A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 40

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Chapter 40

Chapter 40

The Lady Dowager Feasts Again

in Grand View Garden

Yuanyang Presides over

a Drinking Game

Baoyu hurried over at this summons and found Hupo by the screen. “Come quickly,” she urged him. “The old lady’s waiting for you.” He went to the Lady Dowager’s apartments, where she was dis­cussing with Lady Wang and the girls how to repay Xiangyun’s hospitality.

‘I’ve a suggestion,” said Baoyu. “As we’re not inviting outsiders, there’s no need for too many dishes; let’s just have a few we like. There’s no need for tables either; each of us can have a teapoy with a couple of dishes we fancy, as well as a ten-compartment box of titbits and a winepot apiece. Wouldn’t that be more original?”

The Lady Dowager approved. She sent instructions to the kitchen to prepare their favourite dainties the next day and put them in separate boxes, and to serve breakfast in the Garden too. By the time this was settled the lamps were lit, and they retired for the night.

The next morning, as luck would have it, the weather was fine. Li Wan rose at daybreak to supervise the matrons and maids as they swept up fallen leaves, dusted tables and chairs, and prepared the tea-services and wine vessels. While she was doing this, Fenger arrived with Granny Liu and Baner.

“How busy you are, madam!” remarked Granny Liu.

“I knew you wouldn’t be able to leave yesterday,” replied Li Wan with a smile. “Yet you were in such a hurry to get away.

“The old lady made me stay to enjoy myself for a day,” chuckled Granny Liu.

Fenger produced a bunch of keys and announced, “Madam Lian says there may not be enough teapoys out: we’d better unlock the attic in the tower and fetch some down to use for a day. She wanted to see to it herself, but she’s talking with Lady Wang. So do you mind opening the attic, madam, and having the things brought out?”

Li Wan made Suyun take the keys, and sent one of the matrons to fetch a few page boys from the inner gate. Standing with raised head at the foot of Grand View Pavilion, she ordered them to go up and open the Tower of Variegated Splendour and carry down the teapoys one by one. Pages, matrons and maids set to work then to bring down more than twenty, while Li Wan warned:

“Careful! Steady on! You’re not being chased by ghosts. Mind you don’t bump them.”

Then she turned to ask Granny Liu, “Would you care to go up too and have a look?”

The old woman needed no pressing but promptly pulled Baner up the stairs with her. She found the attic chock-a-block with screens, tables, chairs, ornamental lanterns large and small, and other similar objects. Although ignorant of the function of most of them, she was dazzled by their gay colours and fine workmanship.

“Gracious Buddha!” she exclaimed.

When she withdrew the door was locked and everyone came down.

Then it occurred to Li Wan that the old Lady might feel disposed to go boating. So on her instructions they unlocked the door once more and brought down oars, punt-poles and awnings. Pages were also sent to the boatwomen to order two barges from the boathouse.

In the middle of this bustle, along came the Lady Dowager with a whole company of people.

“How bright and early you are, madam!” cried Li Wan hurrying to meet her. “I didn’t think you’d have finished your toilet yet. I’d just picked some chrysanthemums to send you.

Biyue held out a large emerald plate in the form of a lotus leaf, on which were chrysanthemums of different kinds. The Lady Dowager se­lected a red one and pinned it in her hair. Then, turning, she caught sight of Granny Liu.

“Come here and take a few flowers to wear!” she called with a smile.

While the words were still on her lips, Xifeng pulled Granny Liu forward.

“Let me make you beautiful, granny!” she cried.

Seizing all the flowers on the plate, she stuck them this way and that in the old woman’s hair, reducing everyone present to helpless laughter.

“I don’t know what meritorious deed my head’s done to deserve this good fortune,” cackled Granny Liu. “What a dash I’m cutting today!”

“Why don’t you pull them out and throw them in her face?” gasped the others. “She’s got you up to look a real old vampire.”

“I’m old now, but when I was young I was flighty too and fond of flowers,” chuckled Granny Liu. “So it’s right I should be an old flibber­tigibbet today.”

While laughing and chatting they had come to Seeping Fragrance Pavilion. Maids spread a large brocade cushion they had brought on the railing of the balcony. The Lady Dowager, seating herself there with her back against a pillar, made Granny Liu sit beside her.

“Well, what do you think of this garden’?” she inquired.

