A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 49

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Chapter 49

White Snow and Red Plum-Blossom Make

the Garden Entrancing

Girls Enjoy Rustic Fare at

a Venison Barbecue

When Xiangling discovered the others talking about her, she went up to them with a smile.

‘Read this,’ she said. ‘If it’s any good, I’ll persevere; if not, I’ll give up trying to write poetry.’

She handed Daiyu her poem and they all read:

Hard, surely, to hide such splendour,

A form so fair, a spirit so cold, so withdrawn;

Washing-blocks pound in an expanse of white,

Only a crescent is left when cocks crow at dawn;

In green coir cape on the river he listens to autumn fluting,

In red sleeves she leans over her balustrade at night.

Well might the goddess Chang E ask herself:

Why cannot we enjoy endless, perfect delight?

‘Not only good but original and ingenious,’ was the general verdict. ‘As the proverb says, ‘All difficulties on earth can be overcome if men but give their minds to it.’ You certainly must join our poetry club.’

Xiangling, hardly able to believe her ears, was questioning Daiyu and Baochai to make sure they were not teasing when some maids and old nurses hurried in.

‘A party of ladies, old and young, have arrived,’ they announced. ‘We don’t know them, but they’re your relatives. Please go quickly to welcome them.’

‘What are you talking about?’ asked Li Wan. ‘You must explain more clearly. Whose relatives are they?’

‘Two of them are your younger cousins, madam. Two young ladies, one of them is said to be Miss Xue’s cousin, and there’s a young gentle­man who’s Master Xue’s cousin. We’re on our way now to invite Madam Xue over. You and the young ladies had better go first.’

As these messengers left Baochai exclaimed joyfully, ‘Can it be our Xue Ke and his sister?’

Li Wan said gaily, ‘It sounds as if my aunt has come to the capital again. But how odd that they should all arrive together.’

Going in some mystification to Lady Wang’s reception hall, they found it crowded with people. Lady Xing’s brother and sister-in-law had brought their daughter Xiuyan to stay with her; and they had travelled with Xifeng’s elder brother Wang Ren, who was coming to the capital too. Half way there, when their boats moored, they had happened to meet Li Wan’s widowed aunt making the same journey with her daughters Li Wen and Li Qi; and having found out in the course of conversation that they were related, these three families had proceeded on their way together. Then there was Xue Pan’s cousin Xue Ke, coming to arrange for the marriage of his younger sister Baoqin who had been betrothed to the son of Aca­demician Mei when their father was in the capital. Learning of Wang Ren’s trip, he had followed with his sister and overtaken him. In this way they had arrived together today to visit their respective relatives.

The Lady Dowager and Lady Wang welcomed these guests most warmly.

‘Not wonder our lamp wicks kept forming snuff and sputtering last night!’ remarked the old lady with a smile. ‘It was a sign of this reunion today.’

While exchanging family news and accepting the gifts brought, she ordered a meal. Xifeng, it goes without saying, was busier than ever, for Li Wan and Baochai were naturally chatting with their relatives about all that had happened since they parted. Daiyu enjoyed the general excite­ment too until it came home to her that she alone had no family but was all on her own, and at this thought she shed tears. Baoyu, well aware how she felt, finally succeeded in consoling her, after which he hurried back to Happy Red Court.

‘Go and have a look, quick!’ he urged Xiren, Sheyue and Qingwen. ‘Baochai’s boy cousin looks and behaves quite differently from Xue Pan, more as if he were her real brother. And there’s something even more amazing. You always insist that nobody can rival Baochai’s looks but you should just see her girl cousin and my elder sister-in-law’s two cousins ‘ words fail me to describe them! Old Man Heaven, what fine essences and subtle spirits you must have used to produce such exquisite creatures! Why, I’ve been like the frog at the bottom of a well, imagining that our girls here were unmatched; but now, without searching far afield, here on this very spot I see others who surpass them. We certainly live and learn. Does this mean there are still others like these?’

