A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 37

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Chapter 37

Chapter 37

Begonia Club Takes Form One Day in the

Studio of Autumn Freshness

Themes for Poems on Chrysanthemums Are

Prepared One Evening in Alpinia Park

Jia Zheng, having been appointed this year an Examiner of Provincial Education, chose the twentieth of the eighth month to start his journey. On that day, after paying his respects to the ancestral shrines and to the Lady Dowager, he was seen off by Baoyu and other young men of the family all the way to the Pavilion of Parting. But his doings outside need not concern us here.

His father’s departure left Baoyu free to do as he pleased in the Garden, and he frittered away whole months in idleness. Re was feeling listless one day when Cuimo brought him a letter on fancy note-paper.

“I’m glad you’ve come,” said Baoyu. “I’d quite forgotten, I meant to go and see Third Sister. Is she better?”

“Yes, she’s stopped taking medicine today,” replied Cuimo. “It was only a slight chill.”

Baoyu unfolded the letter then and read:

Tanchun greets her Second Brother.

The other night the moon was clear after the rain, and it seemed such a rare chance to enjoy the moonlight that I stayed up until midnight strolling under the trees. As a result, I caught a chill in the dew. You took the trouble to come in person and cheer me up yesterday, then sent your maids with gifts of fresh lichees and Yan Zhenqing’s 1 cal­ligraphy. I was extremely touched by your kind concern.

As I was resting quietly today it occurred to me that the ancients, even when pursuing fame and struggling for profit, kept a small hill or stream to which they could retire; and there, with a few friends from far or near, they amused themselves in their cups by organizing poetry clubs or lit­erary forums. The fame of those impromptu gatherings has come down through the centuries.

Though I myself have no talent I am lucky enough to live with others among rocks and fountains, and I admire the polished verses of Baochai and Daiyu. It would be a pity not to invite poetizers to a feast in a cool courtyard and a moonlit pavilion or to make poems and drink in Apri­cot Tavern by Peach Stream. Why should the genius of the Lotus Society 2 be confined to men? Why should girls be excluded from cultured gatherings like those in the Eastern Hills? 3

If you will condescend to come, I shall sweep the path clear of blossoms to wait for you.

Respectfully written.

Baoyu clapped his hands delightedly.

“How high-brow Third Sister’s become!” he chuckled. “I’ll go now and discuss this with her.”

He set off at once with Cuimo at his heels, and had just reached Seeping Fragrance Pavilion when the serving-woman on duty at the back gate of the Garden appeared with a letter. Catching sight of Baoyu she approached him and announced: “Master Yun sends his respects. He is waiting at the back gate and told me to give you this.”

Baoyu opened the letter and read:

Your unworthy child Jia Yun sends his respectful greet­ings and wishes his noble father boundless health and happiness.

Since I had the good fortune to become your adopted son, I have been longing day and night to please you but found no way to show my filial piety. Recently I was en­trusted with the purchase of flowers, and thanks to your great influence I have been able to make the acquaintance of many gardeners and visit many celebrated gardens. I discovered a rare species of white begonia and after con­siderable difficulty have succeeded in acquiring just two pots. If you consider me as your own son, please keep these flowers to enjoy.

As the weather is so hot I will not presume to intrude, for fear of disturbing the young ladies in the Garden.

I kowtow with humble respect, wishing you good health.

Having read this Baoyu asked with a smile, “Did he come all alone?”

“Just with two pots of flowers,” said the old woman.

“Go and tell him I’ve read his letter and appreciate his thoughtfulness. You can put the flowers in my room.

With that he went with Cuimo to the Studio of Autumn Freshness where Baochai, Daiyu, Yingchun and Xichun were assembled.

“Here comes another!” they cried, laughing, as he entered.

“Not so vulgar, was it, that sudden idea of mine?” asked Tanchun gleefully. “I wrote a few invitations to see what would happen, and you all turn up in force.”

“We should have started a club like this long ago,” observed Baoyu.

“Start one if you like, but don’t count me in,” said Daiyu. “I’m not up to it.”

“If you’re not, who is?” countered Yingchun with a smile.

“This is a serious business,” declared Baoyu. “We should encourage each other, not back out of politeness. Let’s all give our ideas for general discussion. What suggestions have you, Cousin Baochai? And Cousin Daiyu?”

