CHAPTER 7 (The Golden Lotus) Ximen Qing Meets Meng Yulou


Ximen Qing Meets Meng Yulou

One day there came to Ximen Qing's house an old woman called Xue. She was a seller of flowers made of kingfisher feathers, and was carrying a box of them. She could not find Ximen, but seeing Daian, asked him where his master was.

"My father," said the boy, "is in the shop, going through the accounts with Uncle Fu."

The old woman went straight to the shop door, pulled aside the lattice, and looked in. Ximen Qing was going through the books with his manager. With a movement of the head she signaled to him to come out. He left the shop at once, and they sought a quiet place in which to talk.

"What is your business with me?" Ximen Qing asked her.

"It is just an idea about a marriage that has come into my head," the old woman said. "The marriage I am thinking of should be satisfactory to you in every sense of the word, and it would fill the gap left in your household by the death of your Third Lady."

"Who is the lady?" Ximen asked.

"You probably know her. Her family name is Meng, and she is the widow of a cloth merchant, named Yang, who used to keep a shop outside the South Gate. She is by no means poor. She has a couple of Nanjing beds, and four or five chests so full of clothes for every season of the year that there isn't room to put a finger inside them. Her jewelry is beyond counting. She has about a thousand taels of ready money, and two or three hundred rolls of cloth woven with three shuttles. It is a year or more now since she became a widow, and she has no children of her own, only a younger brother of her husband, who is about ten years old. She is quite young, with no one to love, and her aunt thinks it is time she married again. She is about twenty-four years old this year, and very tall and beautiful. When she is dressed, she looks like a figure on a painted lantern. She is lively and charming, and just as intelligent as can be. She can govern a household, do needlework, and play backgammon and all kinds of games. There is nothing to hide. The lady's name is Meng, and she is the third of her family. She lives in Stinking Water Lane. I forgot to mention that she can play the moon guitar too. You will certainly fall in love with her the moment you see her."

Ximen was delighted when he heard that the girl could play the moon guitar. "When can I see her?" he cried.

"I don't anticipate any difficulty," the old woman said, "but one thing you must bear in mind. There is only one member of her family who counts for anything, and that is her aunt. There is indeed another relative, Zhang the Fourth, but he is like a mountain walnut, all shell. Many years ago this aunt married Crooked-Headed Sun, and they used to live in Master Xu's house on the north side of the High Street. But Sun has been dead these forty years. She has no children, and is entirely dependent upon her nephew and niece.

"She is the only person we have to consider. She cares about nothing but money, and she knows quite well that her nephew's widow has property. It is nothing to her whom her niece marries, so long as she gets a few taels of silver for herself. You have plenty of excellent silk. I suggest you take a roll of it, buy some presents, and call upon this old aunt. You might give her a little silver at the same time. If you do that, you will have disposed of her once and for all. Later, if anybody should venture to raise objections, the old lady will have her way and the objector will find himself powerless."

All this pleased Ximen Qing immensely. His face beamed with delight. They decided that the next day would suit their purpose, and that he should buy some presents and take them to the house of the young lady's aunt. Xue took up her box and went off, and Ximen Qing went back into the shop and continued to go through the books with Fu.

The next morning, Ximen rose early, and dressed himself in his finest clothes. He took a roll of silk and, buying four large dishes of beautiful fruits, had them put into carrying baskets and told a man to carry them. Then, on horseback, with Daian in attendance and old woman Xue leading the way, he set out to Aunt Yang's house. Xue went in to give the old lady warning.

"One of our neighbors," she said, "a very rich man, would like to have a word with you about your niece's marriage. I told him that you are the only person of any account in the family, and that he must come and see you before he goes to see the lady. I have brought him here today, and at this moment he is at the gate waiting your pleasure."

"Oh dear!" said the old lady. "Why didn't you tell me before?" She told a maid to prepare some fine tea, and gave orders that Ximen Qing should be asked to come in. Xue suggested that the presents should be sent in first, so that the empty baskets might be brought out again, and that then he should go and see the old lady.

