A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 41


Chapter 41

Baoyu Sips Tea in

Green Lattice Nunnery

Granny Liu Succumbs to Wine

in Happy Red Court

Granny Liu’s gestures and response, “A huge pumpkin forms when the flowers fall,” caused a fresh glae of mirth. After tossing off the cup of wine, in the hope of wine, in the hope of raising another laugh she observed:

“To tell the truth, I’m clumsy. And now that I’m tipsy, unless I’m very careful, I may smash this porcelain cup. If you’d given me a wooden one it wouldn’t matter even if I dropped it.”

Once more everybody laughed.

“If you really prefer wooden cups I’ll fetch some,” offered Xifeng. “But first I must warn you that the wooden cups aren’t like porcelain ones; they come in a set, and you must drink from every cup in the set.”

The old woman thought: I was only trying to raise a laugh, but it seems they really do have them. When I’ve dined with the village gentry I’ve seen plenty of gold and silver cups, never any made of wood. I know These must be wooden bowls that the children use. She just wants to fool

me into drinking more. Never mind, this wine’s no stronger than mead anyway, so I needn’t be afraid of drinking a bit extra.

So she said, “Fetch them, and we’ll see.”

Xifeng told Fenger: “Bring that set of ten cups carved out of bamboo root on the bookshelf in the inner room.

The maid assented, but as she was about to go on this errand Yuanyang put in with a smile:

“I know that set, it’s too small. Besides, you just said wood and it won’t look right if now you produce bamboo. Better fetch from our place that large set of ten cups made out of boxwood roots. Let her drink from those.

Xifeng thought this a better idea, so Yuanyang sent someone to fetch

them. These cups when brought filled Granny Liu with amazement and admiration. Amazement because all ten fitted into each other, the largest being the size of a small basin and even the smallest as big as the cup in her hand. Admiration at the fine landscapes, trees and figures carved on them, as well as the seals and inscriptions.

“Just give me that small one,” she said hastily. “I can’t use so many.”

“No, you can’t just have one,” chuckled Xifeng. “None of our family has ever ventured to use this set, not having a big enough capacity for it. As you asked for it, granny, and we went to all the trouble of fetching it, you must drink from each cup in turn.”

“I daren’t!” exclaimed Granny Liu in consternation. “Dear madam, do let me off.”

The Lady Dowager, Aunt Xue and Lady Wang, knowing that she was too old to stand this, made haste to intervene.

“She mustn’t drink too much,” they said. “It’ll do if she just empties the biggest cup.

“Amida Buddha!” cried the old woman. “Let me use the small one, and put that big one aside. I’ll take it home to drink up little by little.”

All Yuanyang could do was to have one large cup filled, and Granny Liu raised this in both hands to her lips.

“Go easy,” warned both the Lady Dowager and Aunt Xue. “Mind you don’t chock.”

Aunt Xue urged Xifeng to give her some food with the wine.

“What would you like, granny?” Xifeng asked. “Just name it and I’ll feed you some.

“How can I tell what these dishes are?” said Granny Liu. “They all look good to me.

“Give her some fried egg-plant,” proposed the Lady Dowager with a smile.

Xifeng did so, picking up the food with her chopsticks and putting it into Granny Liu’s mouth.

“You must eat egg-plant every day,” she remarked. “Taste this of ours and see how you like it.”

“Don’t try to fool me,” cackled Granny Liu. “If egg-plant tasted like this, we’d stop growing other crops just stick to egg-plant.”

“It really is egg—plant,” they assured her. “We’re not fooling you.”

“Really egg-plant, is it?” marvelled the old woman. “All this time I’d no idea. Give me some more, madam, to chew more carefully.”

Xifeng accordingly fed her another mouthful.

After savouring it slowly Granny Liu said, “It does taste a little like egg-plant, but still it’s quite different. Tell me how you prepared this, so that I can cook some for myself.”

