Lady Feng thereupon speedily walked up and supported her to rise to her feet.
"The evening meal has long ago been got ready for you, venerable ancestor," Mrs. Yu smiled. "You've year by year shown no desire to honour us with your presence, but tarry a bit on this occasion and partake of some refreshment before you cross over. Is it likely, in fact, that we can't come up to that girl Feng?"
"Go on, worthy senior!" laughed lady Feng, as she propped old lady Chia. "Let's go home and eat our own. Don't heed what she says!"
"In what bustle and confusion aren't you in over here," smiled dowager lady Chia, "with all the sacrifices to our ancestors, and how could you stand all the trouble I'm putting you to? I've never, furthermore, had every year anything to eat with you; but you've always been in the way of sending me things. So isn't it as well that you should again let me have a few? And as I'll keep for the next day what I shan't be able to get through, won't I thus have a good deal more?"
This remark evoked general laughter.
"Whatever you do," she went on to enjoin her, "mind you depute some reliable persons to sit up at night and look after the incense fires; but they mustn't let their wits go wool-gathering."
Mrs. Yu gave her to understand that she would see to it, and they sallied out, at the same time, into the fore part of the winter-apartments. And when Mrs. Yu and her friends went past the screen, the pages introduced the bearers, who shouldered the sedan and walked out by the main entrance. Then following too in the track of Madame Hsing and the other ladies, Mrs. Yu repaired in their company into the Jung mansion.
(Dowager lady Chia's) chair had, meanwhile, got beyond the principal gateway. Here again were deployed, on the east side of the street, the bearers of insignia, the retinue and musicians of the duke of Ning Kuo. They crammed the whole extent of the street. Comers and goers were alike kept back. No thoroughfare was allowed. Shortly, the Jung mansion was reached. The large gates and main entrances were also thrown open straight up to the very interior of the compound. On the present occasion, however, the bearers did not put the chair down by the winter quarters, but passing the main hall, and turning to the west, they rested it on their arrival at the near side of dowager lady Chia's principal pavilion. The various attendants pressed round old lady Chia and followed her into her main apartment, where decorated mats and embroidered screens had also been placed about, and everything looked as if brand-new.
In the brasier, deposited in the centre of the room, burnt fir and cedar incense, and a hundred mixed herbs. The moment dowager lady Chia ensconced herself into a seat, an old nurse entered and announced that: "the senior ladies had come to pay their respects."
Old lady Chia rose with alacrity to her feet to go and greet them, when she perceived that two or three of her old sisters-in-law had already stepped inside, so clasping each other's hands, they now laughed, and now they pressed each other to sit down. After tea, they took their departure; but dowager lady Chia only escorted them as far as the inner ceremonial gate, and retracing her footsteps, she came and resumed the place of honour. Chia Ching, Chia She and the other seniors then ushered the various junior male members of the household into her apartments.
"I put you," smiled old lady Chia, "to ever so much trouble and inconvenience from one year's end to another; so don't pay any obeisance."
But while she spoke, the men formed themselves into one company, and the women into another, and performed their homage, group by group. This over, arm-chairs were arranged on the left and on the right; and on these chairs they too subsequently seated themselves, according to their seniority and gradation, to receive salutations. The men and women servants, and the pages and maids employed in the two mansions then paid, in like manner, the obeisance consonant with their positions, whether high, middle or low; and this ceremony observed, the new year money was distributed, together with purses, gold and silver ingots, and other presents of the same description. A 'rejoicing together' banquet was spread. The men sat on the east; the women on the west. 'T'u Su,' new year's day, wine was served; also 'rejoicing together' soup, 'propitious' fruits, and 'as you like' cakes. At the close of the banquet, dowager lady Chia rose and penetrated into the inner chamber with the purpose of effecting a change in her costume, so the several inmates present could at last disperse and go their own way.
That night, incense was burnt and offerings presented at the various altars to Buddha and the kitchen god. In the courtyard of Madame Wang's main quarters paper horses and incense for sacrifices to heaven and earth were all ready. At the principal entrance of the garden of Broad Vista were suspended horn lanterns, which from their lofty places cast their bright rays on either side. Every place was hung with street lanterns. Every inmate, whether high or low, was got up in gala dress. Throughout the whole night, human voices resounded confusedly. The din of talking and laughing filled the air. Strings of crackers and rockets were let off incessantly.
The morrow came. At the fifth watch, dowager lady Chia and the other senior members of the family donned the grand costumes, which accorded with their status, and with a complete retinue they entered the palace to present their court congratulations; for that day was, in addition, the anniversary of Yan Ch'un's birth. After they had regaled themselves at a collation, they wended their way back, and betaking themselves also into the Ning mansion, they offered their oblations to their ancestors, and then returned home and received the conventional salutations, after which they put off their fineries and retired to rest.
None of the relatives and friends, who came to wish their compliments of the season, were admitted into (old lady Chia's) presence, but simply had a friendly chat with Mrs. Hseh and 'sister-in-law' Li, and studied their own convenience. Or along with Pao-y, Pao-ch'ai and the other young ladies, they amused themselves by playing the game of war or dominoes.
Madame Wang and lady Feng had one day after another their hands full with the invitations they had to issue for the new year wine. In the halls and courts of the other side theatricals and banquets succeeded each other and relations and friends dropped in in an incessant string. Bustle reigned for seven or eight consecutive days, before things settled down again.
But presently the festival of the full moon of the first month drew near, and both mansions, the Ning as well as the Jung, were everywhere ornamented with lanterns and decorations. On the eleventh, Chia She invited dowager lady Chia and the other inmates. On the next day, Chia Chen also entertained his old senior and Madame Wang and lady Feng. But for us to record on how many consecutive days invitations were extended to them to go and, drink the new year wine, would be an impossible task.
The fifteenth came. On this evening dowager lady Chia gave orders to have several banqueting tables laid in the main reception hall, to engage a company of young actors, to have every place illuminated with flowered lanterns of various colours, and to assemble at a family entertainment all the sons, nephews, nieces, grandchildren and grandchildren's wives and other members of the two mansions of Ning and Jung. As however Chia Ching did not habitually have any wine or take any ordinary food, no one went to press him to come.
On the seventeenth, he hastened, at the close of the ancestral sacrifices, out of town to chasten himself. In fact, even during the few days he spent at home, he merely frequented retired rooms and lonely places, and did not take the least interest in any single concern. But he need not detain us any further.
As for Chia She, after he had received dowager lady Chia's presents, he said good-bye and went away. But old lady Chia herself was perfectly aware that she could not conveniently tarry any longer on this side so she too followed his example and took her departure.
When Chia She got home, he along with all the guests feasted his eyes on the illuminations and drank wine with them, Music and singing deafened the ear. Embroidered fineries were everywhere visible. For his way of seeking amusement was unlike that customary in this portion of the establishment.
In dowager lady Chia's reception hall, ten tables were meanwhile arranged. By each table was placed a teapoy. On these teapoys stood censers and bottles; three things in all. (In the censers) was burnt 'Pai ho' palace incense, a gift from his Majesty the Emperor. But small pots, about eight inches long, four to five inches broad and two or three inches high, adorned with scenery in the shape of rockeries, were also placed about. All of which contained fresh flowers. Small foreign lacquer trays were likewise to be seen, laden with diminutive painted tea-cups of antique ware. Transparent gauze screens with frames of carved blackwood, ornamented with a fringe representing flowers and giving the text of verses, figured too here and there. In different kinds of small old vases were combined together the three friends of winter (pine, bamboo and plum,) as well as 'jade-hall,' 'happiness and honour,' and other fresh flowers.
At the upper two tables sat 'sister-in-law' Li and Mrs. Hseh. On the east was only laid a single table. But there as well were placed carved screens, covered with dragons, and a short low-footed couch, with a full assortment of back-cushions, reclining-cushions and skin-rugs. On the couch stood a small teapoy, light and handy, of foreign lacquer, inlaid with gold. On the teapoy were arrayed cups, bowls, foreign cloth napkins and such things. But on it spectacle case was also conspicuous.
Dowager lady Chia was reposing on the couch. At one time, she chatted and laughed with the whole company; at another, she took up her spectacles and looked at what was going on on the stage.
"Make allowances," she said, "for my old age. My bones are quite sore; so if I be a little out of order in my conduct bear with me, and let us entertain each other while I remain in a recumbent position." Continuing, she desired Hu Po to make herself comfortable on the couch, and take a small club and tap her legs. No table stood below the couch, but only a high teapoy. On it were a high stand with tassels, flower-vases, incense-burners and other similar articles. But, a small, high table, laden with cups and chopsticks, had besides been got ready. At the table next to this, the four cousins, Pao-ch'in, Hsiang-yn, Tai-y and Pao-y were told to seat themselves. The various viands and fruits that were brought in were first presented to dowager lady Chia for inspection. If they took her fancy, she kept them at the small table. But once tasted by her, they were again removed and placed on their table. We could therefore safely say that none but the four cousins sat along with their old grandmother.
The seats occupied by Madame Hsing and Madame Wang were below. Lower down came Mrs. Yu, Li Wan, lady Feng and Chia Jung's wife. On the west sat Pao-ch'ai, Li Wen, Li Ch'i, Chou Yen, Ying Ch'un, and the other cousins. On the large pillars, on either side, were suspended, in groups of three and five, glass lanterns ornamented with fringes. In front of each table stood a candlestick in the shape of drooping lotus leaves. The candlesticks contained coloured candles. These lotus leaves were provided with enamelled springs, of foreign make, so they could be twisted outward, thus screening the rays of the lights and throwing them (on the stage), enabling one to watch the plays with exceptional distinctness. The window-frames and doors had all been removed. In every place figured coloured fringes, and various kinds of court lanterns. Inside and outside the verandahs, and under the roofs of the covered passages, which stretched on either side, were hung lanterns of sheep-horn, glass, embroidered gauze or silk, decorated or painted, of satin or of paper.
