CHAPTER 3 (The Golden Lotus) The Old Procuress


The Old Procuress

Ximen Qing was desperately anxious to possess Pan Jinlian. He gave the old woman no peace.

"Stepmother," he said, "if you bring this business to a happy end, I will give you ten taels of silver."

"Sir," said the old woman, "you may have heard, perhaps, of setting a love snare. The expression implies much that is difficult and is, indeed, what is more commonly known as wife stealing. Before a man can set about this wife-stealing business with any prospect of success, five things are essential. He must be as handsome as Pan An. His member must be at least as large as a donkey's. He must be as rich as Deng Tong, and reasonably young. Finally, he must have plenty of time on his hands, and almost endless patience. If you are possessed of all these qualifications, you may think of going in for this sort of entertainment."

"I think I may say I do possess them all," Ximen Qing said. "I would not venture to compare my handsome figure with that of Pan An, but it will serve. Ever since I was a boy, I have played in the lowest and most unsavory haunts, and I must say I have succeeded in keeping a very fat turtle well content. I may not have as much money as Deng Tong, but have a good deal put away, certainly sufficient to live upon. As for my patience, I should never think of retaliating though I received four hundred blows. Finally, if I had not plenty of time to waste, you would not be seeing me here so often. Stepmother, do this for me, and you shall not be disappointed with your reward."

"There is one thing more, Sir," the old woman said. "You tell me that you possess the five essential qualifications, but I fear this too is indispensable."

"What do you mean?" Ximen Qing cried.

"Forgive my speaking plainly," the old woman said, "but when a man would run off with somebody else's wife, there are very considerable difficulties in the way. A man may spend almost his last penny, and still fail. He must go to the absolute limit. I happen to know that you particularly dislike parting with your money, and that is the difficulty."

"It shall be no difficulty in this case," Ximen said, "for I will do anything you suggest."

"Very well," the old woman said, "if you are really prepared to spend a few taels, I have a plan that should enable you to secure the lady."

Ximen would have liked to hear it, but the old woman said, with a laugh, "It is too late today, and time you went home. Come back in six months, or perhaps three, and we will see what we can do."

"Stepmother," said Ximen, "don't joke about it. Only do this for me and you shall have a really handsome present." But the old woman laughed all the more.

"You certainly seem to be very keen," she said. "Nobody ever comes to say his prayers to me at the temple of Wu Cheng Wang, but my plan is as good and better than any that fellow Sun Wuzi could have made. He was able to turn girls into soldiers, but I could have captured eight out of ten of them. Let me tell you all I know about this woman. She comes of a poor family, but she is as clever as can be. She knows how to play and sing, her embroidery is excellent, and she is expert at many games. In fact, there is nothing she doesn't know. Her surname is Pan, and her personal name, Jinlian. Her father was Pan Cai, who used to live by the South Gate. Originally, she was sold to Master Zhang, and at his house she learned to sing and play. When Zhang was very old, he made a present of her to Wu Da. She does not go out very often and, when I am not busy, I go over to her place and get anything she happens to want. She always calls me Stepmother.

"These last few days, Wu Da has been going out early. If you wish to clinch the matter, you must buy some silk, one roll of blue, another of white, another of the finest white silk, and ten taels of good raw silk. Give them to me. I will go to her house to borrow a calendar, and ask her to tell me a day of good omen so that I can engage a dressmaker to come and make me some clothes. It may be that she will find a day for me, but not offer to come herself to make the clothes. In that case, there is nothing to be done. If she is very pleasant and says, 'Don't get a dressmaker. I will come and make the clothes for you,' that will be one to us. If I can persuade her to come here to sew, that will be another one to us. If she comes at noon, I will set out refreshments and invite her to have some. She may say, 'I am very sorry but I can't,' and go off home and, in that case, we shall have to give up. On the other hand, she may say nothing, but sit down and eat my lunch, and then we score again.

