A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 48


Chapter 48

A Rebuffed Reprobate Decides

on a Journey

An Aspiring Maid Racks Her Brains

to Write Poetry

After he was told that Liu Xianglian had fled, little by little Xue Pan’s anger abated. In a few days he was over his pain and simply pretending to be ill, being ashamed to see relatives or friends till his bruises had disappeared.

In no time the tenth month arrived, and as some of their shop manag­ers were to got home to settle their annual accounts, the Xue family had to prepare a farewell feast for them.

One of those leaving was Zhang Dehui, a man of over sixty who had managed the Xues’ pawnshop since he was young and was now worth two or three thousand taels. Not wanting to return before spring he said:

‘This year sacrificial paper and aromatics are in short supply, which means that next year the price is bound to rise. I propose to send my eldest son here to see to the shop after New Year and on my way back purchase sacrificial paper and scented fans to sell before the Dragon-Boat Festival. After deducting taxes and expenses, we should still net a profit of several hundred percent.’

When Xue Pan heard this he reflected, ‘Since my beating I’ve been ashamed to show my face, wishing I could disappear for a year or so; but I have nowhere to hide. I can’t go on shamming illness indefinitely. Be­sides, all these years I’ve never taken to books or soldiering, and al­though I’m in business I’ve never handled a balance or abacus and know nothing either about local customs and different parts of the country. I may as well take some capital and travel around with Zhang Dehui for a year. It doesn’t matter whether I make money or not; I can at any rate hide my face for a while and enjoy some sight-seeing at the same time.’

Having made up his mind to this, he took Zhang aside after the feast, explained his plan, and asked him to wait a couple of days so that they could travel together.

That evening he told his mother. But though pleased in a sense, she was also afraid he might get into trouble outside the loss of capital was immaterial. So she withheld her consent.

‘I don’t worry too much so long as you’re with me,’ She said. ‘And it’s not as if we needed you to handle business or were short of money. If you’ll stay quietly at home that’s worth more to me than a few hun­dred taels.’

But Xue Pan, once his mind was made up, was stubborn.

‘You keep complaining every day of my lack of worldly wisdom, my ignorance and failure to learn,’ he protested. ‘Yet now that I’ve re­solved to stop fooling around, come to grips with life and establish myself by learning to run the business, you won’t let me. What do you expect me to do? I’m not a girl to stay cooped up at home all the time. You’ll have to let me out some day. Besides, Zhang Dehui is well on in years, a moral character and an old family friend. What could go wrong if I’m with him? He’ll naturally point it out if I make the least blunder. And he knows the market so well that his advice will be most useful to me. Yet you won’t let me go! All right, I’ll slip away some day without telling you, and come back next year with my fortune made. Just wait and see if I don’t!’

He went off to bed in a huff. Then Aunt Xue discussed the matter with her daughter.

‘If my brother’s really serious about working properly, that’s good,’ said Baochai. ‘But if he’s just saying this to talk you round, once away from home he may slip back into his bad old ways and it will be even more difficult to restrain him. Still, it’s no use worrying too much. If he truly reforms, so much the better for him; if he doesn’t, there’s nothing you can do about it, mother. It depends half on what one can do for him half on his own fate. He’s no longer a boy, and if you keep him at home this year for fear he’s too inexperienced to travel or do business, it’ll be just the same next year. As his arguments sound reasonable, you may as well send him off to have a try ‘ at worst it only means wasting eight hundred or a thousand taels. After all, he’ll have assistants who can’t very well cheat him. Besides, once he’s gone there’ll be no one to egg him on or to back him up, and he won’t be able to throw his weight about. If he has food, he can eat; if not, he’ll just have to go hungry. And for all we know, seeing that he’s on his own, he may cause less trouble than at home.’

Aunt Xue thought this over for a while.

‘You’re quite right,’ she said at last. ‘It’s worth a little money if he’ll learn to behave himself better.’

Having agreed on this they retired for the night.

The next day Aunt Xue invited Zhang Dehui to a meal in the study at which Xue Pan presided, and standing in the back corridor she urged Zhang very earnestly through the window to take good care of her son. Zhang promised to do so.

