A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 75

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Chapter 75


At a Feast One Night Portentous Sighing

Is Heard

New Poems on the Moon Festival Are Taken

as Good Omens

Madam You left Xichun in a huff to call on Lady Wang, but the nurses accompanying her quietly warned her, ‘Better not go there, madam. TJia Zhen family have just sent people with some things and they seem to want it kept quiet, so this may not be a good time to call.’

‘Only yesterday your master told me that, according to the Court Gazette, tJia Zhens have been charged with crimes,’ said Madam You. ‘Their house has been raided, their property confiscated, and they’ve been fetched to the capital to stand trial. So why have these people come?’

‘Why indeed?’ answered the nurses. ‘The few women who arrived just now looked flustered and agitated. They must be up to something they don’t want to be known.’

In view of this, Madam You called instead on Li Wan. The court physician treating her had just left, and as her health had recently im­proved she was sitting propped up against her pillow in bed with a quilt around her, just hoping someone would drop in for a chat. She soon no­ticed, however, that Madam You was not her usual amiable self, simply sitting there lost in thought.

‘It was good of you to come,’ said Li Wan. ‘Have you eaten any­thing in your round of calls? You must be hungry.’ She told Suyun to try to find some delicacies for her.

‘No need, no need,’ Madam You at once demurred. ‘Ill as you’ve been, you can’t have any delicacies here. Besides, I’m not hungry.’

‘Lan’s aunt has sent me some good fried flour; let’s mix a bowl for you to taste.’ She ordered a maid to prepare this, while Madam You remained silent in a brown study.

The attendants who had come with her suggested. ‘You didn’t wash at noon, madam. Would you like to freshen up now?’

When she nodded, Li Wan told Suyun to fetch her dressing case, and with it the girl brought some of her own rouge and powder.

‘Our mistress doesn’t use cosmetics, so please make do with these of mine if you don’t think them dirty, madam,’ she said with a smile.

‘The idea!’ scolded Li Wan. ‘Although I haven’t got such things, you should have fetched some from one of the young ladies, instead of producing your own. You’re lucky it’s her and not anybody else or they’d have taken offence at your impudence.’

‘What does it matter?’ said Madam You. ‘I use all your servants’ things each time I come here. Why should I be fussy today?’

She sat cross-legged on the kang while Yindie took off her bracelets and rings, then spread a large handkerchief on her lap to protect her clothing. A large basin of warm water was brought in by Chaodou, one of the younger maids, who stooped to hold it out for Madam You.

‘Will you never learn to adapt yourself to circumstances?’ cried Yindie. ‘Once given an instruction, you stick to it, regardless. Because our mis­tress is lenient and not particular about etiquette at home, you get the idea you can be equally casual in a relative’s house, carrying on in public the way you do in private.’

‘Never mind,’ said Madam You. ‘All I want is a wash.’

Chaodou hastily knelt down.

‘In our family,’ went on Madam You with a smile, ‘high and low alike all observe the outward forms of etiquette but actually carry on in a scandalous way.’

Li Wan knew from this that she had heard about the last night’s happenings.

‘Why do you say that?’ she laughed. ‘Who’s been carrying on in a scandalous way?’

‘Why ask me? You may have been ill but you weren’t dead

Before she could say more, Baochai was announced and she entered even as Li Wan was asking her in. Madam You quickly wiped her face and got up to offer her a seat.

‘All by yourself?’ she asked. ‘Where are the other girls?’

‘I haven’t seen them,’ said Baochai. ‘I’ve come because mother’s unwell, and our only two reliable maids are ill in bed; so I must go back to keep her company tonight. I meant to ask leave from Their Ladyships, but then I thought that as it’s not really serious there’s no need to men­tion it; and anyway I’ll come back as soon as she’s better. So I’ve just come to let you know.’

Li Wan and Madam You exchanged smiles at this. And now that the latter had cleaned up they all had some fried-flour ‘tea.’

Li Wan remarked, ‘We must send to inquire after Aunt Xue’s illness, as I’m not well enough to go myself. Yes, just go along home, dear cousin. I’ll assign people to keep an eye on your rooms for you while you’re away. But mind you come back after a day or two, otherwise I’ll be held to blame.’