He was wearing a large hat of woven palm and a pair of white-soled boots. When he came into the old lady's presence he made four reverences. Leaning on her stick, she hastily prepared to return them, but he would not allow this. "Please, Aunt," he said, "be so kind as to accept my greeting." They disputed amicably for some time, and the matter ended with half the required reverences. Then they sat down, hostess and guest in their proper places, and old woman Xue sat down beside them.

"May I know your honorable name, Sir?" said the old lady.

"This gentleman," answered Xue for him, "is the richest or the second richest man in Qinghe. He is Master Ximen, who keeps a medicine shop by the Town Hall. The money in his house reaches higher than the North Star, and his barns are filled with more spoiled rice than is to be found in the Imperial Storehouses. Now his household is without a mistress and, since he has heard that our lady is ready to marry, he has come expressly to talk to you about the marriage."

"Sir," the old lady said, "if you wanted my niece, you had only to come and tell me. Why have you spent your money upon a present for me? It has put me in the position that if I refuse it, I shall be impolite, and if I accept it, I shall feel ashamed."

"Most worthy Aunt," Ximen said, "this is not fit to be called a present." The old lady made two reverences as a sign of thanks and accepted the present. Tea was brought in and, as they were drinking it, the old lady said:

"You will think me lacking in intelligence if I fail to make myself quite clear. My nephew, when he was alive, was very rich, but unfortunately he is dead, and all his wealth has come into my niece's hands, probably no less than a thousand taels of silver. I am not in the least concerned whether you want her for the mistress of your household or as a second wife, but I should like to have a requiem sung for my nephew's soul—I am his own aunt—and a little money for my coffin. Of course, all this will cost you nothing. I would do anything to get the better of that old dog Zhang the Fourth, and I will see that this marriage is arranged. Perhaps, when you are married, you will allow her to come occasionally to see her poor old aunt, on my birthday and perhaps at the Summer Festival. I don't imagine you will find my poverty infectious."

Ximen Qing laughed. "Please make your mind quite at rest," he said. "I understand perfectly. If you arrange this matter for me, you may have a dozen coffins if you like."

He told Daian to bring his visiting box. From it he took six bars of the purest white official silver, worth thirty taels, and set them before her. "This is only a trifle, Lady, but I hope you will use it to buy a cup of tea. After the marriage, I will give you another seventy taels and two rolls of silk. That may suffice for your funeral. And at the four seasons and the eight festivals, I will certainly allow her to visit you."

When the cunning old woman set her black eyes on the thirty taels of shining white silver, her face became all smiles. "Honorable Sir," she said, "don't think that I am grasping, but it has always been considered the wisest plan to be quite definite at the very beginning. It avoids disputes later on."

"You are a very intelligent woman," old woman Xue said, "and, really, you need not have any fears. His Lordship is perfectly reliable. If he had not been, he would not have brought his box with him when he came to discuss the matter. Perhaps you are unaware that he is on friendly terms with the local officials. They know how open-handed he is. You need not be afraid of exhausting his resources."

The old lady was more and more delighted, and gave vent to her feelings in more ways than one. They drank two more cups of tea, and Ximen stood up to take his leave, though the old lady urged him to stay longer.

"Now that we have seen you," old woman Xue said, "we will go tomorrow to pay our respects to the young lady."

"His Lordship need not trouble to go and see my niece," the old lady said. "You go and tell her that I say if she won't marry a gentleman like this, I should like to know whom she will marry."

Ximen Qing prepared to leave.

"A poor old woman like me," the old lady said, "could never have dreamed that you, Sir, would condescend to come and see me, so I was taken unprepared. Please forgive my allowing you to go away empty-handed."

She took her stick and hobbled a few steps with him, till he begged her to return. As he was mounting his horse, Xue said, "Wasn't that a good idea? Go home now, I have a little more to say to the old lady. I will call for you early tomorrow morning."

Ximen Qing gave her a tael of silver to pay for the hire of a donkey, mounted his horse, and rode home. Xue went back again to the old lady, and they talked and drank together till the sun was setting. Then she went home.