“What’s the hurry?” asked Baochai. “We’re not all here yet.” Before she had finished speaking Li Wan walked in.

“How very refined!” she cried, laughing. “If you’re going to start a poetry club, I’ll volunteer to preside. I had this very idea last spring, but on second thoughts decided it would only be asking for trouble as I can’t write poetry myself. So I dropped the idea and forgot it. Now that Third Sister’s so keen, I’ll help you get this going.”

“If you’re set on starting a poetry club,” said Daiyu, “we must all be poets. And first, to be less conventional, we must stop calling each other ‘sister,’ ‘cousin,’ ‘sister-in-law’ and so forth.”

“Quite right,” agreed Li Wan. “Let’s choose some elegant pen-names. I’ll be The Old Peasant of Sweet Paddy. No one else can have that name.

“I’ll be Master of Autumn Freshness,” cried Tanchun. “There’s something unreal and awkward about ‘master’ and ‘scholar,”‘ ob­jected Baoyu. “With all these wu-tung trees and plantains here, why not use them in your name?”

“Yes, I know what. I like plantains best so I’ll call myself The Stranger Under the Plantain.”

The others approved this as more original.

Only Daiyu teased, “Drag her off, quick! Stew some slices of her flesh to go with our wine.” When the others looked mystified she ex­plained with a smile, “Didn’t an ancient say, ‘The deer was covered with the plantain’? If she calls herself The Stranger Under the Plantain, she must be a deer. Let’s hurry up and cook this venison.”

Amid general laughter Tanchun cried, “Just you wait! You’re very clever at making fun of people, but I’ve got the right name for you, a perfect name.” She turned to the rest. “The wives of King Shun4 shed so many tears on bamboos that thereafter their stems became speckled, and now the speckled bamboo is called by their name. Well, she lives in Bamboo Lodge and she’s always crying. When one day she pines for a husband, I’m sure the bamboos there will grow speckled too. I propose we call her Queen of the Bamboos.”

The rest applauded while Daiyu lowered her head, reduced to silence.

“I’ve thought of a good name for Cousin Baochai,” volunteered Li Wan. “A short one too.”

“What is it?” asked Xichun and Yingchun.

“I’m entitling her Lady of the Alpinia. How’s that?”

“An excellent title,” said Tanchun.

“How about me?” asked Baoyu. “Think of one for me too.”

“You’ve already got one.” Baochai chuckled. “Much Ado About Nothing is just the name for you.

“Why not keep your old title of Prince of the Crimson Cavern?” sug­gested Li Wan.

Baoyu smiled sheepishly.

“Don’t bring up the silly things I did as a child.”

“You’ve already got plenty of pen-names,” said Tanchun.

“What do you want a new one for? We can just call you by any name we feel like.”

“I’ve got one for you,” offered Baochai. “It’s vulgar, but it suits you to the ground. The two hardest things to come by are riches and nobil­ity, and the third is leisure. Few people enjoy more than one of these, but you have all three. So you should be called The Rich and Noble Idler.”

“That’s too good for me.” Baoyu grinned. “But just as you please.”

“What about Second Cousin and Fourth Cousin?” asked Li Wan.

“We’re no good at writing poetry so we shan’t need pen-names, rejoined Yingchun.

“Even so, you’d each better have one,” urged Tanchun.

“As Yingchun lives on Purple Caltrop Isle, let her be Mistress of Caltrop Isle,” suggested Baochai. “And Xichun in the Pavilion of Scented Lotus could be Mistress of Lotus Pavilion.”

“Very good,” said Li Wan. “Now as I’m the eldest you must all listen to me. I’m sure you’ll agree to my proposal. We seven are starting this club; but as Second Cousin, Fourth Cousin and I are no poetesses you must leave us out when it comes to writing, and we’ll each take charge of something.”

“We’ve already got titles.” Tanchun giggled. “But we might just as well not have them, the way you’re still talking. We must decide on forfeits for mistakes like that from now on.

