After scanning her verses, she flung the pen aside, and was just on the point of retiring to rest, when a waiting-maid announced that 'master Secundus, Mr. Pao-y, had come.' Barely was the announcement out of her lips, than Pao-y appeared on the scene with a large bamboo hat on his head, and a wrapper thrown over his shoulders. Of a sudden, a smile betrayed itself on Tai-y's lips. "Where does this fisherman come from?" she exclaimed.
"Are you better to-day?" Pao-y inquired with alacrity. "Have you had any medicines? How much rice have you had to eat to-day?"
While plying her with questions, he took off the hat and divested himself of the wrapper; and, promptly raising the lamp with one hand, he screened it with the other and threw its rays upon Tai-y's face. Then straining his eyes, he scrutinised her for a while. "You look better to-day," he smiled.
As soon as he threw off his wrapper, Tai-y noticed that he was clad in a short red silk jacket, the worse for wear; that he was girded with a green sash, and that, about his knees, his nether garments were visible, made of green thin silk, brocaded with flowers. Below these, he wore embroidered gauze socks, worked all over with twisted gold thread, and a pair of shoes ornamented with butterflies and clusters of fallen flowers.
"Above, you fight shy of the rain," Tai-y remarked, "but aren't these shoes and socks below afraid of rain? Yet they're quite clean!"
"This suit is complete!" Pao-y smiled. "I've got a pair of crab-wood clogs, I put on to come over; but I took them off under the eaves of the verandah."
Tai-y's attention was then attracted by the extreme fineness and lightness of the texture of his wrapper and hat, which were unlike those sold in the market places. "With what grass are they plaited?" she consequently asked. "It would be strange if you didn't, with this sort of things on, look like a very hedgehog!"
"These three articles are a gift from the Prince of Pei Ching," Pao-y answered. "Ordinarily, when it rains, he too wears this kind of outfit at home. But if it has taken your fancy, I'll have a suit made for you. There's nothing peculiar about the other things, but this hat is funny! The crown at the top is movable; so if you want to wear a hat, during snowy weather in wintertime, you pull off the bamboo pegs, and remove the crown, and there you only have the circular brim. This is worn, when it snows, by men and women alike. I'll give you one therefore to wear in the wintry snowy months."
"I don't want it!" laughed Tai-y. "Were I to wear this sort of thing, I'd look like one of those fisherwomen, one sees depicted in pictures or represented on the stage!"
Upon reaching this point, she remembered that there was some connection between her present remarks and the comparison she had some time back made with regard to Pao-y, and, before she had time to indulge in regrets, a sense of shame so intense overpowered her that the colour rushed to her face, and, leaning her head on the table, she coughed and coughed till she could not stop. Pao-y, however, did not detect her embarrassment; but catching sight of some verses lying on the table, he eagerly snatched them up and conned them from beginning to end. "Splendid!" he could not help crying. But the moment Tai-y heard his exclamation, she speedily jumped to her feet, and clutched the verses and burnt them over the lamp.
"I've already committed them sufficiently to memory!" Pao-y laughed.
"I want to have a little rest," Tai-y said, "so please get away; come back again to-morrow."
At these words, Pao-y drew back his hand, and producing from his breast a gold watch about the size of a walnut, he looked at the time. The hand pointed between eight and nine p.m.; so hastily putting it away, "You should certainly retire to rest!" he replied. "My visit has upset you. I've quite tired you out this long while." With these apologies, he threw the wrapper over him, put on the rain-hat and quitted the room. But turning round, he retraced his steps inside. "Is there anything you fancy to eat?" he asked. "If there be, tell me, and I'll let our venerable ancestor know of it to-morrow as soon as it's day. Won't I explain things clearer than any of the old matrons could?"
"Let me," rejoined Tai-y smiling, "think in the night. I'll let you know early to-morrow. But harken, it's raining harder than it did; so be off at once! Have you got any attendants, or no?"
"Yes!" interposed the two matrons. "There are servants to wait on him. They're outside holding his umbrella and lighting the lanterns."
"Are they lighting lanterns with this weather?" laughed Tai-y.
"It won't hurt them!" Pao-y answered. "They're made of sheep's horn, so they don't mind the rain."
Hearing this, Tai-y put back her hand, and, taking down an ornamented glass lantern in the shape of a ball from the book case, she asked the servants to light a small candle and bring it to her; after which, she handed the lantern to Pao-y. "This," she said, "gives out more light than the others; and is just the thing for rainy weather."
"I've also got one like it." Pao-y replied. "But fearing lest they might slip, fall down and break it, I did not have it lighted and brought round."
"What's of more account," Tai-y inquired, "harm to a lantern or to a human being? You're not besides accustomed to wearing clogs, so tell them to walk ahead with those lanterns. This one is as light and handy as it is light-giving; and is really adapted for rainy weather, so wouldn't it be well if you carried it yourself? You can send it over to me to-morrow! But, were it even to slip from your hand, it wouldn't matter much. How is it that you've also suddenly developed this money-grabbing sort of temperament? It's as bad as if you ripped your intestines to secrete pearls in."