The next morning Ximen Qing dressed himself exquisitely, put his purse in his sleeve, and rode on a white horse. His two boys, Daian and Ping'an, were in attendance, and old woman Xue rode on a donkey. They set off for the South Gate and soon reached the young lady's house.

The gatehouse was as large as an ordinary room and had a black-and-white screen. Xue asked Ximen Qing to dismount, and they went in together. They came to the inner door with another screen and a low fence of bamboo. There were flower pots with pomegranates in the courtyard and, on the steps, a row of blue jars and two long benches for beating cloth. The old woman pushed open the scarlet double doors and they went into a parlor, with seats arranged as for host and guests. The tables and chairs were new and brightly polished, and the curtains and blinds in excellent taste.

Old woman Xue told Ximen Qing to sit down, and she went to the courtyard. Very soon she returned and whispered, "The lady has not finished dressing yet. Do you mind waiting?" A boy brought in some Fujian tea and, while Ximen Qing was drinking it, the old woman with much gesticulation gave him what information she thought fit.

"Apart from the aunt, this young lady is the only person of consequence in the family. Her husband had a brother, but he is still very young and ignorant. When Master Yang was alive, they used to sell enough to fill two large baskets with coins, not to speak of silver, every day. He charged three fen a foot for the black cloth used for making shoes and twenty or thirty men were employed in the dye shop. This lady managed everything. She has two maids and a boy. The elder maid is fifteen, and has already had her hair dressed as a woman. That is Lanxiang. The little maid, Xiaoluan, is twelve. When she marries, they will go with her. If I bring off this marriage, I only ask one thing. I should like to be able to take a couple of rooms to live in."

"There will be no difficulty about that," Ximen said.

"But last year," the old woman said, "when you bought Chunmei, you promised me several rolls of silk. I have never had them. Perhaps you will remember that when you reward me on this occasion." A maid came to call her, and in a little while Ximen Qing heard the tinkling of ornaments and there came to him the fragrance of exquisite perfume. The old woman pulled up the lattice and Mistress Meng came in.

Ximen Qing was delighted with her the moment he saw her. She came into the room, modestly made a reverence, and sat down opposite him. He stared at her so fixedly that she bowed her head. "Lady," he said at last, "it is now a long time since my wife died, and I should like to take you to wife to govern my household. May I know your honorable wishes in this matter?"

The lady looked at him. He seemed a pleasant-looking fellow and she was well enough satisfied. She said to old woman Xue, "How old is this gentleman and how long is it since his lady died?"

"I have misspent twenty-eight years," Ximen Qing said, "and my wife unfortunately died more than a year ago. May I know how many fruitful springs you have seen?"

"I am thirty years old," the lady said.

"Then you are two years older than I am."

"When the wife is two years older than the husband," the old go-between said, "the yellow gold increases day by day; and when the wife is three years older, the yellow gold is piled up mountains high."

The little maid brought three cups of tea and some preserved golden oranges. Mistress Meng stood up, took one of the cups, and with her slender finger wiped the water from its rim, then offered it to Ximen Qing, at the same time making a reverence. Old woman Xue found an opportunity to lift the lady's skirt slightly, displaying her exquisite feet, three inches long and no wider than a thumb, very pointed and with high insteps. They were clad in a pair of scarlet shoes, embroidered in gold with a cloud design, with white silk high heels. Ximen Qing observed them with great satisfaction.

Mistress Meng gave a cup of tea to Xue, then took one herself and sat down. Ximen Qing told Daian to bring in the box of presents. In it were two silk handkerchiefs, a pair of jeweled pins, and six gold rings. Ximen took them out of the box and, putting them on a tray, presented them to the lady. The old woman prompted her to thank him. "When do you wish the ceremony to be performed?" she asked. "I shall have preparations to make."

"I take this as a pledge of your kind intention," Ximen Qing said. "On the twenty-fourth day of this month I will send my small gift, and I would suggest the second of next month for the wedding day."

"I must speak to my aunt about the matter," Mistress Meng said.

"His Lordship called upon your aunt yesterday, and discussed the matter," old woman Xue said.

