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-yue got her cough back again. But Hsiang-yuen was likewise laid up in the Heng Wu Yuean, 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.”
“You’re gifted with the greatest perspicacity, miss,” the married women, standing outside the door, smiled in chorus. “The proverb says: ‘the person who commits a fault must be the one to suffer.’ We don’t in any way presume to treat any mistress with disdain. Our mistress at present is in delicate health, and if we intentionally provoke her, may we, when we die, have no place to have our corpses interred in.”
P’ing Erh laughed a laugh full irony. “So long as you’re aware of this, it’s well and good,” she said. And smiling a saturnine smile, she resumed, addressing herself to T’an Ch’un: “Miss, you know very well how busy our lady has been and how little she could afford the time to keep this tribe of people in order. Of course, they couldn’t therefore, be prevented from becoming remiss. The adage has it: ‘Lookers-on are clear of sight!’ During all these years that you, have looked on dispassionately, there have possibly been instances on which, though additions or reductions should have been made, our lady Secunda has not been able to effect them, so, miss, do add or curtail whatever you may deem necessary, in order that, first, Madame Wang may be benefited, and that, secondly, you mayn’t too render nugatory the kindness with which you ever deal towards our mistress.”
But scarcely had she finished, than Pao-ch’ai and Li Wan smilingly interposed. “What a dear girl!” they ejaculated. “One really can’t feel angry with that hussy Feng for being partial to her and fond of her. We didn’t, at first, see how we could very well alter anything by any increase or reduction, but after what you’ve told us, we must hit upon one or two things and try and devise means to do something, with a view of not showing ourselves ungrateful of the advice you’ve tendered us.”
“My heart was swelling with indignation,” T’an Ch’un observed laughing, “and I was about to go and give vent to my temper with her mistress, but now that she (P’ing Erh) has happened to come, she has, with a few words, quite dissuaded me from my purpose.”
While she spoke, she called the woman, who had been with them a few minutes back, to return into the room. “For what things for Mr. Chia Huan and Mr. Chia Lau was the money expended during the year in the family school?” she inquired of her.
“For cakes,” replied the woman, “they ate during the year at school; or for the purchase of paper and pens. Each one of them is allowed eight taels.”
“The various expenses on behalf of the young men,” T’an Ch’un added, “are invariably paid in monthly instalments to the respective households. For cousin Chia Huan’s, Mrs. Chao receives two taels. For Pao-yue’s, Hsi Jen draws two taels from our venerable senior’s suite of apartments. For cousin Chia Lan’s, some one, in our senior lady’s rooms, gets the proper allowance. So how is it that these extra eight taels have to be disbursed at school for each of these young fellows? Is it really for these eight taels that they go to school? But from this day forth I shall put a stop to this outlay. So P’ing Erh, when you get back, tell your mistress that I say that this item must absolutely be done away with.”
“This should have been done away with long ago,” P’ing Erh smiled. “Last year our lady expressed her intention to eliminate it, but with the endless things that claimed her attention about the fall of the year, she forgot all about it.”
The woman had no other course than to concur with her views and to walk away. But the married women thereupon arrived from the garden of Broad Vista with the boxes of eatables. So Shih Shu and Su Yuen at once brought a small dining-table, and P’ing Erh began to fuss about laying the viands on it.
“If you’ve said all you had,” T’an Ch’un laughed, “you’d better be off and attend to your business. What’s the use of your bustling about here?”
“I’ve really got nothing to do,” P’ing Erh answered smiling. “Our lady Secunda sent me first, to deliver a message; and next, because she feared that the servants in here weren’t handy enough. The fact is, she bade me come and help the girls wait on you, my lady, and on you, miss.”
“Why don’t you bring Mrs. Pao’s meal so that she should have it along with us?” T’an Ch’un then inquired.
As soon as the waiting-maids heard her inquiry, they speedily rushed out and went under the eaves. “Go,” they cried, directing the married women, “and say that Miss Pao-ch’ai would like to have her repast just now in the hall along with the others, and tell them to send the eatables here.”
T’an Ch’un caught their directions. “Don’t be deputing people to go on reckless errands!” she vociferated. “Those are dames, who manage important matters and look after the house, and do you send them to ask for eatables and inquire about tea? You haven’t even the least notion about gradation. P’ing Erh is standing here, so tell her to go and give the message.”
