I hope that this lady Secunda will anyhow notice us. How is it then that you don’t find your way as far as there; for she may possibly remember old times, and some good may, no one can say, come of it? I only wish that she would display some of her kind-heartedness, and pluck one hair from her person which would be, yea thicker than our waist.”
“What you suggest, mother, is quite correct,” interposed Mrs. Liu, Kou Erh’s wife, who stood by and took up the conversation, “but with such mouth and phiz as yours and mine, how could we present ourselves before her door? Why I fear that the man at her gate won’t also like to go and announce us! and we’d better not go and have our mouths slapped in public!”
Kou Erh, who would have thought it, prized highly both affluence and fame, so that when he heard these remarks, he forthwith began to feel at heart a little more at ease. When he furthermore heard what his wife had to say, he at once caught up the word as he smiled.
“Old mother,” he rejoined; “since that be your idea, and what’s more, you have in days gone by seen this lady on one occasion, why shouldn’t you, old lady, start to-morrow on a visit to her and first ascertain how the wind blows!”
“Ai Ya!” exclaimed old Goody, “It may very well be said that the marquis’ door is like the wide ocean! what sort of thing am I? why the servants of that family wouldn’t even recognise me! even were I to go, it would be on a wild goose chase.”
“No matter about that,” observed Kou Erh; “I’ll tell you a good way; you just take along with you, your grandson, little Pan Erh, and go first and call upon Chou Jui, who is attached to that household; and when once you’ve seen him, there will be some little chance. This Chou Jui, at one time, was connected with my father in some affair or other, and we were on excellent terms with him.”
“That I too know,” replied goody Liu, “but the thing is that you’ve had no dealings with him for so long, that who knows how he’s disposed towards us now? this would be hard to say. Besides, you’re a man, and with a mouth and phiz like that of yours, you couldn’t, on any account, go on this errand. My daughter is a young woman, and she too couldn’t very well go and expose herself to public gaze. But by my sacrificing this old face of mine, and by going and knocking it (against the wall) there may, after all, be some benefit and all of us might reap profit.”
That very same evening, they laid their plans, and the next morning before the break of day, old goody Liu speedily got up, and having performed her toilette, she gave a few useful hints to Pan Erh; who, being a child of five or six years of age, was, when he heard that he was to be taken into the city, at once so delighted that there was nothing that he would not agree to.
Without further delay, goody Liu led off Pan Erh, and entered the city, and reaching the Ning Jung street, she came to the main entrance of the Jung mansion, where, next to the marble lions, were to be seen a crowd of chairs and horses. Goody Liu could not however muster the courage to go by, but having shaken her clothes, and said a few more seasonable words to Pan Erh, she subsequently squatted in front of the side gate, whence she could see a number of servants, swelling out their chests, pushing out their stomachs, gesticulating with their hands and kicking their feet about, while they were seated at the main entrance chattering about one thing and another.
Goody Liu felt constrained to edge herself forward. “Gentlemen,” she ventured, “may happiness betide you!”
The whole company of servants scrutinised her for a time. “Where do you come from?” they at length inquired.
“I’ve come to look up Mr. Chou, an attendant of my lady’s,” remarked goody Liu, as she forced a smile; “which of you, gentlemen, shall I trouble to do me the favour of asking him to come out?”
The servants, after hearing what she had to say, paid, the whole number of them, no heed to her; and it was after the lapse of a considerable time that they suggested: “Go and wait at a distance, at the foot of that wall; and in a short while, the visitors, who are in their house, will be coming out.”
Among the party of attendants was an old man, who interposed,
“Don’t baffle her object,” he expostulated; “why make a fool of her?” and turning to goody Liu: “This Mr. Chou,” he said, “is gone south: his house is at the back row; his wife is anyhow at home; so go round this way, until you reach the door, at the back street, where, if you will ask about her, you will be on the right track.”
Goody Liu, having expressed her thanks, forthwith went, leading Pan Erh by the hand, round to the back door, where she saw several pedlars resting their burdens. There were also those who sold things to eat, and those who sold playthings and toys; and besides these, twenty or thirty boys bawled and shouted, making quite a noise.