Round different tables sat Chia Chen, Chia Lien, Chia Huan, Chia Tsung, Chia Jung, Chia Yn, Chia Ch'in, Chia Ch'ang, Chia Ling and other male inmates of the family.
Dowager lady Chia had at an early hour likewise sent servants to invite the male and female members of the whole clan. But those advanced in years were not disposed to take part in any excitement. Some had no one at the time to look after things; others too were detained by ill-health; and much though these had every wish to be present, they were not, after all, in a fit state to come. Some were so envious of riches, and so ashamed of their poverty, that they entertained no desire to avail themselves of the invitation. Others, what is more, fostered such a dislike for, and stood in such awe of, lady Feng that they felt bitter towards her and would not accept. Others again were timid and shy, and so little accustomed to seeing people, that they could not muster sufficient courage to come. Hence it was that despite the large number of female relatives in the clan, none came but Chia Lan's mother, ne Lou, who brought Chia Lan with her. In the way of men, there were only Chia Ch'in, Chia Yn, Chia Ch'ang and Chia Ling; the four of them and no others. The managers, at present under lady Feng's control, were however among those who accepted. But albeit there was not a complete gathering of the inmates on this occasion, yet, for a small family entertainment, sufficient animation characterised the proceedings.
About this time, Lin Chih-hsiao's wife also made her appearance, with half a dozen married women who carried three divan tables between them. Each table was covered with a red woollen cloth, on which lay a lot of cash, picked out clean and of equal size, and recently issued from the mint. These were strung together with a deep-red cord. Each couple carried a table, so there were in all three tables.
Lin Chih-hsiao's wife directed that two tables should be placed below the festive board, round which were seated Mrs. Hseh and 'sister-in-law' Li, and that one should be put at the foot of dowager lady Chia's couch.
"Place it in the middle!" old lady Chia exclaimed. "These women have never known what good manners mean. Put the table down." Saying this, she picked up the cash, and loosening the knots, she unstrung them and piled them on the table.
'The reunion in the western chamber' was just being sung. The play was drawing to a close. They had reached a part where Y Shu runs off at night in high dudgeon, and Wen Pao jokingly cried out: "You go off with your monkey up; but, as luck would have it, this is the very day of the fifteenth of the first moon, and a family banquet is being given by the old lady in the Jung Kuo mansion, so wait and I'll jump on this horse and hurry in and ask for something to eat. I must look sharp!" The joke made old lady Chia, and the rest of the company laugh.
"What a dreadful, impish child!" Mrs. Hseh and the others exclaimed. "Yet poor thing!"
"This child is only just nine years of age," lady Feng interposed.
"He has really made a clever hit!" dowager lady Chia laughed. "Tip him!" she shouted.
This shout over, three married women, who has previously got ready several small wicker baskets, came up, as soon as they heard the word 'tip', and, taking the heaps of loose cash piled on the table, they each filled a basket full, and, issuing outside, they approached the stage. "Dowager lady Chia, Mrs. Hseh, and the family relative, Mrs. Li, present Wen Pao this money to purchase something to eat with," they said.
At the end of these words, they flung the contents of the baskets upon the stage. So all then that fell on the ear was the rattle of the cash flying in every direction over the boards.
Chia Chen and Chia Lien had, by this time, enjoined the pages to fetch big baskets full of cash and have them in readiness. But as, reader, you do not know as yet in what way these presents were given, listen to the circumstances detailed in the subsequent chapter.
Dowager lady Chia, ne Shih, does away with rotten old customs. Wang Hsi-feng imitates in jest (the dutiful son), by getting herself up in gaudy theatrical clothes.
Chia Chen and Chia Lien had, we will now explain, secretly got ready large baskets of cash, so the moment they heard old lady Chia utter the word 'tip,' they promptly bade the pages be quick and fling the money. The noise of the cash, running on every side of the stage, was all that fell on the ear. Dowager lady Chia thoroughly enjoyed it.
The two men then rose to their feet. The pages hastened to lay hold of a silver kettle, newly brought in with fresh wine, and to deposit it in Chia Lien's hands, who followed Chia Chen with quick step into the inner rooms. Chia Chen advanced first up to 'sister-in-law' Li's table, and curtseying, he raised her cup, and turned round, whereupon Chia Lien quickly filled it to the brim. Next they approached Mrs. Hseh's table, and they also replenished her cup.
These two ladies lost no time in standing up, and smilingly expostulating. "Gentlemen," they said, "please take your seats. What's the use of standing on such ceremonies?"
But presently every one, with the exception of the two ladies Mesdames Hsing and Wang, quitted the banquet and dropping their arms against their bodies they stood on one side. Chia Chen and his companion then drew near dowager lady Chia's couch. But the couch was so low that they had to stoop on their knees. Chia Chen was in front, and presented the cup. Chia Lien was behind, and held the kettle up to her. But notwithstanding that only these two offered her wine, Chia Tsung and the other young men followed them closely in the order of their age and grade; so the moment they saw them kneel, they immediately threw themselves on their knees. Pao-y too prostrated himself at once.
Hsiang-yn stealthily gave him a push. "What's the use of your now following their lead again and falling on your knees?" she said. "But since you behave like this, wouldn't it be well if you also went and poured wine all round?"
Pao-y laughed. "Hold on a bit," he rejoined in a low tone, "and I'll go and do so."
So speaking, he waited until his two relatives had finished pouring the wine and risen to their feet, when he also went and replenished the cups of Mesdames Wang and Hsing.
"What about the young ladies?" Chia Chen smilingly asked.
"You people had better be going," old lady Chia and the other ladies unanimously observed. "They'll, then, be more at their ease."
At this hint Chia Chen and his companions eventually withdrew. The second watch had not, at the time, yet gone. The play that was being sung was: 'The eight worthies look at the lanterns,' consisting of eight acts; and had now reached a sensational part.
Pao-y at this stage left the feast and was going out. "Where are you off to?" inquired his grandmother Chia. "The crackers outside are dreadful. Mind, the lighted pieces of paper falling from above might burn you."
Pao-y smiled. "I'm not going far," he answered. "I'm merely going out of the room, and will be back at once."
Dowager lady Chia directed the matrons to "be careful and escort him."
Pao-y forthwith sallied out; with no other attendants however than She Yeh, Ch'iu Wen and several youthful maids.
"How is it," his grandmother Chia felt obliged so ask, "that I don't see anything of Hsi Jen? Is she too now putting on high and mighty airs that she only sends these juvenile girls here?"
Madame Wang rose to her feet with all haste. "Her mother," she explained, "died the other day; so being in deep mourning, she couldn't very well present herself."
Dowager lady Chia nodded her head assentingly. "When one is in service," she smilingly remarked, "there should be no question of mourning or no mourning. Is it likely that, if she were still in my pay, she wouldn't at present be here? All these practices have quite become precedents!"
Lady Feng crossed over to her. "Had she even not been in mourning to-night," she chimed in with a laugh, "she would have had to be in the garden and keep an eye over that pile of lanterns, candles, and fireworks, as they're most dangerous things. For as soon as any theatricals are set on foot in here, who doesn't surreptitiously sneak out from the garden to have a look? But as far as she goes, she's diligent, and careful of every place. Moreover, when the company disperses and brother Pao-y retires to sleep, everything will be in perfect readiness. But, had she also come, that bevy of servants wouldn't again have cared a straw for anything; and on his return, after the party, the bedding would have been cold, the tea-water wouldn't have been ready, and he would have had to put up with every sort of discomfort. That's why I told her that there was no need for her to come. But should you, dear senior, wish her here, I'll send for her straightway and have done."
Old lady Chia lent an ear to her arguments. "What you say," she promptly put in, "is perfectly right. You've made better arrangements than I could. Quick, don't send for her! But when did her mother die? How is it I know nothing about it?"
"Some time ago," lady Feng laughed, "Hsi Jen came in person and told you, worthy ancestor, and how is it you've forgotten it?"
"Yes," resumed dowager lady Chia smiling, after some reflection, "I remember now. My memory is really not of the best."
At this, everybody gave way to laughter. "How could your venerable ladyship," they said, "recollect so many matters?"
Dowager lady Chia thereupon heaved a sigh. "How I remember," she added, "the way she served me ever since her youth up; and how she waited upon Yn Erh also; how at last she was given to that prince of devils, and how she has slaved away with that imp for the last few years. She is, besides, not a slave-girl, born or bred in the place. Nor has she ever received any great benefits from our hands. When her mother died, I meant to have given her several taels for her burial; but it quite slipped from my mind."
"The other day," lady Feng remarked, "Madame Wang presented her with forty taels; so that was all right."
At these words, old lady Chia nodded assent. "Yes, never mind about that," she observed. "Yuan Yang's mother also died, as it happens, the other day; but taking into consideration that both her parents lived in the south, I didn't let her return home to observe a period of mourning. But as both these girls are now in mourning, why not allow them to live together? They'll thus be able to keep each other company. Take a few fruits, eatables, and other such things," continuing she bade a matron, "and give them to those two girls to eat."
"Would she likely wait until now?" Hu Po laughingly interposed. "Why, she joined (Hsi Jen) long ago."
In the course of this conversation, the various inmates partook of some more wine, and watched the theatricals.
But we will now turn our attention to Pao-y. He made his way straight into the garden. The matrons saw well enough that he was returning to his rooms, but instead of following him in, they ensconced themselves near the fire in the tea-room situated by the garden-gate, and made the best of the time by drinking and playing cards with the girls in charge of the tea. Pao-y entered the court. The lanterns burnt brightly, yet not a human voice was audible. "Have they all, forsooth, gone to sleep?" She Yeh ventured. "Let's walk in gently, and give them a fright!"
