A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 70

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Chapter 70

Daiyu Starts Another Poetry Club

Peach-Blossom Society

Xiangyun Dashes Off a Poem

on Willow Catkins

Jia Lian attended the funeral ceremonies at Pear Fragrance Court for seven days and seven nights, during which monks and priests chanted sutras. Then the Lady Dowager summoned him and forbade him to send the coffin to the family temple, so all he could do was choose a spot near Third Sister’s grave and arrange with of the temple to have Second Sister buried there. Only members of the clan, Wang Xin and his wife, Madam You and her daughter-in-law were present at the interment. Xifeng did not lift a finger to help, leaving Jia Lian to manage everything himself.

New Year was now approaching and, on top of the host of things that had to be seen to, Lin Zhixiao brought a list of eight men-servants who had reached the age of twenty-five and not yet married, to ask whether there were any maids due to leave who would make them suitable wives. Xifeng having read the list went to consult the old lady and Lady Wang, but although there were several maids in that category they found objec­tions in the case of each. First, Yuanyang since vowing never to leave their service had neither spoken to Baoyu nor put on fine clothes or make up; and in view of her determination, they could hardly force her to marry. Then Hupo was disqualified by illness. And Caiyun, since breaking with ha Huan recently, had also contracted some unknown disease. Apart from them, only the older maid-servants doing rough work for Xifeng and Li Wan were due to leave. The others were too young. So the men had to look for wives outside.

While Xifeng was unwell, Li Wan and Tanchun had been too occu­pied with domestic affairs to have time for anything else; and what with celebrating New Year and the Lantern Festival and miscellaneous busi­ness, the poetry club had been forgotten. Now, although there was a lull and it was midspring, a whole series of misfortunes ‘ Baoyu’s loss of his friend Liu Xianglian, the suicides of Third Sister and Second Sister, and Liu Wuer’s illness brought on by mortification ‘ had reduced Baoyu to such a state of dejection that he appeared dazed and often raved like a madman. Xiren and his other maids were alarmed but not daring to report this to the old lady they just did their best in every way to divert him.

One morning, as soon as he woke he heard giggling and muffled cries from the outer room.

‘Go and rescue her, quick!’ said Xiren with a smile. ‘Qingwen and Sheyue have pinned Venturina down and are ticking her.’

Baoyu draped his squirrel-fur jacket over his shoulders and went out to have a look. The three girls had not folded their quilts or put on their outer clothes. Qingwen in a leek-green silk bodice, red silk pants and red slippers, her hair tousled, was sitting astride Fangguan who was being tickled in the ribs by Sheyue in a red silk chemise, an old jacket over her shoulders. Fangguan lying on her back in a flowered bodice, red pants and green socks was thrashing her legs wildly, quite out of breath from laughing.

‘Two big girls bullying one small one!’ chuckled Baoyu. ‘I’ve come to the rescue.

He climbed on to the kang to tickle Qingwen in the ribs. Being tick­lish, she at once let go of Fangguan to grab him; and Fangguan seized this chance to pull her down and tickle her under the armpits.

‘Mind you don’t catch cold!’ warned Xiren, amused to see the four of them scuffling together.

Just then Li Wan’s maid Biyue came in.

‘Last night my mistress left a handkerchief somewhere,’ she an­nounced. ‘Is it here?’

Xiaoyan answered, ‘Yes, it is. I picked it up from the floor and didn’t know whose it was. I’ve just washed it and hung it out. It’s not quite dry yet.’

Biyue smiled at sight of the scrimmage on the kang.

‘You’re lively here,’ she remarked, ‘starting your horseplay so early in the morning.’

‘Don’t you play about in your place too?’ asked Baoyu. ‘There are plenty of you there.’

‘Our mistress is so serious that her two cousins and Miss Baoqin hold themselves in check as well. And now that Miss Baoqin’s moved in with the old lady we’re even quieter. By winter next year, when her cousins will have gone, it will be still quieter. Didn’t you notice how lonely Miss Baochai’s place seemed after Xiangling went home, leaving Miss Xiangyun all on her own?’