After these words, Pao-y approached her and took the lantern from her. Ahead then advanced two matrons, with umbrellas and sheep horn lanterns, and behind followed a couple of waiting-maids also with umbrellas. Pao-y handed the glass lantern to a young maid to carry, and, supporting himself on her shoulder, he straightway wended his steps on his way back.
But presently arrived an old servant from the Heng Wu court, provided as well with an umbrella and a lantern, to bring over a large bundle of birds' nests, and a packet of foreign sugar, pure as powder, and white as petals of plum-blossom and flakes of snow. "These," she said, "are much better than what you can buy. Our young lady sends you word, miss, to first go on with these. When you've done with them, she'll let you have some more."
"Many thanks for the trouble you've taken!" Tai-y returned for answer; and then asked her to go and sit outside and have a cup of tea.
"I won't have any tea," the old servant smiled. "I've got something else to attend to."
"I'm well aware that you've all got plenty in hand," Tai-y resumed with a smiling countenance. "But the weather being cool now and the nights long, it's more expedient than ever to establish two things: a night club and a gambling place."
"I won't disguise the fact from you, miss," the old servant laughingly observed, "that I've managed this year to win plenty of money. Several servants have, under any circumstances, to do night duty; and, as any neglect in keeping watch wouldn't be the right thing, isn't it as well to have a night club, as one can sit on the look-out and dispel dullness as well? But it's again my turn to play the croupier to-day, so I must be getting along to the place, as the garden gate, will, by this time, be nearly closing!"
This rejoinder evoked a laugh from Tai-y. "I've given you all this bother," she remarked, "and made you lose your chances of getting money, just to bring these things in the rain." And calling a servant she bade her present her with several hundreds of cash to buy some wine with, to drive the damp away.
"I've uselessly put you again, miss, to the expense of giving me a tip for wine," the old servant smiled. But saying this she knocked her forehead before her; and issuing outside, she received the money, after which, she opened her umbrella, and trudged back.
Tzu Chan meanwhile put the birds' nests away; and removing afterwards the lamps, she lowered the portires and waited upon Tai-y until she lay herself down to sleep.
While she reclined all alone on her pillow, Tai-y thought gratefully of Pao-ch'ai. At one moment, she envied her for having a mother and a brother; and at another, she mused that with the friendliness Pao-y had ever shown her they were bound to be the victims of suspicion. But the pitter-patter of the rain, dripping on the bamboo tops and banana leaves, fell on her ear; and, as a fresh coolness penetrated the curtain, tears once more unconsciously trickled down her cheeks. In this frame of mind, she continued straight up to the fourth watch, when she at last gradually dropped into a sound sleep.
For the time, however, there is nothing that we can add. So should you, reader, desire to know any subsequent details, peruse what is written in the next chapter.
An improper man with difficulty keeps from improprieties. The maid, Yan Yang, vows to break off the marriage match.
Lin Tai-y, 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 Yan 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 Yan 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 Yan 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 Yan 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 Yan 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."
"Yan 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 Yan Yang's bedroom. Here she saw Yan 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.
Yan 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 Yan Yang's hand in hers. "I've come," she smiled, "with the special purpose of presenting you my congratulations."
This reply enabled Yan 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. Yan 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."
Yan 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!"
Yan 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."
Yan 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 Yan 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 Yan 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.
Yan 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 Yan 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 Yan 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 Yn, Tzu Chan, Ts'ai Hsia, Y Ch'uan, She Yeh, Ts'ui Mo, Ts'ui L, who was in Miss Shih's service and is now gone, K'o Jen and Chin Ch'uan, now deceased, Hsi Hseh, 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?" Yan 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 Yan 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-y. Our senior master will then banish this fad from his mind."
Yan 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?" Yan 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."
Yan Yang smiled ironically. "I won't leave this place so long as my old lady lives!" Yan 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," Yan 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?" Yan 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," Yan 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 (Yan 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?" Yan 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!"
Yan 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," Yan 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 Yan 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-y, 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-y.
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-y 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-y laughed.
Yan Yang had long ago concluded that every word of their conversation had been overheard by Pao-y; but leaning against the rock, she pretended to be fast asleep.
Pao-y 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 Yan 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 Yan Yang to come away. Yan Yang, at length, got up, and the quartet betook themselves, after all, into the I Hung court.
Pao-y had caught every word that had fallen from their lips a few minutes back, and felt, indeed, at heart so much distressed on Yan 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 Yan 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 Yan 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 Yan 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 Yan 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 Yan 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. Yan 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 Yan 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-y; 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 Yan 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. Yan 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. Hseh, 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. Yan 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-y; 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-y, (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!"
Yan 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. Hseh 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 Yan 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. Hseh 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-y 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. Hseh, 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. Hseh 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-y," 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-y, "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-y's sake!'"
At this suggestion, Pao-y 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-y 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.
An idiotic bully tries to be lewd and comes in for a sound thrashing. A cold-hearted fellow is prompted by a dread of trouble to betake himself to a strange place.