He had been laughing and exclaiming so wildly that Xiren refused to go. Qingwen and the others had done as he said, however, and now they ran back smiling.

‘You must go and have a look,’ they urged Xiren. ‘Lady Xing’s niece, Miss Baochai’s cousin and Madam Zhu’s two cousins are as pretty as four fresh young shallots, they really are!’

While they were speaking, Tanchun came to find Baoyu. ‘This is a fine thing for our poetry club,’ she told him.

‘That’s right,’ he agreed. ‘You had the bright idea of starting the club, so now all these people turn up as if by magic. We don’t know, though, whether they can write poems or not.’

‘I asked them just now,’ said Tanchun. ‘Though they disclaimed modestly, they all seem as if they can. Even if they can’t, they can learn

‘ look at Xiangling.’

‘Miss Xue’s cousin sounds the best of them all,’ put in Xiren. ‘Is that your impression, miss?’

‘Yes,’ said Tanchun. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised if she surpasses even Baochai and all the rest of us here.’

‘It will be strange if she does. I shouldn’t have thought it possible to find anyone better than her!’ exclaimed Xiren, much impressed. ‘I must go and have a look.’

‘The old lady lost her heart to her as soon as she set eyes on her,’ Tanchun continued. ‘She’s already told Lady Wang to adopt her as her daughter, and means to bring her up as her own grandchild. It’s just been decided.’

‘Is that true?’ demanded Baoyu joyfully.

‘Since when have I lied to you?’ retorted Tanchun. ‘Now that the old lady has this good grand-daughter she’ll forget you, her grandson.’

‘I don’t mind. It’s only right to love girls more. Tomorrow’s the sixteenth our club ought to hold another meeting.’

‘Daiyu’s just out of bed and Yingchun’s ill again. There’s always someone missing.’

‘Yingchun doesn’t write much, so we can manage without her.’

‘Wouldn’t it be better, though, to wait a few days till the newcomers have settled down and then invite them? Our elder sister-in-law and Baochai naturally won’t be in a poetizing mood just now either. Besides, Xiangyun’s not here and Daiyu’s only just recovered. It wouldn’t suit anyone. Let’s wait till Xiangyun comes. By then the new arrivals will know us, Daiyu will be completely well, Li Wan and Baochai will have less on their minds, and Xiangling will have made further progress; then we can have a better meeting. Come on now, let’s go and see what’s happening in the old lady’s place. We don’t have to worry about Baochai’s cousin it’s settled that she’s to stay here. If the other three aren’t, we can beg the old lady to invite them to stay in the Garden too. The more the merrier.

Baoyu’s face lit up. ‘That’s a splendid idea,’ he cried. ‘I’m such a fool, I was so carried away by their arrival, I never thought of that.’

The two of them went together then to the Lady Dowager’s quar­ters. Sure enough, the old lady was so delighted with Baoqin that she had made Lady Wang adopt her as her goddaughter. And overjoyed by this, she would not even hear of Baoqin staying in the Garden the girl was to sleep with her. Xue Ke was to be put up in Xue Pan’s study.

The Lady Dowager then told Lady Xing, ‘Your niece needn’t go home for a few days either. Let her enjoy herself in the Garden first.’

As Lady Xing’s elder brother was poorly off, he and his wife had counted on her providing them with accommodation and financial assis­tance during this visit to the capital; so Xiuyan was entrusted to Xifeng. Now there were many girls, temperamentally different, in the Garden; and as Xifeng considered it unnecessary to open up another house for Xiuyan, she decided the best thing would be to put her up with Yingchun; for then if later Lady Xing heard that her niece was dissatisfied, no blame would attach to Xifeng. And not counting the time she chose to spend at home, each month that she stayed in Grand View Garden Xifeng would allocate her the same monthly allowance as Yingchun. Dispassionately appraising Xiuyan’s character and behaviour, she found her unlike both Lady Xing and her parents, being extremely gentle and lovable. So Xifeng gave her preferential treatment out of pity for her poverty and hard life, whereas Lady Xing paid little attention to her.