‘Why should you be? This is just for the time being and perfectly natural. It’s not as if you were taking a bribe to let a thief escape! And I see no reason for you to send people over. Why not invite Xiangyun here to stay with you for a few days? Wouldn’t that be simpler?’

‘Where is she?’ asked Madam You.

‘I just sent her to find Tanchun and bring her here, so that I can let her know too.’

That same moment Xiangyun and Tanchun were announced, and after they had been offered seats Baochai explained why she was leav­ing the Garden.

‘Very good,’ commented Tanchun. ‘So you’ll come back when auntie’s better. And even if you don’t, that won’t matter either.’

‘That’s strange way to talk!’ exclaimed Madam You. ‘Are we driv­ing our relatives away?’

‘That’s the idea.’ Tanchun smiled mockingly. ‘Better drive them out before getting thrown out by others. In any case, there’s no need for relatives to live together all the time. We’re a happy family of kith and kin I must say, all like game-cocks fighting to finish each other off.’

‘I’m certainly out of luck today,’ Madam You laughed, ‘Finding so many of you girls in a bad temper.’

‘Who told you to come and burn yourself on the stove?’ Tanchun retorted. ‘And who else has offended you?’ She went on thoughtfully, ‘Xichun has no reason to scold you, so who else could it be?’

Madam You just muttered an evasive reply.

Knowing she was reluctant to speak out for fear of trouble, Tanchun teased, ‘Don’t pretend to be so simple. People don’t get their heads chopped off except for crimes against the state, so what are you so afraid of? I’ll tell you the truth: I slapped that old wife of Wang Shanbao’s yesterday, and I’m quite willing to take the consequences. But apart from calling me names behind my back, nobody’s likely to give me a beating for it.’

Asked by Baochai what had provoked her, Tanchun described in de­tail the search made the night before and why she had struck Mrs. Wang. Since Tanchun had come out with it, Madam You told them how Xichun had just treated her.

‘She’s like that,’ observed Tanchun, ‘so eccentric and stubborn there’s just no talking her round.’ Then she informed them, ‘When no action was taken this morning and I heard that our peppery Xifeng was ill again, I sent my nanny to find out what had happened to Wang Shanbao’s wife. She came back to report that the old creature got a thrashing for being too meddlesome.’

‘Serves her right too,’ approved Madam You and Li Wan.

Tanchun laughed caustically.

‘Who can’t see through that trick? Just wait and see Madam You and Li Wan made no answer to this. And presently, thinking it time for the Lady Dowager’s meal, Xiangyun and Baochai went back to pack their things while Madam You took her leave of Li Wan and went straight to the old lady’s place. She found her sitting on her couch listening to Lady Wang’s disturbing account of how tJia Zhen family had got into trouble, had their property confiscated and been fetched to the capital for punishment. She asked Madam You where she had come from and if Xifeng and Li Wan were any better.

‘They’re both better today,’ Madam You made haste to assure her.

The old lady nodded and sighed.

‘Well, let’s not trouble ourselves about other people’s affairs but consider how to celebrate the Moon Festival.’

‘We’ve got everything ready,’ said Lady Wang. ‘But we don’t know where you’d like to have the feast. Only the wind may be cold at night in the empty Garden.’

‘That doesn’t matter. We can dress more warmly. That’s just the place to enjoy the moon, of course.

While they were chatting tables had been brought in, and Lady Wang and Madam You at once helped to serve the food. The Lady Dowager saw that in addition to the dishes prepared for her there were two big hampers of others, it being the custom for the two mansions to present her with extra dishes every day. She asked what they were.

‘I’ve told you several times to stop this, but you never listen,’ she complained. ‘We’re not as well off as we used to be.’

‘I’ve passed on your instructions more than once, but this goes on as usual,’ Yuanyang said. ‘So I had to let it go.’

‘This is only everyday family fare,’ put in Lady Wang. ‘As today is one of my fast days we haven’t got much, and knowing that you’re not too fond of gluten of wheat and beancurd I just chose minced water­mallow with pepper sauce.

‘That’s good. Just what I fancy.’