Presently, they stepped, on tiptoe, past the mirrored partition-wall. At a glance, they discerned Hsi Jen lying on the stove-couch, face to face with some other girl. On the opposite side sat two or three old nurses nodding, half asleep. Pao-y conjectured that both the girls were plunged in sleep, and was just about to enter, when of a sudden some one was heard to heave a sigh and to say: "How evident it is that worldly matters are very uncertain! Here you lived all alone in here, while your father and mother tarried abroad, and roamed year after year from east to west, without any fixed place of abode. I ever thought that you wouldn't have been able to be with them at their last moments; but, as it happened, (your mother) died in this place this year, and you could, after all, stand by her to the end."
"Quite so!" rejoined Hsi Jen. "Even I little expected to be able to see any of my parents' funeral. When I broke the news to our Madame Wang, she also gave me forty taels. This was really a kind attention on her part. I hadn't nevertheless presumed to indulge in any vain hopes."
Pao-y overheard what was said. Hastily twisting himself round, he remarked in a low voice, addressing himself to She Yeh and her companions: "Who would have fancied her also in here? But were I to enter, she'll bolt away in another tantrum! Better then that we should retrace our steps, and let them quietly have a chat together, eh? Hsi Jen was alone, and down in the mouth, so it's a fortunate thing that she joined her in such good time."
As he spoke, they once more walked out of the court with gentle tread. Pao-y went to the back of the rockery, and stopping short, he raised his clothes. She Yeh and Ch'iu Wen stood still, and turned their faces away. "Stoop," they smiled, "and then loosen your clothes! Be careful that the wind doesn't blow on your stomach!"
The two young maids, who followed behind, surmised that he was bent upon satisfying a natural want, and they hurried ahead to the tea-room to prepare the water.
Just, however, as Pao-y was crossing over, two married women came in sight, advancing from the opposite direction. "Who's there?" they inquired.
"Pao-y is here," Ch'ing Wen answered. "But mind, if you bawl and shout like that, you'll give him a start."
The women promptly laughed. "We had no idea," they said, "that we were coming, at a great festive time like this, to bring trouble upon ourselves! What a lot of hard work must day after day fall to your share, young ladies."
Speaking the while, they drew near. She Yeh and her friends then asked them what they were holding in their hands.
"We're taking over," they replied, "some things to the two girls: Miss Chin and Miss Hua."
"They're still singing the 'Eight Worthies' outside," She Yeh went on to observe laughingly, "and how is it you're running again to Miss Chin's and Miss Hua's before the 'Trouble-first moon-box' has been gone through?"
"Take the lid off," Pao-y cried, "and let me see what there's inside."
Ch'in Wen and She Yeh at once approached and uncovered the boxes. The two women promptly stooped, which enabled Pao-y to see that the contents of the two boxes consisted alike of some of the finest fruits and tea-cakes, which had figured at the banquet, and, nodding his head, he walked off, while She Yeh and her friend speedily threw the lids down anyhow, and followed in his track.
"Those two dames are pleasant enough," Pao-y smiled, "and they know how to speak decently; but it's they who get quite worn out every day, and they contrariwise say that you've got ample to do daily. Now, doesn't this amount to bragging and boasting?"
"Those two women," She Yeh chimed in, "are not bad. But such of them as don't know what good manners mean are ignorant to a degree of all propriety."
"You, who know what's what," Pao-y added, "should make allowances for that kind of rustic people. You should pity them; that's all."
Speaking, he made his exit out of the garden gate. The matrons had, though engaged in drinking and gambling, kept incessantly stepping out of doors to furtively keep an eye on his movements, so that the moment they perceived Pao-y appear, they followed him in a body. On their arrival in the covered passage of the reception-hall, they espied two young waiting-maids; the one with a small basin in her hand; the other with a towel thrown over her arm. They also held a bowl and small kettle, and had been waiting in that passage for ever so long.
Ch'iu Wen was the first to hastily stretch out her hand and test the water. "The older you grow," she cried, "the denser you get! How could one ever use this icy-cold water?"
"Miss, look at the weather!" the young maid replied. "I was afraid the water would get cold. It was really scalding; is it cold now?"
While she made this rejoinder, an old matron was, by a strange coincidence, seen coming along, carrying a jug of hot water. "Dear dame," shouted the young maid, "come over and pour some for me in here!"
"My dear girl," the matron responded, "this is for our old mistress to brew tea with. I'll tell you what; you'd better go and fetch some yourself. Are you perchance afraid lest your feet might grow bigger by walking?"
"I don't care whose it is," Ch'iu Wen put in. "If you don't give me any, I shall certainly empty our old lady's teapot and wash my hands."
The old matron turned her head; and, catching sight of Ch'iu Wen, she there and then raised the jug and poured some of the water.
"That will do!" exclaimed Ch'iu Wen. "With all your years, don't you yet know what's what? Who isn't aware that it's for our old mistress? But would one presume to ask for what shouldn't be asked for?"
"My eyes are so dim," the matron rejoined with a smile, "that I didn't recognise this young lady."
When Pao-y had washed his hands, the young maid took the small jug and filled the bowl; and, as she held it in her hand, Pao-y rinsed his mouth. But Ch'iu Wen and She Yeh availed themselves likewise of the warm water to have a wash; after which, they followed Pao-y in.
Pao-y at once asked for a kettle of warm wine, and, starting from sister-in-law Li, he began to replenish their cups. (Sister-in-law Li and his aunt Hseh) pressed him, however, with smiling faces, to take a seat; but his grandmother Chia remonstrated. "He's only a youngster," she said, "so let him pour the wine! We must all drain this cup!"
With these words, she quaffed her own cup, leaving no heel-taps. Mesdames Hsing and Wang also lost no time in emptying theirs; so Mrs. Hseh and 'sister-in-law' Li had no alternative but to drain their share.
"Fill the cups too of your female cousins, senior or junior," dowager lady Chia went on to tell Pao-y. "And you mayn't pour the wine anyhow. Each of you must swallow every drop of your drinks."
Pao-y upon hearing her wishes, set to work, while signifying his assent, to replenish the cups of the several young ladies in their proper gradation. But when he got to Tai-y, she raised the cup, for she would not drink any wine herself, and applied it to Pao-y's lips. Pao-y drained the contents with one breath; upon which Tai-y gave him a smile, and said to him: "I am much obliged to you."
Pao-y next poured a cup for her. But lady Feng immediately laughed and expostulated. "Pao-y!" she cried, "you mustn't take any cold wine. Mind, your hand will tremble, and you won't be able to-morrow to write your characters or to draw the bow."
"I'm not having any cold wine," Pao-y replied.
"I know you're not," lady Feng smiled, "but I simply warn you."
After this, Pao-y finished helping the rest of the inmates inside, with the exception of Chia Jung's wife, for whom he bade a maid fill a cup. Then emerging again into the covered passage, he replenished the cups of Chia Chen and his companions; after which, he tarried with them for a while, and at last walked in and resumed his former seat.
Presently, the soup was brought, and soon after that the 'feast of lanterns' cakes were handed round.
Dowager lady Chia gave orders that the play should be interrupted for a time. "Those young people," (she said) "are be to pitied! Let them too have some hot soup and warm viands. They then can go on again. Take of every kind of fruit," she continued, "'feast of lanterns' cakes, and other such dainties and give them a few."
The play was shortly stopped. The matrons ushered in a couple of blind singing-girls, who often came to the house, and put two benches, on the opposite side, for them. Old lady Chia desired them to take a seat, and banjos and guitars were then handed to them.
"What stories would you like to hear?" old lady Chia inquired of 'sister-in-law' Li and Mrs. Hseh.
"We don't care what they are;" both of them rejoined with one voice. "Any will do!"
"Have you of late added any new stories to your stock?" old lady Chia asked.
"We've got a new story," the two girls explained. "It's about an old affair of the time of the Five Dynasties, which trod down the T'ang dynasty."
"What's its title?" old lady Chia inquired.
"It's called: 'A Feng seeks a Luan in marriage': (the male phoenix asks the female phoenix in marriage)," one of the girls answered.
"The title is all very well," dowager lady Chia proceeded, "but why I wonder was it ever given to it. First tell us its general purport, and if it's interesting, you can continue."
"This story," the girl explained, "treats of the time when the T'ang dynasty was extinguished. There lived then one of the gentry, who had originally been a denizen of Chin Ling. His name was Wang Chun. He had been minister under two reigns. He had, about this time, pleaded old age and returned to his home. He had about his knees only one son, called Wang Hsi-feng."
When the company heard so far, they began to laugh.
"Now isn't this a duplicate of our girl Feng's name?" old lady Chia laughingly exclaimed.
A married woman hurried up and pushed (the girl). "That's the name of your lady Secunda," she said, "so don't use it quite so heedlessly!"
"Go on with your story!" dowager lady Chia shouted.
The girl speedily stood up, smiling the while. "We do deserve death!" she observed. "We weren't aware that it was our lady's worthy name."
"Why should you be in such fear and trembling?" lady Feng laughed. "Go on! There are many duplicate names and duplicate surnames."
The girl then proceeded with her story. "In a certain year," she resumed, "his honour old Mr. Wang saw his son Mr. Wang off for the capital to be in time for the examinations. One day, he was overtaken by a heavy shower of rain and he betook himself into a village for shelter. Who'd have thought it, there lived in this village, one of the gentry, of the name of Li, who had been an old friend of his honour old Mr. Wang, and he kept Mr. Wang junior to put up in his library. This Mr. Li had no son, but only a daughter. This young daughter's worthy name was Ch'u Luan. She could perform on the lute; she could play chess; and she had a knowledge of books and of painting. There was nothing that she did not understand."