“Wait till we’ve set up the club before laying down rules,” said Li Wan. “My apartments are the largest, let’s meet there. Though I can’t versify, if you poets don’t object to my vulgar company I’ll act as host­ess and in that way acquire some culture too. But if you elect me as warden, I shan’t be able to manage on my own. We must have as our deputy-wardens the scholars of Caltrop Isle and Lotus Pavilion, one to set the theme and rhymes, the other as copyist and supervisor. We won’t make a ruling that we three are not to write when the subject and rhyme are easy we may have a go but you four definitely must write. That’s my proposal. If you don’t accept it, I must withdraw from this illustrious company.

As Yingchun and Xichun had no liking for versifying and no chance of outdoing Baochai or Daiyu, they willingly agreed to this arrangement which suited them down to the ground. The others, seeing their relief, acqui­esced understandingly without pressing them.

“All righ then,” said Tanchun cheerfully. “Seems funny to me, though. This was my brain-wave, but you three end up in charge.”

“Now that’s settled,” put in Baoyu, “let’s go to Paddy-Sweet Cottage.”

“Don’t be in such a hurry,” objected Li Wan. “We’re still in the planning stage. Wait till I invite you.”

“At least we should agree on how often to meet,” urged Baochai.

“If we meet too often we won’t enjoy it,” predicted Tanchun. “Let’s limit it to two or three times a month.”

Baochai nodded.

“Twice a month is enough. We’ll fix dates and meet regardless of wind or rain. If anyone likes to invite people to her place or the usual place for another gathering on some other day, well and good. Wouldn’t that be more flexible and greater fun?”

They all approved this idea.

“As this was my suggestion,” said Tanchun, “you must let me play hostess first. That’s only fair.”

“Very well then,” agreed Li Wan. “You can call the first meeting tomorrow.”

“Why not today? There’s no time like the present. You set the sub­ject, Caltrop Isle can fix the rhymes, and Lotus Pavilion can supervise.”

“I don’t think the subject and rhymes should be decided by one per-son,” Yingchun demurred. “Drawing lots would be fairer.”

“On my way here,” remarked Li Wan, “I saw them carrying in two pots of white begonia which looked simply lovely. Why not write on the begonia?”

“Without having seen them?” protested Yingchun. “How can we?”

“It’s only white begonia,” countered Baochai. “There’s no need to look at it first. The ancients wrote to manifest their own temperaments and feelings. If they’d only written about things they’d seen, we wouldn’t have so many poems today.”

“In that case let me settle the rhymes,” said Yingchun.

She took a volume of poetry from the bookcase and opened it at ran­dom at a lushi with seven-character lines. Having held this out for all to see, she told them to use the same metre. Then putting the book away she turned to a little maid.

“Say any word that comes into your head.”

The maid, standing by the door, said, “Men (door).”

“Very well, that rhyme belongs to the thirteenth section of the rhyme system,” announced Yingchun. “And that word must come in the first line.”

Next she asked for the box of rhyme cards, pulled out the thirteenth drawer and told the maid to pick four cards at random. These proved to be pen (pot), hun (spirit), hen (stain) and hun (dim).

“‘Pot’ and ‘door’ aren’t easy to fit in,” was Baoyu’s comment.

Daishu prepared four lots of paper and writing-brushes, and all quietened down to think. All but Daiyu, who went on fondling the wu-tong trees, looking at the autumn scene or joking with the maids. Yingchun had a stick of Sweet-Dream Incense lit. Being only three inches long and no thicker than a lampwick, this burnt quickly. The poems had to be finished before it burnt out, on pain of a penalty.

Tanchun was the first to finish. She wrote out her poem, made one or two corrections, and handed the paper to Yingchun.

“Are you ready, Lady of the Alpinia?” she asked Baochai.

“Yes, mine’s done, but it’s no good,” replied Baochai.

Baoyu, his hands behind his back, was pacing up and down the corri­dor. “Hear that?” he said to Daiyu. “They’ve finished theirs.”

“Don’t worry about me,” she answered. Then he saw that Baochai had copied out her poem. “Good gracious!” he exclaimed. “There’s only one inch of the incense left, but all I’ve done is four lines.” He turned to Daiyu. “The incense is nearly burnt out. Do stop squatting on the damp ground.”

Daiyu paid no attention.

“I can’t help you now,” he said. “I must write mine out, however bad it is.” With that he walked to the desk. “We’re going to look at the poems now,” announced Li Wan. “Anyone who doesn’t hand his in by the time we finish reading the others will have to pay a forfeit.”