“It’s quite simple,” replied Xifeng, twinkling. “Pick some early egg­plant and peel it, keeping only the best part, which must be cut into small pieces and fried with chicken fat. Then get some chicken breast, fresh mushrooms, bamboo shoots, dried mushrooms, spiced dried beancurd and various kinds of preserved fruit. Dice these too and boil them with the egg-plant in chicken soup, then add sesame oil and pickles and store it in a tightly-sealed porcelain jar. That’s all.”

Granny Liu shook her head and stuck out her tongue in amazement.

“Gracious Buddha! No wonder it tastes so good, cooked with a dozen chickens.”

While talking she had slowly finished the wine and now she started examining the cup.

“You haven’t drunk enough yet,” said Xifeng. “Have another cup­ful.”

“Not on your life! It would kill me. It’s just that I admire pretty things like this. What workmanship!”

“Now that you’ve finished drinking from it,” put in Yuanyang, “tell us what wood it’s made of.”

“I’m not surprised you don’t know, miss.” Granny Liu smiled. “Liv­ing behind golden gates and embroidered screens, what should you know about wood? But we hobnob with wood all day long, sleep on wooden pillows, rest on wooden stools and even eat the bark of trees in time of a famine. Seeing it and hearing and talking about it all the time, I can natu­rally tell good wood from bad and true from false. Well now, let me see what this is.” She was scrutinizing the cup carefully as she spoke. “Such a family as yours would certainly have nothing cheap, nor would you use any wood that’s easily come by. Judging by the weight of this, it can’t be fir, it must be pine wood.”

The whole party had exploded in fits of mirth when a serving-woman came in to tell the old lady:

“The young actresses have all gone to Lotus Fragrance Anchorage and are waiting for Your Ladyship’s instructions. Should they start their performance now or wait a while?”

“Yes, we’d forgotten them,” chuckled the Lady Dowager. “Tell them to start.”

Soon after the serving-woman left on this errand they heard the lilting strains of flutes and pipes. The breeze was light, the air clear, and this music coming through the trees and across the water refreshed and glad­dened theirhearts. Baoyu could not resist filling his cup with wine, which he tossed straight off. He had just poured himself another cup when he saw his mother, who also wanted a drink, send for freshly-heated wine. He promptly took his cup over and held it to her lips. She took two sips.

When presently the heated wine arrived, Baoyu returned to his place while Lady Wang rose from her seat, holding the wine-pot. At this all the rest, including Aunt Xue, stood up. At once the Lady Dowager told Li Wan and Xifeng to take the pot.

“Make your aunt sit down,” she said. “Let’s not be so formal.”

Lady Wang relinquished the pot then to Xifeng and resumed her seat.

“How pleasant it is today,” remarked the Lady Dowager cheerfully. “Let’s all have a couple of drinks.” Having urged Aunt Xue to drink she said to Xiangyun and Baochai, “You two must drink a cup too. And even though your cousin Daiyu can’t take much, we won’t let her off either.”

With that she drained her own cup so that Xiangyun, Baochai and Daiyu had to follow suit.

Now the music, on top of the wine, set Granny Liu waving her arms and beating time with her feet for sheer delight. Baoyu slipped across to whisper in Daiyu’s ear:

“Look at Granny Liu!”

“When the sage king of old played music, all the hundred beasts started dancing,” quipped Daiyu. “Today we’ve just this one cow.”

The others tittered.

Presently the music stopped and Aunt Xue rising from her seat sug­gested, “We’ve all had enough to drink, haven’t we? Let’s go for a

stroll before sitting down again.”

As this suited the Lady Dowager, they all got up and she led the way outside. In the hope of some freash diversion, she took Granny Liu to a grove at the foot of a hill and led her to and fro, telling her the names of the different trees, flowers and rocks.

After digesting~all this information the old woman remarked, “Fancy, in town it’s not only the people who have class, the birds are high-class too. Why, when they come to this place of yours, they grow so clever they can even talk.”