Old lady Chia eagerly chimed in. "It's no wonder," she said, "that the story has been called: 'A Feng seeks a Luan in marriage,' '(a male phoenix seeks a female phoenix in marriage).' But you needn't proceed. I've already guessed the denouement. There's no doubt that Wang Hsi-feng asks for the hand of this Miss Ch'u Luan."
"Your venerable ladyship must really have heard the story before," the singing-girl smiled.
"What hasn't our worthy senior heard?" they all exclaimed. "But she's quick enough in guessing even unheard of things."
"All these stories run invariably in one line," old lady Chia laughingly rejoined. "They're all about pretty girls and scholars. There's no fun in them. They abuse people's daughters in every possible way, and then they still term them nice pretty girls. They're so concocted that there's not even a semblance of truth in them. From the very first, they canvass the families of the gentry. If the paterfamilias isn't a president of a board; then he's made a minister. The heroine is bound to be as lovable as a gem. This young lady is sure to understand all about letters, and propriety. She knows every thing and is, in a word, a peerless beauty. At the sight of a handsome young man, she pays no heed as to whether he be relation or friend, but begins to entertain thoughts of the primary affair of her life, and forgets her parents and sets her books on one side. She behaves as neither devil nor thief would: so in what respect does she resemble a nice pretty girl? Were even her brain full of learning, she couldn't be accounted a nice pretty girl, after behaving in this manner! Just like a young fellow, whose mind is well stored with book-lore, and who goes and plays the robber! Now is it likely that the imperial laws would look upon him as a man of parts, and that they wouldn't bring against him some charge of robbery? From this it's evident that those, who fabricate these stories, contradict themselves. Besides, they may, it's true, say that the heroines belong to great families of official and literary status, that they're conversant with propriety and learning and that their honourable mothers too understand books and good manners, but great households like theirs must, in spite of the parents having pleaded old age and returned to their natives places, contain a great number of inmates; and the nurses, maids and attendants on these young ladies must also be many; and how is it then that, whenever these stories make reference to such matters, one only hears of young ladies with but a single close attendant? What can, think for yourselves, all the other people be up to? Indeed, what is said before doesn't accord with what comes afterwards. Isn't it so, eh?"
The party listened to her with much glee. "These criticisms of yours, venerable ancestor," they said, "have laid bare every single discrepancy."
"They have however their reasons," old lady Chia smilingly resumed. "Among the writers of these stories, there are some, who begrudge people's wealth and honours, or possibly those, who having solicited a favour (of the wealthy and honorable), and not obtained the object, upon which their wishes were set, have fabricated lies in order to disparage people. There is moreover a certain class of persons, who become so corrupted by the perusal of such tales that they are not satisfied until they themselves pounce upon some nice pretty girl. Hence is it that, for fun's sake, they devise all these yarns. But how could such as they ever know the principle which prevails in official and literary families? Not to speak of the various official and literary families spoken about in these anecdotes, take now our own immediate case as an instance. We're only such a middle class household, and yet we've got none of those occurrences; so don't let her go on spinning these endless yarns. We must on no account have any of these stories told us! Why, even the maids themselves don't understand any of this sort of language. I've been getting so old the last few years, that I felt unawares quite melancholy whenever the girls went to live far off, so my wont has been to have a few passages recounted to me; but as soon as they got back, I at once put a stop to these things."
'Sister-in-law' Li and Mrs. Hseh both laughed. "This is just the rule," they said, "which should exist in great families. Not even in our homes is any of this confused talk allowed to reach the ears of the young people."
Lady Feng came forward and poured some wine. "Enough, that will do!" she laughed. "The wine has got quite cold. My dear ancestor, do take a sip and moisten your throat with, before you begin again to dilate on falsehoods. What we've been having now can well be termed 'Record of a discussion on falsehoods.' It has had its origin in this reign, in this place, in this year, in this moon, on this day and at this very season. But, venerable senior, you've only got one mouth, so you couldn't very well simultaneously speak of two families. 'When two flowers open together,' the proverb says, 'one person can only speak of one.' But whether the stones be true or fictitious, don't let us say anything more about them. Let's have the footlights put in order, and look at the players. Dear senior, do let these two relatives have a glass of wine and see a couple of plays; and you can then start arguing about one dynasty after another. Eh, what do you say?"
Saying this, she poured the wine, laughing the while. But she had scarcely done speaking before the whole company were convulsed with laughter. The two singing girls were themselves unable to keep their countenance.
"Lady Secunda," they both exclaimed, "what a sharp tongue you have! Were your ladyship to take to story-telling, we really would have nowhere to earn our rice."
"Don't be in such overflowing spirits," Mrs. Hseh laughed. "There are people outside; this isn't like any ordinary occasion."
"There's only my senior brother-in-law Chen outside," lady Feng smiled. "And we've been like brother and sister from our youth up. We've romped and been up to every mischief to this age together. But all on account of my marriage, I've had of late years to stand on ever so many ceremonies. Why besides being like brother and sister from the time we were small kids, he's anyhow my senior brother-in-law, and I his junior sister-in-law. (One among) those twenty four dutiful sons, travestied himself in theatrical costume (to amuse his parents), but those fellows haven't sufficient spirit to come in some stage togs and try and make you have a laugh, dear ancestor. I've however succeeded, after ever so much exertion, in so diverting you as to induce you to eat a little more than you would, and in putting everybody in good humour; and I should be thanked by one and all of you; it's only right that I should. But can it be that you will, on the contrary, poke fun at me?"
"I've truly not had a hearty laugh the last few days," old lady Chia smiled, "but thanks to the funny things she recounted just now, I've managed to get in somewhat better spirits in here. So I'll have another cup of wine." Then having drunk her wine, "Pao-y," she went on to say, "come and present a cup to your sister-in-law!"
Lady Feng gave a smile. "There's no use for him to give me any wine," she ventured. "(I'll drink out of your cup,) so as to bring upon myself your longevity, venerable ancestor."
While uttering this response, she raised dowager lady Chia's cup to her lips, and drained the remaining half of the contents; after which, she handed the cup to a waiting-maid, who took one from those which had been rinsed with tepid water, and brought it to her. But in due course, the cups from the various tables were cleared, and clean ones, washed in warm water, were substituted; and when fresh wine had been served round, (lady Feng and the maid) resumed their seats.
"Venerable lady," a singing-girl put in, "you don't like the stories we tell; but may we thrum a song for you?"
"You two," remarked old lady Chia, "had better play a duet of the 'Chiang Chn ling' song: 'the general's command.'"
Hearing her wishes, the two girls promptly tuned their cords, to suit the pitch of the song, and struck up on their guitars.
"What watch of the night is it?" old lady Chia at this point inquired.
"It's the third watch," the matrons replied with alacrity.
"No wonder it has got so chilly and damp!" old lady Chia added.
Extra clothes were accordingly soon fetched by the servants and maids.
Madame Wang speedily rose to her feet and forced a smile. "Venerable senior," she said, "wouldn't it be prudent for you to move on to the stove couch in the winter apartments? It would be as well. These two relatives are no strangers. And if we entertain them, it will he all right."
"Well, in that case," dowager lady Chia smilingly rejoined, "why shouldn't the whole company adjourn inside? Wouldn't it be warmer for us all?"
"I'm afraid there isn't enough sitting room for every one of us," Madame Wang explained.
"I've got a plan," old lady Chia added. "We can now dispense with these tables. All we need are two or three, placed side by side; we can then sit in a group, and by bundling together it will be both sociable as well as warm."
"Yes, this will be nice!" one and all cried.
Assenting, they forthwith rose from table. The married women hastened to remove the debandade of the banquet. Then placing three large tables lengthways side by side in the inner rooms, they went on to properly arrange the fruits and viands, some of which had been replenished, others changed.
"You must none of you stand on any ceremonies!" dowager lady Chia observed. "If you just listen while I allot you your places, and sit down accordingly, it will be all right!"
Continuing, she motioned to Mrs. Hseh and 'sister-in-law' Li to take the upper seats on the side of honour, and, making herself comfortable on the west, she bade the three cousins Pao-ch'in, Tai-y and Hsian-yn sit close to her on the left and on the right. "Pao-y," she proceeded "you must go next to your mother." So presently she put Pao-y, and Pao-ch'ai and the rest of the young ladies between Mesdames Hsing and Wang. On the west, she placed, in proper gradation, dame Lou, along with Chia Lan, and Mrs. Yu and Li Wan, with Chia Lan, (number two,) between them. While she assigned a chair to Chia Jung's wife among the lower seats, put crosswise. "Brother Chen," old lady Chia cried, "take your cousins and be off! I'm also going to sleep in a little time."
Chia Chen and his associates speedily expressed their obedience, and made, in a body, their appearance inside again to listen to any injunctions she might have to give them.
"Bundle yourself away at once!" shouted dowager lady Chia. "You needn't come in. We've just sat down, and you'll make us get up again. Go and rest; be quick! To-morrow, there are to be some more grand doings!" Chia Chen assented with alacrity. "But Jung Erh should remain to replenish the cups," he smiled; "it's only fair that he should."
"Quite so!" answered old lady Chia laughingly. "I forgot all about him."
"Yes!" acquiesced Chia Chen. Then twisting himself round, he led Chia Lien and his companions out of the apartment.
(Chia Chen and Chia Lien) were, of course, both pleased at being able to get away. So bidding the servants see Chia Tsung and Chia Huang to their respective homes, (Chia Chen) arranged with Chia Lien to go in pursuit of pleasure and in quest of fun. But we will now leave them to their own devices without another word.
"I was just thinking," meanwhile dowager lady Chia laughed, "that it would be well, although you people are numerous enough to enjoy yourselves, to have a couple of great-grandchildren present at this banquet, so Jung Erh now makes the full complement. But Jung Erh sit near your wife, for she and you will then make the pair complete."