“The Old Peasant of Sweet Paddy may not write well herself,” re­marked Baoyu, “but she’s a good judge and absolutely impartial. We’ll all stand by your verdict.”

The rest agreed. First they looked at Tanchun’s paper.

Chill the sunset grass in front of the closed door,

Thick the green moss the rain-drenched pot below;

Her spirit’s purity surpasses jade,

Her gentle form is ravishing as snow.

A faint ethereal loveliness is hers,

Her shadow at midnight chequers the moon’s light.

Do not fly from me, chaste goodess;

Abide with me as fall the shades of night.

After admiring this they read Baochai’s poem:

For the sake of the flowers the door is closed by day

As I go to water the pots with moss overgrown;

Immaculate its shadow on autumn steps,

Pure as snow and ice its spirit by dewy stone.

Only true whiteness dazzles with its brightness;

Can so much sadness leave a flawless jade?

Its purity rewards the god of autumn,

Speechless and chaste it stays as sunbeams fade.

Li Wan remarked with a smile, “Trust the Lady of the Alpinia!”

Then they turned to Baoyu’s poem:

Autumn blooms cast chequered shadows by the door,

Seven nodes of snowy flowers in pots arrayed,

Like Lady Yang’s shade, fresh from the bath, ice-pure,

Or Xi Shi’s mournful spirit fair as jade.

No morning breeze can scatter this infinite sadness,

And the rain adds fresh tear-stains at night;

Leaning by painted balustrade it seems sensate

As pounding of clothes and fluting put dusk to flight.

When all had read this, Baoyu expressed his own preference for Tanchun’s verse, but Li Wan insisted that Baochai’s was more distin­guished. She then asked Daiyu for her poem.

“Have you all finished?” cried Daiyu.

At once she took up her brush and dashed off eight lines which she tossed over to them. Li Wan and the others read:

Half-rolled the bamboo blind, half-closed the door;

Crushed ice serves as mould for jade pots.

“How do you do it?” exclaimed Baoyu in admiration before reading on.

Some whiteness from the pear-blossom is stolen,

Some of its spirit winter-plum allots.

“Splendid!” cried the others. “She’s really original.”

They read on:

The goddess of the moon sews a white gown,

The maid’s weeping in autumn chamber never ends;

Silently, shyly, with never a word of complaint,

She reclines in the autumn breeze as night descends.

“This is the best!” cried the young people. “It’s certainly the most charming and unusual,” said Li Wan. “But our Lady Alpinia’s has deeper significance and real substance.”

“Quite right,” put in Tanchun. “The Queen of Bamboos should come second.”

“And the Happy Red Prince last,” said Li Wan. “Agreed?”

“Mine was no good, that’s quite fair,” said Baoyu with a smile. “But you should reconsider which is the better, Lady Alpinia’s or Queen Bamboo’s.”

“I’m the arbiter,” insisted Li Wan. “You’ve no say in the matter. Any more argument will be penalized.”

So Baoyu said no more.

“I’ve decided that from now on we should meet on the second and sixteenth of each month,” continued Li Wan. “And you’ll have to accept the subjects and rhymes I choose. You can have extra meetings on other days if you like — I don’t care if you meet every day. But mind you come to my place on the second and sixteenth.”

“We must choose a name for this club,” declared Baoyu.

“Nothing too common,” said Tanchun. “Nothing too new-fangled either. As we happened to start with poems on begonia, why not call it Begonia Club? Even if this sounds a little commonplace, as it’s based on fact that doesn’t matter.”

After some further discussion and some refreshments they parted, some going back to their own rooms, others calling on the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang. But no more of this.

Now Xiren had wondered what Baoyu was up to when he hurried off with Cuimo after reading the note. When two women from the back gate brought in two pots of begonia some time later, she asked where these were from and was told what had happened. Xiren made them put the plants down and take seats in the servants’ room while she went inside, weighed out sixty cents of silver and fetched another three hundred cash which she handed to the two women.

“This silver is for the boys who brought the flowers,” she explained. “And the cash is for you to buy drinks.”

The two women stood up, beaming, to thank her profusely and make a show of declining; but on Xiren’s insistence they accepted the tip.