"You must not come tomorrow, but the day after. Put on your smartest clothes. Give a cough of warning, and then come to the door and call, 'How do you do, Stepmother? May I come in and have a cup of tea?' I will come out and ask you in. It is possible that, as soon as she sees you, she may want to go home, and, if she does, I cannot stop her. That will be the end. But if she stays where she is, we shall be four points to the good.

"When you sit down, I shall say to her, 'This is the gentleman who gave me the clothes. I can't tell you how grateful I am to him,' and I shall say all sorts of pretty things about your generosity. Then you will compliment her on her sewing. If she does not answer, we are done. If she does answer, and enters into conversation with you, our fifth point is gained.

"Then I shall say, 'Isn't this good lady kind to make my clothes for me?' and praise you both—you for giving me the money and her for making the clothes. I shall say, 'This lady is indeed good-hearted. I was lucky to be able to persuade her to come. Perhaps you would like to offer her some refreshment.' You will take some silver out of your pocket and ask me to go and buy something. If at that moment she decides to go, I can't hold her, and all is over. But, if she doesn't move, we shall have gained our sixth point.

"I shall take your silver and, as I go out, I shall say, 'I wonder if you would mind keeping this gentleman company?' She may jump up at that and, if she does so, I can't very well put my arms around her and hold her, but, if she doesn't, we shall have gained another point.

"When I come back with the things, I shall put them on the table and say, 'Lady, put the clothes aside for a while and let us drink a little wine. This gentleman has been good enough to spend his money on us.' If she will not join us, but takes her leave, the matter is ended. But if she says, 'Oh, really I can't stay,' but does not make any effort to go, the eighth point is ours.

"If she drinks her wine contentedly and begins to talk to you, I shall say, 'There is not enough wine,' and you will ask me to buy some more, and some fruits too, and give me silver for the purpose. Then I shall shut the door upon you both. If she is shy and tries to run away, we can do no more. But if she lets me fasten the door and does not get angry, we are within an ace of our goal. The last stage is the critical one. You, Sir, will stay in the room with the woman and talk prettily to her, but you must not be too rough when you begin to take liberties. If you touch her, and spoil the whole game, it will not be my fault. But it is possible that you might knock down a pair of chopsticks with your sleeve, and touch her foot when you pretend to pick them up. If this makes her angry, I shall come in and make peace between you, but all our chances will be gone and we can never hope to retrieve the position. If she says nothing, we gain our tenth point, and the game is ours. If I lead you to victory, what reward may I expect?"

Ximen Qing listened to all this, and was perfectly delighted. "Your plan may not come from the Ling Yan temple," he said, "but it is absolutely flawless."

"Don't forget those ten taels of silver," old woman Wang said.

"If I get but a single piece of orange peel," Ximen said, "I shall never forget the Dongting lake. But when do you propose to put this scheme into operation, Stepmother?"

"Come back this evening," the old woman said, "and you shall know. By this time Wu Da has gone out, and I will go over about the calendar and say my part. You send somebody with the silk as quickly as possible. Don't waste any time."

"I'll see to it at once," Ximen Qing cried. "You may count upon me absolutely." He went to the street to buy the three rolls of silk and the ten taels of raw silk, and told Daian to wrap them up and take them to the old woman. She received them with great satisfaction and sent the boy away.

When the silk had come, the old woman opened her back door and went across to Wu Da's house. Jinlian took her upstairs, and they sat down.

"Why have you not been to take tea in my poor house lately?" asked the old woman.

"I haven't been well these last few days," Jinlian replied, "and somehow I have not felt inclined to move."

"Have you a calendar in the house?" the old woman said. "I should like to see one. I wish to find a day favorable for making clothes."

"What clothes are you thinking of having made?"

"I am always suffering from something or another," the old woman said. "One of these days I shall find myself as high as the mountains and as deep as the ocean. And my son is not at home."

"Where has he been all this time?" Jinlian said.

"He went away with a stranger, and I have never had a word from him since. I worry about him all day long."

Jinlian asked how old the boy was, and when the old woman told her he was seventeen, she said, "Why don't you find him a wife? You would save yourself a great deal of work."