Because the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang appreciated Li Wan’s good qualities and her admirable conduct since her husband’s untimely death, they would not hear of her widowed aunt staying anywhere but in their house. So although most reluctant to impose on them, on the old lady’s insistence Li Wan’s aunt had to move into Paddy-Sweet Cottage with her two daughters.

Barely had the newcomers settled in than Shi Nai, Marquis of Baoling, was transferred to a provincial governorship. In a few days he would be taking his family to his new post. Not wanting to part with Xiangyun, the Lady Dowager kept her and had her fetched to their house, directing Xifeng go to give her a separate establishment. This Xiangyun resolutely declined, however, and at her insistence they let her move in with Baochai instead.

Things were livelier in Grand View Garden now that thirteen people, counting in Xifeng, lived there. In addition to Li Wan who had senior status there were Yingchun, Tanchun, Xichun, Baochai, Daiyu, Xiangyun, Li Wen, Li Qi, Baoqin and Xiuyan, as well as Xifeng and Baoyu. Apart from the two married women, the other eleven were all about the same age ‘ fifteen, sixteen or seventeen. Some of them had been born in the same month, on the same day or at the same hour, with the result that they themselves often confused their ages. Thus the terms ‘elder sis­ter,’ ‘younger sister,’ ‘younger brother’ and ‘elder brother’ were bandied about at random.

Xiangling’s whole heart was nowadays set on writing poetry, but she did not like to trouble Baochai too much. For her, talkative Xiangyun’s arrival was a stroke of luck, as the latter was only too glad to be con­sulted on poetry and would cheerfully hold forth on the subject at all hours of the day and night.

‘You’re deafening me with this noise,’ protested Baochai jokingly. ‘Real scholars would laugh to hear a girl discussing poetry so seriously. They’d say you’d forgotten your place. One Xiangling is more than enough without a chatterbox like you joining in and spouting about ‘Du Fu’s profundity, Wei Yingwu’s quiet distinction, Wen Tingyun’s brilliance and Li Shangyin’s recondite obscurity.’ All these are dead poets; why harp on them without any mention of our two living poets?’

‘Which two living poets? Do tell me, dear sister,’ begged Xiangyun.

‘The hard-working eccentric Xiangling and the garrulous lunatic Xiangyun,’ answered Baochai.

Xiangling and Xiangyun were laughing uproariously when Baoqin ar­rived. She was wearing a glittering green and gold cape made of some fabric they did not recognize.

‘Where did this come from?’ asked Baochai.

‘The old lady got it out for me because it was beginning to hail,’ replied her cousin.

Xiangling examining it more closely remarked, ‘No wonder it’s so pretty; it’s made of peacock feathers.’

‘Not peacock feathers,’ Xiangyun corrected her. ‘The feathers from wild ducks’ heads. That shows how fond of you the old lady is. Fond as she is of Baoyu, she never gave him this to wear.’

‘As the proverb says, ‘The fortune of each is predestined,’’ put in Baochai. ‘I never thought she’d come here at this time or that, having come, the old lady would take such a fancy to her.’

Xiangyun told Baoqin, ‘There are two places here where you can enjoy yourself just as you please: the old lady’s apartments or here in the Garden. When you call on Lady Wang, if she’s at home it’s all right to stay and chat with her for a while; but if she’s out, don’t go in. They’re a nasty lot there who’d all like to do us in.’

Baochai, Baoqin, Xiangling and Yinger all laughed.

Baochai said, ‘That’s good sense from a flibbertigibbet like you, but you still talk too bluntly. Our Baoqin is rather like you. You’re always saying you wish I were your sister; but now I think you’d better take my cousin as your younger sister.’

With another glance at Baoqin, Xiangyun said, ‘She’s the only one here fit to wear this cape. It’s too good for the rest of us.’