“Are there any pages on duty outside the back gate?” she asked them.

“Yes, there are four of them there every day,” they answered. “If there’s anything you want done, miss, we can tell them.”

“There’s nothing I want,” answered Xiren, smiling. “But Master Bao wanted to send something today to Miss Shi in the house of the young marquis. It’s lucky you came. When you go out, please tell those boys at the back gate to hire a carriage. As soon as it arrives you can come here to get the money. Don’t let them knock around in the front.”

When the women had left to see to this, Xiren went back inside to look for a plate on which to put the gifts for Xiangyun; but the plate she wanted was missing from the carved cabinet. Turning round, she saw Qingwen, Qiuwen and Sheyue busy with their needlework.

“What’s become of that white agate plate with spiral designs?” she asked them.

The girls looked at each other but could not remember.

“It was used to send lichees to Miss Tanchun,” said Qingwen after some thought. “They’ve not sent it back yet.”

“There are plenty of everyday dishes you could have used. Why choose that particular one?” Xiren inquired.

“Just what I said. But he insisted that plate looked best with the fresh lichees. And when I took it over, Miss Tanchun liked it so much she told me to leave the fruit on it; so I didn’t bring it back. Look, that pair of vases from the top shelf hasn’t come back either.”

“Speaking of those vases reminds me of something funny,” put in Qiuwen. “When our Master Bao takes it into his head to be filial, he really goes the whole hog. When he saw the fragrant osmanthus in bloom in the Garden he picked two sprays for himself, but all of a sudden he thought better of it. He said, ‘These flowers have just bloomed in our own garden, I shouldn’t be the first to enjoy them.’ He promptly took down those two vases, filled them with water and put the sprays in him­self, then having them carried over, he went personally to deliver on to his grandmother, another to his mother.

“This sudden filial piety on his part brought good luck to his messen­ger too. I happened to be the one who went that day, and the old lady was as pleased as pleased could be. She told everyone:

“‘What a good grandson Baoyu is after all, even sending me flowers like this! Yet other people blame me for spoiling him.’

“You know how little the old lady usually has to say to me. I’ve never been a favourite of hers. But that day she told them to give me a few strings of cash, saying I was a ‘poor, delicate little thing.’ What an unex­pected stroke of luck! A few strings of cash mayn’t be much, but it was a rare honour.

“Then I went to Her Ladyship’s place just as she was looking through some cases with Madam Lian and the concubines Zhao and Zhou, sort­ing out the bright clothes she’d worn in her young days to give away. When I went in she stopped looking at the clothes to admire the flowers. And to please her Madam Lian started praising Baoyu for being such a considerate, filial son — she came out with two cartloads of compli­ments. Her Ladyship felt that in front of everyone she had gained credit because of him, and this should silence those who had gossiped about him. She was so delighted that she gave me two gowns on the spot. Clothes are nothing special either – we’re given new ones at any rate every year — but this was a great mark of favour.”

“Bah, you’re easily pleased,” scoffed Qingwen. “She gives others the best and you the cast-offs, yet you feel you have big face.”

“Cast-offs or not, it was kind of Her Ladyship.”

“If I’d been you I wouldn’t have taken them,” retorted Qingwen. “Anyone else’s cast-offs I wouldn’t mind; but why should someone in these rooms be superior to the rest of us? If she got the good clothes and I the cast-offs, I’d refuse them. Even at the risk of offending the mis­tress, I wouldn’t put up with that.”

“Who here got the good ones?” demanded Qiuwen quickly. “I was ill for a few days at home, I didn’t know. Do be a dear and tell me.

“If I tell you, will you return those gowns to the mistress?”

“Don’t be silly. I just think it would be fun to know. Even if Her Ladyship gave me the dog’s left-overs, I’d think it kind of her. I don’t worry about other people’s business.”

The other girls laughed.

“You’ve hit the nail on the head. They were given to this foreign-species, spotted lap-dog of ours.”5

“May all your tongues rot!” parried Xiren with a smile. “Never miss a chance to make fun of me, do you? You’ll one by one come to a bad end.”

“So it was you, sister,” said Qiuwen. “I’d no idea. I do apologize.”