Even as she was speaking, in came Cuilu sent by Xiangyun to invite Baoyu over to read a fine poem. Asked where this good poem was, she said:

‘The young ladies are all at Seeping Fragrance Pavilion. Go and see for yourself, young master.’

Baoyu hastily washed, dressed and left. Sure enough he found Daiyu, Baochai, Xiangyun, Baoqin and Tanchun all there reading a poem.

‘Why are you so late up?’ they demanded. ‘For a year our poetry club’s been broken up and no one’s called it together again. Now it’s early spring, a fresh start for all living things and high time to bestir our­selves to get it going again.’

‘We started the club in autumn,’ added Xiangyun. ‘That’s why it didn’t prosper. If we start it again now in spring when everything bur­geons, it’s bound to come to life. And this poem on peach-blossom is so good, why not change our Begonia Club into Peach-Blossom Club?’

Baoyu nodded approvingly and asked to read the poem.

But the others proposed, ‘Let’s go and find the Old Peasant of Sweet Paddy, to talk it over together and get things going.’

With that they all got up and set off for Paddy-Sweet Cottage, Baoyu reading the poem on the way. It was as follows:

PEACH-BLOSSOM

Outside the blind, peach-blossom, a soft spring breeze;

Within, a girl is languidly dressing her hair.

Outside, the peach-blossom; within the girl ‘Not far apart the blossom and maid so fair.

Obligingly, the breeze blows back the blind

And holds it to afford a glimpse of her bower;

Outside, the peach is blooming as of old,

Frailer the girl within than any flower.

The flowers, knowing pity, grieve for her;

Their sighs gentle breezes express;

Breeze wafts through bamboo slats, blooms fill the court,

But this spring scene redoubles her distress.

The gate of the quiet, mossy courtyard is closed,

At sunset she leans alone on the balustrade;

Then, shedding tears in the soothing breeze,

Neath blossoming boughs slips the red-skirted maid.

Luxuriant the foliage and blooms

With petals a fresh red, leaves emerald green;

These myriad trees enwrapped in mist

Cast a rosy glow, as if of warmth, on her screen.

Duck-and-drake brocade from heaven’s loom is burned,

While on coral pillow she wakes in balmy spring;

But chill to the touch of rouged cheeks,

Sweet spring water in golden basins her maids bring.

To what can the vividness of rouge be likened?

The colour of flowers? A girl’s tears dropping slow?

If tears are likened to blossom,

Long as the blooms retain their charm they flow.

As she gazes at the blossom her tears run dry ‘Her tears run dry, spring ends, blooms fade away;

The fading blossoms hide the fading maid;

Blossoms drift down, she tires, dusk follows day.

A cuckoo-call and spring is left behind,

Only faint moonlight falls on the lonely blind.

Baoyu instead of praising this poem shed tears, for he knew it must be by Daiyu. But not wanting the girls to see how moved he was, he hastily wiped his eyes.

‘Where did you get this?’ he asked.

‘Guess who wrote it,’ challenged Baoqin.

‘The Queen of the Bamboos, of course.’

‘No, she didn’t,’ giggled Baoqin. ‘I did.’

‘I don’t believe it. The style and spirit are definitely not yours. ‘That just shows how little you know,’ put in Baochai. ‘Were all Tu Du’s lines like ‘clustered chrysanthemums have flowered twice in tears for other days’? He has other exquisite lines like ‘Plums steeped in rain will wax crimson in days to come’ and ‘The waterweed in the breeze trails long emerald belts.’’

‘Even so,’ Baoyu retorted, ‘I know you’d never let your cousin write such sad lines. And even if she had the talent, she wouldn’t want to. Cousin Daiyu is different. She’s known such grief that she writes mournful lines.’

All laughing, they now reached Paddy-Sweet Cottage where they showed Daiyu’s poem to Li Wan, who was of course loud in her praise. Then they discussed the poetry club and decided to start it the following day, the second of the third month, and to change its name from Begonia Club to Peach-Blossom Society, electing Daiyu as its president.

The next day after breakfast they all gathered in Bamboo Lodge. When the question arose of a subject for the first poem, Daiyu suggested that each of them should write a hundred rhyming couplets on peach-blossom.