Baffled by this the others asked, “What birds have grown so clever they can talk?”

“I know that green bird with the red beak on the golden perch in the corridor,” she said. “He’s a parrot. But how come that black crow in the cage has grown a phoenix-lile crest and learned to talk too?”

This provoked a fresh burst of laughter.

Soon some maids came to ask if they would take some refreshments.

“After all that wine, we’re not hungry,” replied the Lady Dowager. “Still, bring the things here and those who want to can help themselves.”

The maids fetched two teapoys and also two small hampers. These when opened were seen to contain two different confections each. In one were cakes made of ground lotus-foot flavoured with fragrant osmanthus, and pine-kernel and goose-fat rolls. In the other were tiny fried dumplings no more than one inch long.

“What’s the stuffing in these?” asked the Lady Dowager.

Some servants told her, “Crab-meat.”

The old lady frowned. “Who wants anything so greasy?”

The other confection, small coloured pastries fried with cream, did not appeal to her either. Aunt Xue took a roll when she was pressed, but after one bite she handed it to a maid.

Granny Liu was struck by the daintiness and variety of the small past­ries. Selecting one shaped like a peony she said:

“The cleverest girls in our village couldn’t make scissor-cuts as good as this. I’m longing to try one, but it seems a shame to eat them. It would be nice to take some back as patterns for the folk at home.”

Everyone laughed.

“When you go,” promised the Lady Dowager, “I’ll give you a jarful to take back with you. First try some while they’re hot.”

The others simply picked out one or two titbits which took their fancy, but Granny Liu had never tasted anything of the sort before. It hardly seemed possible that these small dainty objects could be very filling, and so she and Baner sampled some of each until presently half were gone. Xifeng had the remainder put on two plates and sent in a hamper to the actresses.

Now Dajie’s nurse brought her along and they played with her for a while. The child was amusing herself with a pomelo when she noticed Baner’s Buddha’s-hand and wanted it. Although the maids promised to fetch her one too, she was unwilling to wait and burst into tears. At once they gave the pomelo to Baner and induced him to part with his Buddha’s-hand. He had played with it long enough by then and now had both hands full with the cakes he was eating; besides, this fragrant round pomelo seemed more amusing; so, kicking it about like a ball, he cheerfully relin­quished the Buddha’s-hand.

As soon as they had finished this collation the Lady Dowager took Granny Liu to Green Lattice Nunnery. Miaoyu promptly ushered them into the courtyard, luxuriant with trees and flowers.

“It’s those who live the ascetic life, after all, who have time to im­prove their grounds,” observed the Lady Dowager. “These look better-kept than other places.”

As she spoke, they were walking towards the hall for meditation on the east side, and Miaoyu invited them to go in.

“We’ve just been having wine and meat,” said the old lady. “As you’ve an image of Buddha inside, it would be sacrilege. We’ll just sit in the outside room for a while and have a cup of your good tea.”

Miaoyu at once went to make tea.

Baoyu watched the proceedings carefully. He saw Miaoyu bring out in her own hands a carved lacquer tea-tray in the shape of crab-apple blossom, inlaid with a golden design of the “cloud dragon offering longev­ity.” On this was a covered gilded polyehrome bowl made in the Cheng Hua period,’ which she offered to the Lady Dowager.

“I don’t drink Liuan tea,” said the old lady.

“I know,” replied Miaoyu smiling. “This is Patriarch’s Eyebrows.”

“What water have you used?”

“Rain-water saved from last year.

The Lady Dowager drank half the bowl and passed the rest with a twinkle to Granny Liu, urging her to taste the tea. The old woman drank it straight off.

“Quite good, but a bit on the weak side,” was her verdict, which made everyone laugh. “It should have been left to draw a little longer.”

All the others had melon-green covered bowls with golden designs of new Imperial kiln porcelain.