At once Yuanyang set this dish before her. Baoqin and the other girls after deferring to each other took seats too. And Tanchun, told by the old lady to join them, after first declining the honour sat down opposite Baoqin, Shishu then brought out a bowl and chopsticks. Pointing at two dishes in a hamper Yuanyang remarked:

‘We don’t know what these are, they’re from the Elder Master. This bowl of bamboo-shoots with chicken marrow is from Lord Zhen.’ She placed it on the table.

The old lady simply tasted a couple of dishes, then ordered those two to be returned to the senders.

‘Tell them I’ve tried them,’ she said. ‘In future there’s no need to send over every day. 1ff fancy anything I’ll ask for it.’

The matrons assented and went off with the dishes.

‘Is there any congee?’ the Lady Dowager asked.

Madam You, who had a bowl ready, remarked that it was made of special red rice. The old lady took it and ate half a bowl, then had some sent to Xifeng. She also had a bowl of bamboo-shoots and a dish of salted raccoon sent to Daiyu and Baoyu, and another bowl of meat sent to Jia Lan. Then she urged Madam You to come and eat. The latter assented but waited till the old lady had washed her hands, rinsed her mouth and left the table to chat with Lady Wang. And as she took a seat, Tanchun and Baoqin got up and asked to be excused.

‘What, leave me all alone at this big table!’ cried Madam You. ‘I’m not used to it.’

‘Yuanyang and Hupo!’ called the old lady, chuckling. ‘Here’s your chance to tuck in. Come and keep her company.

‘Fine, fine.’ Madam You smiled. ‘Just what I was hoping for.’

‘It’s great fun watching a whole lot of people eating together.’ The old lady pointed at Yindie. ‘That’s a good child too. Come and join your mistress. You can stick to the rules again after leaving me.’

‘Come on, quick,’ Madam You cried. ‘No need to put on an act.’

The Lady Dowager, her hands behind her as she looked on with amusement, noticed one of the maids offer Madam You a bowl of the ordinary white rice for the servants.

‘Are you out of your mind, serving your mistress that rice?’ she demanded.

‘Your rice is finished, madam,’ said the maid. ‘And as there’s an extra young lady today, we’re short.’

‘We have to cut our coat according to our cloth,’ Yuanyang put in. ‘Nowadays there’s no margin at all.’

Lady Wang explained, ‘The last couple of years, what with floods and drought, our farms haven’t been able to produce their quota, espe­cially of the rice of the finer kind. So we only issue as much as we think will be needed, for fear of running out. The rice you buy outside isn’t to our taste.’

The old lady chortled, ‘As the proverb says: ‘Even a clever wife can’t make congee without rice.

Amid general laughter Yuanyang asked the servant, ‘In that case, why not fetch Miss Tanchun’s rice here to make up? Wouldn’t that be the same? Why be so stupid?’

‘No, I’ve had enough,’ said Madam You with a smile. ‘There’s no need to fetch more.

‘You may have had enough, but what about me?’ Yuanyang par­ried.

Then the serving-women hurried off to fetch more. Presently Lady Wang went off to have her meal leaving Madam You to chat with the old lady till about nine, when she was told:

‘It’s late now. You’d better go back.’

Madam You took her leave then and went out to the gate to mount her carriage. Yindie took a place at one side of the carriage. The serv­ing-women, having let down the curtain, led the young maids to wait at the Ning Mansion’s gate; for as the two mansions were less than a bow shot apart, no elaborate preparations had to be made when the members of both exchanged visits, especially at night when many of them went out and returned. So the old nurses just led the young maids the short dis­tance over, the men-servants at both gates having already cordoned off the east and west ends of the street. Madam You’s carriage was not drawn by a mule. Instead, seven or eight pages pulled it gently along to the steps of the Ning Mansion, then withdrew behind the stone lions flanking the gate while the serving-women raised the curtain and Yindie alighted to help her mistress down. Seven or eight lanterns large and small shed a bright light, and noticing four or five carriages drawn up by the stone lions Madam You inferred that visitors had arrived for another gambling party.

‘Look at all those carriages,’ she said to Yindie. ‘And how many more came on horseback we’ve no means of knowing, as their horses will all be tethered in the stables. How much money can those young fellows’ parents give them to throw away like this?’

By now she had reached the front hail, where Jia Rong’s wife was waiting to welcome her at the head of serving-women and maids with candles.

‘I’ve always wanted to take a peep at them,’ remarked Madam You. ‘Here’s our chance at last! Suppose we walk past their windows?’