As they were chatting Hupo came in with the message, ‘The old lady doesn’t want Miss Baochai to be too strict with Miss Baoqin, because she’s still very young. Just let her do as she pleases and ask for whatever she wants, and don’t interfere.’

Baochai rose to give her assent, after which she nudged Baoqin and said mischievously, ‘I wonder where such good luck as yours comes from. Better leave us now before we start bullying you. I don’t see in what way I’m worse than you.

As she was teasing, Baoyu and Daiyu arrived.

‘You’re only joking, cousin,’ said Xiangyun, ‘but some people are really jealous.’

‘If anyone is, it must be him,’ said Hupo laughingly, pointing at Baoyu.

‘Oh, no, not him,’ Baochai and Xiangyun retorted in unison.

‘If not him, then her.’ Giggling, Hupo pointed at Daiyu.

Xiangyun kept silent but Baochai cried, ‘You’re even wider of the mark this time. She treats my cousin like her own sister; in fact she’s even fonder of her than I am. So how could she be jealous? Don’t be­lieve that nonsense Xiangyun talks. You can never take anything she says seriously.’

Baoyu knew very well how narrow-minded Daiyu could be, and hav­ing as yet no idea of what had recently passed between her and Baochai he was really afraid she might resent the Lady Dowager’s partiality for Baoqin. Her reactions to Xiangyun’s remark and Baochai’s answer were not what they would once have been but tallied with what Baochai had said, and this puzzled him. He thought, ‘The relationship between these two has changed, they now seem ten times better friends than the oth­ers.’ And then he heard Daiyu address Baoqin as ‘younger sister’ without mentioning her name, as if they were real sisters.

Baoqin was young and warm-hearted, intelligent too, and well-edu­cated from an early age. After a couple of days there she had formed a general impression of the ha family. And since the girls gave themselves no airs but were all good to her cousin, she tried likewise to make herself agreeable to them. Noticing too that Daiyu stood out from the rest, she treated her even more affectionately. Baoyu observed all this with secret surprise.

Presently Baochai and her cousin rejoined Aunt Xue, Xiangyun went

to the Lady Dowager’s apartments, and Daiyu returned to her own rooms to rest.

Baoyu followed her there and said with a smile, ‘Although I’ve read The Western Chamber and annoyed you by quoting some lines from it in fun, a line has occurred to me which I can’t understand. I’ll recite it now and see if you can explain it.’

Sensing something behind this she said archly, ‘Go on.’

‘In that scene ‘Trouble Over the Billet-doux’ there’ s an excellent line:

Since when did Liang Hong and Meng Guang become so intimate?

Isn’t that superb! The reference to Liang Hong and Meng Guang is just an ordinary classical allusion, but turned into a question it’s rather neat. So, since when? Can you explain?’

Unable to suppress a laugh she replied, ‘That’s a good question. Well asked in the play, and well asked by you too.’

‘You wouldn’t take my word for it before. Now you two are getting on fine, but I’m left out in the cold.’

‘I never knew how truly good she was, but used to think she had ulterior motives.’

Daiyu proceeded to give him a full account of all Baochai had said to her when she pulled her up for her gaffe in the drinking game, and her gift of bird’s-nest during her illness.

This explained matters to Baoyu. ‘I was wondering since when Liang Hong and Meng Guang started to hit it off so well,’ he said. ‘So it all came of her ‘being young and talking too freely.’’

Then Daiyu spoke of Baoqin, and wept because she had no sister of her own.

‘There you go again, upsetting yourself for no reason,’ scolded Baoyu. ‘Just see, you’re thinner this year than last, yet you won’t look after yourself. Every day you work yourself up for no reason at all, and aren’t satisfied until you’ve had a good cry.’

Wiping her tears she answered, ‘I’ve been feeling sick at heart, but I don’t seem to cry as much as before. Though my heart aches, I haven’t many tears to shed.’