"You may well say that," the old woman said. "There never was a place so lonely as mine. I potter about, as best I can, and sometimes I do think I'll find a wife for him. When he comes home, I really must see about it. Day and night I have trouble with my breathing, and I cough till my body shakes as though it were being torn in pieces. And I can't sleep. I've come to the conclusion that it's time I was getting my funeral clothes together. Fortunately for me, there is a rich gentleman who often comes to have tea at my shop. When there is anybody ill at his place, he sends for me; I buy maids for him and see about marriages. He knows I am to be trusted; that I never neglect any little point, however unimportant it may seem to others. He has given me the material for a full set of funeral clothes, and all the trimmings too. I have had this stuff put away for more than a year and have done nothing with it. But this year I have not felt at all well, and as there is an extra month in it, and I am not very busy, I have taken my chance and I am going to have it made up at last. Unfortunately, all the dressmakers say they are too busy to come and make my clothes. You've no idea how ill all this anxiety makes me."

Jinlian listened to this long story, and smiled. "I'm afraid I can't make the clothes as well as they should be made, but I have nothing particular to do, and, if you like, I'll see what I can do for you."

The old lady smiled delightedly. "With your precious hands to make the things, even if I die, my poor old body will rejoice. I have always heard what a good needlewoman you are, but I have never dared to come and trouble you."

"Why should I not make them?" Jinlian said. "Anyhow, I've promised now, and I must do them for you. Take the calendar, and get someone to find an auspicious day. Then I'll begin."

"Do you think I don't know that you can read all the characters in the poems and the hundred dramas? Why should I take the calendar to anybody else?"

"I have never had any education," Jinlian said, with a smile.

"Oh, thank you, thank you," the old woman cried, handing her the calendar. Jinlian examined it, then she said, "Tomorrow is no good, and the day after that is no good either. We shall have to wait."

The old woman took the calendar and hung it on the wall. "If you are willing to do the work you yourself are my lucky star. I need not bother whether the day is lucky or not. Others have looked at the calendar and told me that tomorrow is not a good day for the purpose, but that doesn't trouble me."

"Well," Jinlian said, "it may be that a day unlucky for other purposes is most suitable for the making of funeral clothes."

"If you don't mind, then come to my poor house tomorrow."

"Why not bring the material here?" said Jinlian.

"Because I should like to watch you sewing, and there is nobody to look after my house."

"Very well," Jinlian promised, "I will come to your house tomorrow after lunch."

"God bless you! God bless you!" the old lady cried. She went downstairs and away. That evening she told Ximen Qing the result of her efforts, and asked him to come two days later. The next morning the old woman swept out her room, prepared needles and thread, made some tea, and waited for Jinlian.

When Wu Da had eaten his breakfast, he went out with his baskets. His wife pulled up the lattice and ordered Ying'er to look after the house. Then she went by the back door to old woman Wang's house. The old lady, who was as pleased as could be, welcomed her and made her sit down. Then she made a cup of very strong tea, with walnuts and beech-nuts, and gave it to Jinlian. After wiping the table, she brought out the three rolls of silk. Jinlian measured them and cut all the garments out. Then she began to sew. The old woman watched her and poured forth a stream of compliments.

"What marvelous skill! I have lived nearly seventy years and never have I seen so swift a needle or such cunning fingers."

Jinlian sewed till noon. Then old woman Wang prepared lunch, and asked her to have some. Afterwards, Jinlian sewed till it was nearly dark; then she packed up the silk and went home. When Wu Da came in with his baskets, she closed the door and pulled down the blind. Wu Da saw that his wife's face was red, and asked her where she had been.

"I have been with our neighbor, Stepmother Wang," Jinlian said. "She asked me to make some funeral clothes for her and at lunchtime she set out some wine and cakes and insisted that I should have some."

"You ought not to eat her food," Wu Da said. "It is our place to invite her. She asked you to make these clothes, it is true, but you should take your meals at home and not trouble her. If you go tomorrow, take some money with you and buy some food and wine in your turn. The proverb says: 'Better a neighbor at hand than a relative far away.' Don't let us spoil the friendship between us. If she will not allow you to return her hospitality, you must bring the clothes here and make them."