"What did she say?" Mistress Meng asked.

"She was very pleased. Indeed, she said that if this gentleman was not good enough for you, she didn't know who would be. She will be very satisfied with you when she learns that you have agreed to marry his Lordship."

"If she really said that, all will be well."

"Ah, Lady," the old woman said, "you have to thank me for this good fortune."

Ximen Qing rose and said good-bye. Old woman Xue went with him as far as the entrance to the lane.

"Well," she said, "you have seen the lady. What do you think of her?"

"Sister," Ximen Qing said, "I thank you."

The old woman asked him to go home without her. She said that she had still something to say to Mistress Meng. Ximen mounted his horse and returned to the city, and the old woman went back to the room.

"You must feel satisfied, now that you have arranged to marry this gentleman," she said.

"But he may have a wife already for all I know," said Mistress Meng, "and I have no idea what his business is."

"My good lady," the old woman said, "supposing he is married, I can assure you that none of his ladies has any intelligence to speak of. When you marry him, you will find that I am telling the truth. As for his reputation, everybody knows that he is the famous medicine merchant, money lender to the officials, and the first or second richest man in the district. The magistrates, both of the prefecture and of the district, are on very intimate terms with him, and only recently he became a relation by marriage of Marshal Yang of the Eastern Capital. With a relative like that, who dare interfere with him?"

Mistress Meng prepared some refreshments. While they were eating, a boy came from Aunt Yang's house. He brought a box in which were four pieces of cake made of yellow rice and dates, two pieces of sweetmeat, and several dozen little pastries.

"My mistress would like to know whether you have accepted the man's proposal," the boy said. "She says if you don't accept him, she can't imagine whom you will have."

"Thank your mistress for her kind message," Mistress Meng said, "and tell her that I have accepted him."

"Now you have a proof that I was not lying to you," the old woman said. "Your aunt did know all about it."

Mistress Meng took the cakes out of the box, and gave it back filled with buns and cured meats. She gave the boy a handful of coins, and said, "Thank your mistress for me. Tell her that he is going to send his present on the twenty-fourth, and the wedding is to be on the second of next month." Then the boy went home.

"What did your aunt send you?" the old woman asked. "May I have some to take home to my children?" Mistress Meng gave her a piece of sweetmeat and a dozen pastries, and she went away.

Now, the lady's uncle, Zhang the Fourth, was very anxious to secure the guardianship of his nephew Yang Zongbao in order that he might get the woman's property into his own hands. He hoped that she would become the second wife of a certain Scholar Shang, who was the son of a local magistrate. Had it been any less important person, a few words would have settled the matter, but he knew that Ximen Qing was on good terms with the officials, and dared not oppose him openly. After thinking over every possible way of dealing with the situation, he decided that the best plan was to introduce some element of discord between them. So he came to see his niece.

"You mustn't think of accepting Ximen Qing's proposal," he said. "Shang is the man for you. He is a poet of distinction, owns several farms, and enjoys a very comfortable existence. He would be a much better match than that fellow Ximen, who has had too many dealings with the officials and is a truculent upstart and a ne'er-do-well. Ximen has one wife already. She was a Miss Wu. If you marry him, you won't be the mistress of his house; you'll be nothing but an underling. He has three or four other wives, and several young maids. No, if you marry him, with so many people already in the household, I'm afraid you'll have to put up with a great deal of unpleasantness."

Meng realized that Zhang the Fourth wished her to break off her engagement, and she decided to tease him. "There is an old saying," she said, "that though there are many ships upon the water, the traffic still goes on. I see no reason why we should not all get along very well. If he has a wife already, I will gladly revere her as an elder sister. If he has other wives, I will place absolute confidence in him. If I afford my husband pleasure, I don't mind how many wives he has; if not, even if I should be his only wife, life would be utterly miserable. In every rich family there are four or five ladies. My dear old uncle, don't trouble yourself any more about the matter. When I get there, I shall know how to look after myself. I don't anticipate any trouble on that score."