“Gracious Buddha!” ejaculated Granny Liu. “We country folk come to town before New Year to buy pictures to stick up; and when we’re at a loose end we often say, ‘If only we could take a stroll in these pictures !’ We always reckoned the places shown were too good to be true, but coming to this garden today I can see it’s ten times better than any painting. I wish someone would paint me a picture of it to show the folk at home. Then I’d die content.”

The Lady Dowager pointed to Xichun. “See this young grand-daugh­ter of mine?” she asked. “She can paint. Shall I get her to do a painting for you tomorrow?”

This offer so delighted Granny Liu that she hurried over to take Xichun’s hand.

“Why, miss! So young and pretty, yet so clever too — you must be a goddess come down to the earth.”

After a short rest the Lady Dowager started showing Granny Liu round, going first to Bamboo Lodge. Inside its gate, a narrow pebbled path flanked with bamboos met their gaze. The ground on either side of it was carpeted with dark moss. Granny Liu left the path for the others, walking on the verge herself.

“Come up here, granny,” urged Hupo taking her arm. “That moss is slippery.”

“That’s all right, I’m used to it,” said the old woman. “Just go ahead, young ladies. Take care not to get your embroidered slippers dirty.”

Intent on talking, she slipped and fell with a thud, at which the whole company clapped their hands and laughed.

“You wretches!” scolded the Lady Dowager. “Help her up. Don’t just stand there laughing.”

“That was to punish me for boasting,” chuckled Granny Liu as she scrambled to her feet.

“Did you strain your back?” asked the Lady Dowager. “Let one of the maids pummel it.”

“I’m not so finicky. Hardly a day goes by without my falling. How could I get someone to pummel my back each time?”

Zijuan had the bamboo portiere raised ready for them. The Lady Dowager and others went in and took seats, after which Daiyu with her own hands brought her grandmother a covered bowl of tea on a small tray.

“No tea for us,” said Lady Wang. “Don’t trouble to pour any more.”

Then Daiyu told a maid to fetch her favourite chair from the window for Lady Wang. Granny Liu, meanwhile, was struck by the brushes and inkstones on the desk by the window and the bookcase piled with books.

“This must be the young master’s study,” she said.

The Lady Dowager smiled and pointed at Daiyu.

“This is my grand-daughter’s room.”

Granny Liu looked intently at Daiyu.

“This isn’t like a young lady’s chamber,” she remarked. “But it’s far better than the best study.”

“Where is Baoyu?” asked the Lady Dowager.

“Boating on the lake,” the maids told her.

“Who ordered boats?”

“I did,” replied Li Wan hastily. “As we were fetching things from the attic just now, it occurred to me you might feel inclined for a turn on the lake, madam.”

Before the old lady could answer, Aunt Xue was announced. And even as they rose to their feet she came in. When they had resumed their seats she remarked:

“You must be in good spirits, madam, to have come here so early.”

“Only a minute ago I was saying all late-comers must be fined,” the Lady Dowager chuckled. “I’d no idea the offender would be you.

They chatted for a while. Then the Lady Dowager noticed that the gauze on the window had faded.

“This gauze is pretty when new,” she remarked to Lady Wang, “but it soon loses its vivid emerald colour. Anyway, as there are no peach or apricot trees in this courtyard and the bamboos are green themselves, green gauze is out of place here. We used to have window gauze in four or five colours, I remember. Tomorrow we shall have to change this for her.”

“When I opened the storeroom yesterday,” put in Xifeng, “I saw several rolls of pink cicada-wing gauze in one of the chests. There are several different designs — sprays of blossom, floating clouds and bats, butterflies and flowers — the colours so vivid and the gauze so soft, I’ve never seen anything like it. I took out two rolls, thinking they’d make good coverlets.”

“Bah!” the Lady Dowager snorted. “Everybody says there’s noth­ing you haven’t seen or done, but you don’t even know what this gauze is. You must stop bragging in future.”

“However knowledgeable she may be, she can’t compare with you, madam,” said Aunt Xue. “Do enlighten her and let us hear as well.”

“Yes, good Ancestress, do enlighten me,” begged Xifeng smiling.

Then the Lady Dowager told them all, “That gauze is older than any of you. No wonder she mistook it for cicada-wing gauze. As a matter off act, the two are so alike that those not in the know always mix them up. Its proper name is soft-mist silk.”