Goody Liu readily caught hold of one of them. “I’d like to ask you just a word, my young friend,” she observed; “there’s a Mrs. Chou here; is she at home?”
“Which Mrs. Chou?” inquired the boy; “we here have three Mrs. Chous; and there are also two young married ladies of the name of Chou. What are the duties of the one you want, I wonder?”
“She’s a waiting-woman of my lady,” replied goody Liu.
“It’s easy to get at her,” added the boy; “just come along with me.”
Leading the way for goody Liu into the backyard, they reached the wall of a court, when he pointed and said, “This is her house. — Mother Chou!” he went on to shout with alacrity; “there’s an old lady who wants to see you.”
Chou Jui’s wife was at home, and with all haste she came out to greet her visitor. “Who is it?” she asked.
Goody Liu advanced up to her. “How are you,” she inquired, “Mrs. Chou?”
Mrs. Chou looked at her for some time before she at length smiled and replied, “Old goody Liu, are you well? How many years is it since we’ve seen each other; tell me, for I forget just now; but please come in and sit.”
“You’re a lady of rank,” answered goody Liu smiling, as she walked along, “and do forget many things. How could you remember such as ourselves?”
With these words still in her mouth, they had entered the house, whereupon Mrs. Chou ordered a hired waiting-maid to pour the tea. While they were having their tea she remarked, “How Pan Erh has managed to grow!” and then went on to make inquiries on the subject of various matters, which had occurred after their separation.
“To-day,” she also asked of goody Liu, “were you simply passing by? or did you come with any express object?”
“I’ve come, the fact is, with an object!” promptly replied goody Liu; “(first of all) to see you, my dear sister-in-law; and, in the second place also, to inquire after my lady’s health. If you could introduce me to see her for a while, it would be better; but if you can’t, I must readily borrow your good offices, my sister-in-law, to convey my message.”
Mr. Chou Jui’s wife, after listening to these words, at once became to a great extent aware of the object of her visit. Her husband had, however, in years gone by in his attempt to purchase some land, obtained considerably the support of Kou Erh, so that when she, on this occasion, saw goody Liu in such a dilemma, she could not make up her mind to refuse her wish. Being in the second place keen upon making a display of her own respectability, she therefore said smilingly:
“Old goody Liu, pray compose your mind! You’ve come from far off with a pure heart and honest purpose, and how can I ever not show you the way how to see this living Buddha? Properly speaking, when people come and guests arrive, and verbal messages have to be given, these matters are not any of my business, as we all here have each one kind of duties to carry out. My husband has the special charge of the rents of land coming in, during the two seasons of spring and autumn, and when at leisure, he takes the young gentlemen out of doors, and then his business is done. As for myself, I have to accompany my lady and young married ladies on anything connected with out-of-doors; but as you are a relative of my lady and have besides treated me as a high person and come to me for help, I’ll, after all, break this custom and deliver your message. There’s only one thing, however, and which you, old lady, don’t know. We here are not what we were five years before. My lady now doesn’t much worry herself about anything; and it’s entirely lady Secunda who looks after the menage. But who do you presume is this lady Secunda? She’s the niece of my lady, and the daughter of my master, the eldest maternal uncle of by-gone days. Her infant name was Feng Ko.”
“Is it really she?” inquired promptly goody Liu, after this explanation. “Isn’t it strange? what I said about her years back has come out quite correct; but from all you say, shall I to-day be able to see her?”
“That goes without saying,” replied Chou Jui’s wife; “when any visitors come now-a-days, it’s always lady Feng who does the honours and entertains them, and it’s better to-day that you should see her for a while, for then you will not have walked all this way to no purpose.”
“O mi to fu!” exclaimed old goody Liu; “I leave it entirely to your convenience, sister-in-law.”
“What’s that you’re saying?” observed Chou Jui’s wife. “The proverb says: ‘Our convenience is the convenience of others.’ All I have to do is to just utter one word, and what trouble will that be to me.”
Saying this, she bade the young waiting maid go to the side pavilion, and quietly ascertain whether, in her old ladyship’s apartment, table had been laid.