The wife of a domestic thereupon presented a play-bill.
"We, ladies," old lady Chia demurred, "are now chatting in high glee, and are about to start a romp. Those young folks have, also, been sitting up so far into the night that they must be quite cold, so let the plays alone. Tell them then to have a rest. Yet call our own girls to come and sing a couple of plays on this stage. They too will thus have a chance of watching us a bit."
After lending an ear to her, the married women assented and quitted the room. And immediately finding some servant to go to the garden of Broad Vista and summon the girls, they betook themselves, at the same time, as far as the second gate and called a few pages to wait on them.
The pages went with hurried step to the rooms reserved for the players, and taking with them the various grown-up members of the company, they only left the more youthful behind. Then fetching, in a little time, Wen Kuan and a few other girls, twelve in all, from among the novices in the Pear Fragrance court, they egressed by the corner gate leading out of the covered passage. The matrons took soft bundles in their arms, as their strength was not equal to carrying boxes. And under the conviction that their old mistress would prefer plays of three or five acts, they had put together the necessary theatrical costumes.
After Wen Kuan and the rest of the girls had been introduced into the room by the matrons, they paid their obeisance, and, dropping their arms against their sides, they stood reverentially.
"In this propitious first moon," old lady Chia smiled, "won't your teacher let you come out for a stroll? What are you singing now? The eight acts of the 'Eight worthies' recently sung here were so noisy, that they made my head ache; so you'd better let us have something more quiet. You must however bear in mind that Mrs. Hseh and Mrs. Li are both people, who give theatricals, and have heard I don't know how many fine plays. The young ladies here have seen better plays than our own girls; and they have heard more beautiful songs than they. These actresses, you see here now, formed once, despite their youth, part of a company belonging to renowned families, fond of plays; and though mere children, they excel any troupe composed of grown-up persons. So whatever we do, don't let us say anything disparaging about them. But we must now have something new. Tell Fang Kuan to sing us the 'Hsn Meng' ballad; and let only flutes and Pandean pipes be used. The other instruments can be dispensed with."
"Your venerable ladyship is quite right," Wen Kuan smiled. "Our acting couldn't, certainly, suit the taste of such people as Mrs. Hseh, Mrs. Li and the young ladies. Nevertheless, let them merely heed our enunciation, and listen to our voices; that's all."
"Well said!" dowager lady Chia laughed.
'Sister-in-law' Li and Mrs. Hseh were filled with delight. "What a sharp girl!" they remarked smilingly. "But do you also try to imitate our old lady by pulling our leg?"
"They're intended to afford us some ready-at-hand recreation," old lady Chia smiled. "Besides, they don't go out to earn money. That's how it is they are not so much up to the times." At the close of this remark, she also desired K'uei Kuan to sing the play: 'Hui Ming sends a letter.' "You needn't," she added, "make your face up. Just sing this couple of plays so as to merely let both those ladies hear a kind of parody of them. But if you spare yourselves the least exertion, I shall be unhappy."
When they heard this, Wen Kuan and her companions left the apartment and promptly apparelled themselves and mounted the stage. First in order, was sung the 'Hsn Meng;' next, '(Hui Ming) sends a letter;' during which, everybody observed such perfect silence that not so much as the caw of a crow fell on the ear.
"I've verily seen several hundreds of companies," Mrs. Hseh smiled, "but never have I come across any that confined themselves to flutes."
"There are some," dowager lady Chia answered. "In fact, in that play acted just now called: 'Love in the western tower at Ch'u Ch'iang,' there's a good deal sung by young actors in unison with the flutes. But lengthy unison pieces of this description are indeed few. This too, however, is purely a matter of taste; there's nothing out of the way about it. When I was of her age," resuming, she pointed at Hsiang-yn, "her grandfather kept a troupe of young actresses. There was among them one, who played the lute so efficiently that she performed the part when the lute is heard in the 'Hsi Hsiang Chi,' the piece on the lute in the 'Y Ts'an Chi,' and that in the supplementary 'P'i Pa Chi,' on the Mongol flageolet with the eighteen notes, in every way as if she had been placed in the real circumstances herself. Yea, far better than this!"
"This is still rarer a thing!" the inmates exclaimed.
Old lady Chia then shortly called the married women, and bade them tell Wen Kan and the other girls to use both wind and string instruments and render the piece; 'At the feast of lanterns, the moon is round.'
The women servants received her orders and went to execute them. Chia Jung and his wife meanwhile passed the wine round.
When lady Feng saw dowager lady Chia in most exuberant spirits, she smiled. "Won't it be nice," she said, "to avail ourselves of the presence of the singing girls to pass plum blossom round and have the game of forfeits: 'Spring-happy eyebrow-corners-go-up,' eh?"
"That's a fine game of forfeits!" Old lady Chia cried, with a smile. "It just suits the time of the year."
Orders were therefore given at once to fetch a forfeit drum, varnished black, and ornamented with designs executed with copper tacks. When brought, it was handed to the singing girls to put on the table and rap on it. A twig of red plum blossom was then obtained. "The one in whose hand it is when the drum stops," dowager lady Chia laughingly proposed, "will have to drink a cup of wine, and to say something or other as well."
"I'll tell you what," lady Feng interposed with a smile. "Who of us can pit herself against you, dear ancestor, who have ever ready at hand whatever you want to say? With the little use we are in this line, won't there be an absolute lack of fun in our contributions? My idea is that it would be nicer were something said that could be appreciated both by the refined as well as the unrefined. So won't it be preferable that the person, in whose hands the twig remains, when the drum stops, should crack some joke or other?"
Every one, who heard her, was fully aware what a good hand she had always been at witty things, and how she, more than any other, had an inexhaustible supply of novel and amusing rules of forfeits, ever stocked in her mind, so her suggestion not only gratified the various inmates of the family seated at the banquet, but even filled the whole posse of servants, both old and young, who stood in attendance below, with intense delight. The young waiting-maids rushed with eagerness in search of the young ladies and told them to come and listen to their lady Secunda, who was on the point again of saying funny things. A whole crowd of servant-girls anxiously pressed inside and crammed the room. In a little time, the theatricals were brought to a close, and the music was stopped. Dowager lady Chia had some soup, fine cakes and fruits handed to Wen Kuan and her companions to regale themselves with, and then gave orders to sound the drum. The singing-girls were both experts, so now they beat fast; and now slow. Either slow like the dripping of the remnants of water in a clepsydra. Or quick, as when beans are being sown. Or with the velocity of the pace of a scared horse, or that of the flash of a swift lightning. The sound of the drum came to a standstill abruptly. The twig of plum blossom had just reached old lady Chia, when by a strange coincidence, the rattle ceased. Every one blurted out into a boisterous fit of laughter. Chia Jung hastily approached and filled a cup. "It's only natural," they laughingly cried, "that you venerable senior, should be the first to get exhilarated; for then, thanks to you, we shall also come in for some measure of good cheer."
"To gulp down this wine is an easy job," dowager lady smiled, "but to crack jokes is somewhat difficult."
"Your jokes, dear ancestor, are even wittier than those of lady Feng," the party shouted, "so favour us with one, and let's have a laugh!"
"I've nothing out of the way to evoke laughter with," old lady Chia smilingly answered. "Yet all that remains for me to do is to thicken the skin of my antiquated phiz and come out with some joke. In a certain family," she consequently went on to narrate, "there were ten sons; these married ten wives. The tenth of these wives was, however, so intelligent, sharp, quick of mind, and glib of tongue, that her father and mother-in-law loved her best of all, and maintained from morning to night that the other nine were not filial. These nine felt much aggrieved and they accordingly took counsel together. 'We nine,' they said, 'are filial enough at heart; the only thing is that that shrew has the gift of the gab. That's why our father and mother-in-law think her so perfect. But to whom can we go and confide our grievance?' One of them was struck with an idea. 'Let's go to-morrow,' she proposed, 'to the temple of the King of Hell and burn incense. We can then tell the King our grudge and ask him how it was that, when he bade us receive life and become human beings, he only conferred a glib tongue on that vixen and that we were only allotted such blunt mouths?' The eight listened to her plan, and were quite enraptured with it. 'This proposal is faultless!' they assented. On the next day, they sped in a body to the temple of the God of Hell, and after burning incense, the nine sisters-in-law slept under the altar, on which their offerings were laid. Their nine spirits waited with the special purpose of seeing the carriage of the King of Hell arrive; but they waited and waited, and yet he did not come. They were just giving way to despair when they espied Sun Hsing-che, (the god of monkeys), advancing on a rolling cloud. He espied the nine spirits, and felt inclined to take a golden rod and beat them. The nine spirits were plunged in terror. Hastily they fell on their knees, and pleaded for mercy."
"'What are you up to?' Sun Hsing-che inquired."
"The nine women, with alacrity, told him all."
"After Sun Hsing-che had listened to their confidences, he stamped his foot and heaved a sigh. 'Is that the case?' he asked. 'Well, it's lucky enough you came across me, for had you waited for the God of Hell, he wouldn't have known anything about it.'"
"At these assurances, the nine women gave way to entreaties. 'Great saint,' they pleaded, 'if you were to display some commiseration, we would be all right.'"
"Sun Hsing-che smiled. 'There's no difficulty in the way,' he observed. 'On the day on which you ten sisters-in-law came to life, I was, as luck would have it, on a visit to the King of Hell's place. So I (saw) him do something on the ground, and the junior sister-of-law of yours lap it up. But if you now wish to become smart and sharp-tongued, the remedy lies in water. If I too were therefore to do something, and you to drink it, the desired effect will be attained.'"
At the close of her story, the company roared with laughter.
"Splendid!" shouted lady Feng. "But luckily we're all slow of tongue and dull of intellect, otherwise, we too must have had the water of monkeys to drink."