As soon as Madame Wang, so runs our narrative, heard of Madame Hsing's arrival, she quickly went out to welcome her. Madame Hsing was not yet aware that dowager lady Chia had learnt everything connected with Yan Yang's affair, and she was coming again to see which way the wind blew. The moment, however, she stepped inside the courtyard-entrance, several matrons promptly explained to her, quite confidentially, that their old mistress had been told all only a few minutes back, and she meant to retrace her steps, (but she saw that) every inmate in the suite of rooms was already conscious of her presence. When she caught sight, besides, of Madame Wang walking out to meet her she had no option but to enter. First and foremost, she paid her respects to dowager lady Chia, but old lady Chia did not address her a single remark, so she felt within herself smitten with shame and remorse.
Lady Feng soon gave something or other as an excuse and withdrew. Yan Yang then returned also quite alone to her chamber to give vent to her resentment; and Mrs. Hseh, Madame Wang and the other inmates, one by one, retired in like manner, for fear of putting Madame Hsing out of countenance. Madame Hsing, however, could not muster courage to beat a retreat. Dowager lady Chia noticed that there was no one but themselves in her apartments. "I hear," she remarked, "that you had come to play the part of a go-between for your lord and master! You can very well observe the three obediences and four virtues, but this softness of yours is a work of supererogation! You people have also got now a whole lot of grandchildren and sons. Do you still live in fear and trembling lest he should put his monkey up? Rumour has it that you yet let that disposition of your husband's run riot!"
Madame Hsing's whole face got suffused with blushes. "I advised him time and again," she explained, "but he wouldn't listen to me. How is it, venerable senior, that you don't yet know that he turns a deaf ear to me? That's why I had no choice in the matter!"
"Would you go and kill any one," dowager lady Chia asked, "that he might instigate you to? But consider now. Your brother's wife is naturally a quiet sort of person, and is born with many ailments; but is there anything, whether large or small, that she doesn't go to the trouble of looking after? And notwithstanding that that daughter-in-law of yours lends her a helping hand, she is daily so busy that she 'no sooner puts down the pick than she has to take up the broom.' So busy, that I have myself now curtailed a hundred and one things. But whenever there's anything those two can't manage, there's Yan Yang to come to their assistance. She is, it's true, a mere child, but nevertheless very careful; and knows how to concern herself about my affairs a bit; indenting for anything that need be indented, and availing herself of an opportunity to tell them to supply every requisite. Were Yan Yang not the kind of girl she is, how could those two ladies not neglect a whole or part of those matters, both important as well as unimportant, connected with the inner and outer quarters? Would I not at present have to worry my own mind, instead of leaving things to others? Why, I'd daily have to rack my brain and go and ask them to give me whatever I might need! Of those girls, who've come to my quarters and those who've gone, there only remains this single one. She's, besides other respects, somewhat older in years, and has as well a slight conception of my ways of doing things, and of my tastes. In the second place, she has managed to win her mistresses' hearts, for she never tries to extort aught from me, or to dun this lady for clothes or that one for money. Hence it is that beginning from your sister-in-law and daughter-in-law down to the servants in the house, irrespective of old or young, there isn't a soul, who doesn't readily believe every single word she says in anything, no matter what it is! Not only do I thus have some one upon whom I can rely, but your young sister-in-law and your daughter-in-law are both as well spared much trouble. With a person such as this by me, should even my daughter-in-law and granddaughter-in-law not have the time to think of anything, I am not left without it; nor am I given occasion to get my temper ruffled. But were she now to go, what kind of creature would they hunt up again to press into my service? Were you even to bring me a person made of real pearls, she'd be of no use; if she doesn't know how to speak! I was just about to send some one to go and explain to your husband that 'I've got money in here enough to buy any girl he fancies,' and to tell him that 'he's at liberty to give for her purchase from eight to ten thousand taels; that, if he has set his heart upon this girl, he can't however have her; and that by leaving her behind to attend to me, during the few years to come, it will be just the same as if he tried to acquit himself of his filial duties by waiting upon me day and night,' so you come at a very opportune moment. Were you therefore to go yourself at once and deliver him my message, it will answer the purpose far better!"
These words over, she called the servants. "Go," she said, "and ask Mrs. Hseh, and your young mistresses to come! We were in the middle of a chat full of zest, and how is it they've all dispersed?"
The waiting-maids immediately assented and left to go in search of their mistresses, one and all of whom promptly re-entered her apartments, with the sole exception of Mrs. Hseh.
"I've only now returned," she observed to the waiting-maid, "and what shall I go again for? Just tell her that I'm fast asleep!"
"Dearest Mrs. Hseh!" the waiting-maid pleaded, "my worthy senior! our old mistress will get angry. If you, venerable lady, don't appear nothing will appease her; so do it for the love of us! Should you object to walking, why I'm quite ready to carry you on my back."
"You little imp!" Mrs. Hseh laughed. "What are you afraid of? All she'll do will be to scold you a little; and it will all be over soon!"
While replying, she felt that she had no course but to retrace her footsteps, in company with the waiting-maid.
Dowager lady Chia at once motioned her into a seat. "Let's have a game of cards!" she then smilingly proposed. "You, Mrs. Hseh, are not a good hand at them; so let's sit together, and see that lady Feng doesn't cheat us!"
