Scarring Jasmine-Chapter Four Proposal

04/04/2024 Thursday 37-54F Cloudy

Bai, Jinxian Bai, was born in a northern Jiangsu province village. His parents were peasants, lived by farming for a small landlord. When he was twelve, his hometown encountered a severe drought: There was no rainfall for nearly six months. All the crops died of thirst; the land dried out; even the landlords had to face the challenge of hunger. Thousands of peasants left their villages, going east or south to beg for food. Without any better choice, Bai’s parents had to let Bai go. One dawn, Bai left home tearfully, heading for the east. He knew neither what would happen to his exhausted parents and his ill younger brother, nor his own future; he kept his father’s words in mind: “Survive!”

After about one month’s walk, eating whatever he could get, Bai arrived in Suzhou, a beautiful and prosperous place. He squatted in a corner under a shop’s eave, watching the passersby come and go. They were all neatly dressed, walking in a hurry. None of them even gave him a glance. On that busy noon street, Bai was like a dark shadow, a piece of unpleasant garbage, thus everyone chose to ignore him. He felt so ashamed to stop any of the pedestrians and stick out his begging bowl. That day, from noon to evening, he didn’t move, but hid his face behind his knees. His belly kept growling. He planned that when the night fell and nobody could see him clearly, he would search the street’s trash cans for food. He waited patiently. Then a well-dressed young man stepped out of the shop, threw a few coppers at Bai’s feet. “I have noticed you since noon.” The young man chuckled, “A man’s pride won’t last long if his stomach is empty. Two blocks away there is a booth selling pork buns. Go buy some for yourself!” 

Next morning, that young man saw Bai again in front of the shop. “Why are you still here?” He slowed down his footsteps, but didn’t stop, “do you expect me to give you money again?” 

Bai stood up, shook his head: “No mister, you misunderstood. I came to say thank you to you. But I don’t want your money for free, I can work for you to pay it off.” 

The man stopped, inspecting Bai’s face with great curiosity: “Yesterday you got my money, now you want me to offer you a job. Tell me, what makes you think it will happen?” 

Bai lowered his head, spoke slowly yet boldly: “Because you are a kind man, the only one I met along my way who offered me money to buy buns. I will do everything for you.” 

The man looked at Bai up and down, then asked: “How was the bun?” 

Bai searched his pocket, took out the coppers: “I didn’t buy it. I only spent one copper for a steamed bread.”

That was how Bai met Xiao, Shanyuan’s father, who at that time was the manager of the largest fabric shop in Suzhou. And nine years after Bai’s arrival, Xiao took over that shop. Bai worked there as an apprentice for the first few years, then became Xiao’s assistant. Xiao taught him to read, write, and the business. He also encouraged Bai to be both ambitious and practical: “Look, years ago, I came to this city as ragged as you. But now people call me gentleman. It isn’t a shame to be a peasant child; you ought to have faith in yourself. Think big do small, cook a dish at a time, then you will be there.”

One year later, when Bai finally saved some money and managed to go back to his hometown, he found his father and brother had died a long time ago and his mother remarried to another peasant who abused her often. Bai reburied his lost family, bought his mother out from her second marriage, and took her to Suzhou. Since then, Bai considered Suzhou his home. 

Afterward, luck came to him again—Xiao introduced him to a big silk supplier, who later became Bai’s father-in-law. After marrying Shen, with the support of his in-law family and Xiao, Bai started to run his own fabric business. Finally, He set his roots in that county.

Bai was born to be a businessman. Compared to Xiao, Bai wasn’t a risk taker. Before he took any further step, he would think about it twice; and he was less aggressive, which made him more reliable and grounded. Perhaps that was why his business expanded rapidly--Just in a couple of years, he opened another two large shops, and became a respectable merchant.

Along with Bai’s rising, Xiao’s business declined—He wasn’t interested in doing fabric anymore, he dreamt about something bigger from which he could make money faster. He invested here and there; none bore fruit. At last, his loss of a five years’ long lawsuit became Xiao’s last straw. That day when his creditor took over the shop to compensate for the debt, he committed suicide.

After many years, Bai still couldn’t understand why Xiao chose to hang himself rather than start everything over again, and why he didn’t ask for any help? Two days before Xiao’s suicide, they met in a restaurant with some other friends. Xiao looked no different than usual--He drank, he sang, he laughed loudly, he made everyone feel that he had the whole world beneath his feet. When Bai asked him how his business was, Xiao just brushed him off: “Brother, all is fine, don’t worry.” That evening, Xiao drank a lot of liquor. Bai begged him to stop. Xiao dismissed him: “Good brother, let me enjoy this moment. I promise I won’t do it again." Then the party was over, for the first time Bai found Xiao heavily drunk. Bai and another friend helped him home. Along the way, Xiao kept humming Peking opera. 

That was the last time Bai saw Xiao. Once Bai recalled that evening, he couldn’t forgive himself—If he could have been smarter, if he could have paid more attention to Xiao, Xiao mightn’t have died. Yes, death was an easy way to solve or escape from the issues. However, Xiao had a young wife, and a nine-year-old son, how could he just walk away clean and leave others in pain? He was a remarkable, smart guy, the one Bai adored the most; but definitely he had his own ego and blind spot: He was too proud and fragile.

Thereafter, Bai kept a close eye on Xiao’s family. At each festival, Bai would visit them, bringing them both gifts and money. But the widow Xue, Xiao’s second wife, always returned them to Bai the next day. She was a silent, educated woman. Bai never heard her complain about her husband’s irresponsibility, or the hardship of being a single mother. Instead, she carefully managed the small sum of money which Xiao left her and raised Shanyuan alone. Only once, she sent someone to Bai, inviting his whole family to come to her house for dinner because that day Shanyuan received his college acceptance. 