‘That won’t do,’ objected Baochai. ‘There have been so many po­ems since ancient times on peach-blossom, if we did that we’d be bound to produce something stereotyped, not to be compared with your poem. We must think of a different subject.’

Just then the arrival of Lady Wang’s sister-in-law was announced and they all had to go to the mansion to pay their respects. They chatted with Wang Ziteng’s wife, and after lunch showed her round the Garden. Not till after dinner when the lamps were lit did she take her leave.

The day after that was Tanchun’s birthday. Yuanchun sent two young eunuchs to present her with a few curios, and she received gifts which need not be enumerated from the rest of the family. After breakfast she changed into ceremonial costume and went to the different apartments to pay her respects.

Daiyu observed laughingly, ‘I picked the wrong day again to start this club, forgetting that we’d be celebrating her birthday for the next two days. Though there won’t be feasts and operas, we’ll all have to go with her to spend the day amusing Their Ladyships, and that won’t leave us any spare time.’ So the date was changed to the fifth.

That day, however, while the girls were waiting upon the old lady and Lady Wang at breakfast, a letter arrived from Jia Zheng. After paying his respects Baoyu asked his grandmother’s permission to open it and read it to her. Apart from the usual greetings, the letter said that Jia Zheng would definitely be back by the middle of the sixth month. Another letter on family affairs was opened and read by Jia Lian and Lady Wang.

The news of ha Zheng’s impending return by the sixth or seventh month threw them all into a flurry of excitement. On this same day, too, they heard that Wang Ziteng had arranged to marry his daughter to the son of Marquis Baoning on the tenth of the fifth month. Xifeng hastened to offer her services, and this took her away from home for days at a time. Then Wang Ziteng’s wife came to invite Xifeng and the young people for a day’s pleasure, and the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang told Baoyu, Tanchun, Daiyu and Baochai to accompany Xifeng. Not daring to refuse, they had to go back to dress in formal costumes and then went out for the whole day, not returning till the evening.

Baoyu, back in Happy Red Court, took a short rest. And Xiren seized this chance to advise him to avoid distractions in future and spend his spare time revising the classics, ready for his father’s return.

Baoyu reckoned on his fingers. ‘There’s still plenty of time,’ he ex­postulated.

‘Reading’s one thing, and there’s writing too,’ she replied. ‘You may have read what’s required, but how about your calligraphy exer­cises?’

‘I’ve done quite a few. Haven’t they been kept?’

‘Of course. When you were out yesterday I got them out and counted them there are only fifty to sixty sheets. Surely you should have written more than that in the last three or four years? I suggest that, starting tomorrow, you’d better put aside all other business and concen­trate on writing a few sheets every day to make up. Then even if you haven’t a sheet to show for each day, you’ll have done enough to pass muster.’

Baoyu at once counted the sheets himself and found he had really procrastinated too long.

‘From tomorrow on I’ll write a hundred characters a day,’ he prom­ised, after which they turned in for the night.

The next day as soon as he was dressed, he sat down by the window to grind ink and practise writing in real earnest, instead of going straight to his grandmother. Thinking he must be unwell she sent maids to make inquiries, whereupon he went over to pay his respects and explain that he was late because he had been practising calligraphy since first thing that morning.

The old lady was very gratified to hear this.

‘As long as you’re writing or studying, you needn’t come here,’ she said. ‘You tell your mother that.’

Baoyu did so.

‘It’s no use sharpening your spear just before a battle,’ warned Lady Wang. ‘If you’d done some reading and writing every day, you’d have finished all that’s expected and wouldn’t feel so frantic. if you go at it too hard now you may fall ill again’

‘No, I’ll be all right,’ he assured her.

The old lady also expressed the fear that he might overwork and ruin his health.

‘Don’t you worry, madam,’ said Baochai and Tanchun. ‘His read­ing we can’t do for him, but writing we can. We’ll each copy out one sheet for him every day to get him out of this fix; then His Lordship won’t be angry when he comes home, and Baoyu won’t fret himself ill.’

The old lady was delighted with this idea.