Jinlian listened, but said nothing. The next day, after breakfast, Wu Da took his baskets and went out. Old woman Wang came over to invite Jinlian to go to her house, and soon they had brought the clothes out and were at work upon them again. Old woman Wang made a cup of tea for Jinlian, but at lunchtime Jinlian took three fen from her sleeve and gave them to the old woman.

"Stepmother," she said, "it is my turn to buy a cup of wine."

"Oh dear!" the old woman cried, "what can you be thinking about? It was I who asked you to come and make these clothes, and I can't possibly allow you to spend your money as well. Why, if I did, your wine and food would poison me."

"You must blame my foolish husband," Jinlian said, "but he said, if you did not take it kindly, I was to go home."

"If your husband feels like that about it," the old woman said, "I suppose I must keep it." She was very much afraid of doing anything that might interfere with her plans, so she put some of her own money to it and went out to buy better food and wine. Then she invited the woman to join her.

It would seem that in all the world there is not a single woman, no matter how intelligent she may be, who cannot be led astray by some trivial act of kindness. Nine women out of every ten are caught this way.

The old woman prepared some refreshments and enjoyed them with Jinlian. Afterwards they went on sewing and, when evening began to fall, the old woman thanked her very heartily, and she went home once more.

After breakfast on the third day, the old woman waited till Wu Da had gone out, then she went to the back door and called out: "Lady, may I make so bold..." Jinlian said she would come in a moment, and soon they were again in the old woman's room, sitting down to work upon the clothes. The old woman made tea as usual. About midday, Ximen Qing arrived.

He had waited anxiously for this day, and now he dressed himself very elegantly, put three or four taels of silver in his sleeve, and sauntered off to Amethyst Street, with a golden fan in his hand. When he came to the old woman's house, he coughed. Then he called, "Where are you, Stepmother Wang? I haven't seen you for ever so long."

"Who is that calling me?" the old woman cried.

"Ximen Qing."

"I could not imagine who it might be," the old woman said, hurrying to the door, "and here you are! You have just come at the right moment. Come in and see what I have to show you." She took him by the sleeve and led him to her room. "This is the very gentleman who gave me the silk," she said to Jinlian.

Ximen Qing opened his eyes wide and gazed at the woman. The masses of her piled-up hair seemed like clouds of the darkest hue. Her rosy cheeks had all the freshness of spring. She was wearing a white linen coat, a dark red skirt, and a blue stomacher. When Ximen came in, she was sewing, but she rose at once and made a reverence to him. He came forward and bowed profoundly. Then she put down the clothes and made a more profound reverence.

"I owe this gentleman a great deal," old woman Wang said. "It was he who gave me this material. I had it in the house a year before I could get anyone to make it up." Then she added, "I am greatly indebted to this lady too, for making the clothes for me. Her sewing is as fine as fine can be. Anything so good and fine is seldom seen in these days. Come and look at it, Sir."

Ximen Qing took up the clothes and examined them. "Indeed," he said, "the lady sews so exquisitely that only an angel could rival her."

Jinlian shyly looked at the ground, but she smiled. "Do not make fun of my poor efforts," she said.

"Stepmother,' Ximen Qing said, "I hardly dare to ask you, but who is this lady?"

"Guess," said the old woman.

"How can I guess?"

"Sit down then, and I will tell you. Do you remember passing by one day and getting a knock on the head?"

"Yes," Ximen said, "I know it is she who struck me that day, but I still don't know who she is."

Jinlian bowed her head more deeply and said with a smile, "It was very careless of your slave to strike you. Please don't be angry with me, my lord."

"How could I possibly be?" Ximen said hastily.

"This lady is the wife of my neighbor, Wu Da," the old woman said.

"Is that so?" Ximen said. "I am afraid I was forgetful of my good manners."

The old woman turned to Jinlian and asked if she knew the gentleman.