P’ing Erh immediately assented, and issued from the room, bent upon going on the errand. But the married women stealthily pulled her back. “How could you, miss, be made to go and tell them?” they smiled. “We’ve got some one here, who can do so!”
So saying, they dusted one of the stone steps with their handkerchiefs. “You’ve been standing so long,” they observed, “that you must feel quite tired. Do sit in this sunny place and have a little rest.”
P’ing Erh took a seat on the step. Two matrons attached to the tea-room then fetched a rug and spread it out for her. “It’s cold on those stones,” they ventured; “this is, as clean as it can be. So, miss, do make the best of it, and use it!”
P’ing Erh hastily forced a smile. “Many thanks,” she replied.
Another matron next brought her a cup of fine new tea. “This isn’t the tea we ordinarily drink,” she quietly smiled. “This is really for entertaining the young ladies with. Miss, pray moisten your mouth with some.”
P’ing Erh lost no time in bending her body forward and taking the cup. Then pointing at the company of married women, she observed in a low voice: “You’re all too fond of trouble! The way you’re going on won’t do at all! She (T’an Ch’un) is only a young girl, so she is loth to show any severity, or display any temper. This is because she’s full of respect. Yet you people look down on her and insult her. Should she, however, be actually provoked into any violent fit of anger, people will simply say that her behaviour was rather rough, and all will be over. But as for you, you’ll get at once into endless trouble. Even though she might show herself somewhat wilful, Madame Wang treats her with considerable forbearance, and lady Secunda too hasn’t the courage to meddle with her; and do you people have such arrogance as to look down on her? This is certainly just as if an egg were to go and bang itself against a stone!”
“When were we ever so audacious?” the servants exclaimed with one voice. “This fuss is all the work of Mrs. Chao!”
“Never mind about that!” P’ing Erh urged again in an undertone. “My dear ladies, ‘when a wall falls, every one gives it a shove.’ That Mrs. Chao has always been rather topsy-turvey in her ways, and done things by halves; so whenever there has been any rumpus, you’ve invariably shoved the blame on to her shoulders. Never have you had any regard for any single person. Your designs are simply awful! Is it likely that all these years that I’ve been here, I haven’t come to know of them? Had our lady Secunda mismanaged things just a little bit, she would have long ago been run down by every one of you, ladies! Even such as she is, you would, could you only get the least opportunity, be ready to place her in a fix! And how many, many times hasn’t she been abused by you?”
“She’s dreadful,” one and all of them rejoined. “You all live in fear and trembling of her. But we know well enough that no one could say that she too does not in the depths of her heart entertain some little dread for the lot of you. The other day, we said, in talking matters over, that things could not go on smoothly from beginning to end, and that some unpleasantness was bound to happen. Miss Tertia is, it’s true, a mere girl, and you’ve always treated her with little consideration, but out of that company of senior and junior young ladies, she is the only soul whom our lady Secunda funks to some certain extent. And yet you people now won’t look up to her.”
So speaking Ch’iu Wen appeared to view. The married women ran up to her and inquired after her health. “Miss,” they said, “do rest a little. They’ve had their meal served in there, so wait until things have been cleared away, before you go and deliver your message.”
“I’m not like you people,” Ch’iu Wen smiled. “How can I afford to wait?”
With these words on her lips, she was about to go into the hall, when P’ing Erh quickly called her back. Ch’iu Wen, upon turning her head round, caught sight of P’ing Erh. “Have you too,” she remarked with a smile, “come here to become something like those guardians posted outside the enclosing walls?”
Retracing, at the same time, her footsteps, she took a seat on the rug, occupied by P’ing Erh.
“What message have you got to deliver?” P’ing Erh gently asked.
“I’ve got to ask when we can get Pao-yue’s monthly allowance and our own too,” she responded.
“Is this any such pressing matter?” P’ing Erh answered. “Go back quick, and tell Hsi Jen that my advice is that no concern whatever should be brought to their notice to-day. That every single matter reported is bound to be objected to; and that even a hundred will just as surely be vetoed.”