When Daiyu heard that Jia Zheng was coming home, she knew he would certainly check on his son’s studies and was afraid Baoyu would get into trouble. So she pretended to have lost interest in re-starting the poetry society, in order not to distract him. Tanchun and Baochai each day neatly copied out a sheet of characters in the orthographic script for Baoyu, while he himself put on a spurt and wrote two or three hundred characters a day. In this way, by the end of the third month, he had amassed quite a number of exercises. He reckoned that with another fifty sheets he could get by.

Then to his surprise Zijuan came to give him a rolled-up package. When he opened it he found a number of sheets of old bamboo paper filled with small characters modelled on those of Zhong You and Wang Xizhi, exactly as he would have written them himself. Baoyu joyfully bowed his thanks to Zijuan, and went over in person to thank Daiyu. Xiangyun and Baoqin also copied out some sheets for him. So altogether, althought less than was strictly required, he had about enough. And once this was off his mind, Baoyu started reading the classics he had been set.

But it so happened that at this time some coastal regions were devas­tated by tidal waves and the local officials reported this to the court, whereupon the Emperor decreed that Jia Zheng on his way back should inspect these areas and supervise relief work. This meant that he would not be home till the end of winter. When Baoyu heard this, he put aside his books and calligraphy exercises and started amusing himself again as before.

It was then the end of spring. Xiangyun, feeling listless one day, watched the swaying willow catkins and then dashed off the following short poem to the melody Rumengling:

Boughs with silk floss entwined

Or sweet mist glimpsed through a half rolled-up blind?

As slender fingers with the catkins play,

Cuckoo and swallow cry out in dismay:

Stop, pray! Do stay!

Don’t let spring steal away.

Feeling rather pleased with this verse she wrote it down and showed it to Baochai, then went to find Daiyu.

Daiyu read it and pronounced, ‘Good. It’s fresh and original. I can’t write in this way myself.’

‘Our poetry club has never tried writing irregular metres,’ said Xiangyun. ‘Why don’t you call a meeting tomorrow to do that? Wouldn’t that make a change?’

Intrigued by this suggestion Daiyu cried, ‘Of course! That’s a won­derful idea. I’ll send out invitations right away.

She gave orders for refreshments to be prepared, then sent her maids out to invite the others while she and Xiangyun fixed on willow catkins as the subject and on the different melodies to be used. They fastened a notice to this effect on the wall.

When the others arrived they read first this notice and then Xiangyun’s poem, which they praised.

Baoyu said: ‘I’m no good at irregular metres. Still, I shall have to write some sort of nonsense.’

They drew lots for the different metres and Baochai got Linjiangxian; Baoqin, Xijiangyue; Tanchun, Nankezi; Daiyu, Tan tuoling; and Baoyu, Dielianhua. Zijuan lighted a stick of Sweet-Dream Incense then and they started. Very soon Daiyu had finished and written her verse out. Then Baoqin and Baochai completed theirs. They looked at each other’s poem.

Baochai said with a smile, ‘Let me see yours first, and then you can see mine.’

‘How come the incense is burning so fast today?’ exclaimed Tanchun. ‘There’s only one third left, yet I’ve just made up half.’ She asked Baoyu, ‘How about you?’

Baoyu did not think what he had written was any good, so he crossed it out meaning to start again, then looking round saw that the incense was nearly burnt up. The others laughed.

‘Baoyu’s lost again,’ said Li Wan. ‘You’d better write out the half you’ve done, Tanchun.’

Tanchun did so. Her lines to the melody Nankezi were only half com­pleted:

In vain the willow trails long slender branches,

Hanging strands of silk are they;

They cannot curb the catkins

And north, south, east and west these drift away.

Li Wan said, ‘That sounds easy. Why not finish it?’

Seeing that the incense was already burnt out, Baoyu preferred to admit defeat rather than writing something inferior. He put down his brush to read Tanchun’s unfinished poem, and this gave him the idea for the following conclusion which he wrote:

Do not mourn their falling;

Where they fly, only I have any idea;

Orioles grieve, butterflies flag as flowers fade,

But next spring, another year past, they will reappear.

The others teased, ‘You didn’t do your own assignment, so even if you’ve finished this off well it doesn’t count.’

Then they read Daiyu’s poem to the melody Tangduoling:

Pink petals fall in Hundred Flowers Islet.