"I do not," the woman replied.

"He is one of the wealthiest men in our district and a very good friend of the magistrate. It is Master Ximen. He has thousands and thousands of strings of cash, and keeps a medicine shop near the Town Hall. The money in his house is piled so high that it touches the North Star and even his spoiled rice is enough to fill many barns. His gold is yellow and his silver white. His pearls are round and his precious stones brilliant. He has rhinoceros horns and elephants' tusks. It was I who arranged his first marriage. His wife is the daughter of Captain Wu, a very intelligent woman indeed." Then she turned to Ximen. "Why have you not been to have tea with me lately?"

"I have been very busy attending to my daughter's betrothal," Ximen said, "and that has left me very little leisure."

"Whom is your daughter going to marry?" the old woman said, "and why didn't you get me to arrange the marriage?"

"She is going to marry Chen Jingji, the son of that Chen who is related to General Yang, who commands the Imperial Guard. The young man is seventeen years old and still at his studies. I should have asked you to arrange this marriage, but a woman named Wen came from his family to ask for the betrothal papers, and Xue, the flower seller, acted for us. They arranged everything between them. But, Stepmother, we shall be giving a party very soon, and, if you care to come, I shall be delighted to have you join us."

"I was only joking," the old woman said. "The go-betweens in this city are all bitches. When they arranged the marriage, I had no finger in the pie, and, now that the dinner is cooked, they certainly won't wish me to have a bite. There is an old saying that there is never any love lost between those who follow the same profession. No, I will wait until the wedding is over and then I will come with a few humble presents, and I may pick up some of the leavings. That will be the best thing I can do. I can't allow myself to be left completely out of it." They chattered away in this strain, the old woman flattering him, and he muttering any nonsense in return. Meanwhile, Jinlian kept her head modestly bowed and went on with her needlework.

Ximen Qing glanced at her from time to time, and could see the passion within her growing stronger. This delighted him beyond measure, and he was more eager than ever to bring the matter to its consummation. The old woman made two cups of tea. She gave one to Ximen Qing and the other to Jinlian, and said: "Lady, won't you take a cup of tea with this gentleman?" She looked at Ximen, and stroked her cheek gently; it was a sign that five of their ten points were already gained. The power of tea to exhilarate, and the power of wine to bring people together, have always been acknowledged as the go-betweens of love.

"If you had not come here," old woman Wang said, "I should never have had the courage to go to your house and invite you. Good fortune brought you here, and good fortune, again, decided the moment of your coming. But there is an old saying: 'One guest never troubles two hosts.' You have given me money, and this kind lady has been good enough to work for me, and I don't know how I can express my gratitude to either of you. If the fates had not been kind, I should have found it hard to bring you two together. I suggest, Sir, that you take my place as host, and give me something to buy a little wine for the lady."

"I don't know whether I have any money with me," Ximen Qing said, feeling in his sleeve. He brought out a tael of silver, gave it to the old woman, and asked her to buy something with it.

"Not for me, please," Jinlian said, but she made no attempt to move. The old woman took the silver and, as she prepared to go out, said, "Lady, I wonder if you will be good enough to keep the gentleman company till I come back. I shall only be a few minutes."

"Stepmother, please don't trouble," Jinlian said, but still she remained in her place. The old woman went out, and left Ximen Qing and Pan Jinlian alone together.

Ximen's eyes seemed to devour the woman. She looked up at him coyly, then bowed her head again and went on with her sewing. Before long, the old woman was back again with cooked goose and roasted duck, meats of various kinds, and some luscious-looking fruits. She put them on dishes and set them on the table. Then she said to Jinlian: "Won't you put the clothes aside for a while, and take a cup of wine?"

"You drink with his Lordship," the woman said. "It is not for me to take such a liberty."

"You mustn't say that," the old woman cried, "it has all been arranged in your honor." She placed the dishes before them and, when they had taken their places, poured the wine.

"Stepmother," Ximen Qing said, "will you ask the lady to take wine with me?"

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