After the meal as he took his leave he said, ‘The fourteenth is an auspicious day to start a journey. Please get your luggage ready, sir, and hire mules. On the fourteenth we can make an early start.’

Xue Pan was overjoyed and passed on this message to his mother, who promptly set to work with Baochai, Xiangling and two old nurses to prepare his things. An old steward, the husband of Xue Pan’s wet-nurse, was to accompany him with two other experienced old bondsmen as well as two of the pages who usually attended him, making a party of six. Three carts were hired for the luggage, and four sturdy mules. Xue Pan himself would ride a large black mule from the family stable, in addition to which a horse was provided for him too. When all these preparations had been made, his mother and sister went on to give him good advice and warnings which we can pass over here.

On the thirteenth, Xue Pan want to take his leave first of his maternal uncle, then of other members of the Jia family; but we need not dwell on all the farewell banquets offered by Jia Zhen and the rest.

On the fourteenth, first thing in the morning, his mother and sister saw him out of the ceremonial gate and with tears in their eyes watched until he was out of sight before turning back again.

Aunt Xue had brought to the capital only four or five families of ser­vants apart from a few old nurses and young maids. Now that five of the men had gone with her son, only one man-servant was left. That same day, accordingly, she had all the ornaments, curtains, and other furnish­ings of the study stored away and ordered the wives of two men who had accompanied Xue Pan to move into the inner quarters. She also told Xiangling to clear up and lock her room and to share her own bedroom.

‘You already have quite a few people to keep you company, mother,’ observed Baochai. ‘Why not let Sister Xiangling move in with me? We’ve plenty of space in the Garden, and now that the nights are getting longer and I sew every evening, wouldn’t it be better if I had one more compan­ion?’

‘Of course.’ Her mother smiled. ‘That had slipped my mind or I should have suggested it. Only the other day I was telling your brother that Wenxing’s too young to do much, and Yinger can’t wait on you properly all on her own. We must buy you another maid.’

‘A girl bought outside is a dark horse,’ objected Baochai. ‘If she turns out badly the money will be wasted, but that’s a small matter com­pared with the trouble she may cause. We’d better take our time making inquiries, and not buy a girl until we know her record.’

She urged Xiangling to pack up her bedding and toilet things, and or­dered an old nurse and Zhener to take them to Alpinia Park. Then she went back to the Garden with Xiangling.

‘I thought of asking our lady’s permission to stay with you after your brother left,’ Xiangling confided. ‘I was afraid, though she’d think I just wanted to play about. I’m so glad you suggested it.’

‘I know how long you’ve admired this Garden without ever having time really to enjoy it,’ Baochai answered. ‘There’s no fun in hurried visits every day. So if you take this chance to stay here for a year, I’ll be glad of your company and you’ll get your wish too.’

‘Can you take this opportunity, dear miss, to teach me to write po­etry?’

‘The more you get, the more you want!’ chuckled Baochai. ‘As this is your first day here, I advise you to start by paying your respects to all the ladies in the different apartments outside the Garden’s east gate, beginning with the old lady. You needn’t tell them specially that you’ve moved into the Garden; but if anyone asks, just say I’ve brought you to keep me company. Then after you come back you ought to call on all the young ladies here.

Xiangling agreed and was about to set out when Pinger hurried in. Xiangling greeted her, and Pinger returned her greeting with a strained smile.

‘I’ve brought her here to keep me company,’ Baochai told Pinger. ‘I was just going to send someone to report it to your mistress.’

‘What a way to talk, miss!’ cried Pinger. ‘How do you expect me to answer?’

‘No, this is only right. ‘Hostels have their hosts, abbeys their ab­bots.’ It’s a small matter, but still I should notify her so that the night-watch will know whom to expect here before locking the gates. Will you report this for me when you go back? That’ll save me sending some­one.’

Pinger agreed readily, then asked Xiangling, ‘Why don’t you call on your neighbours now that you’re here?’

‘Just what I was saying to her,’ remarked Baochai.

‘But you’d better leave us out,’ advised Pinger. ‘Master Lian is at home, ill in bed.’

Xiangling did as she was told, going first to call on the Lady Dowager. As soon as she had left, Pinger took Baochai’s arm.