“What a charming name,” cried Xifeng. “I’ve seen hundreds of kinds of silk, but never heard of this one.”

“How long have you lived?” retorted the old lady. “How many rari­ties have you seen? What have you to brag about? This soft-mist silk comes in four colours only: light blue, russet, pine-green and pink. Used for bed-curtains or window gauze, from a distance it looks like smoke or mist — that’s how it got its name. The pink’s also called rosy-cloud gauze. Even the Imperial gauze used in the Palace today isn’t so soft and fine.”

“I’m not surprised Xifeng hadn’t seen it before,” interposed Aunt Xue. “I’d never even heard of it either.”

By now a roll had been fetched on Xifeng’s instructions.

“That’s it!” exclaimed the Lady Dowager. “We used it first just for windows, then found it was good for quilts and bed-curtains too. You must get some more out tomorrow and screen the windows here with some of the pink.”

Xifeng promised to attend to this while the whole party admired the material. As for Granny Liu, her eyes were nearly popping out of her head.

“Gracious Buddha!” she gasped. “We couldn’t afford to make clothes of this. It seems a shame to use it for windows.”

“Clothes of this don’t look well,” said the Lady Dowager.

Xifeng promptly showed them the lapel of the red gauze tunic she was wearing, saying, “Look at this tunic of mine.”

“Very nice too,” said the Lady Dowager and Aunt Xue. “This is made nowadays for the Palace. Still, it can’t compare with the other.”

“You mean to say this shoddy stuff is made for the Imperial use?” exclaimed Xifeng. “Why, it’s not even up to the gauze made for offi­cials.”

“We must see if there’s any more of the blue,” said the Lady Dowa­ger. “If there is, give a couple of rolls to Granny Liu to make a bed ­curtain. What’s left can be matched with some lining and made into lined sleeveless jackets for the maids. Don’t leave it there to be spoiled by the damp.”

Xifeng agreed, and had the stuff put away. Then the Lady Dowager rose to her feet.

“Let’s stroll on,” she suggested. “Why should we stay cooped up here?”

Invoking Buddha again, Granny Liu remarked: “Everyone says ‘The great live in great houses.’ When I saw your room yesterday, madam, it was a grand sight with all those big cases, big wardrobes, big tables and big bed. The wardrobes alone are bigger and higher than one of our whole rooms. No wonder you keep that ladder in the back yard. I couldn’t think at first what it was for, as you don’t sun things on the roof. Then I saw it must be for opening the tops of wardrobes to take things out or put them in, for without a ladder how could you get up? But this small room is even better furnished than that big one, with all these fine things — what­ever they’re called — in it. The more I see of it, the less I want to leave.”

“I’ll show you better places than this,” promised Xifeng.

Upon leaving Bamboo Lodge they saw a punting party out on the lake.

“Since they’ve got the boats ready, we may as well go aboard,” suggested the Lady Dowager.

They were on their way to Purple Caltrop Isle and Smartweed Bank when they met several matrons carrying multicoloured lacquered ham­pers inlaid with gilt designs. Xifeng at once asked Lady Wang where they should breakfast.

“Wherever the old lady chooses,” was the reply.

The Lady Dowager, hearing this, called over her shoulder to Xifeng, “Your third cousin’s place is pleasant. Take some people there to get it ready while we go by boat.”

Then Xifeng turned back with Li Wan, Tanchun, Yuanyang and Hupo, accompanied by the attendants with the food. Having taken a short cut to the Studio of Autumn Freshness, they arranged the tables in Morning Emerald Hall.

Yuanyang remarked with a chuckle, “We often say that when the gentlemen feast outside they’ve someone who can raise a laugh to en­tertain them. Today we’ve a female entertainer too.”

Li Wan was too good-natured to catch on, but Xifeng knew that Granny Liu was meant.

“Yes, she should be good for some laughs today,” she agreed.

Then the two of them began to lay their plans.

“You’re up to no good,” protested Li Wan, smiling. “As bad as chil­dren. Mind the old lady doesn’t scold you!”

“You won’t be involved. Just leave the old lady to me,” Yuanyang giggled.

As they were talking the rest of the party arrived. They sat where they pleased and were first served tea by the maids. Then Xifeng placed before each the ebony chopsticks inlaid with silver which she had brought wrapped in a cambric napkin.