"But that is not all," Zhang the Fourth continued. "He is continually beating his women and ill using his wives. He makes a business of buying and selling young people, and if anyone in his establishment gives him the slightest cause for annoyance, he sends for the go-between and gets rid of her. Are you ready to put up with that sort of treatment?"

"No, Uncle, you are mistaken," his niece said. "Even a bad-tempered husband cannot punish a wife who does her duty and keeps her wits about her. If I marry him and perform my household duties properly, and if I know when to keep my mouth and other people's mouths shut, he will find no excuse for treating me badly."

"I am told," Zhang the Fourth persisted, "yes, I am told that he has a young unmarried daughter about fourteen years old, and I can't help thinking, if you marry him, that the girl will take every possible opportunity of annoying you."

"Why do you think that, Uncle? If I marry him, old is old and young is young. I treat children very kindly. I don't believe either that my husband will be dissatisfied with me, or that my daughter will be undutiful. If he had ten daughters, it wouldn't worry me."

"One more point," said Zhang the Fourth, "and perhaps this is the most serious of all. The fellow's behavior is atrocious. Strumpets and bawdy houses are the only interest he has in life. Moreover, he is a man of straw and frightfully in debt. What I fear most of all is that he will involve you in his downfall."

"Uncle, you are mistaken again. The man is young and occasionally he may philander away from home. There is nothing extraordinary about that, and there is no way in which wives can prevent their husbands from so amusing themselves. As for his financial position, you should remember the old saying: 'Money has no roots.' We have no means of telling whether a person will always be rich or always be poor. No, Uncle, marriages are made in Heaven, please don't distress yourself so much about this one."

Zhang the Fourth was forced to realize that there was nothing he could say to change his niece's purpose. She paid no heed to anything he advised. So he made a wry face, drank two cups of plain tea, stood up, and went home extremely crestfallen.

He talked over the matter with his wife, and they decided to wait until the wedding day, and then to use their nephew Yang Zongbao as an excuse for laying hands on Mistress Meng's belongings.

On the twenty-fourth Ximen Qing sent his marriage pledge. On the twenty-sixth twelve monks came to chant a dirge for the repose of the soul of the late Master Yang, and burn his tablet. Aunt Yang was definitely on Ximen's side, but, on the eve of the wedding, Zhang the Fourth asked a number of neighbors to accompany him and went to make a last attempt to dissuade his niece. Old woman Xue, with Ximen's servants and ten or twenty soldiers of the garrison, came to bring away the lady's bed, her curtains, and all her boxes. Zhang met them and stopped them. "Madam Go-between," he said, "please do not remove these things. I have a few words to say about the matter." Then he and all the neighbors went in to see Mistress Meng. They sat down and Zhang the Fourth addressed the company.

"Honorable neighbors all, please listen to what I have to say." Then he turned to his niece. "You are the mistress here, and I have nothing against that. But your husband Yang Zongxi and his younger brother Yang Zongbao were both nephews of mine. The elder of these two nephews is now dead and what he possessed has been inherited by others. That is right and fitting. But my second nephew Yang Zongbao is still a child, and the burden of this matter falls upon me. He was born of the same mother as your late husband, and has naturally a right to some share in the property. I call upon these honorable neighbors to witness. We will open all the boxes and everybody shall see what there is. Then we shall know whether there is much or nothing."

"Honorable neighbors," Mistress Meng said, beginning to cry, "now hear what I have to say." She turned to Zhang the Fourth. 'You are mistaken, old gentleman. I did not wickedly murder my husband, so that I might marry again to my dishonor. It is no secret that he had money. He laid by many taels of silver, and spent them on the building of this house. I am not taking this house away. I leave it for my young brother-in-law. I am not even taking away a single article of furniture. Three or four hundred taels of silver were due to me, but I handed over to you the contracts and documents, you collected the money, and I have used it to live upon. What else could I do?"

"Doubtless you have no money," Zhang said. "I am quite ready to agree. But in the presence of these good people, let the boxes be opened so that everyone can see for himself. Even if they turn out to be full of silver, you can take it away. I don't want it."

"Perhaps you would like to see my shoes too," Mistress Meng cried.