By Swallow Tower their fragrance slowly fades;

Catkins following in clusters

float off like ill-fated maids;

Vain their close attachment and beauty.

The willow too knows what it is to yearn;

In early prime her head turns white,

She laments her life but has no one to whom to turn.

The spring breeze to whom she is wedded no pity will show,

Leaving it to chance whether to stay or go.

As they read this they nodded and exclaimed, ‘Too sad! But of course it’s good.’

Next they read Baoqin’s verse to the melody Xijiangyue:

Few and far between in the Han garden,

They make the whole Sui Dyke gleam!

Their spring splendour gone with the wind,

Moonlight and plum-blossom nothing but a dream.

Here and there in the courtyard crimson petals fall ‘Beside whose curtain snow down these fragrant flakes?

North and south of the Great River it is the same,

The heart of every parted lover aches.

The others commented with a smile, ‘This is really in a tragic vein. The fifth and sixth lines are the best.’

‘Still it’s too mournful,’ objected Baochai. ‘Willow catkins may be light and fickle, yet it seems to me, to be original, we should praise what’s good about them. That’s what I’ve done, but you may not approve.

‘Don’t be so modest,’ said the rest. ‘Yours is bound to be good, so let’s hear it.’ Then they read her verse to the melody Linjiangxian:

Dancing at ease in spring before white jade halls,

Swirling gracefully in the spring breeze

‘That’s the best line yet!’ cried Xiangyun. ‘Swirling gracefully in the spring breeze.’

While whirling all around me

Are butterflies and bees.

I have never followed the flowing stream,

Why then should I abandon myself to the dust?

Constant to ten thousand boughs,

Whether together or parted I keep trust.

Do not jeer at me as rootless,

But lend me strength, good wind,

To soar up to the azure sky at last.

The others clapped the table and exclaimed with admiration. ‘There’s real strength in this,’ they said. ‘It’s the best of the lot. Less tender and poignant, though, than the Queen of Bamboo’s poem; and Pillowed Iridescence’s has charm and feeling. Today Little Xue and the Stranger Under the Plantain have fallen behind. They’ll have to be penalized.’

‘We’ll accept any penalty,’ cried Baoqin gaily. ‘But how will you punish the one who handed in a blank paper?’

‘Just wait,’ said Li Wan. ‘We’ll deal with him strictly, you can be sure of that, to make an example of him.’

As she was speaking something crashed against the bamboo outside — it sounded as if a window had fallen out. They all jumped with fright and maids ran out to investigate.

One of the girls outside called, ‘A big butterfly kite’s got entangled in the bamboo.

‘What a fine kite,’ remarked the other maids. ‘Whose can it be? Its string has snapped. Let’s get it down.’

Hearing this Baoyu and the others went out to look.

‘I know this kite,’ said Baoyu. ‘It belongs to Yanhong in the other house. Fetch it down and send it back to her.’

‘Is there only one kite like this in the world?’ objected Zijuan. ‘How can you be sure it’s hers? I don’t care if it is, I’m going to keep it.’

‘Don’t be so greedy, Zijuan,’ scolded Tanchun. ‘You’ve kites of your own, so why filch somebody else’s? That may bring you bad luck.’

‘Quite right,’ agreed Daiyu. ‘Someone may have set it adrift to float away evil influences. Get rid of it, quick. And let’s loose ours too to send away our bad luck.’

Then Zijuan told some younger maids to take the kite to the women on duty at the gate, who should give it to anyone who came asking for it.

When the younger maids heard they were going to fly kites, they hurried off eagerly to fetch a kite in the form of a beautiful girl, as well as high stools, cords and reels, and a pole with a stick tied to its top for launching the kite. Baochai and the others standing by the gate, ordered the maids to fly this on the open ground outside.

Baoqin remarked, ‘This of yours isn’t as handsome as Cousin Tanchun’s big phoenix with flapping wings.’

Baoyu agreed and turned to tell Cuimo to fetch it, where upon she went off cheerfully on this errand.

Baoyu, in high spirits, sent a young maid home with the instructions, ‘Fetch that big fish kite Mrs. Lai brought us yesterday.’