‘Have you heard the latest news in our family, miss?’ she whispered.

‘Not a word,’ rejoined Baochai. ‘These last few days we’ve been so busy getting my brother off, I’ve heard nothing of what’s been happening in your apartments. I haven’t even seen my cousins for a couple of days.’

‘Then you haven’t heard of the beating Lord She gave Master Lian? It’s quite laid him up.’

‘I heard something vaguely this morning but didn’t believe it. If you hadn’t come, I’d have gone to call on your mistress. What did he beat him for?’

‘It’s all the fault of that upstart Jia Yucun ‘ the bastard deserves to starve to death!’ fumed Pinger, grinding her teeth. ‘In the less than ten years that we’ve known him he’s stirred up endless trouble. This spring Lord She happened to see a few old fans somewhere, which made him so dissatisfied with all our best fans at home that he sent men out at once to search for better ones. A wretched crank they call the Stone Idiot had twenty old fans as it happened, but though so poor that he’d hardly a bite to eat, he’d sooner die than part with them. Master Lian had to pull a lot of strings just to meet him. Then, after much urging, the idiot invited him home and let him have a look at a few of these fans. According to Mas­ter Lian they were quite unique, all made of rare varieties of bamboo. And the calligraphy and paintings on them were by genuine old masters.

‘When he came back and reported this, Lord She determined to buy them at any price. But the Stone Idiot swore, ‘I’ll die of cold and hunger sooner than sell, even if you offer me a thousand taels apiece.

‘There was nothing Lord She could do, except storm at Master Lian every day. Even when the fellow was promised five hundred taels in advance, he still refused. ‘I’d sooner die than part with my fans, ‘ he insisted. So, really, miss, what could be done?

‘Then that black-hearted scoundrel Jia Yucun heard about it and hatched a scheme. He had the idiot taken to his yamen on a charge of owing the government some money, and ordered the default to be made good by the sale of his property. So the fans were seized, paid for at the official price and brought to our house. As for that Stone Idiot, who knows whether he’s alive or dead?

‘Lord She, once he had the fans, asked Master Lian, ‘How did he succeed where you failed?’ Master Lian simply answered, ‘It’s nothing to boast of, if somebody is willing to ruin a family for such a trifling rea­son. ‘ Then his father flew into a passion, and accused him of trying to put him in the wrong. That was the main reason.

‘There were a few other things too, so insignificant that I can’t re­member them exactly. Together, anyway, they got our young master a beating. Instead of being held down and flogged with a cane or stick, he was beaten where he stood ‘ with just what, nobody knows ‘ so that his face was cut open in two places. We heard that Aunt Xue had a cure for cuts of that kind. Could you send for a pill now, miss, for me to take to him?’

Baochai promptly despatched Yinger to fetch a pill, and handed this to Pinger, ‘I won’t call just now, under the circumstances,’ she said. ‘Please give my regards to your mistress.’

Pinger assented and left.

Let us return to Xiangling, who had paid her courtesy calls. After dinner, when Baochai had gone to see the Lady Dowager, she went to Bamboo Lodge. And Daiyu, now in better health, was delighted to learn that she had moved into the Garden.

‘I shall have more free time here,’ remarked Xiangling. ‘If only you’d teach me to write poems, how lucky I’d count myself!’

‘If you want to write poetry you must acknowledge me as your tu­tor,’ replied Daiyu teasingly. ‘I’m no poet myself, but I dare say I could teach you.’

‘Of course I’ll be only too glad to be your pupil. But you must be patient with me.’

‘It’s quite simple really. There’s hardly anything to learn,’ Daiyu told her. ‘In regulated verse’ it’s just a matter of opening, developing, changing and concluding; and the developing and changing couplets in the middle should be antithetical. A level tone should be contrasted with a deflected one, an abstract word with a concrete one. But if you’ve got a really fine line, the rules can be disregarded.’