‘You just imagine that because you’re so used to crying,’ he ob­jected. ‘How can anyone’s tears dry up?’

At this point one of his maids brought him a scarlet woolen cape and the message, ‘Madam Zhu just sent to say that, as it’s started to snow, she wants to consult you about calling a meeting of the poetry club to­morrow.’

While she was still speaking a maid arrived from Li Wan with an invitation for Daiyu, and Baoyu urged her to go with him to Paddy-Sweet Cottage. Having put on red boots lined with lambskin and with a gold-thread cloud-design applique, a crimson silk cape lined with white fox-fur, a green and gold plaited belt with double rings, and a snow-hat, she walked with him through the snow to Li Wan’s apartments. There they found the other girls assembled, most of them in red capes of wool or satin. Li Wan, however, had on a gown of blue velvet buttoned down the middle, Baochai a pale purple woollen cape embroidered with flower designs, and Xiuyan her ordinary indoor clothes without any outer gar­ments to keep off the snow.

Presently Xiangyun arrived wearing an ermine coat lined with grey squirrel given her by the Lady Dowager, a scarlet woollen hood with a gosling-yellow applique of cloud designs and a golden lining, and a big sable collar.

‘Look, here comes the Monkey King!’ exclaimed Daiyu laughing. ‘She’s got a cape too, yet she’s dressed herself up like a saucy little Tartar.’

‘You should see what I’m wearing underneath,’ chuckled Xiangyun.

Taking off the coat she revealed a narrow-sleeved, none too new greenish yellow satin tunic lined with white squirrel, with fur-lined cuffs and collar, which was embroidered with dragons in gold thread and coloured silks. Her pink satin breeches were lined with fox fur. A long-tasselled coloured butterfly belt was fastened tightly round her waist. Her boots were of green leather. With her slender build she looked thoroughly neat and dashing.

‘She loves dressing up like a boy,’ they teased. ‘And that costume suits her better than a girl’s.’

‘Hurry up and discuss the poetry meeting,’ urged Xiangyun. ‘I want to know who’s to be host.’

‘It was my idea,’ said Li Wan. ‘We should have met yesterday, and the next date isn’t due for quite some time; so I thought, as it happens to have snowed, why shouldn’t we get together for a meeting to welcome the newcomers and to write some poems? What do the rest of you think?’

‘That’s a good idea,’ responded Baoyu promptly. ‘But it’s too late today, and tomorrow if the weather clears it won’t be such fun.’

‘The snow may not stop,’ said the others, ‘Even if it does, this evening’s fall is big enough to enjoy.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with this place, but Reed Snow Cottage would be even better,’ remarked Li Wan. ‘I’ve already sent people there to heat the flues under the floor, and we can sit round the fire and write poems. I don’t suppose the old lady will be in the mood to join us. And as we’re just going there for a romp, we need only let Xifeng know. Each of you can send one tael of silver here, and that ought to be enough.’ mdi­cating Xiangling, Baoqin, Li Wen, Li Qi and Xiuyan, she continued, ‘We’ll leave these five newcomers out, as well as Yingchun who’s poorly and Xichun who’s asked for leave. If you four send your share. I guarantee that five or six taels will be ample.’

Baochai and the others readily agreed, then asked what the subject and the rhyme would be.

‘I’ve already decided, but all in good time,’ replied Li Wan with a smile. ‘You’ll hear what I’ve chosen tomorrow.’

After chatting a little longer they went to see the Lady Dowager. And nothing more of consequence happened that day.

Too excited to sleep soundly, Baoyu got up the next day as soon as it was light to draw the curtains. Although the blinds were down, it was so bright outside that he concluded regretfully that the weather must have cleared and the sun had come out. When he raised the blinds, however, to look through the glass window, he discovered that this brightness was not sunlight. It had been snowing hard all night so that the snow lay over a foot deep, and it was still falling in great flakes like cotton-wool.