The young waiting-maid went on this errand, and during this while, the two of them continued a conversation on certain irrelevant matters.
“This lady Feng,” observed goody Liu, “can this year be no older than twenty, and yet so talented as to manage such a household as this! the like of her is not easy to find!”
“Hai! my dear old goody,” said Chou Jui’s wife, after listening to her, “it’s not easy to explain; but this lady Feng, though young in years, is nevertheless, in the management of affairs, superior to any man. She has now excelled the others and developed the very features of a beautiful young woman. To say the least, she has ten thousand eyes in her heart, and were they willing to wager their mouths, why ten men gifted with eloquence couldn’t even outdo her! But by and bye, when you’ve seen her, you’ll know all about her! There’s only this thing, she can’t help being rather too severe in her treatment of those below her.”
While yet she spake, the young waiting-maid returned. “In her venerable lady’s apartment,” she reported, “repast has been spread, and already finished; lady Secunda is in madame Wang’s chamber.”
As soon as Chou Jui’s wife heard this news, she speedily got up and pressed goody Liu to be off at once. “This is,” she urged, “just the hour for her meal, and as she is free we had better first go and wait for her; for were we to be even one step too late, a crowd of servants will come with their reports, and it will then be difficult to speak to her; and after her siesta, she’ll have still less time to herself.”
As she passed these remarks, they all descended the couch together. Goody Liu adjusted their dresses, and, having impressed a few more words of advice on Pan Erh, they followed Chou Jui’s wife through winding passages to Chia Lien’s house. They came in the first instance into the side pavilion, where Chou Jui’s wife placed old goody Liu to wait a little, while she herself went ahead, past the screen-wall and into the entrance of the court.
Hearing that lady Feng had not come out, she went in search of an elderly waiting-maid of lady Feng, P’ing Erh by name, who enjoyed her confidence, to whom Chou Jui’s wife first recounted from beginning to end the history of old goody Liu.
“She has come to-day,” she went on to explain, “from a distance to pay her obeisance. In days gone by, our lady used often to meet her, so that, on this occasion, she can’t but receive her; and this is why I’ve brought her in! I’ll wait here for lady Feng to come down, and explain everything to her; and I trust she’ll not call me to task for officious rudeness.”
P’ing Erh, after hearing what she had to say, speedily devised the plan of asking them to walk in, and to sit there pending (lady Feng’s arrival), when all would be right.
Chou Jui’s wife thereupon went out and led them in. When they ascended the steps of the main apartment, a young waiting-maid raised a red woollen portière, and as soon as they entered the hall, they smelt a whiff of perfume as it came wafted into their faces: what the scent was they could not discriminate; but their persons felt as if they were among the clouds.
The articles of furniture and ornaments in the whole room were all so brilliant to the sight, and so vying in splendour that they made the head to swim and the eyes to blink, and old goody Liu did nothing else the while than nod her head, smack her lips and invoke Buddha. Forthwith she was led to the eastern side into the suite of apartments, where was the bedroom of Chia Lien’s eldest daughter. P’ing Erh, who was standing by the edge of the stove-couch, cast a couple of glances at old goody Liu, and felt constrained to inquire how she was, and to press her to have a seat.
Goody Liu, noticing that P’ing Erh was entirely robed in silks, that she had gold pins fixed in her hair, and silver ornaments in her coiffure, and that her countenance resembled a flower or the moon (in beauty), readily imagined her to be lady Feng, and was about to address her as my lady; but when she heard Mrs. Chou speak to her as Miss P’ing, and P’ing Erh promptly address Chou Jui’s wife as Mrs. Chou, she eventually became aware that she could be no more than a waiting-maid of a certain respectability.
She at once pressed old goody Liu and Pan Erh to take a seat on the stove-couch. P’ing Erh and Chou Jui’s wife sat face to face, on the edges of the couch. The waiting-maids brought the tea. After they had partaken of it, old goody Liu could hear nothing but a “lo tang, lo tang” noise, resembling very much the sound of a bolting frame winnowing flour, and she could not resist looking now to the East, and now to the West. Suddenly in the great Hall, she espied, suspended on a pillar, a box at the bottom of which hung something like the weight of a balance, which incessantly wagged to and fro.