They were in the midst of this dispute when Aunt Yang came in, leaning on her stick. "Here comes the aunt," all the neighbors cried. They saluted her respectfully. She returned their greeting and sat down. Then she began.

"Honorable neighbors here present. I am her aunt, and it is natural that I should have something to say about all this. He who is dead was my nephew, and he who lives is just as much my nephew. If any one of our fingers is bitten, it is no less painful than any other. It has been stated that her husband was rich. Well, even if he had a hundred thousand taels, you should still treat her fairly. She has no children and she is young. What right have you to prevent her marrying again?"

"Quite right, quite right," said all the neighbors.

"Do you claim the things that came to her from her own family?" the old lady continued, addressing Zhang the Fourth. "She has had no secret understanding with me. All I want is justice." She turned again to the bystanders. "If my niece had not always been so good-hearted and sweet-natured, honorable neighbors, I should not be bothering my old bones about her. I hate to see her leave this place."

Zhang the Fourth glared at the old lady. "Oh," said he, "I know how full of fine ideas your mind is. I also know that the phoenix does not lay his head where there is no treasure."

This remark infuriated the old lady. Her face became purple. She shook her finger at Zhang the Fourth. "Don't talk such rubbish, Zhang the Fourth. I may not be the rightful representative of the Yang family, but as for you, old slippery tongue, what have you to do with the Yangs?"

"Even if I am not a Yang, these two nephews are my sister's sons. You biting old reptile, a woman ought to consider her husband's family. What is the use of lighting a fire with one hand and pouring water on it with the other?"

"You good-for-nothing old dog bone," the old lady cried. "She is a young and helpless woman. You wish to keep her in this house, but what is it you are really after? Either you have nasty lustful designs upon her yourself, or you are devising some scheme to grow fat upon her money."

"I don't want her money," Zhang the Fourth retorted, "but there will be nothing for Yang Zongbao when he grows up. I am not your sort, ripe for the slaughter, one who takes up with the rich and deceives the humble. You are like a yellow cat with a black tail."

"Zhang the Fourth, you offshoot of generations of beggars, you miserable old slave, you old mealy mouth, how dare you be such a humbug and talk like this? What utter nonsense! There will be no cords to tie your coffin when you die."

"You garrulous old whore, you want the money yourself to put a little warmth under your tail. No wonder you never had any children!"

The old lady became more and more wild.

"Zhang the Fourth, you son of a bawd. Pig! Dog! So I have no children, eh? Well, that's better than having an old woman who goes to the temple to sleep with the monks and carry on with the priests. You don't know what you're talking about."

By this time the pair were on the point of coming to blows. Fortunately, the neighbors stopped them. "Uncle, let the lady have her say," they said to Zhang the Fourth.

Old woman Xue, while the dispute was at its height, told Ximen's servants and the soldiers to hurry in. They carried out all the chests and beds, some on their shoulders and others on poles. It was like a whirlwind. Zhang the Fourth was furious, but he could only look on, speechless. The neighbors could not understand what the trouble was all about. They tried to make peace, and finally they went away.

On the second day of the sixth month Ximen Qing sent a large sedan chair, with four pairs of lanterns, for Mistress Meng. Yang Zongbao, his hair dressed in a knot, wearing green clothes, rode on a horse and acted as his sister-in-law's escort. Ximen Qing gave him a roll of silk and a piece of jade. Lanxiang and Xiaoluan, the two maids, went with her to be her chambermaids. Qintong, her boy, was now fifteen years old, and he too went to serve her. On the third day after the marriage Aunt Yang and Mistress Meng's sisters-in-law called to offer their congratulations. Ximen Qing gave Aunt Yang seventy taels of silver and two rolls of silk, and from that day forward their friendship was never broken. He prepared three rooms in the western wing for Mistress Meng, and established her there as his third wife, calling her "Yulou" [Tower of Jade] and giving orders to his household that she must be spoken of as the Third Lady. For two nights he slept in her room. The golden hangings seemed to indicate the coming of a new bride, but the story told by the scarlet silk coverlets was not new.

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