"Who among us here," Mrs. Yu and dame Lou smilingly remarked, addressing themselves to Li Wan, "has tasted any monkey's water. So don't sham ignorance of things!"
"A joke must hit the point to be amusing," Mrs. Hseh ventured.
But while she spoke, (the girls) began again to beat the drum. The young maids were keen to hear lady Feng's jokes. They therefore explained to the singing girls, in a confidential tone, that a cough would be the given signal (for them to desist). In no time (the blossom) was handed round on both sides. As soon as it came to lady Feng, the young maids purposely gave a cough. The singing-girl at once stopped short. "Now we've caught her!" shouted the party laughingly; "drink your wine, be quick! And mind you tell something nice! But don't make us laugh so heartily as to get stomachaches."
Lady Feng was lost in thought. Presently, she began with a smile. "A certain household," she said, "was celebrating the first moon festival. The entire family was enjoying the sight of the lanterns, and drinking their wine. In real truth unusual excitement prevailed. There were great grandmothers, grandmothers, daughters-in-law, grandsons' wives, great grandsons, granddaughters, granddaughters-in-law, aunts' granddaughters, cousins' granddaughters; and ai-yo-yo, there was verily such a bustle and confusion!"
While minding her story, they laughed. "Listen to all this mean mouth says!" they cried. "We wonder what other ramifications she won't introduce!"
"If you want to bully me," Mrs. Yu smiled, "I'll tear that mouth of yours to pieces."
Lady Feng rose to her feet and clapped her hands.
"One does all one can to rack one's brain," she smiled, "and here you combine to do your utmost to confuse me! Well, if it is so, I won't go on."
"Proceed with your story," old lady Chia exclaimed with a smile. "What comes afterwards?"
Lady Feng thought for a while. "Well, after that," she continued laughingly, "they all sat together and crammed the whole room. They primed themselves with wine throughout the hours of night and then they broke up."
The various inmates noticed in what a serious and sedate manner she narrated her story, and none ventured to pass any further remarks, but waited anxiously for her to go on, when they became aware that she coldly and drily came to a stop.
Shih Hsiang-yn stared at her for ever so long.
"I'll tell you another," lady Feng laughingly remarked. "At the first moon festival, several persons carried a cracker as large as a room and went out of town to let it off. Over and above ten thousand persons were attracted, and they followed to see the sight. One among them was of an impatient disposition. He could not reconcile himself to wait; so stealthily he snatched a joss-stick and set fire to it. A sound of 'pu-ch'ih' was heard. The whole number of spectators laughed boisterously and withdrew. The persons, who carried the cracker, felt a grudge against the cracker-seller for not having made it tight, (and wondered) how it was that every one had left without hearing it go off."
"Is it likely that the men themselves didn't hear the report?" Hsiang-yn insinuated.
"Why, the men themselves were deaf," lady Feng rejoined.
After listening to her, they pondered for a while, and then suddenly they laughed aloud in chorus. But remembering that her first story had been left unfinished, they inquired of her: "What was, after all, the issue of the first story? You should conclude that too."
Lady Feng gave a rap on the table with her hand. "How vexatious you are!" she exclaimed. "Well, the next day was the sixteenth; so the festivities of the year were over, and the feast itself was past and gone. I see people busy putting things away, and fussing about still, so how can I make out what will be the end of it all?"
At this, one and all indulged in renewed merriment.
"The fourth watch has long ago been struck outside," lady Feng smilingly said. "From what I can see, our worthy senior is also tired out; and we should, like when the cracker was let off in that story of the deaf people, be bundling ourselves off and finish!"
Mrs. Yu and the rest covered their mouths with their handkerchiefs and laughed. Now they stooped forward; and now they bent backward. And pointing at her, "This thing," they cried, "has really a mean tongue."
Old lady Chia laughed. "Yes," she said, "this vixen Feng has, in real truth, developed a meaner tongue than ever! But she alluded to crackers," she added, "so let's also let off a few fireworks so as to counteract the fumes of the wine."
Chia Jung overheard the suggestion. Hurriedly leaving the room, he took the pages with him, and having a scaffolding erected in the court, they hung up the fireworks, and got everything in perfect readiness. These fireworks were articles of tribute, sent from different states, and were, albeit not large in size, contrived with extreme ingenuity. The representations of various kinds of events of antiquity were perfect, and in them were inserted all sorts of crackers.
Lin Tai-y was naturally of a weak disposition, so she could not stand the report of any loud intonation. Her grandmother Chia therefore clasped her immediately in her embrace. Mrs. Hseh, meanwhile, took Hsiang-yn in her arms.
"I'm not afraid," smiled Hsiang-yn.
"Nothing she likes so much as letting off huge crackers," Pao-ch'ai smilingly interposed, "and could she fear this sort of thing?"
Madame Wang, thereupon, laid hold of Pao-y, and pulled him in her lap.
"We've got no one to care a rap for us," lady Feng laughed.
"I'm here for you," Mrs. Yu rejoined with a laugh. "I'll embrace you. There you're again behaving like a spoilt child. You've heard about crackers, and you comport yourself as if you'd had honey to eat! You're quite frivolous again to-day!"
"Wait till we break up," lady Feng answered laughing, "and we'll go and let some off in our garden. I can fire them far better than any of the young lads!"
While they bandied words, one kind of firework after another was lighted outside, and then later on some more again. Among these figured 'fill-heaven-stars;' 'nine dragons-enter-clouds;' 'over-whole-land-a- crack-of-thunder;' 'fly-up-heavens;' 'sound-ten shots,' and other such small crackers.
The fireworks over, the young actresses were again asked to render the 'Lotus-flowers-fall,' and cash were strewn upon the stage. The young girls bustled all over the boards, snatching cash and capering about.
The soup was next brought. "The night is long," old lady Chia said, "and somehow or other I feel peckish."
"There's some congee," lady Feng promptly remarked, "prepared with duck's meat."
"I'd rather have plain things," dowager lady Chia answered.
"There's also some congee made with non-glutinous rice and powder of dates. It's been cooked for the ladies who fast."
"If there's any of this, it will do very well," old lady Chia replied.
While she spoke, orders were given to remove the remnants of the banquet, and inside as well as outside; were served every kind of recherch small dishes. One and all then partook of some of these refreshments, at their pleasure, and rinsing their mouths with tea, they afterwards parted.
On the seventeenth, they also repaired, at an early hour, to the Ning mansion to present their compliments; and remaining in attendance, while the doors of the ancestral hall were closed and the images put away, they, at length, returned to their quarters.
Invitations had been issued on this occasion to drink the new year wine at Mrs. Hseh's residence. But dowager lady Chia had been out on several consecutive days, and so tired out did she feel that she withdrew to her rooms, after only a short stay.
After the eighteenth, relatives and friends arrived and made their formal invitations; or else they came as guests to the banquets given. But so little was old lady Chia in a fit state to turn her mind to anything that the two ladies, Madame Hsing and lady Feng, had to attend between them to everything that cropped up. But Pao-y as well did not go anywhere else than to Wang Tzu-t'eng's, and the excuse he gave out was that his grandmother kept him at home to dispel her ennui.
We need not, however, dilate on irrelevant details. In due course, the festival of the fifteenth of the first moon passed. But, reader, if you have any curiosity to learn any subsequent events, listen to those given in the chapter below.
The stupid secondary wife, dame Chao, needlessly loses her temper and insults her own daughter, T'an Ch'un. The perverse servant-girls are so full of malice that they look down contemptuously on their youthful mistresses.
We will now resume our narration with the Jung Mansion. Soon after the bustle of the new year festivities, lady Feng who, with the most arduous duties she had had to fulfil both before and after the new year, had found little time to take proper care of herself, got a miscarriage and could not attend to the management of domestic affairs. Day after day two and three doctors came and prescribed for her. But lady Feng had ever accustomed herself to be hardy, so although unable to go out of doors, she nevertheless devised the ways and means for everything, and made the various arrangements she deemed necessary, and whatever concern suggested itself to her mind, she entrusted to P'ing Erh to lay before Madame Wang. But however much people advised her to be careful, she would not lend an ear to them. Madame Wang felt as if she had been deprived of her right arm. And as she alone had not sufficient energy to see to everything, she bestowed her own attention upon such important affairs, as turned up, and entrusted, for the time being, all miscellaneous domestic matters to the co-operation of Li Wan.
Li Wan had at all times held virtue at a high price, and set but little value on talents of any kind, so that she, as a matter of course, displayed leniency to those who were placed under her. Madame Wang accordingly bade T'an Ch'un combine with Li Wan in the management of the household. "In a month," she argued, "lady Feng will be getting all right again, and then you can once more hand over charge to her."
Little, however, though one would think it, lady Feng was endowed with a poor physique. From her youth up, moreover, she had not known how to husband her health; and emulation and contentiousness had, more than anything else, combined to undermine her vital energies. Hence it was that although her complaint was a simple miscarriage, it had really, after all, been the outcome of loss of vigour. After a month symptoms of emissions of blood began also to show themselves. And notwithstanding her reluctance to utter what she felt every one, at the sight of her sallow and emaciated face, readily concluded that she was not nursing herself as well as she should.