“Stop fooling,” urged Xiren. “I wish one of you would bring that plate back.”

“Those vases should be fetched back too,” said Sheyue. “It’d be all right in the old lady’s place, but all sorts of people go to Her Ladyship’s rooms. The rest don’t matter, but if Concubine Zhao and that lot saw things from here they’d try some mean trick to break them, and the mistress wouldn’t pay too much attention. We’d better fetch them back before it’s too late.”

Qingwen, hearing this, put down her needlework.

“All right, I’ll go and get them,” she volunteered.

“I’ll go while you fetch the plate,” offered Qiuwen.

“No, it’s my turn,” insisted Qingwen, laughing. “Are you going to take all the good errands and leave none for me?”

“Qiuwen only got clothes that once,” teased Sheyue. “How can you expect to find them looking through clothes again today? That would be too much of a coincidence.”

Qingwen snorted.

“Even if I don’t see any clothes, maybe the mistress will think me so trustworthy that she gives me two taels of silver a month from her own allowance too. Who knows?” She laughed. “Don’t try to fool me. I know all about it.”

With that she ran off, and Qiuwen also left to fetch the plate from Tanchun’s apartments.

When the plate had been brought, Xiren prepared the gifts then called for Nanny Song who was attached to their compound.

“Get yourself spruced up and put on your outdoor things,” she said. “I want you to take some presents to Miss Shi.”

“Just give the things and message to me,” said the nurse. “I’ll get ready and go at once.

Xiren picked up two small woven bamboo hampers. The first she opened contained fresh caltrops and euryale seeds; the second, pow­dered chestnut cake sweetened with osmanthus.

“These are fresh from our Garden,” she explained. “Master Bao wants Miss Shi to try them. And the other day she admired this agate plate, so she must keep it. Then here, in this silk wrapper, is the needle­work she asked me to do. I hope she won’t find it too clumsy. Send her our respects and the young master’s greetings.”

“Has Master Bao any other messages?” asked the nurse. “Will you go and find out, miss, in case you’ve forgotten something.”

“Did you see him with Miss Tanchun?” Xiren asked Qiuwen.

“Yes, they were disussing starting some sort of poetry club and all busy writing poems. I shouldn’t think he has any message. She needn’t wait.”

As Nanny Song took the things and prepared to leave, Xiren told her to go by the back gate where the boys had a carriage waiting. So the nurse left.

When Baoyu came back, the first thing he did was to admire the begonia; then, going inside, he told Xiren about the poetry club. She in turn reported how she had sent Nanny Song with the gifts to Xiangyun. He clapped his hands at this.

“How could we forget her?” he cried. “I felt there was something missing, but couldn’t think what it was. I’m so glad you mentioned her. I meant to invite her. Our poetry club will be no fun without her.”

“It’s not all that important – just a way to pass the time,” rejoined Xiren. “She’s not as free as the rest of you and has no say at home. If you tell her she’ll want to come, but she may not be able, and if she can’t she’ll be terribly disappointed. You’ll only be upsetting her.”

“That’s all right,” said Baoyu. “I shall ask my grandmother to send and fetch her.”

Just then Nanny Song came back to report on her errand. Having expressed Xiangyun’s thanks for the gift she told Xiren, “Miss Shi asked what Master Bao was doing. When I told her, ‘Writing poems with the young ladies and starting a poetry club,’ she was most disappointed you hadn’t let her know. Quite a state she was in!”

This made Baoyu go straight to the Lady Dowager to insist that Xiangyun should be fetched at once. When the old lady told him that it was too late and she should be invited first thing the next day, he had to accept this reply and returned dejectedly to his own rooms.

Early the next morning he went back to urge his grandmother to send for Xiangyun, and did not relax until she finally arrived in the afternoon. After greeting her he lost no time in explaining the whole business to her. He was about to show her their poems when Li Wan and the others stopped him.

“Don’t show her yet,” said Li Wan. “Give her the rhymes. We’ll fine her for coming late by making her write a poem in the same metre first. If it’s good, we’ll welcome her to join the club, if not, she’ll have to stand treat first and then we’ll think it over.

“You forgot to ask me; it’s I who should fine you people,” said Xiangyun laughingly. “All right, show me the rhymes. I’m no good, but I don’t mind making a fool of myself. Just let me join the club and I’ll willingly sweep the ground and burn incense for you.