“What can this thing be?” communed goody Liu in her heart, “What can be its use?” While she was aghast, she unexpectedly heard a sound of “tang” like the sound of a golden bell or copper cymbal, which gave her quite a start. In a twinkle of the eyes followed eight or nine consecutive strokes; and she was bent upon inquiring what it was, when she caught sight of several waiting-maids enter in a confused crowd. “Our lady has come down!” they announced.
P’ìng Erh, together with Chou Jui’s wife, rose with all haste. “Old goody Liu,” they urged, “do sit down and wait till it’s time, when we’ll come and ask you in.”
Saying this, they went out to meet lady Feng.
Old goody Liu, with suppressed voice and ear intent, waited in perfect silence. She heard at a distance the voices of some people laughing, whereupon about ten or twenty women, with rustling clothes and petticoats, made their entrance, one by one, into the hall, and thence into the room on the other quarter. She also detected two or three women, with red-lacquered boxes in their hands, come over on this part and remain in waiting.
“Get the repast ready!” she heard some one from the offside say.
The servants gradually dispersed and went out; and there only remained in attendance a few of them to bring in the courses. For a long time, not so much as the caw of a crow could be heard, when she unexpectedly perceived two servants carry in a couch-table, and lay it on this side of the divan. Upon this table were placed bowls and plates, in proper order replete, as usual, with fish and meats; but of these only a few kinds were slightly touched.
As soon as Pan Erh perceived (all these delicacies), he set up such a noise, and would have some meat to eat, but goody Liu administered to him such a slap, that he had to keep away.
Suddenly, she saw Mrs. Chou approach, full of smiles, and as she waved her hand, she called her. Goody Liu understood her meaning, and at once pulling Pan Erh off the couch, she proceeded to the centre of the Hall; and after Mrs. Chou had whispered to her again for a while, they came at length with slow step into the room on this side, where they saw on the outside of the door, suspended by brass hooks, a deep red flowered soft portière. Below the window, on the southern side, was a stove-couch, and on this couch was spread a crimson carpet. Leaning against the wooden partition wall, on the east side, stood a chain-embroidered back-cushion and a reclining pillow. There was also spread a large watered satin sitting cushion with a gold embroidered centre, and on the side stood cuspidores made of silver.
Lady Feng, when at home, usually wore on her head a front-piece of dark martin à la Chao Chün, surrounded with tassels of strung pearls. She had on a robe of peach-red flowered satin, a short pelisse of slate-blue stiff silk, lined with squirrel, and a jupe of deep red foreign crepe, lined with ermine. Resplendent with pearl-powder and with cosmetics, she sat in there, stately and majestic, with a small brass poker in her hands, with which she was stirring the ashes of the hand-stove. P’ing Erh stood by the side of the couch, holding a very small lacquered tea-tray. In this tray was a small tea-cup with a cover. Lady Feng neither took any tea, nor did she raise her head, but was intent upon stirring the ashes of the hand-stove.
“How is it you haven’t yet asked her to come in?” she slowly inquired; and as she spake, she turned herself round and was about to ask for some tea, when she perceived that Mrs. Chou had already introduced the two persons and that they were standing in front of her.
She forthwith pretended to rise, but did not actually get up, and with a face radiant with smiles, she ascertained about their health, after which she went in to chide Chou Jui’s wife. “Why didn’t you tell me they had come before?” she said.
Old goody Liu was already by this time prostrated on the ground, and after making several obeisances, “How are you, my lady?” she inquired.
“Dear Mrs. Chou,” lady Feng immediately observed, “do pull her up, and don’t let her prostrate herself! I’m yet young in years and don’t know her much; what’s more, I’ve no idea what’s the degree of the relationship between us, and I daren’t speak directly to her.”
“This is the old lady about whom I spoke a short while back,” speedily explained Mrs. Chou.
Lady Feng nodded her head assentingly.