Having served tea, Miaoyu plucked at the lapels of Baochai’s and Daiyu’s clothes and they went out with her, followed surreptitiously by Baoyu. She invited the two girls into a side room, where Baochai sat on a couch and Daiyu on Miaoyu’s hassock, while the nun herself fanned the stove and when the water boiled brewed some fresh tea. Baoyu slipped in then and accused them teasingly:

“So you’re having a treat here in secret!”

The three girls laughed.

“What are you doing here? There’s nothing here for you.

Miaoyu was just looking for cups when an old nun came in bringing the used bowls.

“Don’t put away that Cheng Hua bowl,” cried Miaoyu hastily. “Leave it outside.”

Baoyu knew that because Granny Liu had used it, she thought it too dirty to keep. Then he saw Miaoyu produce two cups, one with a handle and the name in uncial characters: Calabash Cup. In smaller characters it bore the inscriptions “Treasured by Wang Kai of the Jin Dynasty” and “In the fourth month of the fifth year of the Yuan Feng period2 of the Song Dynasty, Su Shi of Meishan saw this cup in the Imperial Secre­tariat.” Miaoyu filled this cup and handed it to Baochai. The other, shaped like a small alms-bowl, bore the name in the curly seal script: “Rhinoc­eros Cup.” Having filled this for Daiyu, she offered Baoyu the green jade beaker that she normally drank from herself.

“I thought that according to Buddhist law all men should be treated alike,” said Baoyu with a grin. “Why give me this vulgar object when

they get such priceless antiques?”

“Vulgar object!” retorted Miaoyu. “I doubt if your family could pro­duce anything half as good, and that’s not boasting either.”

“As people say, ‘Other countries, other ways.’ Here with a person like you, gold, pearls, jade and jewels must all count as vulgar.”

Very gratified by this remark, Miaoyu produced a huge goblet carved out of a whole hamboo root which was covered with knots and whorls.

“Here’s the only other one I have,” she said. “Can you manage such a large one?”

“Of course I can!” declared Baoyu delightedly.

“Even if you can, I’ve not so much tea to waste on you. Have you never heard the saying: ‘First cup to taste, second to quench a fool’s thirst, third to water an ox or donkey’? What would you be if you swal­lowed such an amount?”

As the three others laughed, Miaoyu picked up the pot and poured the equivalent of one small cup into the goblet. Baoyu tasted it carefully and could not praise its bland purity enough.

“You’ve your cousins to thank for this treat,” observed Miaoyu primly. “If you’d come alone, I wouldn’t have offered you tea.”

“I’m well aware of that.” Baoyu chuckled. “So I’ll thank them in­stead of you.”

“So you should,” said the nun.

“Is this made with last year’s rain-water too?” asked Daiyu.

Miaoyu smiled disdainfully.

“Can you really be so vulgar as not even to tell the difference? This is snow I gathered from plum-blossom five years ago while staying in Curly Fragrance Nunnery on Mount Xuanmu. I managed to fill that whole dark blue porcelain pot, but it seemed too precious to use so I’ve kept it buried in the earth all these years, not opening it till this summer. Today is only the second time I’ve used it. Surely you can taste the difference? How could last year’s rain-water be as light and pure as this?”

Daiyu, knowing her eccentricity, did not like to say too much or stay too long. After finishing her tea she signalled to Baochai and the two girls left, followed by Baoyu.

As he was leaving he said with a smile to Miaoyu, “That bowl may

have been contaminated, but surely it’s a pity to throw it away? I think you’d do better to give it to that poor woman, who’d make enough by selling it to keep her for some time. Don’t you agree?”

After a little reflection Miaoyu nodded.

“All right,” she said. “It’s a good thing I’d never drunk out of it, or I’d have smashed it. But I can’t give it to her myself. If you want to give it to her, I’ve no objection. Go ahead and take it.”