“Bring that small cedar table over here,” directed the Lady Dowager. “I want our kinswoman to sit next to me. ”

As her order was carried out Xifeng cast Yuanyang a meaning glance, and the maid led Granny Liu aside to give her some whispered instruc­tions.

“This is the custom of our house,” she concluded. “If you disregard it people will laugh at you.”

When all was ready they took seats at the tables. All but Aunt Xue who, having breakfasted already, did not eat anything but sat on one side sipping tea. The old lady had Baoyu, Xiangyun, Daiyu and Baochai at her table; Lady Wang had Yingchun, Tanchun and Xichun; while Granny Liu sat at the table next to the Lady Dowager’s.

Usually Yuanyang left the younger maids to wait on the old lady dur­ing meals, holding ready her rinse bowl, whisk and handkerchief. Today, however, she held the whisk herself and the other maids kept out of the way, realizing that she meant to bait Granny Liu.

Yuanyang, standing there, now whispered to the old woman, “Don’t forget!”

“Don’t worry, miss,” was the answer.

Having taken her seat Granny Liu picked up the chopsticks, but found them too awkward to manage. For Xifeng and Yuanyang had decided to give her an old-fashioned pair of square-edged ivory chopsticks inlaid with gold.

“Why, these prongs are heavier than our iron shovels,” the old woman complained. “How can I handle them?”

As everyone laughed, a matron brought in a box and stood holding it while a maid removed the cover, revealing two bowls. Li Wan put one on the Lady Dowager’s table and Xifeng set the other, containing pigeon’s eggs, before Granny Liu. The Lady Dowager urged her to make a start.

Granny Liu stood up then and declaimed at the top of her voice:

“Old woman Liu, I vow,

Eats more than any cow,

And down she settles now

To gobble an enormous sow. ”

Then she dried up abruptly, puffing out her cheeks and staring down at her bowl.

The others had been staggered at first but now everyone, high and low, started roaring with laughter. Xiangyun shook so uncontrollably that she sputtered out the rice she had in her mouth, while Daiyu nearly choked and collapsed over the table gasping, “Mercy!” Baoyu fell convulsively into his grand mother’s arms and she chuckled as she hugged him to her crying, “My precious!” Lady Wang wagged one finger at Xifeng but was laughing too much to speak. Aunt Xue, too exploded in such mirth that she sprayed tea all over Tanchun’s skirt, making her upset her bowl over Yingchun, while Xichun left her seat and begged her nurse to rub her stomach for her.

As for the maids, some doubled up in hysterics, others sneaked out­side to squat down in a fit of giggles, yet others controlled themselves sufficiently to fetch clean clothes for their young mistresses.

Xifeng and Yuanyang, the only ones with straight faces, urged Granny Liu to eat. But when she picked up the chopsticks she still found them unwieldy.

“Even your hens here are refined,” she remarked, “laying such tiny, dainty eggs as these. Well, let me ‘fuck’ one of them.”

This caused a fresh outburst of laughter. The Lady Dowager laughed so much that tears streamed from her eyes and Hupo had to pat her on the back.

“That wretch Xifeng’s up to her tricks again,” she gasped. “Don’t believe a word she says.”

Granny Liu was still admiring the dainty eggs and saying she wanted to “fuck” one, when Xifeng told her merrily:

“They cost one tael of silver each. Better try one while they’re hot.”

The old woman reached out with her chopsticks but failed to secure an egg. After chasing them round the bowl for a time she finally succeeded in catching one; but as she craned forward to eat it, the egg slipped and fell to the floor. She hastily put down her chopsticks and stooped to retrieve it. However, a maid had already picked it up.

“A tael of silver!” Granny Liu sighed. “And gone without a sound.” The others had long since stopped eating to watch her antics. “This isn’t a formal banquet. Who gave her those chop sticks?” de­manded the Lady Dowager. “This is all the doing of that minx Xifeng. Get her another pair.”

It was, indeed, not the maids but Xifeng and Yuanyang who had brought the ivory chopsticks. Now these were removed, an ebony pair inlaid with silver taking their place.

“After the gold comes the silver,” observed Granny Liu. “They’re not as handy, though, as the ones we use.

“If there’s poison in the dish,” Xifeng explained, “the silver will show it.”

“Poison! If this food is poison, ours is pure arsenic. But I’m going to finish the lot, even if it kill me.”