“How could we forget her yesterday?” cried the others, delighted to find her so full of fun.

They quickly told her the rhymes. Xiangyun was too excited to give careful thought to her poems or to polish them. While chatting with the rest she made up some lines and casually wrote them out.

”I’ve done two verses using the same rhyme sequence, ” she said. ”I don’t suppose they’re much good, they’re just made to order.” She handed over her poems for their inspection.

“Our four poems exhausted the subject, we couldn’t have written another,” they commented. “Yet here you come up with two. How can you have so much to say, unless you’re repeating us?”

As they said this they read the poems:

A fairy flew down last night to the capital

And planted in a pot these flowers of rare jade,

Like the goddess of frost who loves the cold,

But not the wandering spirit of some chaste maid.

Whence comes this snow on a dull autumn day?

A night’s rain stains its loveliness;

But poets will never tire of singing it,

That it may not pass the day in loneliness.

The others all applauded this, then went on to read the next.

Steps through alpinia lead to an ivy-clad gate;

Fit place, the wall’s comer, for this pot set apart;

Love of purity makes the flower hold aloof,

Grief for the autumn breaks its owner’s heart;

Wind dries the tears on jade candles.

Crystal screens break up its shadow cast by the moon.

I long to tell the moon goodess its secret,

But in the corridor night fades too soon.

The others exclaimed in delight after each line.

“See what a good idea it was to write poems on the begonia,” they said. “How right we were to start our Begonia Club.”

“Tomorrow let me pay my penalty by standing treat and calling the first meeting. All right?” proposed Xiangyun.

“Perfect!” they cried. Then they asked her opinion of the poems written the previous day.

That evening Baochai invited Xiangyun to stay with her, and by lamplight Xiangyun outlined her plans for entertaining the others and set­ting subjects for poems. But Baochai thought all her proposals unsuitable.

“Since you’ve called a meeting, you’re the hostess,” she pointed out. “Although it’s just fun, you must make proper provision. Do the thing cheaply but give no grounds for complaints; then everyone can have a good time.

“You’re not in charge at home, and the few strings of cash you get each month hardly cover your own expenses; yet you took this on your­self quite needlessly. When your aunt hears of it she’s bound to scold you. Why, your whole allowance isn’t enough to stand treat. Are you going home to ask for more? Or will you ask them here for money?”

This set Xiangyun worrying.

“Actually, I have an idea,” continued Baochai. “One of the assistants in our pawnshop has a farm which produces fine crabs, and the other day he sent us several catties. Most of the people here, from the old lady down to those in the Garden, are very partial to crabs. Only the other day aunt talked of inviting the old lady to the Garden to enjoy the fragrant osmanthus and eat some crabs; but she’s been too busy to ask her. So don’t mention the poetry club but just issue a general invitation, and after the older people have left we can write all the poems we please.

“I’ll get my brother to send us a few crates of the biggest crabs with some vats of good wine from our shop, in addition to which we’ll prepare four or five tables of other refreshments. That’s easily done and we’ll all have a good time.”

Xiangyun was extremely grateful.

“You’ve thought it all out!” she exclaimed admiringly.

“I’m only thinking of you,” replied Baochai. “You mustn’t be touchy or imagine I look down on you, because this is between friends. If you’ve no objection, I’ll tell them to go ahead.”

“My dear cousin, you’re being touchy instead if you talk like that,” said Xiangyun. “However scatter-brained I may be, I know when someone’s being good to me. At least I’ve that much sense. If I didn’t look on you as my own elder sister, I wouldn’t have confided to you last time all the troubles I have at home.”

Accordingly Baochai ordered a serving-woman, “Go and ask my brother to get us several crates of big crabs like those we had the other day. Tomorrow after lunch we’re inviting the old lady and my aunt to see the fragrant osmanthus in the Garden. Tell him to be sure not to forget, as I’ve already issued the invitations.”

The old woman went off to do as she was told.