“Of course,” he chuckled. “How could you speak to the likes of her? You’d be contaminating yourself. Just let me have it.”

Miaoyu sent for the bowl and had it handed to him.

As he took it he said, “After we’ve gone, shall I send a few pages with some buckets of water from the stream to wash your floors?”

“That’s a good idea.” She smiled. “Only make them leave the buck­ets by the wall outside the gate. They mustn’t come in.”

‘‘Of course not.’’

He withdrew, the bowl in his sleeve, and entrusted it to one of his grandmother’s small maids with the instruction, “Give this to Granny Liu to take home tomorrow.”

By this time the Lady Dowager was ready to leave, and Miaoyu did not press her hard to stay but saw them out and closed the gate behind them.

The Lady Dowager, feeling rather tired, told Lady Wang and the girls to go and drink with Aunt Xue while she herself had a rest in Paddy-Sweet Cottage. Xifeng ordered a small bamboo sedan-chair to be brought. The old lady seated herself in this and was carried off by two serving-women, accompanied by Xifeng, Li Wan and all her own maids and older serving-women.

Meanwhile Aunt Xue had taken her leave too. Lady Wang, having dismissed the actresses and given what was left in the hampers to the maids, was free to lie down on the couch vacated by her mother-in-law. She told a small maid to lower the portiere and massage her legs.

“When the old lady wakes, come and let me know,” she ordered the servants. With that she settled down for a nap, and the rest of the party dispersed.

Baoyu, Xiangyun and the other girls watched the maids put the boxes

of titbits on the rocks. Then, some sitting on the rocks or grass, some leaning against trees or strolling by the lake, they niade very merry.

Yuanyang arrived presently to take Granny Liu for a stroll, and the rest of them tagged along to watch the run. When they reached the arch erected for the Imperial Consort’s visit home, Granny Liu exclaimed:

“My word, what a big temple!”

She plumped down to kowtow, making everyone double up with laughter.

“What’s so funny?” she asked. “I know the words on this arch. We have plenty of temples like this where I live, all with arches like this one here. The characters on it are the name of the temple.”

“What temple is this?” they demanded.

Granny Liu looked up and pointed at the inscription.

“Splendid Hall of the Jade Emperor, isn’t it?”

They laughed and clapped and would have gone on teasing her, but Granny Liu’s stomach suddenly started to rumble. Hastily asking one of the younger maids for some paper, she set about loosening her clothes.

“No, no! Not here!” they cried, nearly in hysterics.

An old nurse was told to take her to the northeastern corner. Having shown her the way, the old servant took the chance to amble off to have a rest.

Now the yellow wine which Granny Liu had been drinking did not agree with her; and to quench her thirst after eating all that rich food she had drunk so much tea that her stomach was upset. She remained squat­ting for some time in the privy. When she emerged the wine had gone to her head, and squatting so long had left the old creature too dizzy to remember the way .she had come.

She looked round. Trees, rocks, towers and pavilions stretched on every side, but having no idea how to reach these different places she could only hobble slowly down a cobbled path until she came to a build­ing. After searching for a long time for the gate, she saw a bamboo fence. So they have beantrellises here too, she thought. Skirting the hedge, shereached a moon-gate and stepped through it. Before her was a pool five or six feet across, its banks paved with flag-stones, a clear green brook flowing through it, and lying across it a long slab of white stone. She crossed over this stone to a cobbled path which, after a couple of

bends, brought her to a door. The first thing she saw as she entered it was a girl, smiling in welcome.

“The young ladies ditched me,” said Granny Liu hastily. “I had to knock about till I found this place.”

When the girl did not answer, the old woman stepped forward to take her hand and bang! — bumped her head painfully on a wooden partition. Looking carefully at it, she found it was a painting. Strange! How could they make the figure stick out like a real person? Touching it, however, she found it was flat all over. With a nod and couple of sighs of admiration she moved on to a small door over which hung a soft green flowered portiere. She lifted this, stepped through and looked around.