"Quite so," laughed Mrs. Hseh. "But it will be well if your venerable ladyship would look over my hand a bit! Are we four ladies to play, or are we to add one or two more persons to our number?"
"Naturally only four!" Madame Wang smiled.
"Were one more player let in," lady Feng interposed, "it would be merrier!"
"Call Yan Yang here," old lady Chia suggested, "and make her take this lower seat; for as Mrs. Hseh's eyesight is rather dim, we'll charge her to look over our two hands a bit."
"You girls know how to read and write," lady Feng remarked with a smile, addressing herself to T'an Ch'un, "and why don't you learn fortune-telling?"
"This is again strange!" T'an Ch'un exclaimed. "Instead of bracing up your energies now to rook some money out of our venerable senior, you turn your thoughts to fortune-telling!"
"I was just wishing to consult the fates," lady Feng proceeded, "as to how much I shall lose to-day. Can I ever dream of winning? Why, look here. We haven't commenced playing, and they have placed themselves in ambush on the left and right."
This remark amused dowager lady Chia and Mrs. Hseh. But presently Yan Yang arrived, and seated herself below her old mistress. After Yan Yang sat lady Feng. The red cloth was then spread; the cards were shuffled; the dealer was decided upon and the quintet began to play. After the game had gone on for a time, Yan Yang noticed that dowager lady Chia had a full hand and was only waiting for one two-spotted card, and she made a secret sign to lady Feng. Lady Feng was about to lead, but purposely lingered for a few moments. "This card will, for a certainty, be snatched by Mrs. Hseh," she smiled, "yet if I don't play this one, I won't be able later to come out with what I want."
"I haven't got any cards you want in my hand," Mrs. Hseh remarked.
"I mean to see by and bye," lady Feng resumed.
"You're at liberty to see," Mrs. Hseh said. "But go on, play now! Let me look what card it is."
Lady Feng threw the card in front of Mrs. Hseh. At a glance, Mrs. Hseh perceived that it was the two spot. "I don't fancy this card," she smiled. "What I fear is that our dear senior will get a full hand."
"I've played wrong!" lady Feng laughingly exclaimed at these words.
Dowager lady Chia laughed, and throwing down her cards, "If you dare," she shouted, "take it back! Who told you to play the wrong card?"
"Didn't I want to have my fortune told?" lady Feng observed. "I played this card of my own accord, so there's no one with whom I can find fault."
"You should then beat your own lips and punish your own self; it's only fair;" old lady Chia remarked. Then facing Mrs. Hseh, "I'm not a niggard, fond of winning money," she went on to say, "but it was my good luck!"
"Don't we too think as much?" Mrs. Hseh smiled. "Who's there stupid enough to say that your venerable ladyship's heart is set upon money?"
Lady Feng was busy counting the cash, but catching what was said, she restrung them without delay. "I've got my share," she said, laughingly to the company. "It isn't at all that you wish to win. It's your good luck that made you come out a winner! But as for me, I am really a mean creature; and, as I managed to lose, I count the money and put it away at once."
Dowager lady Chia usually made Yan Yang shuffle the cards for her, but being engaged in chatting and joking with Mrs. Hseh, she did not notice Yan Yang take them in hand. "Why is it you're so huffed," old lady Chia asked, "that you don't even shuffle for me?"
"Lady Feng won't let me have the money!" Yan Yang replied, picking up the cards.
"If she doesn't give the money," dowager lady Chia observed, "it will be a turning-point in her luck. Take that string of a thousand cash of hers," she accordingly directed a servant, "and bring it bodily over here!"
A young waiting-maid actually fetched the string of cash and deposited it by the side of her old mistress.
"Let me have them," lady Feng eagerly cried smiling, "and I'll square all that's due, and finish."
"In very truth, lady Feng, you're a miserly creature!" Mrs. Hseh laughed. "It's simply for mere fun, nothing more!"
Lady Feng, at this insinuation, speedily stood up, and, laying her hand on Mrs. Hseh, she turned her head round, and pointed at a large wooden box, in which old lady Chia usually deposited her money. "Aunt," she said, a smile curling her lips, "look here! I couldn't tell you how much there is in that box that was won from me! This tiao will be wheedled by the cash in it, before we've played for half an hour! All we've got to do is to give them sufficient time to lure this string in as well; we needn't trouble to touch the cards. Your temper, worthy ancestor, will thus calm down. If you've also got any legitimate thing for me to do, you might bid me go and attend to it!"
This joke had scarcely been concluded than it evoked incessant laughter from dowager lady Chia and every one else. But while she was bandying words, P'ing Erh happened to bring her another string of cash prompted by the apprehension that her capital might not suffice to meet her wants.
"It's useless putting them in front of me!" lady Feng cried. "Place these too over there by our old lady and let them be wheedled in along with the others! It will thus save trouble, as there won't be any need to make two jobs of them, to the inconvenience of the cash already in the box."
Dowager lady Chia had a hearty laugh, so much so, that the cards, she held in her hand, flew all over the table; but pushing Yan Yang. "Be quick," she shouted, "and wrench that mouth of hers!"