After a long interval the maid came back empty-handed.

‘Qingwen flew it yesterday and lost it,’ she announced.

‘And I hadn’t flown it even once!’ exclaimed Baoyu.

‘Never mind.’ said Tanchun. ‘She sent off your bad luck for you.’

‘In that case bring the big crab kite,’ ordered Baoyu.

The maid came back presently with a few others carrying a beauty kite and reel. ‘Miss Xiren says yesterday she gave the crab kite to Mas­ter Huan,’ she told him. ‘Here’s one just brought by Mrs. Lin. She suggests you fly this instead.’

Baoyu examined the kite and was pleased to find it exquisitely made, He told them to fly it. By now Tanchun’s kite had come too, and Cuimo and some other maids were already flying it above a nearby slope. Baoqin told her maids to fly a big red bat kite. Baochai, infected by the general enthusiasm, had sent up a lite in the shape of a formation of seven wild swans. Now all these kites were airborne except Baoyu’s beauty, mak­ing him so frantic that sweat poured down his face. When the others laughed at him, he angrily threw the kite to the ground and pointing at it swore:

‘If you weren’t a beauty, I’d trample you to bits!’

‘It’s the fault of the bridle,’ said Daiyu soothingly. ‘If you adjust it, it’ll be all right.’

Baoyu ordered this to be done and at the same time sent for another kite. They were all looking up and watching the kites sail through the air when the maids brought many others of different kinds and played with them for a while.

Then Zijuan exclaimed, ‘It’s pulling hard now, miss. Won’t you take over?’

Daiyu wrapped a handkerchief round her hand and pulled. Sure enough, the wind was blowing hard. She took the reel and paid out the cord. As the kite soared off, the reel whirred and all of a sudden the whole cord had run out. Then she urged the rest to let their kites drift away.

‘We’re all ready,’ they said. ‘You start first.’

‘Though it’s fun to let it go, I haven’t the heart to.’ she replied with a smile.

‘Kite-flying is just for fun, that’s why we call it ‘sending off bad luck,’’ said Li Wan. ‘You should do this more often, and then you might get rid of that illness of yours. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?’

‘Our young lady’s getting more and more stingy,’ put in Zijuan. ‘We always sent off a few kites every year, so why begrudge one today? If you won’t do it, miss, I will.’ She took from Xueyan a pair of small silver Western scissors, and clipped the cord tied to the reel.

‘There!’ she said with a laugh. ‘That’ll carry off her illness.’

The kite drifted away until soon it seemed no bigger than an egg, then it dwindled to a speck like a black star and the next minute vanished from sight.

Watching with screwed-up eyes they cried, ‘What fun!’

‘It’s a pity we don’t know where it’ll land,’ observed Baoyu. ‘Let’s hope it falls somewhere with people about and gets picked up by some children. If it falls in the wilderness where nobody lives, how lonely it will feel. I’d better send this one after it to keep it company.’ He cut the cord of his kite and let it go too.

Tanchun was about to cut the cord of her phoenix kite when she saw another just like it in the sky.

‘Whose can that be?’ she wondered.

The others advised, ‘Don’t cut yours loose yet. That other kite seems to be approaching it.’

Even as they spoke the two phoenixes converged, their cords becom­ing entangled. They tried to pull Tanchun’s back, but as the other side was pulling too, they could not disentangle them. And just then another kite the size of a door, in the form of the character ‘good-luck,’ came zooming over, the bells on it ringing.

‘This one will get entangled too,’ they cried. ‘Don’t pull yours back. Let all three of them tangle together, that will be amusing.’

This new kite did indeed get entangled with the two phoenixes. The three kite-fliers tugged at their cords until these snapped and the three kites sailed away. They clapped and laughed, then, crying.

‘What fun! Whose could that good-luck kite be? It played a dastardly trick.’

‘My kite’s gone and I’m tired,’ said Daiyu, ‘I’m going back to rest.’

‘Just wait till we’ve sent off all our kites and then we’ll go,’ said Baochai.

So they loosed their kites, then dispersed, Daiyu going back to her own apartments to rest.

To know what happened later, read the next chapter.

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