Madame Wang therefore enjoined her merely to take her medicines and look to herself with due care; and she would not allow her to disquiet her mind about the least thing. But (lady Feng) herself also gave way to misgivings lest her illness should assume some grave phase, and much though she laughed with one and all, she was ever mindful to steal time to attend to her health, feeling inwardly vexed at not being able to soon get back her old strength again. But she had, as it happened, to dose herself with medicines and to nurse herself for three whole months, before she gradually began to rally and before the discharges stopped by degrees. But we will abstain from any reference to these details which pertain to the future, suffice it now to add that though Madame Wang noticed her improved state, (she thought it) impossible for the time being for T'an Ch'un and Li Wan to resign their charge. But so fidgetty was she lest with the large number of inmates in the garden proper control should not be exercised that she specially sent for Pao-ch'ai and begged of her to keep an eye over every place, explaining to her that the old matrons were of no earthly use, for whenever they could obtain any leisure, they drank and gambled; and slept during broad daylight, while they played at cards during the hours of night. "I know all about their doings," (she said). "When that girl Feng is well enough to go out, they have some little fear. But they're bound at present to consult again their own convenience. Yet you, dear child, are one in whom I can repose complete trust. Your brother and your female cousins are, on the one hand, young; and I can, on the other, afford no spare time; so do exert yourself on my behalf for a couple of days, and exercise proper supervision. And should anything unexpected turn up, just come and tell it to me. Don't wait until our old lady inquires about it, as I shall then find myself in a corner with nothing to say in my defence. If those servants aren't on their good behaviour, mind you blow them up; and if they don't listen to you, come and lay your complaint before me; for it will be best not to let anything assume a serious aspect."
Pao-ch'ai listened to her appeal and felt under the necessity of volunteering to undertake the charge.
The season was about the close of spring, so Tai-y got her cough back again. But Hsiang-yn was likewise laid up in the Heng Wu Yan, as she too was affected by the weather, and day after day she saw numberless doctors and took endless medicines.
T'an Ch'un and Li Wan lived apart, but as they had of late assumed joint management of affairs, it was, unlike former years, extremely inconvenient even for the servants to go backwards and forwards to make their reports. They consequently resolved that they should meet early every day in the small three-roomed reception-hall, at the south side of the garden gate, to transact what business there was, and that their morning meal over, they should after noon return again to their quarters.
This three-roomed hall had originally been got ready at the time of the visit of the imperial consort to her parents, to accommodate the attendants and eunuchs. This visit over, it proved, therefore, no longer of use, and the old matrons simply came to it every night to keep watch. But mild weather had now set in, and any complete fittings were quite superfluous. All that could be seen about amounted to a few small pieces of furniture just sufficient for them to make themselves comfortable with. Over this hall was likewise affixed a placard, with the inscription in four characters:
"Perfected philanthropy, published virtue!"
Yet the place was generally known among the domestics as 'the discuss-matters-hall.' To this hall, (Li Wan and T'an Ch'un) would daily adjourn at six in the morning, and leave it at noon, and the wives of the managers and other servants, who had any matters to lay before them, came and went in incessant strings.
When the domestics heard that Li Wan would assume sole control, each and all felt secretly elated; for as Li Wan had always been considerate, forbearing and loth to inflict penalties, she would be, of course, they thought, easier to put off than lady Feng. Even when T'an Ch'un was added, they again remembered that she was only a youthful unmarried girl and that she too had ever shown herself goodnatured and kindly to a degree, so none of them worried their minds about her, and they became considerably more indolent than when they had to deal with lady Feng. But after the expiry of three or four days several concerns passed through her hands, which gave them an opportunity to gradually find out that T'an Ch'un did not, in smartness and thoroughness, yield to lady Feng, and that the only difference between them was that she was soft in speech and gentle in disposition. By a remarkable coincidence, princes, dukes, marquises, earls, and hereditary officials arrived for consecutive days from various parts; all of whom were, if not the relatives of the Jung and Ning mansions, at least their old friends. There were either those who had obtained transfers on promotion, or others who had been degraded; either those, who had married, or those who had gone into mourning, and Madame Wang had so much congratulating and condoling, receiving and escorting to do that she had no time to attend to any entertaining. There was therefore less than ever any one in the front part to look after things. So while (T'an Ch'un and Li Wan) spent their whole days in the hall, Pao-ch'ai tarried all day in the drawing-rooms, to keep an eye over what was going on; and they only betook themselves back to their quarters after Madame Wang's return. Of a night, they whiled away their leisure hours by doing needlework; but they would, previous to retiring to sleep, get into their chairs, and, taking along with them the servants, whose duty it was to be on night watch in the garden, and other domestics as well, they visited each place on their round. Such was the control exercised by these three inmates that signs were not wanting to prove that greater severity was observed than in the days when the management devolved on lady Feng. To this reason must be assigned the fact that all the servants attached inside as well as outside cherished a secret grudge against them. "No sooner," they insinuated, "has one patrolling ogre come than they add three more cerberean sort of spring josses so that even at night we've got less time than ever to sip a cup of wine and indulge in a romp!"
On the day that Madame Wang was going to a banquet at the mansion of the Marquis of Chin Hsiang, Li Wan and T'an Ch'un arranged their coiffure and performed their ablutions at an early hour; and after waiting upon her until she went out of doors, they repaired into the hall and installed themselves in their seats. But just as they were sipping their tea, they espied Wu Hsin-teng's wife walk in. "Mrs. Chao's brother, Chao Kuo-chi," she observed, "departed this life yesterday; the tidings have already been reported to our old mistress and our lady, who said that it was all right, and bade me tell you, Miss."
At the close of this announcement, she respectfully dropped her arms against her body, and stood aloof without adding another word. The servants, who came at this season to lay their reports before (T'an Ch'un and Li Wan), mustered no small number. But they all endeavoured to find out how their two new mistresses ran the household; for as long they managed things properly, one and all willingly resolved to respect them, but in the event of the least disagreement or improper step, not only did they not submit to them, but they also spread, the moment they put their foot outside the second gate, numberless jokes on their account and made fun of them. Wu Hsin-teng's wife had thus devised an experiment in her own mind. Had she had to deal with lady Feng, she would have long ago made an attempt to show off her zeal by proposing numerous alternatives and discovering various bygone precedents, and then allowed lady Feng to make her own choice and take action; but, in this instance, she looked with such disdain on Li Wan, on account of her simplicity, and on T'an Ch'un, on account of her youthfulness, that she volunteered only a single sentence, in order to put both these ladies to the test, and see what course they would be likely to adopt.
"What shall we do?" T'an Ch'un asked Li Wan.
Li Wan reflected for a while. "The other day," she rejoined, "that Hsi Jen's mother died, I heard that she was given forty taels. So now give her forty taels as well and have done!"
Upon hearing this proposal, Wu Hsin-teng's wife eagerly expressed her acquiescence, by uttering a yes; and taking over the permit she was going on her way at once.
"Come back," shouted T'an Ch'un.
"Wu Hsing-teng's wife had perforce to retrace her footsteps.
"Wait, don't get the money yet," T'an Ch'un remarked. "I want to ask you something. Some of the old secondary wives, attached years back to our venerable senior's rooms, lived inside the establishment; others outside; there were these two distinctions between them. Now if any of them died at home, how much was allowed them? And how much was allotted to such as died outside? Tell us what was given in either case for our guidance."
As soon as Wu Hsin-teng's wife was asked this question, every detail bearing on the subject slipped from her memory. Hastily forcing a smile, "This is," she replied, "nothing of any such great consequence. Whether much or little be allowed, who'll ever venture to raise a quarrel about it?"
T'an Ch'un then smiled. "This is all stuff and nonsense!" she exclaimed. "My idea is that it would be better to give a hundred taels. For if we don't comply with what's right, we shall, not to speak of your ridiculing us, find it also a hard job by and bye to face your mistress Secunda."
"Well, in that case," laughed Wu Hsin-teng's wife, "I'll go and look up the old accounts. I can't recollect anything about them just at this moment."
"You're quite an old hand in the management of affairs," T'an Ch'un observed with a significant smile, "and can't you remember, but come instead to perplex us? Whenever you've had anything of the kind to lay before your lady Secunda, have you also had to go first and look it up? But if this has been the practice, lady Feng can't be looked upon as being such a dreadful creature. One could very well call her lenient and kind. Yet don't you yet hurry to go and hunt them up and bring them to me to see? If we dilly-dally another day, they won't run you people down for your coarse-mindedness, but we will seem to have been driven to our wits' ends!"
Wu Hsin-teng's wife got quite scarlet in the face. Promptly twisting herself round, she quitted the hall; while the whole bevy of married women stretched out their tongues significantly.
During her absence, other matters were reported. But in a little while, Wu Hsin-teng's wife returned with the old accounts. On inspection, T'an Ch'un found that for a couple of secondary wives, who had lived in the establishment, twenty-four taels had been granted, and that for two, whose quarters had been outside, forty taels had in each case been allowed. Besides these two, others were mentioned, who had lived outside the mansion; to one of whom a hundred taels had been given, and to the other, sixty taels. Under these two records, the reasons were assigned. In the one case, the coffins of father and mother had had to be removed from another province, and sixty taels extra had consequently been granted. In the other, an additional twenty taels had been allowed, as a burial-place had to be purchased at the time.
T'an Ch'un handed the accounts to Li Wan for her perusal.
"Give her twenty taels," readily suggested T'an Ch'un. "Leave these accounts here for us to examine minutely."
Wu Hsin-teng's wife then walked away. But unexpectedly Mrs. Chao entered the hall. Li Wan and T'an Ch'un speedily pressed her to take a seat.
Mrs. Chao then broke the silence. "All the inmates of these rooms have trampled me under heel," she said, "but never mind! Yet, my child, just ponder, it is only fair that you should take my part."
While ventilating her grievances, her eyes got moist, her nose watered, and she began to sob.
"To whom are you alluding Mrs. Chao?" T'an Ch'un hastily inquired. "I can't really make out what you're driving at. Who tramples you under foot? Speak out and I'll take up your cudgels."
"You're now trampling me down yourself, young lady," Mrs. Chao observed. "And to whom can I go and tell my grievance?"
T'an Ch'un, at these words, jumped up with alacrity. "I never would presume to do any such thing," she protested.
Li Wan too vehemently sprung to her feet to proffer her some good counsel.