The matrons assented and led the way with lanterns, one of them going quietly ahead to warn the pages in attendance not to make any commotion. When Madam You and the rest tiptoed up to the windows they heard quite a noise inside ‘jokes and compliments interspersed with complaints and curses.

The fact is that Jia Zhen, being in mourning and unable to go out to amuse himself or listen to operas or music, had thought of a way to while away the time. In the day-time, under the pretext of practising archery, he invited young lordlings and other wealthy relatives and friends to ar­chery contests. Arguing that shooting at random could not improve their skill and might even spoil their style, he imposed certain penalties and set stakes as an incentive to all to do their best. They had set up a target in the shooting-range under Heavenly Fragrance Pavilion and made it the rule to assemble there every morning after breakfast. Jia Zhen, not want­ing his name to be used, made Jia Rong act as the banker.

The young hereditary nobles from wealthy families whom they invited were a set of profligates who enjoyed cock-fights, dog-racing and play­ing about with singsong girls and young actors. They agreed to take it in turn every day after the shooting contest to stand treat, so that Jia Rong need not defray all the expenses. And so day after day they had pigs, sheep and poultry killed and vied to show off their wealth, the skill of their chefs and the sumptuousness of their feasts.

Jia She and Jia Zheng did not hear about this until it had gone on for a fortnight or so, and not realizing what was involved they judged it quite right and proper for these young men not versed in literature to practise military arts, the more so as they belonged to families of hereditary gen­erals of noble ranks. They even ordered ha Huan, Jia Cong, Baoyu and Jia Lan to come over too after breakfast every day to practise archery with Jia Zhen for a while.

But since Jia Zhen had other ends in view, alleging the need to relax after their exertions he soon started arranging card games in the eve­nings and they laid wagers while drinking. So little by little these turned into gambling parties. Now, after three or four months, gambling had priority over archery and they played cards, diced and gambled quite openly day and night. The servants, getting more perks, encouraged this and so it was now routine ‘ quite unknown to people outside the family.

Recently their group had been joined by Lady Xing’s younger brother Xing Dequan, an inveterate wastrel, as well as the confirmed prodigal Xue Pan who naturally thought this a splendid scheme.

Xing Dequan although Lady Xing’s brother had totally different in­terests, being a credulous fool who spent money like water and found all his pleasure in drinking, gambling and debauchery. He liked good drinkers and shunned those who did not drink, no matter whether they were high or low, making no distinction between master and slave; hence every­body called him Foolish Uncle.

Xue Pan, who had long been dubbed the Stupid Lordling, naturally found Xing a man after his own heart. As both of them liked dicing because it was fast, they had got two fellows to dice with them on the kang in the outer room where a few other men were playing cards at a big table, while in the inner room a less uncouth party were in the middle of a game of dominoes. Most of their attendants were pages of less than fifteen, all grown men-servants being debarred from the place. This was why Lady You dared peep through the window.

She saw that wine was being served by two young actors of seven­teen or eighteen, strikingly handsome in their fine clothes and make up. Xue Pan was scowling after a losing throw, but now with a lucky toss he recouped his losses and won, which restored his good humour.

‘Let’s stop for a while,’ proposed Jia Zhen, ‘and have some re­freshments before going on.’

He asked how the two other tables were getting on. The domino players in the inner room had also finished and were waiting for supper, but the card players were in the middle of a game and reluctant to stop. Without waiting for them they had one table set first, and Jia Zhen sat down to dine with those who were ready, instructing Jia Rong to wait for the rest. Xue Pan, in exuberation, fondling one of the actors as he drank, ordered him to toast Foolish Uncle. But Xing was in a bad mood, after losing. Tipsy after two bowls of wine, he complained that the actors sim­ply made up to the winners, ignoring the losers.

‘You pansies are all the same,’ he swore. ‘We’ve been together all these days and you’ve had favours from us all, but now as soon as I lose a few taels of silver you start cold-shouldering me. Do you think you’ll never need my help again?’

Seeing that he was half drunk, the others tried to humour him.

‘Quite right, quite right,’ they said. ‘That’s a bad way they have.’ They sternly ordered the two boys, ‘Hurry up and offer him wine to apologize.’