“Why is it?” vehemently inquired Ch’iu Wen, upon hearing this explanation.
P’ing Erh and the other servants then promptly told her the various reasons. “She’s just bent,” they proceeded, “upon finding a few weighty concerns in order to establish, at the expense of any decent person who might chance to present herself, a precedent of some kind or other so as to fix upon a mode of action, which might help to put down expenses to their proper level, and afford a lesson to the whole household; and why are you people the first to come and bump your heads against the nails? If you went now and told them your errand, it would also reflect discredit upon our venerable old mistress and Madame Wang, were they to pounce upon one or two matters to make an example of you. But if they complied with one or two of your applications, others will again maintain ‘that they are inclined to favour this one and show partiality to that one; that as you had your old mistress’ and Madame Wang’s authority to fall back upon, they were afraid and did not presume to provoke their displeasure; that they only avail themselves of soft-natured persons to make scapegoats of.’ Just mark my words! She even means to raise objections in one or two matters connected with our lady Secunda, in order to be the better able to shut up people’s mouths.”
Ch’iu Wen listened to her with patient ear; and then stretching out her tongue, “It’s lucky enough you were here, sister P’ing,” she smiled; “otherwise, I would have had my nose well rubbed on the ground. I shall seize the earliest opportunity and give the lot of them a hint.”
While replying, she immediately rose to her feet and took leave of them. Soon after her departure, Pao-ch’ai’s eatables arrived, and P’ing Erh hastened to enter and wait on her. By that time Mrs. Chao had left, so the three girls seated themselves on the wooden bed, and went through their repast. Pao-ch’ai faced the south. T’an Ch’un the west. Li Wan the east. The company of married women stood quietly under the verandah ready to answer any calls. Within the precincts of the chamber, only such maids remained in waiting as had ever been their closest attendants. None of the other servants ventured, of their own accord, to put their foot anywhere inside.
The married women (meanwhile) discussed matters in a confidential whisper. “Let’s do our downright best to save trouble,” they argued. “Don’t let us therefore harbour any evil design, for even dame Wu will, in that case, be placed in an awkward fix. And can we boast of any grand honours to expect to fare any better?”
While they stood on one side, and held counsel together, waiting for the meal to be over to make their several reports, they could not catch so much as the caw of a crow inside the rooms. Neither did the clatter of bowls and chopsticks reach their ears. But presently, they discerned a maid raise the frame of the portiere as high as she could, and two other girls bring the table out. In the tea-room, three maids waited with three basins in hand. The moment they saw the dining-table brought out, all three walked in. But after a brief interval, they egressed with the basins and rinsing cups. Shih Shu, Su Yuen and Ying Erh thereupon entered with three covered cups of tea, placed in trays. Shortly however these three girls also made their exit. Shih Shu then recommended a young maid to be careful and attend to the wants (of their mistresses). “When we’ve had our rice,” she added, “we’ll come and relieve you. But don’t go stealthily again and sit down!”
The married women at length delivered their reports in a quiet and orderly manner; and as they did not presume to be as contemptuous and offhandish as they had been before, T’an Ch’un eventually cooled down.
“I’ve got something of moment,” she then observed to P’ing Erh, “about which I would like to consult your mistress. Happily, I remembered it just now, so come back as soon as you’ve had your meal. Miss Pao-ch’ai is also here at present, so, after we four have deliberated together, you can carefully ask your lady whether action is to be taken accordingly or not.”
P’ing Erh acquiesced and returned to her quarters. “How is it,” inquired lady Feng, “that you’ve been away such an age?”
P’ing Erh smiled and gave her a full account of what had recently transpired.
“What a fine, splendid girl Miss Tertia is!” she laughingly ejaculated. “What I said was quite right! The only pity is that she should have had such a miserable lot as not to have been born of a primary wife.”
“My lady, you’re also talking a lot of trash!” P’ing Erh smiled. “She, mayn’t be Madame Wang’s child, but is it likely that any one would be so bold as to point the finger of scorn at her, and not treat her like the others?”