P'ing Erh placed the cash according to her mistress' directions. But after indulging too in laughter for a time, she retraced her footsteps. On reaching the entrance into the court, she met Chia Lien. "Where's your Madame Hsing?" he inquired. "Mr. Chia She told me to ask her to go round."
"She's been standing in there with our old mistress," P'ing Erh hastily laughed, "for ever so long, and yet she isn't inclined to budge! Seize the earliest opportunity you can get to wash your hands clean of this business! Our old lady has had a good long fit of fuming and raging. Luckily, our lady Secunda cracked an endless stock of jokes, so she, at length, got a bit calmer!"
"I'll go over," Chia Lien said. "All I have to do is to find out our venerable senior's wishes, as to whether she means to go to Lai Ta's house on the fourteenth, so that I might have time to get the chairs ready. As I'll be able to tell Madame Hsing to return, and have a share of the fun, won't it be well for me to go?"
"My idea is," P'ing Erh suggested laughingly, "that you shouldn't put your foot in there! Every one, even up to Madame Wang, and Pao-y, have alike received a rap on the knuckles, and are you also going now to fill up the gap?"
"Everything is over long ago," Chia Lien observed, "and can it be that she'll cap the whole thing by blowing me up too? What's more, it's no concern of mine. In the next place, Mr. Chia She enjoined me that I was to go in person, and ask his wife round, so, if I at present depute some one else, and he comes to know about it, he really won't feel in a pleasant mood, and he'll take advantage of this pretext to give vent to his spite on me."
These words over, he quickly marched off. And P'ing Erh was so impressed with the reasonableness of his arguments, that she followed in his track.
As soon as Chia Lien reached the reception hall, he trod with a light step. Then peeping in he saw Madame Hsing standing inside. Lady Feng, with her eagle eye, was the first to espy him. But she winked at him and dissuaded him from coming in, and next gave a wink to Madame Hsing. Madame Hsing could not conveniently get away at once, and she had to pour a cup of tea, and place it in front of dowager lady Chia. But old lady Chia jerked suddenly round, and took Chia Lien at such a disadvantage that he found it difficult to beat a retreat. "Who is outside?" exclaimed old lady Chia. "It seemed to me as if some servant-boy had poked his head in."
Lady Feng sprung to her feet without delay. "I also," she interposed, "indistinctly noticed the shadow of some one."
Saying this, she walked away and quitted the room. Chia Lien entered with hasty step. Forcing a smile, "I wanted to ask," he remarked, "whether you, venerable senior, are going out on the fourteenth, so that the chairs may be got ready."
"In that case," dowager lady Chia rejoined, "why didn't you come straight in; but behaved again in that mysterious way?"
"I saw that you were playing at cards, dear ancestor," Chia Lien explained with a strained laugh, "and I didn't venture to come and disturb you. I therefore simply meant to call my wife out to find out from her."
"Is it anything so very urgent that you had to say it this very moment?" old lady Chia continued. "Had you waited until she had gone home, couldn't you have asked her any amount of questions you may have liked? When have you been so full of zeal before? I'm puzzled to know whether it isn't as an eavesdropping spirit that you appear on the scene; nor can I say whether you don't come as a spy. But that impish way of yours gave me quite a start! What a low-bred fellow you are! Your wife will play at cards with me for a good long while more, so you'd better bundle yourself home, and conspire again with Chao Erh's wife how to do away with your better half."
Her remarks evoked general merriment.
"It's Pao Erh's wife," Yan Yang put in laughingly, "and you, worthy senior, have dragged in again Chao Erh's wife."
"Yes!" assented old lady Chia, likewise with a laugh. "How could I remember whether he wasn't (pao) embracing her, or (pei) carrying her on his back. The bare mention of these things makes me lose all self-control and provokes me to anger! Ever since I crossed these doors as a great grandson's wife, I have never, during the whole of these fifty-four years, seen anything like these affairs, albeit it has been my share to go through great frights, great dangers, thousands of strange things and hundred and one remarkable occurrences! Don't you yet pack yourself off from my presence?"
Chia Lien could not muster courage to utter a single word to vindicate himself, but retired out of the room with all promptitude. P'ing Erh was standing outside the window. "I gave you due warning in a gentle tone, but you wouldn't hear; you've, after all, rushed into the very meshes of the net!"
These reproaches were still being heaped on him when he caught sight of Madame Hsing, as she likewise made her appearance outside. "My father," Chia Lien ventured, "is at the bottom of all this trouble; and the whole blame now is shoved upon your shoulders as well as mine, mother."
"I'll take you, you unfilial thing and..." Madame Hsing shouted. "People lay down their lives for their fathers; and you are prompted by a few harmless remarks to murmur against heaven and grumble against earth! Won't you behave in a proper manner? He's in high dudgeon these last few days, so mind he doesn't give you a pounding!"
"Mother, cross over at once," Chia Lien urged; "for he told me to come and ask you to go a long time ago."