The Lady Dowager found her so amusing as she munched away with relish that she passed her some of her own dishes, at the same time instructing an old nurse to help Baner to everything that was going.

When presently the meal ended, the Lady Dowager and some of the others adjourned to Tanchun’s bedroom for a chat while the tables were cleared and another laid for Li Wan and Xifeng.

Granny Liu watching this said, “Leaving everything else aside, what I like best is the way things are done in your household. No wonder they say, ‘Good manners come from great households.’”

“You mustn’t take offence,” responded Xifeng quickly. “We were only having fun just now.”

Yuanyang promptly stepped forward too.

“Don’t be cross, granny,” she begged with a smile. “Please accept my apologies.”

“What a thing to say, miss!” Granny Liu laughed. “We were trying to amuse the old lady, why should I be cross? When you tipped me off, I knew it was all in fun. If I’d been annoyed I would have kept my mouth shut.”

Yuanyang then scolded the maids for not serving granny with tea.

“That sister-in-law there brought me some just now,” put in Granny Liu hastily. “No more, thank you. You ought to have your own breakfast now, miss.”

“Come and eat with us,” said Xifeng to Yuanyang, making her sit down at their table. “That’ll save another commotion later on.

So Yuanyang sat down with them and the matrons brought an extra bowl and chopsticks. The three of them finished so soon that Granny Liu commented with a smile:

“It’s a marvel to me what small appetites you have. No wonder a gust of wind can blow you over.

“What’s happened to all the left-overs?” asked Yuanyang.

“Nothing’s been done with them yet,” replied the matrons. “They’re still waiting here to be shared out.”

“There’s more than enough for the people here,” said Yuanyang. “Choose two dishes for Pinger and send them round to Madam Lian’s quarters.”

“She’s eaten already,” put in Xifeng. “There’s no need.”

“If she doesn’t eat them your cat can have them,” said Yuanyang.

A matron promptly chose two dishes and took them off in a hamper.

“Where’s Suyun?” Yuanyang asked next.

“They’ll all eat here together,” said Li Wan. “Why single her out?”

“That’s all right then,” replied Yuanyang.

“Xiren’s not here,” Xifeng reminded her. “You might send her a couple of dishes.”

Yuanyang saw that this was done, then asked the matrons whether the boxes of titbits to go with the wine were ready yet or not. On being told that this would probably still take some time, she sent them off to expedite matters.

Xifeng and the others now joined the rest of the party who were calling in Tanchun’s room. This was really three rooms in one, as Tanchun liked plenty of space. On the big rosewood marble-topped desk in the centre were piles of albums by noted calligraphers, several dozen good inkstones and an array of jars and other containers holding a regular forest of brushes. On one side a Ru-ware vase the size of a peck mea­sure was filled with chrysanthemums white as crystal balls. In the middle of the west wall hung a large painting by Mi Fu, Mist and Rain, flanked by a couplet in Yan Zhenqing’s1 calligraphy:

Indolent fellow among mist and clouds,

Rustic life amidst rocks and springs.

On another table was a large tripod. To its left, on a red sandalwood stand, a big dish of Guan-ware porcelain was heaped with several dozen handsome golden Buddha’s-hands. To its right, suspended on a lacquer frame, was a white jade musical stone with a small hammer next to it. Baner, over the worst of his shyness now, was reaching out for the ham­mer to strike the jade when one of the maids quickly stopped him. Then he wanted a Buddha’s-hand to eat. Tanchun gave him one explaining that it was to play with, not to eat.

At the east end of the room stood a large bed, its leek-green gauze curtain embroidered on both sides with flowers and insects. Baner ran over to have a look.

“Here’s a cricket!” he exclaimed. “Here’s a locust!”

Granny Liu promptly gave him a slap.

“Little wretch!” she scolded. “Pawing everything with your dirty hands. If you’re allowed in to look, don’t raise such a rumpus.

At this Baner set up a howl and the others had to intercede to soothe him. Meanwhile the Lady Dowager had been looking through the win­dow gauze at the back yard.

“That wu-tung tree under the eaves looks well,” she remarked. “It’s not sturdy enough though.”

Just then a gust of wind carried them the strains of distant music.

“Who’s having a wedding?” she asked. “We must be quite near the street here.”

“Not near enough to hear sounds from the street,” replied Lady Wang. “It’s those child-actresses of ours rehearsing their music.”