Lady Feng sighed. “How could you know everything?” she remarked. “She is, of course, the offspring of a concubine, but as a mere girl, she can’t be placed on the same footing as a man! By and bye, when any one aspires to her hand, the sort of supercilious parties, who now tread the world, will, as a first step, ask whether this young lady is the child of a No. 1 or No. 2 wife. And many of these won’t have anything to say to her, as she is the child, of a No. 2. But really people haven’t any idea that, not to speak of her as the offspring of a secondary wife, she would be, even as a mere servant-girl of ours, far superior than the very legitimate daughter of any family. Who, I wonder, will in the future be so devoid of good fortune as to break off the match; just because he may be inclined to pick and choose between a wife’s child and a concubine’s child? And who, I would like to know, will be that lucky fellow, who’ll snatch her off without any regard to No. 1 and No. 2?”
Continuing, she resumed, turning smilingly towards P’ing Erh, “You know well enough how many ways and means I’ve had all these years to devise in order to effect retrenchment, and how there isn’t, I may safely aver, a single soul in the whole household, who doesn’t detest me behind my back. But now that I’m astride on the tiger’s back, (I must go on; for if I put my foot on the ground, I shall be devoured). It’s true, my tactics have been more or less seen through, but there’s no help for it; I can’t very well become more open-handed in a moment! In the second place, much goes out at home, and little comes in; and the hundred and one, large and small, things, which turn up, are still managed with that munificence so characteristic of our old ancestors. But the funds, that come in throughout the year, fall short of the immense sums of past days. And if I try again to effect any savings people will laugh at me, our venerable senior and Madame Wang suffer wrongs, and the servants abhor me for my stinginess. Yet, if we don’t seize the first opportunity to think of some plan for enforcing retrenchment, our means will, in the course of a few more years, be completely exhausted.”
“Quite so!” assented P’ing Erh. “By and bye, there will be three or four daughters and two or three more sons added; and our old mistress won’t be able, singlehanded, to meet all this heavy outlay.”
“I myself entertain fears on the same score,” lady Feng smiled. “But, after all, there will be ample. For when Pao-yue and cousin Lin get married, there won’t be any need to touch a cent of public money, as our old lady has her own private means, and she can well fork out some. Miss Secunda is the child of your senior master yonder, and she too needn’t be taken into account. So there only remain three or four, for each of whom one need only spend, at the utmost, ten thousand taels. Cousin Huan will marry in the near future; and if an outlay of three thousand taels prove insufficient, we will be able, by curtailing the bandoline, used in those rooms for smoothing the hair with, make both ends meet. And should our worthy senior’s end come about, provision for everything is already made. All that we’ll have to do will be to spend some small sum for a few miscellaneous trifles; and three to five thousand taels will more than suffice. So with further economies at present, there will be plenty for all our successive needs. The only fear is lest anything occur at an unforeseen juncture; for then it will be dreadful! But don’t let us give way to apprehensions with regard to the future! You’d better have your rice; and when you’ve done, be quick and go and hear what they mean to treat about in their deliberations. I must now turn this opportunity to the best account. I was only this very minute lamenting that I had no help at my disposal. There’s Pao-yue, it’s true, but he too is made of the same stuff as the rest of them in here. Were I even to get him under my thumb, it would be of no earthly use whatever. Senior lady is as good-natured as a joss; and she likewise is no good. Miss Secunda is worse than useless. Besides, she doesn’t belong to this place. Miss Quarta is only a child. That young fellow Lan and Huan-erh are, more than any of the others, like frozen kittens with frizzled coats. They only wait to find some warm hole in a stove into which they may poke themselves! Really from one and the same womb have been created two human beings (T’an Ch’un and Chia Huan) so totally unlike each other as the heavens are distant from the earth. But when I think of all this, I feel quite angry! Again, that girl Lin and Miss Pao are both deserving enough, but as they also happen to be our connexions, they couldn’t very well be put in charge of our family affairs. What’s more, the one resembles a lantern, decorated with nice girls, apt to spoil so soon as it is blown by a puff of wind. The other has made up her mind not to open her month in anything that doesn’t concern her. When she’s questioned about anything, she simply shakes her head, and repeats thrice: ‘I don’t know,’ so that it would be an extremely difficult job to go and