Pressing his mother, he escorted her outside as far as the other part of the mansion. Madame Hsing gave (her husband) nothing beyond a general outline of all that had been recently said; but Chia She found himself deprived of the means of furthering his ends. Indeed, so stricken was he with shame that from that date he pleaded illness. And so little able was he to rally sufficient pluck to face old lady Chia, that he merely commissioned Madame Hsing and Chia Lien to go daily and pay their respects to her on his behalf. He had no help too but to despatch servants all over the place to make every possible search and inquiry for a suitable concubine for him. After a long time they succeeded in purchasing, for the sum of eighty taels, a girl of seventeen years of age, Yen Hung by name, whom he introduced as secondary wife into his household.
But enough of this subject. In the rooms on the near side, they protracted for a long time their noisy game of cards, and only broke up after they had something to eat. Nothing worthy of note, however, occurred during the course of the following day or two. In a twinkle, the fourteenth drew near. At an early hour before daybreak, Lai Ta's wife came again into the mansion to invite her guests. Dowager lady Chia was in buoyant spirits, so taking along Madame Wang, Mrs. Hseh, Pao-y and the various young ladies, she betook herself into Lai Ta's garden, where she sat for a considerable time.
This garden was not, it is true, to be compared with the garden of Broad Vista; but it also was most beautifully laid out, and consisted of spacious grounds. In the way of springs, rockeries, arbours and woods, towers and terraces, pavilions and halls, it likewise contained a good many sufficient to excite admiration. In the main hall outside, were assembled Hseh P'an, Chia Chen, Chia Lien, Chia Jung and several close relatives. But Lai Ta had invited as well a number of officials, still in active service, and numerous young men of wealthy families, to keep them company. Among that party figured one Liu Hsiang-lien, whom Hseh P'an had met on a previous occasion and kept ever since in constant remembrance. Having besides discovered that he had a passionate liking for theatricals, and that the parts he generally filled were those of a young man or lady, in fast plays, he had unavoidably misunderstood the object with which he indulged in these amusements, to such a degree as to misjudge him for a young rake. About this time, he had been entertaining a wish to cultivate intimate relations with him, but he had, much to his disgust, found no one to introduce him, so when he, by a strange coincidence, came to be thrown in his way, on the present occasion, he revelled in intense delight. But Chia Chen and the other guests had heard of his reputation, so as soon as wine had blinded their sense of shame, they entreated him to sing two short plays; and when subsequently they got up from the banquet, they ensconced themselves near him, and, pressing him with questions, they carried on a conversation on one thing and then another.
This Liu Hsiang-lien was, in fact, a young man of an old family; but he had been unsuccessful in his studies, and had lost his father and mother. He was naturally light-hearted and magnanimous; not particular in minor matters; immoderately fond of spear-exercise and fencing, of gambling and boozing; even going to such excesses as spending his nights in houses of easy virtue; playing the fife, thrumming the harp, and going in for everything and anything. Being besides young in years, and of handsome appearance, those who did not know what his standing was, invariably mistook him for an actor. But Lai Ta's son had all along been on such friendly terms with him, that he consequently invited him for the nonce to help him do the honours.
Of a sudden, while every one was, after the wines had gone round, still on his good behaviour, Hseh P'an alone got another fit of his old mania. From an early stage, his spirits sunk within him and he would fain have seized the first convenient moment to withdraw and consummate his designs but for Lai Shang-jung, who then said: "Our Mr. Pao-y told me again just now that although he saw you, as he walked in, he couldn't speak to you with so many people present, so he bade me ask you not to go, when the party breaks up, as he has something more to tell you. But as you insist upon taking your leave, you'd better wait until I call him out, and when you've seen each other, you can get away; I'll have nothing to say then."
While delivering the message, "Go inside," he directed the servant-boys, "and get hold of some old matron and tell her quietly to invite Mr. Pao-y to come out."
A servant-lad went on the errand, and scarcely had time enough elapsed to enable one to have a cup of tea in, than Pao-y, actually, made his appearance outside.
"My dear sir," Lai Shang-jung smilingly observed to Pao-y, "I hand him over to you. I'm going to entertain the guests!"
With these words, he was off.
Pao-y pulled Lia Hsiang-lien into a side study in the hall, where they sat down.
"Have you been recently to Ch'in Ch'ung's grave?" he inquired of him.
"How could I not go?" Hsiang-lien answered. "The other day a few of us went out to give our falcons a fly; and we were yet at a distance of two li from his tomb, when remembering the heavy rains, we've had this summer, I gave way to fears lest his grave may not have been proof against them; so evading the notice of the party I went over and had a look. I found it again slightly damaged; but when I got back home, I speedily raised a few hundreds of cash, and issued early on the third day, and hired two men, who put it right."
"It isn't strange then!" exclaimed Pao-y, "When the lotus blossomed last month in the pond of our garden of Broad Vista, I plucked ten of them and bade T'sai Ming go out of town and lay them as my offering on his grave. On his return, I also inquired of him: whether it had been damaged by the water or not; and he explained that not only had it not sustained any harm, but that it looked better than when last he'd seen it. Several of his friends, I argued, must have had it put in proper repair; and I felt it irksome that I should, day after day, be so caged at home as to be unable to be my own master in the least thing, and that if even I move, and any one comes to know of it, this one is sure to exhort me, if that one does not restrain me. I can thus afford to brag, but can't manage to act! And though I've got plenty of money, I'm not at liberty to spend any of it!"