In high delight he called for someone to help him with his toilet. Wear­ing just his purple velvet gown lined with fox-fur and an otter waistcoat and belt, with a fine coir cape over his shoulders, a rattan hat on his head and pattens on his feet, he set off without delay for Reed Snow Cottage.

Once outside his own gate he gazed round. All was white except for some green pines and emerald bamboos in the distance, so that he had the sensation of being in a crystal bowl. As he rounded the foot of the slope he smelt a cold fragrance and, looking over his shoulder, saw a dozen or so crimson plum trees in Green Lattice Nunnery where Miaoyu lived, their blossom, red as rouge, reflected in the snow and remarkably vivid against it. He stopped there awhile to enjoy the sight. As he was about to continue on his way, on Wasp-Waist Bridge he saw a messenger with an umbrella sent by Li Wan to invite Xifeng over.

Outside Reed Snow Cottage, maids were sweeping the snow from the path. This cottage was built on the bank of a stream by a hill. Its adobe rooms with their thatched roofs and bamboo windows were sur­rounded by a wattle-fence, and it was possible to fish through the win­dows. All around grew clumps of reeds, through which a path mean­dered to the bamboo bridge of Lotus Fragrance Anchorage.

When the maids saw Baoyu approaching in his rattan hat and coir cape, they burst out laughing.

‘We were just saying we needed a fisherman, and here you are to fill the bill,’ they cried. ‘The young ladies won’t be coming till after break­fast. You’re too impatient.’

Baoyu had to go back then, and he had just reached Seeping Fra­grance Pavilion when he saw Tanchun in a hooded scarlet woollen cape emerging from Autumn Freshness Studio leaning on the arm of a maid, followed by a serving-woman with a black silk umbrella. Guessing that she was on her way to see their grandmother, he waited for her by the pavilion and they left the Garden together.

In the Lady Dowager’s inner room, Baoqin was doing her hair and changing her clothes. Soon all the girls arrived and Baoyu set up a clamour, urging them to hurry breakfast because he was hungry. When finally the tables were laid, however, the first dish was a lamb embryo steamed in milk.

‘This is a tonic for us old people,’ said the Lady Dowager. ‘It’s a creature that’s never seen the sky and the sun, so I’m afraid you children mustn’t eat it. There’s some fresh venison which you can have presently.’

They all agreed to this except Baoyu, who was too impatient to wait. He steeped a bowl of rice in hot tea, added some diced pheasant and hastily swallowed this down.

‘I know you’re busy again today and can’t be bothered to eat,’ said his grandmother. ‘Keep the venison for him for this evening,’ she told the maids.

Only when Xifeng assured her that there was plenty, did she say no more about saving it for him.

Xiangyun whispered to Baoyu, ‘If there’s fresh venison, let’s ask for some to cook ourselves in the Garden. That would be fun.’

Baoyu promptly passed on this request to Xifeng, who ordered a serv­ing-woman to take some venison to the Garden.

Presently they left the Lady Dowager and trooped back to the Gar­den and to Reed Snow Cottage to hear what subject and rhyme Li Wan had chosen. But at this point Xiangyun and Baoyu disappeared.

‘It’s no good when those two get together,’ remarked Daiyu. ‘When­ever that happens, there’s trouble. They must have slipped off because they have designs on that venison.’

Li Wan’s aunt came in now to watch the fun. She told her niece, ‘That boy with the jade and the girl with the golden unicorn are fine handsome young people who must have plenty to eat, but there they are planning to eat raw meat ‘ and talking as if they meant it. I can’t believe it!’

The young people laughed and exclaimed, ‘What an idea! Somebody fetch them, quick!’

‘This is all Xiangyun’s doing,’ said Daiyu. ‘What did I tell you?’

Li Wan hurried out to find the two of them. ‘If you want to eat raw meat, I’ll take you to the old lady’s place,’ she said. ‘I shan’t care then if you eat a whole deer and fall ill ‘ it won’t be my responsibility. Look how it’s snowing and how cold it is. Don’t go making trouble for me.’