By this time old goody Liu had taken a seat on the edge of the stove-couch. As for Pan Erh, he had gone further, and taken refuge behind her back; and though she tried, by every means, to coax him to come forward and make a bow, he would not, for the life of him, consent.
“Relatives though we be,” remarked lady Feng, as she smiled, “we haven’t seen much of each other, so that our relations have been quite distant. But those who know how matters stand will assert that you all despise us, and won’t often come to look us up; while those mean people, who don’t know the truth, will imagine that we have no eyes to look at any one.”
Old goody Liu promptly invoked Buddha. “We are at home in great straits,” she pleaded, “and that’s why it wasn’t easy for us to manage to get away and come! Even supposing we had come as far as this, had we not given your ladyship a slap on the mouth, those gentlemen would also, in point of fact, have looked down upon us as a mean lot.”
“Why, language such as this,” exclaimed lady Feng smilingly, “cannot help making one’s heart full of displeasure! We simply rely upon the reputation of our grandfather to maintain the status of a penniless official; that’s all! Why, in whose household is there anything substantial? we are merely the denuded skeleton of what we were in days of old, and no more! As the proverb has it: The Emperor himself has three families of poverty-stricken relatives; and how much more such as you and I?”
Having passed these remarks, she inquired of Mrs. Chou, “Have you let madame know, yes or no?”
“We are now waiting,” replied Mrs. Chou, “for my lady’s orders.”
“Go and have a look,” said lady Feng; “but, should there be any one there, or should she be busy, then don’t make any mention; but wait until she’s free, when you can tell her about it and see what she says.”
Chou Jui’s wife, having expressed her compliance, went off on this errand. During her absence, lady Feng gave orders to some servants to take a few fruits and hand them to Pan Erh to eat; and she was inquiring about one thing and another, when there came a large number of married women, who had the direction of affairs in the household, to make their several reports.
P’ing Erh announced their arrival to lady Feng, who said: “I’m now engaged in entertaining some guests, so let them come back again in the evening; but should there be anything pressing then bring it in and I’ll settle it at once.”
P’ing Erh left the room, but she returned in a short while. “I’ve asked them,” she observed, “but as there’s nothing of any urgency, I told them to disperse.” Lady Feng nodded her head in token of approval, when she perceived Chou Jui’s wife come back. “Our lady,” she reported, as she addressed lady Feng, “says that she has no leisure to-day, that if you, lady Secunda, will entertain them, it will come to the same thing; that she’s much obliged for their kind attention in going to the trouble of coming; that if they have come simply on a stroll, then well and good, but that if they have aught to say, they should tell you, lady Secunda, which will be tantamount to their telling her.”
“I’ve nothing to say,” interposed old goody Liu. “I simply come to see our elder and our younger lady, which is a duty on my part, a relative as I am.”
“Well, if there’s nothing particular that you’ve got to say, all right,” Mrs. Chou forthwith added, “but if you do have anything, don’t hesitate telling lady Secunda, and it will be just as if you had told our lady.”
As she uttered these words, she winked at goody Liu. Goody Liu understood what she meant, but before she could give vent to a word, her face got scarlet, and though she would have liked not to make any mention of the object of her visit, she felt constrained to suppress her shame and to speak out.
“Properly speaking,” she observed, “this being the first time I see you, my lady, I shouldn’t mention what I’ve to say, but as I come here from far off to seek your assistance, my old friend, I have no help but to mention it.”
She had barely spoken as much as this, when she heard the youths at the inner-door cry out: “The young gentleman from the Eastern Mansion has come.”
Lady Feng promptly interrupted her. “Old goody Liu,” she remarked, “you needn’t add anything more.” She, at the same time, inquired, “Where’s your master, Mr. Jung?” when became audible the sound of footsteps along the way, and in walked a young man of seventeen or eighteen. His appearance was handsome, his person slender and graceful. He had on light furs, a girdle of value, costly clothes and a beautiful cap.
At this stage, goody Liu did not know whether it was best to sit down or to stand up, neither could she find anywhere to hide herself.