ask her to lend a helping hand. There’s only therefore Miss Tertia, who is as sharp of mind as of tongue. She’s besides a straightforward creature in this household of ours and Madame Wang is attached to her as well. It’s true that she outwardly makes no display of her feelings for her, but it’s all that old thing Mrs. Chao, who has done the mischief, for, in her heart, she actually holds her as dear as she does Pao-yue. She’s such a contrast to Huan-erh! He truly makes it hard for any one to care a rap for him. Could I have had my own way, I would long ere this have packed him out of the place. But since she (T’au Ch’un) has now got this idea into her mind, we must cooperate with her. For if we can afford each other a helping hand, I too won’t be single-handed and alone. And as far as every right principle, eternal principle, and honesty of purpose go, we shall with such a person as a helpmate, be able to save ourselves considerable anxiety, and Madame Wang’s interests will, on the other hand, derive every advantage. But, as far as unfairness and bad faith go, I’ve run the show with too malicious a hand, and I must turn tail and draw back from my old ways. When I review what I’ve done, I find that if I still push my tyrannical rule to the bitter end, people will hate me most relentlessly; so much so, that under their smiles they’ll harbour daggers, and much though we two may then be able to boast of having four eyes and two heads between us, they’ll compass our ruin, when they can at any moment find us off our guard. We should therefore make the best of this crisis, so that as soon as she takes the initiative and sets things in order, all that tribe of people may for a time lose sight of the bitter feelings they cherish against us, for the way we’ve dealt with them in the past. But there’s another thing besides. I naturally know the great talents you possess, but I feel mistrust lest you should, by your own wits, not be able to bring things round. I enjoin these things then on you, now, for although a mere girl she has everything at her fingers’ ends. The only thing is that she must try and be wary in speech. She’s besides so much better read than I am that she’s a harder nut to crack. Now the proverb says: ‘in order to be able to catch the rebels, you must first catch their chief.’ So if she’s at present disposed to mature some plan and set to work to put it into practice, she’ll certainly have to first and foremost make a start with me. In the event consequently of her raising objections to anything I’ve done, mind you don’t begin any dispute with her. The more virulent she is in her censure of me, the more deferential you should be towards her. That’s your best plan. And whatever you do, don’t imagine that I’m afraid of any loss of face. But the moment you flare up with her, things won’ go well……”
P’ing Erh did not allow her time to conclude her argument. “You’re too much disposed to treat us as simpletons!” she smiled. “I’ve already carried out your wishes, and do you now enjoin all these things on me?”
Lady Feng smiled. “It’s because,” she resumed, “I feared lest you, who have your eyes and mouth so full of me, and only me, might be inclined to show no regard whatever for her, that’s why. I couldn’t, therefore, but tender you the advice I did. But since you’ve already done what I wanted you to do, you’ve shown yourself far sharper than I am. There’s nothing in this to drive you into another tantrum, and to make that mouth of yours begin to chatter away so much about ‘you and I,’ ‘you and I’ !”
“I’ve actually addressed you as ‘you’ ;” P’ing Erh rejoined; “but if you be displeased at it, isn’t this a case of a slap on the mouth? You can very well give me another one, for is it likely that this phiz of mine hasn’t as yet tasted any, pray?”
“What a vixen you are!” lady Feng said smilingly. “How many faults will you go on picking out, before you shut up? You see how ill I am, and yet you come to rub me the wrong way. Come and sit down; for you and I can at all events have our meal together when there is no one to break in upon us. It’s only right that we should.”
While these remarks dropped from her lips, Feng Erh and some three or four other maids entered the room and laid the small stove-couch table. Lady Feng only ate some birds’ nests’ soup and emptied two small plates of some recherche light viands; for she had long ago temporarily reduced her customary diet.
Feng Erh placed the four kinds of eatables allotted to P’ing Erh on the table. After which, she filled a bowl of rice for her. Then with one leg bent on the edge of the stove-couch, while the other rested on the ground, P’ing Erh kept lady Feng company during her repast; and waiting on her, afterwards, until she finished rinsing her mouth, she issued certain directions to Feng Erh, and crossed over at length to T’an Ch’un’s quarters. Here she found the courtyard plunged in perfect stillness, for the various inmates, who had been assembled there, had already taken their leave.
But, reader, do you wish to follow up the story? If so, listen to the circumstances detailed in the next chapter.