"There's no use your worrying in a matter like this!" Liu Hsiang-lien said. "I am outside, so all you need do is to inwardly foster the wish; that's all. But as the first of the tenth moon will shortly be upon us, I've already prepared the money necessary for going to the graves. You know well enough that I'm as poor as a rat; I've no hoardings at home; and when a few cash find their way into my pocket, I soon remain again quite empty-handed. But I'd better make the best of this opportunity, and keep the amount I have, in order that, when the time comes, I mayn't find myself without a cash."
"It's exactly about this that I meant to send Pei Ming to see you," Pao-y added. "But it isn't often that one can manage to find you at home. I'm well aware how uncertain your movements are; one day you are here, and another there; you've got no fixed resort."
"There's no need sending any one to hunt me up!" Liu Hsiang-lien replied. "All that each of us need do in this matter is to acquit ourselves of what's right. But in a little while, I again purpose going away on a tour abroad, to return in three to five years' time."
When Pao-y heard his intention, "Why is this?" he at once inquired.
Liu Hsiang-lien gave a sardonic smile. "When my wish is on a fair way to be accomplished," he said, "you'll certainly hear everything. I must now leave you."
"After all the difficulty we've had in meeting," Pao-y remarked, "wouldn't it be better were you and I to go away together in the evening?"
"That worthy cousin of yours," Hsiang-lien rejoined, "is as bad as ever, and were I to stay any longer, trouble would inevitably arise. So it's as well that I should clear out of his way."
Pao-y communed with himself for a time. "In that case," he then observed, "it's only right, that you should retire. But if you really be bent upon going on a distant tour, you must absolutely tell me something beforehand. Don't, on any account, sneak away quietly!".
As he spoke, the tears trickled down his cheeks.
"I shall, of course, say good-bye to you," Liu Hsiang-lien rejoined. "But you must not let any one know anything about it!"
While uttering these words, he stood up to get away. "Go in at once," he urged, "there's no need to see me off!"
Saying this, he quitted the study. As soon as he reached the main entrance, he came across Hseh P'an, bawling out boisterously, "Who let young Liu-erh go?"
The moment these shouts fell on Liu Hsiang-lien's ear, his anger flared up as if it had been sparks spurting wildly about, and he only wished he could strike him dead with one blow. But on second consideration, he pondered that a fight after the present festive occasion would be an insult to Lai Shang-jung, and he perforce felt bound to stifle his indignation.
When Hseh P'an suddenly espied him walking out, he looked as delighted as if he had come in for some precious gem. With staggering step he drew near him. Clutching him with one grip, "My dear brother," he smirked. "where are you off to?"
"I'm going somewhere, but will be back soon," Hsiang-lien said by way of response.
"As soon as you left," Hseh P'an smiled, "all the fun went. But pray sit a while! If you do so, it will be a proof of your regard for me! Don't flurry yourself. With such a senior brother as myself to stand by you, it will be as easy a job for you to become an official as to reap a fortune."
The sight of his repulsive manner filled the heart of Hsiang-lien with disgust and shame. But speedily devising a plan, he drew him to a secluded spot. "Is your friendship real," he smiled, "or is it only a sham?"
This question sent Hseh P'an into such raptures that he found it difficult to check himself from gratifying his longings. But glancing at him with the corner of his eye, "My dear brother," he smiled, "what makes you ask me such a thing? If my friendship for you is a sham, may I die this moment, before your very eyes."
"Well, if that be so," Hsiang-lien proceeded, "it isn't convenient in here, so sit down and wait a bit. I'll go ahead, but come out of this yourself by and bye, and follow me to my place, where we can drink the whole night long. I've also got there two first-rate young fellows who never go out of doors. But don't bring so much as a single follower with you, as you'll find, when you get there, plenty of people ready at hand to wait on you."
So high did this assignation raise Hseh P'an's spirits that he recovered, to a certain extent, from the effects of wine. "Is it really so?" he asked.
"How is it," Hsiang-lien laughed, "that when people treat you with a sincere heart, you don't, after all, believe them?"
"I'm no fool," eagerly exclaimed Hseh P'an, "and how could I not believe you? But since this be the case, how am I, who don't even know the way, to find your whereabouts if you are to go ahead of me?"
"My place is outside the northern gate." Hsiang-lien explained. "But can you tear yourself away from your home to spend the night outside the city walls?"
"As long as you're there," Hseh P'an said, "what will I want my home for?"
"If that be so," Hsiang-lien resumed, "I'll wait for you on the bridge outside the northern gate. But let us meanwhile rejoin the banquet and have some wine. Come along, after you've seen me go; they won't notice us then."
"Yes!" shouted Hseh P'an with alacrity as he acquiesced to the proposal.