Xiangling said, ‘No wonder, then that whenever I steal time to read a couple of old poems, I find some lines have very neat parallelisms while others have none. And I understood there was a rule that the first, third and fifth characters of a line needn’t follow the tone pattern, but the second, fourth and sixth must abide strictly by it. Yet I found that in some old poems even the second, fourth and sixth characters break the rules. This has always puzzled me. From your explanation it seems one needn’t bother with these rules, provided the line is fresh and original.’

‘That’s right. The rules of prosody are secondary, the main thing is to have original ideas. For if there’s feeling, a poem is good even if the lines are unpolished. This is what we mean by ‘not letting the words interfere with the sense.’’

Xiangling gushed, ‘I simply love those lines by Lu You:

The heavy hangings, unrolled, retain the scent of incense; The old inkstone, slightly concave, brims with ink.

That’s so true and so quaintly put.’

‘You mustn’t on any account read poems of that kind,’ warned Daiyu. ‘It’s because you don’t understand poetry that you like such superficial lines when you come across them. Once you get into that habit you’ll never cure yourself of it. Now, listen to me: If you really want to write poetry, take my copy of the complete poems of Wang Wei and study a hundred of his pentasyllabic poems in regulated verse until you know them well. Then read one or two hundred of Du Fu’s regulated heptasyllabics, and one or two hundred of Li Bai’s2 heptasyllabic qua-trains. After digesting these and laying a foundation with these three poets, go on to read Tao Yuanming, Ying Yang, Xie Lingyun, Yuan Ji, Yu Xin and Bao Zhao.3 In less than a year’s time, with your intelligence, you can count on becoming a poet.’

‘That’s fine, miss.’ Xiangling smiled. ‘Please give me that book then to take back with me, and I’ll read a few poems tonight.’

Daiyu told Zijuan to fetch Wang Wei’s Regular Pentasyllabics and give it to Xiangling.

‘Just read those I’ve marked with red circles,’ she told her. ‘Read all the ones I’ve chosen. If there’s anything you don’t understand, ask your young lady. Or I can explain it to you next time I see you.’

Xiangling took the book back to Alpinia Park and, oblivious of all else, read poem after poem by lamplight, ignoring Baochai’s repeated remind­ers to go to bed. Seeing her so much in earnest, Baochai finally let her be.

One morning, Daiyu had just finished her toilet when a radiant Xiangling came in to return Wang Wei’s poems and ask for Du Fu’s Regulated Verse.

‘How many poems have you memorized?’ asked Daiyu.

‘I’ve read all those marked with red circles.’

‘Do you appreciate them better now?’

‘I think so, but I’m not sure. I’d like your opinion.’

‘Go ahead. We can only make progress by talking things over.

‘To my mind, the beauty of poetry lies in something that can’t be put into words yet is very vivid and real when you think about it. Again, it seems illogical, yet when you think it over it makes good sense.

‘There’s something in that. But what grounds have you for saying so?’

‘Well, take that couplet in the poem on the northern borderland:

In the great desert a single straight plume of smoke;

By the long river at sunset a ball of flame.

Of course the sun’s round, but how can smoke be straight? The first description seems illogical, the second trite. But when you close the book and think, the scene rises before your eyes, and you realize it would be impossible to choose any better words. Or take the couplet:

As the sun sets, rivers and lakes gleam white;

The tide comes up and the horizon turns blue.

The adjectives ‘white’ and ‘blue’ seem illogical too; but when you think about it no other words would be so apt, for read aloud they have all the savour of an olive weighing several thousand catties! Again, take the lines:

The setting sun still lingers by the ford,

A single plume of smoke ascends from the village.

It’s the choice of ‘lingers’ and ‘ascends’ that I admire. On our way to the capital that year, our boat moored by the bank one evening. There was nobody about, nothing but a few trees, and the smoke from some distant cottages where supper was being cooked rose up, a vivid blue, straight to the clouds. Fancy, reading those lines last night carried me back to that place.’

Meanwhile Baoyu and Tanchun had also arrived and sat down to listen to this disquisition on poetry.

‘Actually, you don’t need to read any more poems,’ remarked Baoyu with a smile. ‘‘True understanding need not be sought far away.’ Judg­ing by the little I’ve heard you say, you’ve already grasped the gist of the matter.’