Certainly, she was a marvelous woman; besides, Bai noticed that she had beautiful eyes, the ends of which almost swept into her temples like the wings of swallows touching the willow branches. Shanyuan inherited Xue’s eyes; every time Bai saw them, his heart became tender—It might be another reason he liked Shanyuan. 

In Bai’s past life, he never experienced love, the particular love between man and woman, the love that could make him feel unconfident. However, when Bai met Xue, he felt it. It was crazy.

Bai was clear that his marriage with Shen was just a business, even though neither of them would admit it. When they married he was just a rootless young man who needed a strong background to enhance his future. Shen was twenty-four, one year younger than him. As the eldest daughter in a merchant’s family, it was unusual that she was still unclaimed at that age. Thus, like a thirsty man happening to find someone who was willing to offer him a drink, they took each other without hesitation.

Bai didn’t know what Shen thought about him; it was too embarrassing to ask her. All these years, he tried his best to be a good husband and son-in-law, regardless of the differences between Shen and him. Shen loved to go out and show off; she liked to enjoy her life and hated headaches. Perhaps in some way she did love him; years before she tried to persuade him to marry a concubine for more sons. He didn’t like that idea at all, so eventually she had to give it up. Bai wasn’t interested in any other women, and the only one he admired was unreachable--she had beautiful eyes; she was his benefactor and best friend’s wife; she was a dignified lady—he could merely watch her from a distance.

Emerging from his memories, Bai sighed deeply. “May my Jasmine will be as discreet as her, but never experience what she has suffered.” 

The first day after Jasmine’s graduation from high school, Bai paced into her room.

“Jasmine,” Bai said, sitting down, “now you are eighteen, and have graduated from high school. Your mother told me that you are preparing to go to college, is that true?” 

Jasmine lowered her head and responded to her father with a faint nod. 

“Forget about that, it’s not for you.” Bai stood up and walked to the window, there the shadows of bamboo were dancing on the windowpane. “I sent you to school neither for the degree nor for obtaining life skills. I just simply wanted you to have some education as your dowry, so you can read, write, and nobody will disdain you. High school education is more than enough for a girl. We are a traditional family; one should follow the path and do the needful. From now on, restrain yourself from those vanities, stay at home and do some embroidery. Your mother and I have plans for you.” Jasmine stood silently--She didn’t argue; she didn’t even say a word to plead her case.

Bai stepped out of the room. The corner of his eye caught the bookshelf. Despite the fact that he didn’t know what those books were about and some characters on the book spines were unfamiliar to him, he gave out his instructions anyway: “Those books are useless, pack them up and give them away.”

Jasmine’s college dream was pronounced dead. After Bai left, Jasmine sat by the window, feeling annoyed—not with her father, but with herself. “How impossibly weak I am! I have been dreaming about college for so long, but in front of my father I became mute. I could at least have given responding a try.” Jasmine buried her face in her arms and began weeping. The sloping sun dragged the bamboo shadows long, letting them sway vividly on Jasmine’s trembling shoulders. On the other side of the garden, a lonesome jasmine tree was blooming—It was the one Jasmine received from Uncle Xiao at her full-month birth party, where a butterfly was buried.

About three months later, a matchmaker knocked on Bai’s door.

“I must congratulate you, Master and Madam Bai!” The matchmaker started right away upon seeing Bai and Shen, “You got great luck!”

“What happened Mama? Take a seat and make yourself at home.” Shen offered. 

They sat on chairs, the matchmaker opened her mouth again: “Do you know His Excellency Wang? Xuesong Wang, the general administrator?” 

Bai shook his head: “No, I only heard of him. Everyone in this county knows his name. But why do you mention him?” 

The matchmaker grinned, pointed her index finger at Bai: “It is he who sent me here, to propose for his youngest son Yu. Isn’t it great luck?! How many households wish to marry their daughters into Wang’s house, but they have poor fortune, and of course their daughters aren’t as pretty as yours.”

Bai and Shen gaped at each other. They couldn’t believe it—Wang’s family was far beyond their social network; they were not even in the same class. “Wang is one of the most influential families in this whole area;” Bai asked, “while I am just a nameless merchant. I never had the honor to meet him in person, and my daughter stays home almost every day. How could he know her?”

The matchmaker laughed, covering her mouth with a pink silk handkerchief: “Master Bai, you must be kidding! Don’t you know that a girl’s reputation always runs faster and wider by word of mouth? Furthermore, Miss Bai was a schoolgirl in the past, people could see her either at school or on the street. Your treasure is not a secret. Not to mention those inexperienced young men-- if I were a man at their age, I would fall in love with Miss Bai as well!” 

The matchmaker sipped some tea, then continued: “Frankly, His Excellency Wang is a careful man. Before he sent me here, I bet that he must have made a lot of inquiries about your family and Miss Bai. So far as I know, this is the only household to which Wang has proposed for his twenty-one-year-old son. It is indeed a great compliment.”

After finishing her tea, the matchmaker bid goodbye. “Not everyone can have this opportunity.” She stopped at the door, re-emphasizing, “Marrying into a family like Wang is a guarantee of prosperity. They have money and reputation; Wang’s youngest son, who just came back from Beijing several months ago, is the best looking gentleman in this county. From where else can you expect to find such an offer? Think about it, don’t make me wait too long. I must give His Excellency Wang your answer within ten days!”


Popular Posts