“Pray sit down,” urged lady Feng, with a laugh; “this is my nephew!’ Old goody Liu then wriggled herself, now one way, and then another, on to the edge of the couch, where she took a seat.
“My father,” Chia Jung smilingly ventured, “has sent me to ask a favour of you, aunt. On some previous occasion, our grand aunt gave you, dear aunt, a stove-couch glass screen, and as to-morrow father has invited some guests of high standing, he wishes to borrow it to lay it out for a little show; after which he purposes sending it back again.”
“You’re late by a day,” replied lady Feng. “It was only yesterday that I gave it to some one.”
Chia Jung, upon hearing this, forthwith, with giggles and smiles, made, near the edge of the couch, a sort of genuflexion. “Aunt,” he went on, “if you don’t lend it, father will again say that I don’t know how to speak, and I shall get another sound thrashing. You must have pity upon your nephew, aunt.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” observed lady Feng sneeringly; “the things belonging to the Wang family are all good, but where have you put all those things of yours? the only good way is that you shouldn’t see anything of ours, for as soon as you catch sight of anything, you at once entertain a wish to carry it off.”
“Pray, aunt,” entreated Chia Jung with a smile, “do show me some compassion.”
“Mind your skin!” lady Feng warned him, “if you do chip or spoil it in the least.”
She then bade P’ing Erh take the keys of the door of the upstairs room and send for several trustworthy persons to carry it away.
Chia Jung was so elated that his eyebrows dilated and his eyes smiled. “I’ve brought myself,” he added, with vehemence, “some men to take it away; I won’t let them recklessly bump it about.”
Saying this, he speedily got up and left the room.
Lady Feng suddenly bethought herself of something, and turning towards the window, she called out, “Jung Erh, come back.” Several servants who stood outside caught up her words: “Mr. Jung,” they cried, “you’re requested to go back;” whereupon Chia Jung turned round and retraced his steps; and with hands drooping respectfully against his sides, he stood ready to listen to his aunt’s wishes.
Lady Feng was however intent upon gently sipping her tea, and after a good long while of abstraction, she at last smiled: “Never mind,” she remarked; “you can go. But come after you’ve had your evening meal, and I’ll then tell you about it. Just now there are visitors here; and besides, I don’t feel in the humour.”
Chia Jung thereupon retired with gentle step.
Old goody Liu, by this time, felt more composed in body and heart. “I’ve to-day brought your nephew,” she then explained, “not for anything else, but because his father and mother haven’t at home so much as anything to eat; the weather besides is already cold, so that I had no help but to take your nephew along and come to you, old friend, for assistance!”
As she uttered these words, she again pushed Pan Erh forward. “What did your father at home tell you to say?” she asked of him; “and what did he send us over here to do? Was it only to give our minds to eating fruit?”
Lady Feng had long ago understood what she meant to convey, and finding that she had no idea how to express herself in a decent manner, she readily interrupted her with a smile. “You needn’t mention anything,” she observed, “I’m well aware of how things stand;” and addressing herself to Mrs. Chou, she inquired, “Has this old lady had breakfast, yes or no?”
Old goody Liu hurried to explain. “As soon as it was daylight,” she proceeded, “we started with all speed on our way here, and had we even so much as time to have any breakfast?”
Lady Feng promptly gave orders to send for something to eat. In a short while Chou Jui’s wife had called for a table of viands for the guests, which was laid in the room on the eastern side, and then came to take goody Liu and Pan Erh over to have their repast.
“My dear Mrs. Chou,” enjoined lady Feng, “give them all they want, as I can’t attend to them myself;” which said, they hastily passed over into the room on the eastern side.
Lady Feng having again called Mrs. Chou, asked her: “When you first informed madame about them, what did she say?” “Our Lady observed,” replied Chou Jui’s wife, “that they don’t really belong to the same family; that, in former years, their grandfather was an official at the same place as our old master; that hence it came that they joined ancestors; that these few years there hasn’t been much intercourse (between their family and ours); that some years back, whenever they came on a visit, they were never permitted to go empty-handed, and that as their coming on this occasion to see us is also a kind attention on their part, they shouldn’t be slighted. If they’ve anything to say,” (our lady continued), “tell lady Secunda to do the necessary, and that will be right.”