The four walls here were panelled with cunningly carved shelves on which were displayed lyres, swords, vases and incense-burners. They were hung moreover with embroidered curtains and gauze glittering with gold and pearls. Even the green glazed floor-tiles had floral designs. More dazzled than ever she turned to leave — but where was the door? To her left was a bookcase, to her right a screen. She had just discovered a door behind the screen and stepped forward to open it when, to her amaze­ment, her son-in-law’s mother came in.

“Fancy seeing you here!” exclaimed Granny Liu. “I suppose you found I hadn’t been home these last few days and tracked me down here. Which of the girls brought you in?”

The other old woman simply smiled and did not answer.

“How little you’ve seen of the world,” chuckled Granny Liu. “The flowers in this garden are so fine, you just had to go picking some to stick all over your own head for shame!”

Again the other made no reply.

Suddenly Granny Liu recalled having heard that rich folk had in their houses some kind of full-length mirror. It dawned on her that this was her own reflection. She felt it with her hand and looked more carefully. Sure enough, it was a mirror set in four carved red sandalwood partitions.

“This has barred my way. How am I to get out?” she muttered.

Then the pressure of her fingers produced a click. For this mirror had western-style hinges enabling it to open or shut, and she had accidentally pressed the spring which made it swing back, revealing a doorway.

In pleased surprise Granny Liu stepped into the next room, where her eye was caught by some exquisite bed-curtains. Being still more than half drunk and tired from her walk, she plumped down on the bed to have a little rest. But her limbs no longer obeyed her. She swayed to and fro, unable to keep her eyes open, then curled up and fell fast asleep.

Meanwhile the others outside waited in vain for her till Baner started crying for his grandmother.

“Let’s hope she hasn’t fallen into the cesspool of the latrine,” they said jokingly. “Someone should go and see.”

Two old women were sent but came back to report that there was no sign of her. So they searched in all directions but still could not find her.

She must have lost her way because she’s drunk, thought Xiren, and may have followed that path to our back yard. If she passed the hedge and went in by the back door, even if she knocked about blindly the girls there must have seen her. If she didn’t go that way but headed south­west, let’s hope she’s found her way out. If not, she may still be wander­ing around there. I’ll go and have a look.

Thinking in this way, she went back to Happy Red Court and called for the younger maids who had been left to keep an eye on the place. But they had seized this chance to run off and play. Going in past the latticed screen she heard thunderous snores and, hurrying into the bedroom, found the whole place reeking of wine and farts. On the bed, sprawled out on her back, lay Granny Liu. Xiren was shocked. She ran over and shook her hard until Granny Liu woke with a start. At sight of Xiren she hastily scrambled up.

“It was wrong of me, miss,” she cried. “But I haven’t dirtied the bed.” She was brushing it with both hands as she spoke.

Xiren signed to her to keep quiet, not wanting to disturb others for fear Baoyu should come to hear of this. Hurriedly she thrust several handfuls of incense into the large tripod and replaced the cover, then straightened things a little in the room. It was lucky at least that the old woman hadn’t been sick.

“It’s all right,” she whispered quickly. “I’ll see to this. Just say you were so tipsy that you fell asleep on one of the rocks outside. Now come along with me.”

Granny Liu assented readily and followed Xiren out to the young maids’ room where she was told to sit down. Two bowls of tea sobered her up enough to ask:

“Which of the young ladies’ room was that? So elegant and beauti­ful! I thought I was in heaven.”

“That?” Xiren smiled. “That’s Master Bao’s bedroom.”

Granny Liu was too shocked to utter another word. Xiren took her out the front way to find the rest of the party.

“Granny Liu fell asleep on the grass” was all she told them. “Now I’ve brought her back.”

Then the others thought no more of the matter, and there it rested.

To know what the sequel was, read the next chapter.

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