“If they’re rehearsing, let’s get them to do it here. It’ll be a little outing for them and we’ll have fun too.”

Xifeng promptly sent for the actresses and gave orders for tables to be brought and a red carpet spread.

“No, let’s use that lake pavilion by Lotus Fragrance Anchorage,” proposed the Lady Dowager. “Music sounds better on the water. And we can drink in the Tower of Variegated Splendour which is roomy and within easy hearing distance.”

All approved this idea.

Then with a smile to Aunt Xue the old lady said, “Let’s go. These girls don’t really welcome visitors for fear their rooms may be dirtied. We mustn’t impose on them. So let’s go boating and then have a few drinks.”

As everyone rose to leave Tanchun protested, “What a thing to say! We only wish you’d come more often.”

“Yes, my third grand-daughter’s good that way,” said the old lady. “It’s Daiyu and Baoyu who are so pernickety. On our way back, when we’re tipsy, we must go there just to annoy them.”

They trooped out, laughing, and soon reached Watercress Isle where some boatwomen from Suzhou had punted two pyrus-wood boats. Into one of these they helped the Lady Dowager, Lady Wang, Aunt Xue, Granny Liu, Yuanyang and Yuchuan. Li Wan followed them and so did Xifeng, who took her stand in the prow meaning to punt.

“It’s not as easy as it looks!” warned the Lady Dowager from the cabin. “We’re not on the river, it’s true, but it’s fairly deep here. So don’t try, and come inside at once.”

“It’s quite safe,” cried Xifeng. “Don’t worry, Old Ancestress.”

She pushed off with a shove for the middle of the lake, but when the small overloaded boat started rocking she thrust the pole into the hands of a boatwoman and hastily squatted down.

Yingchun and the other girls followed in the second boat with Baoyu, while the rest of the attendants walked along the bank.

“How disgusting those withered lotus leaves look,” remarked Baoyu. “Why not get people to pull them out?”

“What time has there been for that?” countered Baochai with a smile. “We’ve been out here enjoying ourselves every day recently.”

Daiyu put in, “I don’t like Li Shangyin’s2 verses except for that single line:

‘Leave the withered lotus to hear the patter of rain.

But now you two don’t want to leave them.”

“That’s a good line,” agreed Baoyu. “All right, we won’t have them pulled out.”

They had now reached Reed Creek by Flowery Harbour. In the shade here chill penetrated their very bones, while their awareness of autumn was heightened by the withered grass and caltrops on both sides. The Lady Dowager fixed her eyes on the airy lodge on the bank.

“Isn’t that where Baochai lives?” she asked.

They told her it was.

At once she ordered the boats to go alongside and, climbing the stone steps to Alpinia Park, they were greeted by a strange fragrance. The advance of autumn had deepened the green of the rare plants and creep­ers there, from each of which hung charming clusters of berries like coral beads. The room which they now entered was spotless as a snow cave, with hardly an ornament in the whole place. The desk was bare except for a rough crackleware vase with some chrysanthemums in it, two sets of books and a tea-service. The blue gauze bed-curtains and bedding were also of the simplest.

“What a goose this child is!” cried the Lady Dowager. “Why not ask your aunt for some knick-knacks? It didn’t occur to me, I just didn’t think. Of course you left all your own things at home.”

Having told Yuanyang to be sure to fetch some curios, she called Xifeng to task.

“Why didn’t you send over some pretty things for your cousin? How very stingy!”

“She wouldn’t have them,” explained Lady Wang and Xifeng. “She returned all the ones we sent.”

“She doesn’t care for such things at home either,” put in Aunt Xue.

“This will never do.” The old lady shook her head. “She may have simple tastes, but this wouldn’t look well if relatives were to call. Be­sides, it’ll bring bad luck for girls, this austerity. Why, in that case we old women ought to live in stables! You’ve all heard those descriptions in ballads and operas of the elegance of young ladies’ boudoirs. Maybe these girls of ours can’t compare with those young ladies, but they shouldn’t go to the other extreme either. When we’ve knick-knacks ready at hand why not display them? Of course, if your tastes are simple you can have less.