‘We’re not eating it raw,’ countered Baoyu. ‘We’re going to grill it.’

‘That’s all right then,’ said Li Wan, eyeing the barbecue and spits which some old servants had brought. ‘Be careful now, and don’t cry if you cut your fingers!’ With that warning she went in again with Tanchun.

Now Pinger arrived, sent by Xifeng to explain that she was unable to come as she was busy distributing the New Year allowances. Xiangyun insisted that Pinger must stay with them, and the maid was only too will­ing, for she was naturally playful and always up to endless pranks with her mistress. Seeing the fun they were having, she took off her bracelets to join Baoyu and Xiangyun by the barbecue, and suggested grilling three pieces first to try. Baochai and Daiyu, being used to a barbecue, were not surprised by this; but to Baoqin and Li Wan’s aunt it seemed very strange.

By now, Li Wan and Tanchun had fixed the subject and rhyme.

Tanchun said to Li Wan, ‘Just smell that venison! If it smells so good even from here, I must try some too.’

She joined the party outside and Li Wan followed.

‘All your guests are here,’ she protested. ‘Won’t you stop eating?’

Xiangyun, still munching, replied, ‘It’s only after eating this that I feel like drinking, and I need wine to give me inspiration. Without this venison I couldn’t possibly write a poem today.’ Her eye fell on Baoqin in her wild duck cape, who was standing there smiling at them. ‘Come here, silly!’ she cried. ‘Come and try some.’

‘How dirty it looks,’ laughed Baoqin.

‘Go and taste some,’ urged Baochai. ‘It’s really delicious. Cousin Daiyu’s so delicate, it would give her indigestion. If it weren’t for that, she’d like some too.’

Baoqin went over then to try a morsel, and finding it good she helped herself to more.

Presently a young maid came from Xifeng to fetch Pinger.

‘Miss Xiangyun won’t let me go. You go back first,’ Pinger told her.

Not long after the maid had left, Xifeng came in person, a cape over her shoulders.

‘So you have such a treat without telling me!’ she scolded, joining the group around the barbecue.

‘Where did all these beggars come from?’ cried Daiyu. ‘Well, well! Reed Snow Cottage is out of luck today, all messed up by Xiangyun. My heart bleeds for it.’

‘A lot you know,’ retorted Xiangyun. ‘A real scholar can afford to be eccentric. You pretend to be so refined and pure, it’s disgusting! Stuffing ourselves now with this venison will inspire us presently to produce some fine lines.’

‘If you don’t make good that boast,’ threatened Paochai, ‘you’ll have to pay the penalty by bringing up that meat and swallowing some of those reeds under the snow!’

When they had finished eating, they washed their hands and rinsed their mouths.

Pinger, looking for her bracelets, found one missing. She searched everywhere but there was no trace of it, to everyone’s surprise.

‘I know where it’s gone,’ said Xifeng with a smile. ‘There’s no need to look for it now. Just get on with your poems. I guarantee you’ll get it back within three days.’ Then she asked, ‘What are you writing today? The old lady says it will soon be New Year, and we should make some lantern riddles to amuse ourselves in the first month.’

‘That’s right,’ they agreed. ‘We’d forgotten. We must hurry up and make up a few good ones to guess in the first month.’

They went into the room with the heated floor, where refreshments and drinks were ready. Pasted on the wall was the subject on which they 1405 were to write, and the rhyme and metre. Baochai and Xiangyun, going over to have a look, saw that they were to compose a collective poem on the scenery in five-character lines using rhymes from the xiao group of rhymes. The order in which to write was not stipulated.

Li Wan proposed, ‘As I’m a poor hand at versifying, let me just do the first three lines. Whoever’s quickest can go on from there.’

‘We should arrange some sort of order,’ protested Baochai.

If you want to know the upshot, read the next chapter.

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