“Isn’t it strange!” exclaimed lady Feng, as soon as she had heard the message; “since we are all one family, how is it I’m not familiar even with so much as their shadow?”
While she was uttering these words, old goody Liu had had her repast and come over, dragging Pan Erh; and, licking her lips and smacking her mouth, she expressed her thanks.
Lady Feng smiled. “Do pray sit down,” she said, “and listen to what I’m going to tell you. What you, old lady, meant a little while back to convey, I’m already as much as yourself well acquainted with! Relatives, as we are, we shouldn’t in fact have waited until you came to the threshold of our doors, but ought, as is but right, to have attended to your needs. But the thing is that, of late, the household affairs are exceedingly numerous, and our lady, advanced in years as she is, couldn’t at a moment, it may possibly be, bethink herself of you all! What’s more, when I took over charge of the management of the menage, I myself didn’t know of all these family connections! Besides, though to look at us from outside everything has a grand and splendid aspect, people aren’t aware that large establishments have such great hardships, which, were we to recount to others, they would hardly like to credit as true. But since you’ve now come from a great distance, and this is the first occasion that you open your mouth to address me, how can I very well allow you to return to your home with empty hands! By a lucky coincidence our lady gave, yesterday, to the waiting-maids, twenty taels to make clothes with, a sum which they haven’t as yet touched, and if you don’t despise it as too little, you may take it home as a first instalment, and employ it for your wants.”
When old goody Liu heard the mention made by lady Feng of their hardships, she imagined that there was no hope; but upon hearing her again speak of giving her twenty taels, she was exceedingly delighted, so much so that her eyebrows dilated and her eyes gleamed with smiles.
“We too know,” she smilingly remarked, “all about difficulties! but the proverb says, ‘A camel dying of leanness is even bigger by much than a horse!’ No matter what those distresses may be, were you yet to pluck one single hair from your body, my old friend, it would be stouter than our own waist.”
Chou Jui’s wife stood by, and on hearing her make these coarse utterances, she did all she could to give her a hint by winking, and make her desist. Lady Feng laughed and paid no heed; but calling P’ing Erh, she bade her fetch the parcel of money, which had been given to them the previous day, and to also bring a string of cash; and when these had been placed before goody Liu’s eyes: “This is,” said lady Feng, “silver to the amount of twenty taels, which was for the time given to these young girls to make winter clothes with; but some other day, when you’ve nothing to do, come again on a stroll, in evidence of the good feeling which should exist between relatives. It’s besides already late, and I don’t wish to detain you longer and all for no purpose; but, on your return home, present my compliments to all those of yours to whom I should send them.”
As she spake, she stood up. Old goody Liu gave utterance to a thousand and ten thousand expressions of gratitude, and taking the silver and cash, she followed Chou Jui’s wife on her way to the out-houses. “Well, mother dear,” inquired Mrs. Chou, “what did you think of my lady that you couldn’t speak; and that whenever you opened your mouth it was all ‘your nephew.’ I’ll make just one remark, and I don’t mind if you do get angry. Had he even been your kindred nephew, you should in fact have been somewhat milder in your language; for that gentleman, Mr. Jung, is her kith and kin nephew, and whence has appeared such another nephew of hers (as Pan Erh)?”
Old goody Liu smiled. “My dear sister-in-law,” she replied, “as I gazed upon her, were my heart and eyes, pray, full of admiration or not? and how then could I speak as I should?”
As they were chatting, they reached Chou Jui’s house. They had been sitting for a while, when old goody Liu produced a piece of silver, which she was purposing to leave behind, to be given to the young servants in Chou Jui’s house to purchase fruit to eat; but how could Mrs. Chou satiate her eye with such a small piece of silver? She was determined in her refusal to accept it, so that old goody Liu, after assuring her of her boundless gratitude, took her departure out of the back gate she had come in from.
Reader, you do not know what happened after old goody Liu left, but listen to the explanation which will be given in the next chapter.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52