“I used to have a flair for decorating rooms, but now that I’m old I haven’t the energy. These girls should learn how to fix up their rooms too. The only trouble is if you’ve a vulgar taste, for then you’ll make even handsome things look frightful; but I wouldn’t call our girls vulgar. Now let me fit out this room for you, and I promise it’ll be in quiet yet excellent taste. I’ve a couple of nice things which I’ve managed to keep by not allowing Baoyu to set eyes on them — if he had, they’d have disappeared.”

She called Yuanyang over and ordered, “Fetch that miniature rock garden, that little gauze screen and the dark steatite tripod. Those three things will do nicely for the desk. And fetch those white silk bed-curtains with the ink painting and calligraphy in place of these.”

“Very good, madam,” said Yuanyang. “But those things are in some cases in the east attic. They may take a little finding. Suppose I get them tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow or the day after, it doesn’t matter. Don’t forget, that’s all.”

After sitting a little longer they went on to the Tower of Variegated Splendour, where Wenguan and the other young actresses paid their re­spects and asked which tunes they should play.

“Just choose a few you want to rehearse,” replied the Lady Dowa­ger.

Thereupon the actresses withdrew to Lotus Fragrance Anchorage.

By now Xifeng and her helpers had everything in perfect order. There were two couches on the north side, left and right, spread with brocade cushions and velvet coverlets. In front of each couch stood two carved lacquer teapoys of different shapes with pyrus-blossom, plum-blossom, lotus and sun flower designs, some square, some round, one of which held an incense-burner, a vase and a box of various sweetmeats. The other was empty, ready for their favourite dishes. These two couches with four teapoys were for the Lady Dowager and Aunt Xue. Then there were a chair and two teapoys for Lady Wang, while the others had one chair and teapoy apiece. Granny Liu’s seat was on the east; below it

was that of Lady Wang.

On the west sat Xiangyun, Baochai, Daiyu, Yingchun, Tanchun and Xichun in that order with, last of all, Baoyu. Li Wan and Xifeng had seats outside the inner screen, within the third row of balustrades. The designs on the comfit-boxes matched those of the teapoys. Everyone also had a tarnished silver wine-pot with engraved designs and variegated cloisonné cup.

As soon as the party was seated the Lady Dowager proposed, “Let’s begin with a few cups of wine. It would be fun to play a drinking game.”

“I know you’re good at drinking games, madam,” chuckled Aunt Xue. “But how can we play them? If you just want to get us drunk, let’s simply drink a few cups more apiece.”

“How modest you are today!” retorted the Lady Dowager. “Do you find me too old for this company?”

“I’m not being modest. I’m afraid of getting laughed at for giving the wrong answer.

“Even if we can’t answer,” interposed Lady Wang, “it only means drinking an extra cup. And anyone feeling tipsy can go and lie down. No one will laugh at us.

“Very well then,” Aunt Xue agreed. “But you must start off with a cup, madam.”

“Of course.”

The Lady Dowager drained her cup.

Xifeng stepped forward to propose, “If we’re to have a game, let Yuan-yang take charge.”

The whole party agreed, knowing that it was always Yuanyang who made the rules for the old lady’s drinking games. So Xifeng made her join them.

“If you’re joining in, there’s no reason why you should stand,” said Lady Wang. She then ordered a young maid to fetch a chair and put it by Xifeng’s or Li Wan’s table.

After making a show of declining, Yuanyang took the seat with thanks and drank a cup, after which she announced:

“Drinking rules are as strict as martial law. Now that I’m in charge I’ll be no respecter of persons — anybody who disobeys me must pay a forfeit.”

The others smiled and Lady Wang said, “Of course. Hurry up and tell us the rules.”

But before Yuanyang could speak Granny Liu left her seat, waving one hand in protest.

“Don’t make fun of me like this. I’m leaving,” she declared.

“That won’t do,” chuckled the others.

Yuanyang ordered some maids to drag Granny Liu back to her table. They did so, giggling, while she pleaded to be let off.

“Anybody who speaks out of turn again will be made to drink a whole pot of wine,” warned Yuanyang.

At this the old woman held her peace.

“I shall use three dominoes,” announced Yuanyang. “We’ll start with the old lady and go round in turn, ending with Granny Liu. For ex­ample, I’ll take a set of three dominoes and read out what’s on each of the three in turn, ending with the name of the set. You must say either a line of classical poetry, a proverb or an adage after each; and they must rhyme. A cup of wine is the forfeit for any mistake.”

Laughingly they all approved and begged her to start.