The two young actors, accustomed to such scenes, knelt down to offer Xing a drink.

‘In our profession our masters train us all, no matter how generous or close our patrons may be, just to make up to the rich and powerful. A man may be a living Buddha or saint, but so long as he has no money or influence we have to ignore him. Besides, sir, we’re young and in this low profession, so please overlook it this time and let us off.’

They raised a cup of wine and fell on their knees.

Though Foolish Uncle was mollified he kept up a show of anger.

‘They’re telling the truth, that’s how it is,’ said the others. ‘You’ve always had a soft spot in your heart for actors; why be like this today? If you refuse to drink how dare they get up?’

Xing gave in at that and growled, ‘If it weren’t for all these gentle­men interceding, I’d have nothing more to do with you.’ Then only did he take the cup and drain it.

Another bowl was poured. And now the wine went to his head, mak­ing him hark back to earlier grievances. Pounding the table he said to Jia Zhen with a sigh:

‘We can’t blame these boys, my worthy nephew, for being so grasp­ing. Why, where money and power are concerned, many people from big official families will forget even their own flesh and blood. Did you hear about the row I had yesterday with your respected aunt?’

‘No, I didn’t,’ was ha Zhen’s reply.

Xing Dequan sighed again.

‘‘It was all over filthy lucre.

Jia Zhen knew he was on bad terms with Lady Xing, who thoroughly disapproved of him and often complained about him.

‘You’re rather too improvident, uncle,’ he said. ‘If you go on spending at this rate, you’ll never have enough.’

‘My dear worthy nephew, you don’t know how it is in our family,’ Xing retorted. ‘At the time of my mother’s death I was still small and knew nothing of affairs. Of my three sisters your respected aunt is the oldest. She grabbed all our family property and brought it over with her at the time of her marriage. Now my second sister’s married too, but also in straitened circumstances. My third is still at home, all our expenses are doled out to us by your aunts personal maid here, the wife of your steward Wang Shanhao. When I come to ask for money I’m not cadging from you Jias. Our Xing family has quite enough for me to spend — if only I could get my hands on it. It’s grossly unjust. but what can I do about it?’’

Afraid this maudlin talk would make a bad impression on their guests. Jia Zhen tried to change the subject. But Madam You outside had heard all this clearly.

‘Hear that?’ she whispered to Yindie. ‘That’s Lady Xing’s younger brother complaining about her. If she treats her own brother so badly, no wonder other people complain of her too.’

She was eager to hear more, and just then the card players who had finished their game came over to join the feast.

‘Who offended Uncle Xing just now?’ one of them asked. ‘I didn’t quite get it. Tell us. and let us arbitrate.’

Xin told them then how the two actors cold-shouldered losers and made up to winners.

‘‘In that case,’ said the young man. ‘you had good reason to be angry, uncle. Let me ask you two boys this: Uncle Xing has only lost some money, not his prick, hasn’t he? So why cold-shoulder him?’

At this eyeryone roared with laughter, including Xing, who guffawed so hard that he sprayed rice all over the floor.

Madam You outside spat in disgust.

‘Listen to those shameless voung scoundrels.’ she SWO~C softly. ‘Barely lost their milk-teeth yet spewing out such dirt. If they go on swilling that yellow wine, who knows what they’ll come out with next!’

She retired to her own room to bed.

Jia Zhen kept the guests company until the fourth watch when at last the party broke up, then went to spend the night with his concubine Peifeng. The next day when he got up, some servants reported that the water­melons and mooncakes for the festival were ready for distribution.

Jia Zhen told his concubine, ‘Ask your mistress to share them out as she thinks fit. I have other things to attend to.’

Peifeng reported this to Madam You, who had shares sent over to the different households.

Presently the concubine came back to inquire, ‘The master wants to know whether you’re going out today or not, madam. He says since we are in mourning we can’t celebrate the Moon Festival on the fifteenth of the eighth month, but we can have a family party tonight to mark the occasion with melons, fruit, cakes and wine.’

‘I don’t want to go out,’ replied Madam You, ‘but Madam Zhu over there is unwell and Xifeng is laid up too. If I don’t go, there’ll be no one to see to things. Besides, as he’s so busy, why have a party?’