Daiyu put in, ‘You’ve praised that expression ‘a single plume of smoke ascends’ without realizing that it’s taken from an earlier poet. Have a look at this line, which is even more evocative and natural.’

She found and showed her Tao Yuanming’s lines:

Misty the distant village,

Smoke dawdles up from the hamlet.

Xiangling read this and nodded her appreciation. ‘So ‘ascends’ is derived from ‘dawdles up,’’ she said.

‘You’ve got it,’ cried Baoyu laughing. ‘No need for further explana­tions. In fact, more might lead you astray. Just start writing poetry your­self now, and you’re bound to produce something good.’

Tanchun said, ‘Tomorrow I’ll prepare some refreshments and invite you formally to join our poetry club.’

‘Don’t laugh at me, miss,’ cried Xiangling. ‘It’s just out of admira­tion for you that I’m learning this for fun.’

‘Who’s not doing it for fun?’ countered Tanchun and Daiyu. ‘We don’t write seriously either. If we really set up as poets, people outside the Garden would split their sides laughing.’

‘Don’t be too modest,’ said Baoyu. ‘The other day, when I was discussing our painting with those secretaries outside and they heard we’d started a poetry club, they begged me to show them some of our poems. I wrote out a few for them, and they were so genuinely impressed that they copied them all out to have them printed.’

‘Is that true?’ demanded Tanchun and Daiyu.

‘I’m not a liar like that parrot there on the perch.’

‘You really are the limit!’ they exclaimed. ‘In the first place they aren’t proper poems, and even if they were you shouldn’t circulate our writings outside.’

‘What does it matter?’ he argued. ‘We’d never have heard of the poems by ladies of old if they hadn’t been made public.’

At this point Xichun’s maid Ruhua arrived, and at her request Baoyu went to see her mistress.

Xiangling again urged Daiyu to lend her Du Fu’s poems, and begged her and Tanchun to set her a subject.

‘Let me try my hand and you can correct it,’ she said.

‘Last night there was a fine moon,’ rejoined Daiyu. ‘I was meaning to write a poem on it but didn’t get round to it. Take that as your subject, and choose as your rhymes any characters in the fourteenth group rhym­ing with han (‘cold’).’

Xiangling went back in high delight with the poems. After cudgelling her brains she wrote a few lines, then read a couple more of Du Fu’s Regulated Verses which she could not bear to put down. She was so

engrossed that she forgot food and sleep.

‘Why torture yourself?’ asked Baochai. ‘This is all Daiyu’s fault. I must settle scores with her. You were always a bit weak in the head, and now this has crazed you completely.’

‘Please don’t distract me,’ begged Xiangling.

With that she finished her verse and showed it to her.

Baochai read it and commented with a smile, ‘This isn’t the way. Don’t be shy, though. Just show it to her and see what she has to say.

So Xiangling took the poem to Daiyu, who read as follows:

The moon hangs in mid-sky, cold is the night;

Round its reflection, limpid white its light,

Inspiring poets to let their fancies roam,

But traveller, sick at heart, cannot bear the sight.

By emerald pavilion hangs a mirror of jade,

A disc of ice outside pearl screen displayed;

No need for silvery candles this fine night

Its bright splendour lights up the painted balustrade.

Daiyu commented with a smile, ‘You’ve no lack of ideas but the language lacks elegance, because you’re restricted by having read so few poems. Scrap this one and write another. Just let yourself go.’

Xiangling went away in silence. She did not go back to her room but strolled by the pool and under the trees, sat lost in thought on the rocks or crouched down to scribble on the ground, to the amazement of all those who passed by.

When Li Wan, Tanchun, Baochai and Baoyu heard of this, they climbed a slope some way off and stood there laughing as they watched her, now frowning, now smiling to herself.

‘The girl’s bound to go mad at this rate,’ giggled Baochai. ‘She sat up all last night muttering to herself, and didn’t go to sleep till nearly dawn. In less time than it takes for a meal it was daybreak, and I heard her get up and make a hurried toilet before rushing off to find Daiyu. She came back to spend the whole day in a daze; but since the poem she wrote was no good, now of course she’s writing another.’