"Pray seat yourselves, both of you," Mrs. Chao cried, "and listen to what I have to say. I've had, like simmering oil, to consume away in these rooms to this advanced age. There's also your brother besides. Yet I can't compare myself now even to Hsi Jen, and what credit do I enjoy? But you haven't as well any face, so don't let's speak of myself."
"It was really on account of this," T'an Ch'un smiled, "that I said that I didn't presume to disregard right and to violate propriety."
While she spoke, she resumed her seat, and taking up the accounts, she turned them over for Mrs. Chao to glance at, after which she read them out to her for her edification. "These are old customs," she proceeded, "enforced by the seniors of the family, and every one complies with them, and could I ever, pray, have changed them? These will hold good not only with Hsi Jen; but even when by and bye Huan-erh takes a concubine, the same course will naturally be adopted as in the case of Hsi Jen. This is no question for any large quarrels or small disputes, and no mention should be made about face or no face. She's our Madame Wang's servant-girl, and I've dealt with her according to a long-standing precedent. Those who say that I've taken suitable action will come in for our ancestors' bounty and our lady's bounty as well. But should any one uphold that I've adopted an unfair course, that person is devoid of all common sense and totally ignorant of what a blessing means. The only thing she can do is to foster as much resentment as she chooses. Our lady, Madame Wang, may even give a present of a house to any one; what credit is that to me? Again, she may not give a single cash, but even that won't imply any loss of face, as far as I am concerned. What I have to say is that as Madame Wang is away from home, you should quietly look after yourself a bit. What's the good of worrying and fretting? Our lady is extremely fond of me; and, if, at different times, a chilliness has sprung up on her part, it's because you, Mrs. Chao, have again and again been officious. Had I been a man and able to have gone abroad, I would long ago have run away and started some business. I would then have had something of my own to attend to. But, as it happens, I am a girl, so that I can't even recklessly utter so much as a single remark. Madame Wang is well aware of it in her heart. And it's now because she entertains a high opinion of me that she recently bade me assume the charge of domestic affairs. But before I've had time enough to do a single good act, here you come, Mrs. Chao, to lay down the law. If this reaches Madame Wang's ear, I fear I shall get into trouble. She won't let me exercise any control, and then I shall, in real earnest, come in for no face. But even you, Mrs. Chao, will then actually lose countenance."
Reasoning with her, she so little could repress her tears that they rolled down her cheeks.
Mrs. Chao had not a word more to say to refute her arguments with. "If Madame Wang loves you," she simply responded, "there's still more reason why you should have drawn us into her favour. (Instead of that), all you think about is to try and win Madame Wang's affections, and you forget all about us."
"How ever did I forget you?" T'an Ch'un exclaimed. "How would you have me drag you into favour? Go and ask every one of them, and you'll see what mistress is indifferent to any one, who exerts her energies and makes herself useful, and what worthy person requires being drawn into favour?"
Li Wan, who stood by, did her best to pacify them with her advice. "Mrs. Chao," she argued, "don't lose your temper! Neither should you feel any ill-will against this young lady of yours. Had she even at heart every good intention to lend you a hand, how could she put it into words?"
"This worthy senior dame," T'an Ch'un impatiently interposed, "has also grown quite dense! Whom could I drag into favour? Why, in what family, do the young ladies give a lift to slave-girls? Their qualities as well as defects should all alike be well known to you people. And what have they got to do with me?"
Mrs. Chao was much incensed. "Who tells you," she asked, "to give a lift to any one? Were it not that you looked after the house, I wouldn't have come to inquire anything of you. But anything you may suggest is right; so had you, now that your maternal uncle is dead, granted twenty or thirty taels in excess, is it likely that Madame Wang would not have given you her consent? It's evident that our Madame Wang is a good woman and that it's you people who are mean and stingy. Unfortunately, however, her ladyship has with all her bounty no opportunity of exercising it. You could, my dear girl, well set your mind at ease. You wouldn't, in this instance, have had to spend any of your own money; and at your marriage by and bye, I would still have borne in mind the exceptional regard you had shown the Chao family. But now that you've got your full plumage, you've forgotten your extraction, and chosen a lofty branch to fly to."
Before T'an Ch'un had heard her to the end, she flew into such a rage that her face blanched; and choking for breath, she gasped and panted. Sobbing, she asked the while: "Who's my maternal uncle? My maternal uncle was at the end of the year promoted to be High Commissioner of the Nine Provinces! How can another maternal uncle have cropped up? It's because I've ever shown that reverence enjoined by the rites that other relatives have now more than ever turned up. If what you say be the case, how is it that every day that Huan-erh goes out, Chao Kuo-chi too stands up, and follows him to school? Why doesn't he put on the airs of an uncle? What's the reason that he doesn't? Who isn't aware of the fact that I'm born of a concubine? Would it require two or three months' time to trace my extraction? But the fact is you've come to kick up all this hullaballoo for fear lest people shouldn't be alive to the truth; and with the express design of making it public all over the place! But I wonder who of us two will make the other lose face? Luckily, I've got my wits about me; for had I been a stupid creature ignorant of good manners, I would long ago have lost all patience."
Li Wan was much concerned, but she had to continue to exhort them to desist. But Mrs. Chao proceeded with a long rigmarole until a servant was unexpectedly heard to report that lady Secunda had sent Miss Ping to deliver a message. Mrs. Chao caught the announcement, and eventually held her peace, when they espied P'ing erh making her appearance. Mrs. Chao hastily forced a saturnine smile, and motioned to her to take a seat. "Is your lady any better?" she went on to inquire with vehemence. "I was just thinking of going to look her up; but I could find no leisure!"
Upon seeing P'ing Erh enter, Li Wan felt prompted to ask her the object of her visit.
"My lady says," P'ing Erh smilingly responded, "that she apprehends, now that Mrs. Chao's brother is dead, that your ladyship and you, miss, are not aware of the existence of an old precedent. According to the ordinary practice no more need be given than twenty taels; but she now requests you, miss, to consider what would be best to do; if even you add a good deal more, it will do well enough."
T'an Ch'un at once wiped away all traces of tears. "What's the use of another addition, when there's no valid reason for it?" she promptly demurred. "Who has again been twenty months in the womb? Or is it forsooth any one who's gone to the wars, and managed to escape with his life, carrying his master on his back? Your mistress is certainly very ingenious! She tells me to disregard the precedent, in order that she should pose as a benefactress! She wishes to take the money, which Madame Wang spurns, so as to reap the pleasure of conferring favours! Just you tell her that I could not presume to add or reduce anything, or even to adopt any reckless decision. Let her add what she wants and make a display of bounty. When she gets better and is able to come out, she can effect whatever additions she fancies."
The moment P'ing Erh arrived, she obtained a fair insight (into lady Feng's designs), so when she heard the present remarks, she grasped a still more correct idea of things. But perceiving an angry look about T'an Ch'un's face, she did not have the temerity to behave towards her as she would, had she found her in the high spirits of past days. All she did therefore was to stand aloof with her arms against her sides and to wait in rigid silence. Just at that moment, however, Pao-ch'ai dropped in, on her return from the upper rooms. T'an Ch'un quickly rose to her feet, and offered her a seat. But before they had had time to exchange any words, a married woman likewise came to report some business.
But as T'an Ch'un had been having a good cry, three or four young maids brought her a basin, towel, and hand-glass and other articles of toilette. T'an Ch'un was at the moment seated cross-legged, on a low wooden couch, so the maid with the basin had, when she drew near, to drop on both her knees and lift it high enough to bring it within reach. The other two girls prostrated themselves next to her and handed the towels and the rest of the toilet things, which consisted of a looking-glass, rouge and powder. But P'ing Erh noticed that Shih Shu was not in the room, and approaching T'an Ch'un with hasty step, she tucked up her sleeves for her and unclasped her bracelets. Seizing also a large towel from the hands of one of the maids, she covered the lapel on the front part of T'an Ch'un's dress; whereupon T'an Ch'un put out her hands, and washed herself in the basin.
"My lady and miss," the married woman observed, "may it please you to pay what has been spent in the family school for Mr. Chia Huan and Mr.. Chia Lan during the year."
P'ing Erh was the first to speak. "What are you in such a hurry for?" she cried. "You've got your eyes wide open, and must be able to see our young lady washing her face; instead of coming forward to wait on her, you start talking! Do you also behave in this blind sort of way in the presence of your lady Secunda? This young lady is, it's true, generous and lenient, but I'll go and report you to your mistress. I'll simply tell her that you people have no eye for Miss T'an Ch'un. But when you find yourselves in a mess, don't bear me any malice."
At this hint the woman took alarm, and hastily forcing a smile, she pleaded guilty. "I've been rude," she exclaimed. With these words, she rushed with all despatch out of the room.
T'an Ch'un smoothed her face. While doing so, she turned herself towards P'ing Erh and gave her a cynical smile. "You've come just one step too late," she remarked. "You weren't in time to see something laughable! Even sister Wu, an old hand at business though she be, failed to look up clearly an old custom and came to play her tricks on us. But when we plied her with questions, she luckily had the face to admit that it had slipped from her memory. 'Do you,' I insinuated, 'also forget, when you've got anything to report to lady Secunda? and have you subsequently to go and hunt up all about it?' Your mistress can't, I fancy, be so patient as to wait while she goes and institutes proper search."
P'ing Erh laughed. "Were she to have behaved but once in this wise," she observed, "I feel positive that a couple of the tendons of her legs would have long ago been snapped. But, Miss, don't credit all they say. It's because they see that our senior mistress is as sweet-tempered as a 'P'u-sa,' and that you, miss, are a modest young lady, that they, naturally, shirk their duties and come and take liberties with you. Your mind is set upon playing the giddy dogs," continuing, she added; speaking towards those beyond the doorway; "but when your mistress gets quite well again, we'll tell her all."