“Here’s a set,” said Yuanyang. “On the left is the ‘sky'”

“The sky is blue on high,” responded the Lady Dowager.

“Bravo!” applauded the others.

“In the centre’s a ‘five and six,'” Yuanyang continued.

“Six bridges with the scent of plum admix.”

“The last piece is ‘six and one.”‘

“From fleecy clouds rises a round red sun.”

“Together they make a ‘ghost distraught. ‘”

“By his leg the ghost-catcher he’s caught.”

While the whole party laughed and cheered, the Lady Dowager tossed off a cup of wine.

Then Yuanyang resumed, “Here’s another set. The one on the left is a ‘double five. ‘”

Aunt Xue responded: “Plum blossom dances when soft winds ar­rive.”

“A ‘double five’ again here on the right.”

“In the tenth month plum blossom scents the height.”

“In the middle ‘two and five’ make seven.”

“The Weaving Maid and Cowherd3 meet in Heaven.”

“The whole: O’er the Five Peaks the young god wends his way.”

“Immortal joys are barred to mortal clay.”

All applauded Aunt Xue’s performance and she drank a cup.

“Here’s another set,” said Yuanyang. “On the left ‘two aces’ combine.”

Xiangyun capped this: “The sun and moon on earth and heaven shine.” Yuanyang continued, “On the right ‘double aces’ are found.”

“The idle flowers fall, noiseless, to the ground.”

“In the middle, a ‘four and a one. ‘”

“Red apricot leans on clouds beside the sun.”

“Together: The cherries ripen nine times in all.”

“Birds in the Palace orchard make them fall.” Her turn finished, Xiangyun drained her cup.

“Next one,” said Yuanyang. “On the left is a ‘double three. ‘” Baochai responded, “Pairs of swallows chirp merrily.” “Another ‘double three’ upon the right.”

“The wind-trailed weeds seem belts of malachite.” “In the middle, ‘three and six’ make nine.”

“Three hills across the azure sky incline.”

“Together: A lonely boat moored by a chain.”

“The wind and waves bring sorrow in their train.”

In conclusion Baochai drank her wine.

Yuanyang resumed, “The sign of ‘heaven’ on the left.” Daiyu answered, “A fair season, a season bereft.”4 Baochai turned to dart her a glance, but for fear of a penalty Daiyu ignored her.

Yuanyang continued, “In the middle a ‘screen’ finely wrought.” “No maid a message to the gauze window has brought.”5 “That leaves only eight, by ‘two and six’ shown.” “Together they pay homage at the jade throne.” “Combined: A basket in which to gather posies.” “On her fairy wand she carries peonies.”

Having finished her turn Daiyu took a sip of wine.

Yuanyang went on, “On the left, ‘four and five’ make nine.” Yingchun responded, “The peach blossom is heavy with rain.”

“Fine her! Fine her!” cried the others. “That doesn’t rhyme. Be­sides, why peach blossom?”

Yingchun smiled and took a sip. The fact is that Xifeng and Yuanyang were so eager to hear Granny Liu make a fool of herself that they had urged the others to give wrong answers, so that all were fined. When it came to Lady Wang’s turn, Yuanyang answered for her. Then it was Granny Liu’s turn.

“We country folk sometimes get together and play this when we’ve nothing better to do,” said the old woman. “Mind you, our answers aren’t so fine-sounding as yours. Still, I suppose I must try.”

“It’s easy,” they assured her. “Just go ahead, it doesn’t matter.”

Smiling, Yuanyang announced, “On the left, ‘four and four’ make a man.

Granny Liu thought this over, then suggested, “A farmer?” The company roared with laughter.

“Good,” the Lady Dowager encouraged her. “That’s the style.”

“We country people can only talk about the things we know,” said Granny Liu, laughing herself. “You mustn’t make fun of me.”

Yuanyang continued, “‘Three and four,’ green and red, in the centre.”

“A big fire burns the hairy caterpillar.”

The others chortled, “That’s right. Go on in your own way. Yuanyang said, “On the right a really fine ‘double ace. ‘”

“A turnip and head of garlic in one place.” Giggles broke out again.

Yuanyang went on, “They make up ‘flowers’ in all.”

Gesturing with both hands Granny Liu responded, “And a huge pump­kin forms when the flower fall.”

The others were shaking with laughter when they heard a commotion outside. What had happened will be told in the next chapter.

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