Baoyu chuckled. ‘This is a case of ‘a remarkable place producing outstanding people.’ So Heaven has endowed her with more than good looks. We were always regretting that such a girl lacked polish, but now see what’s happened! This shows there is true justice in the world.’

‘I only wish you would work as hard.’ Baochai smiled. ‘Then you’d succeed in your studies.’

Baoyu let this pass.

They now saw Xiangling set off exuberantly to find Daiyu again.

‘Let’s follow her,’ suggested Tanchun. ‘I want to see if she’s done any better this time.’

So off they trooped together to Bamboo Lodge, where they found Daiyu discussing Xiangling’s poem with her.

‘What’s it like?’ they asked.

‘A creditable effort but still poor,’ was Daiyu’s verdict. ‘This one is too arty. She’ll have to try again.’

They asked to see the verse, which read:

Neither silver nor liquid this chill light on the window;

A jade disc hangs above in the limpid sky;

Pale the plum-blossom steeped in fragrance,

Slender the willow slips, their dew half dry.

Golden steps appear coated with powder,

Marble balustrades seem lightly frosted over;

Waking in West Pavilion, no trace of man.

But some vestiges still behind the screen we discover.

Baochai remarked pleasantly, ‘This doesn’t read like a poem about the moon, but it would do if the subject were changed to The Colour of the Moon, for almost every line seems to deal with colour. Never mind, all poetry starts with meaningless talk. In a few days you’ll do better.’

Xiangling, who had preened herself on this poem, was discouraged again by these comments. She refused to give up, however, and once more started racking her brains. Leaving the others to chat, she strolled into the bamboo grove before the steps and concentrated on thinking, deaf and blind to everything going on around her.

Presently Tanchun called to her through the window, ‘Do have a rest, Xiangling!’

‘‘Rest’ belongs to the fifteenth group of rhymes you’ve got the wrong rhyme,’ she answered absently.

Everybody laughed.

‘She’s really become a demoniac poet!’ said Baochai. ‘It’s all Daiyu’s fault for egging her on.’

‘The Sage says ‘tireless in teaching others,’’ quipped Daiyu. ‘Since she consulted me, I had to tell her what I knew.’

‘Let’s take her to see Xichun,’ proposed Li wan. ‘It’ll wake her up to look at the painting.’

No sooner said than done. They dragged Xiangling off past Lotus Fragrance Anchorage to Warm Scented Arbour, where Xichun was hav­ing a siesta on her couch. The painting, propped against one wall, was covered by a piece of gauze. Having woken Xichun they removed the gauze, disclosing that the painting was only about one-third finished. Xiangling saw some beautiful girls in it. Pointing at two of them she said with a smile:

‘This is our young lady, and that’s Miss Lin.’

Tanchun laughed. ‘If all who can write poems are to be painted there, you’d better hurry up and learn.’

After a few more jokes the party dispersed.

Still Xiangling’s whole mind was occupied by poetry. That evening she sat up facing the lamp lost in thought, only going to bed after midnight and lying there open-eyed, not getting off to sleep till nearly dawn. When presently day broke and Baochai woke up, she found her sleeping soundly.

‘She’s been tossing and turning all night,’ thought Baochai. ‘I won­der if she’s finished her poem? She must be tired out. I’d better not wake her.’

Just then Xiangling laughed in her sleep and cried, ‘Ah, now I’ve got it! She’ll hardly be able to find fault with this.’

Amused and touched, Baochai woke her up to ask, ‘What have you got? Your single-mindedness should move the gods to pity. But you may fall ill if you can’t write good poems.

Having finished her toilet she went off with the other girls to pay her respects to the Lady Dowager.

Now Xiangling had been so determined to learn to write poems, giving her whole mind to it, that although she had failed to finish this new poem the previous day she had suddenly hit on eight lines in her dreams. As soon as she was dressed she wrote them Out. And as she could not tell whether they were good or not, she went to find Daiyu again. She reached Seeping Fragrance Pavilion as Li Wan and the, girls, just back from Lady Wang’s apartments, were laughing at Baochai’s account of how Xiangling had been versifying and talking in her sleep. When they looked up and saw her, all clamoured to see her new poem.

If you want to know what it was like, read the next chapter.

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