Then Baochai advised Xiangyun, “The themes for verses shouldn’t be too outlandish. You can see that the poets of old times didn’t go in for far-fetched subjects or freakish rhymes. Such things don’t make for good poems and seem rather lowclass. Of course, poetry shouldn’t be stereo­typed, but we mustn’t overdo the emphasis on originality either. So long as our ideas are fresh, the language can’t be vulgar. In any case, writing poetry isn’t important. Our main jobs are spinning and sewing. If we’ve time to spare, the proper thing for us is to read a few chapters of some improving book.”

Xiangyun, having agreed to this, suggested, “As we wrote poems on the begonia yesterday, I wonder if we could write about the chrysanthe­mum this time?”

“Yes, the chrysanthemum is suitable for autumn. The only objection is that too many poems have been written about it in the past.”

“That’s what I feel. We could hardly avoid plagiarism.”

Baochai thought this over.

“I know,” she said presently. “We’ll lay stress not on the chrysanthe­mum but on the people looking at it, and set themes about their reactions to the flower. In this way we shall have tributes to the chrysanthemum as well as descriptions of feeling. This hasn’t been done before and can’t be too stereotyped. In fact, this combination will have freshness and dis­tinction.”

“A good idea,” agreed Xiangyun. “But how will you introduce the feeling? Give me an example.”

After a moment’s thought Baochai replied, “A Dream of Chrysan­themums for instance.”

“Of course. I’ve got one too. How about The Chrysanthemum’s Shadow?”

“Can do, although of course it’s been used before. If we have a fair number of themes we can include it. I’ve thought of another.”

“Go on!”

“Questioning the Chrysanthemum.”

“Splendid!” Xiangyun clapped one hand on the table. “I know. How d’you like Seeking Out the Chrysanthemum?”

“Good. We may as well think of ten themes and write them out.”

They ground ink and dipped in the brush. Xiangyun wrote the themes out at Baochai’s dictation, and in no time at all they had ten. After read­ing them through Xiangyun said:

“Ten doesn’t make a set. Let’s have twelve while we’re about it, like those albums of calligraphy and painting.”

So Baochai thought up two more, making twelve in all.

“In this case let’s arrange them in the right order.” she said.

“Better still!” cried Xiangyun. “We shall have a chrysanthemum al­bum.”

“We’ll start with Thinking of the Chrysanthemum. After thinking of it we seek it out; so number two will be visiting the Chrysanthemum. After finding it we plant it; so the third will be Planting the Chrysanthe­mum. After it has been planted and flowers, we face it and enjoy it; so four is Facing the Chrysanthemum. To enjoy it further we pick it to put in a vase; so five is Displaying the Chrysanthemum. But to bring out its splendour once it is displayed we must write poems about it; so six is Writing About the Chrysanthemum. And as a verse must be accompa­nied by a painting, number seven is Painting the Chrysanthemum. Even though we’ve been to so much trouble over it, we shan’t know all its rare qualities unless we ask questions; so eight is Questioning the Chry­santhemum. If the flower seems able to understand, we are so thrilled that we want to get closer to it; hence nine is Wearing the Chrysanthe­mum.

“This exhausts all that men can do but, as there still remain certain aspects of the flower which can be described, ten and eleven are The Chrysanthemum’s Shadow and A Dream of Chrysanthemum. And we end with The Withered Chrysanthemum to sum up all the emotions ex­pressed before. In this way we shall cover all the fine sights and occupa­tions of autumn.”

Xiangyun copied out the themes again in this order and read them through once more.

“What rhymes shall we decide on?” she asked next.

“In general I’m against a hard-and-fast rhyme pattern,” replied Baochai. “Why should fine lines be restricted by fixed rhymes? Let’s not follow that petty rule but simply set themes. We want everyone to write some fine lines for pleasure, not to make it hard for them.”

“I quite agree. In this way we should write better. But there are only five of us. Will each of us have to write on all twelve of these subjects?”

“No, that would be asking too much. We’ll just copy out these themes and stipulate that the seven-character lushi form is to be used. We’ll put the notice on the wall tomorrow, and people can choose whichever theme they like. If anyone’s able to write on all twelve, well and good; but it’s all right, too, not to do any. The winner will be the one who writes best and fastest. Once all twelve are done, those who haven’t finished must stop and submit to the penalty.”

Xiangyun agreed to this and, their plans made, the two girls put out the light and went to bed. If you want to know what followed, read the next chapter.

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