The two young fellows thereupon returned to the feast, and drank for a time. Hseh Pan, however, could with difficulty endure the suspense. He kept his gaze intent upon Hsiang-lien; and the more he pondered within himself upon what was coming, the more exuberance swelled in his heart. Now he emptied one wine-kettle; now another; and, without waiting for any one to press him, he, of his own accord, gulped down one drink after another, with the result that he unconsciously made himself nearly quite tipsy. Hsiang-lien then got up and quitted the room, and perceiving every one off his guard, he egressed out of the main entrance. "Go home ahead," he directed his page Hsing Nu. "I'm going out of town, but I'll be back at once."
By the time he had finished giving him these directions, he had already mounted his horse, and straightway he proceeded to the bridge beyond the northern gate, and waited for Hseh P'an. A long while elapsed, however, before he espied Hseh P'an in the distance, hurrying along astride of a high steed, with gaping mouth, staring eyes, and his head, banging from side to side like a pedlar's drum. Without intermission, he glanced confusedly about, sometimes to the left, and sometimes to the right; but, as soon as he got where he had to pass in front of Hsiang-lien's horse, he kept his gaze fixed far away, and never troubled his mind with the immediate vicinity.
Hsiang-lien felt amused and angry with him, but forthwith giving his horse also the rein, he followed in his track, while Hseh P'an continued to stare ahead.
Little by little the habitations got scantier and scantier, so pulling his horse round, (Hseh P'an) retraced his steps. The moment he turned back, he unawares caught sight of Hsiang-lien, and his spirits rose within him, as if he had got hold of some precious thing of an extraordinary value. "I knew well enough," he eagerly smiled, "that you weren't one to break faith."
"Quick, let's go ahead!" Hsiang-lien smilingly urged. "Mind people might notice us and follow us. It won't then be nice!"
While instigating him, he took the lead, and letting his horse have the rein, he wended his way onwards, followed closely by Hseh P'an. But when Hsiang-lien perceived that the country ahead of them was already thinly settled and saw besides a stretch of water covered with a growth of weeds, he speedily dismounted, and tied his horse to a tree. Turning then round; "Get down!" he said, laughingly, to Hseh P'an. "You must first take an oath, so that in the event of your changing your mind in the future, and telling anything to anyone, the oath might be accomplished."
"You're quite right!" Hseh P'an smiled; and jumping down with all despatch, he too made his horse fast to a tree, and then crouched on his knees.
"If I ever in days to come," he exclaimed, "know any change in my feelings and breathe a word to any living soul, may heaven blast me and earth annihilate me!"
Scarcely had he ended this oath, when a crash fell on his ear, and lo, he felt as if an iron hammer had been brought down to bear upon him from behind. A black mist shrouded his eyes, golden stars flew wildly about before his gaze; and losing all control over himself, he sprawled on the ground.
Hsiang-lien approached and had a look at him; and, knowing how little he was accustomed to thrashings, he only exerted but little of his strength, and struck him a few blows on the face. But about this time a fruit shop happened to open, and Hseh P'an strained at first every nerve to rise to his feet, when another slight kick from Hsiang-lien tumbled him over again.
"Both parties should really be agreeable," he shouted. "But if you were not disposed to accept my advances, you should have simply told me in a proper way. And why did you beguile me here to give me a beating?"
So speaking, he went on boisterously to heap invective upon his head.
"I'll take you, you blind fellow, and show you who Mr. Liu is," Hsiang-lien cried. "You don't appeal to me with solicitous entreaties, but go on abusing me! To kill you would be of no use, so I'll merely give you a good lesson!"
With these words, he fetched his whip, and administered him, thirty or forty blows from his back down to his shins.
Hseh P'an had sobered down considerably from the effects of wine, and found the stings of pain so intolerable, that little able to restrain himself, he gave way to groans.
"Do you go on in this way?" Hsiang-lien said, with an ironical smile. "Why, I thought you were not afraid of beatings."
While uttering this taunt, he seized Hseh P'an by the left leg, and dragging him several steps into a miry spot among the reeds, he rolled him about till he was covered with one mass of mud. "Do you now know what stuff I'm made of?" he proceeded to ask.
Hseh P'an made no reply. But simply lay prostrate, and moaned. Then throwing away his whip Hsiang-lien gave him with his fist several thumps all over the body.
Hseh P'an began to wriggle violently and vociferate wildly. "Oh, my ribs are broken!" he shouted. "I know you're a proper sort of person! It's all because I made the mistake of listening to other people's gossip!"
"There's no need for you to drag in other people!" Hsiang-lien went on. "Just confine yourself to those present!"
"There's nothing up at present!" Hseh P'an cried. "From what you say, you're a person full of propriety. So it's I who am at fault."
"You'll have to speak a little milder," Hsiang-lien added, "before I let you off."
"My dear younger brother," Hseh P'an pleaded, with a groan.
Hsiang-lien at this struck him another blow with his fist.
"Ai!" ejaculated Hseh P'an. "My dear senior brother!" he exclaimed.
Hsiang-lien then gave him two more whacks, one after the other.
"Ai Yo!" Hseh P'an precipitately screamed. "My dear Sir, do spare me, an eyeless beggar; and henceforth I'll look up to you with veneration; I'll fear you!"