‘The master’s not receiving visitors today and won’t be at home to them till the sixteenth. He’s set his mind on inviting you to a feast.’

‘All right then, but I can’t return this favour.’

Peifeng went off laughing, returning soon to report, ‘The master hopes you’ll come home early in time for dinner, madam. And he’s told me to go with you.

‘In that case he’d better hurry up and have breakfast, so that I can make a start.’

‘He says he’ll have it outside, and wants you to breakfast without him.’

‘Whom has he got out there?’

‘I hear two men have just arrived from Nanjing, bull don’t know who they are.

As she was speaking Jia Rong’s wife, having finished her toilet, came in to pay her respects. Soon they sat down to breakfast together, Madam You in the higher place, her daughter-in-law in the lower. Then Madam You changed her clothes and went over to the Rong Mansion.

On her return that evening, Jia Zhen had indeed prepared a feast: a whole pig and sheep together with other dishes and sweetmeats too many to enumerate. Peacock-feather screens and lotus-patterned cushions were set out in the Hall of Green Shrubs in the Garden of Concentrated Fra­grance, and there he and his wife and concubines dined, then drank to­gether to enjoy the moon.

By the time of the first watch the breeze was fresh and the bright moon silvered everything high and low. Jia Zhen proposed playing some drinking games, whereupon Madam You made Peifeng and the three other concubines join them, sitting in a row in the lower seats at their table to play the finger-guessing game and drink. Then Jia Zhen, in high spirits after wine, sent a servant to fetch a purple bamboo flute and asked Peifeng to play it while Wenhua sang. Her voice was so clear and tender that the listeners were entranced.

After that they played more drinking games until nearly midnight, by when Jia Zhen was eight-tenths drunk. Tea was served, and they had just been brought fresh wine cups when they heard long-drawn-out sighing from the direction of the garden wall. Everyone heard it distinctly and they were fearfully startled.

‘Who is there?’ demanded iia Zhen sternly.

But though he called out several times there was no answer.

‘It maybe one of our servants behind the wall,’ suggested Madam You. ‘Nonsense,’ her husband retorted. ‘The servant’s quarters are no­where near the wall. Besides, that part is just by the ancestral temple. Who could he there at this hour?’

That same instant they heard a gust of wind on the other side of the wall and the sound as if of partition windows slamming inside the temple. The air struck them as colder, and the moon just now so bright and clear seemed suddenly dimmed. All the girls and women shivered. Jia Zhen half sobered up, but though more in control of himself than the women he was most amazed and apprehensive too. This cast a gloom over the party. Still, they felt constrained to sit there a little longer before retiring to their rooms to rest.

The next morning being the fifteenth, Jia Zhen rose early and led the whole family to open the ancestral temple to perform the usual rites for the first and the fifteenth of every month. Looking round carefully, he observed that everything in the temple was undisturbed with no sign of anything amiss. He therefore made no mention of the strange occur­rence the previous night, thinking he must have imagined it in his cups. The ceremony at an end, he had the temple locked up as before.

After supper Jia Zhen and his wife went over to the Rong Mansion. He found Jia She and Jia Zheng sitting chatting with the Lady Dowager while the younger men and boys of the family stood around in atten­dance. Jia Zhen greeted each in turn, and after a few remarks the old lady invited him to take a seat, which he did on a stool near the door.

‘How is your cousin Baoyu getting on with his archery these days?’ she asked him.

‘He’s making great progress, not only in his form. He’s now able to use a stronger bow as well.’

‘That’s good. But don’t let him overtax his strength.’

When Jia Zhen had agreed to this she remarked, ‘The mooncakes you sent us yesterday were good. The melons looked all right but were disappointing.’

‘The cakes were made by a new pastry cook. Finding them good I ventured to have some made for you, madam, as a token of respect. It’s strange that this year’s melons aren’t up to the usual standard.’

‘There was too much rain this summer,’ remarked Jia Zheng.

‘Well, the moon has risen now. Let’s go and offer incense.’

The old lady rose and leaning on Baoyu’s shoulder led the way to the Garden. By now all the Garden’s main gates were wide open, big horn-lanterns hanging above. On the terrace in front of the Hall of Auspicious Shade where incense was burning in screened containers, shielded candles were alight, and melons, cakes and sweetmeats had been set out, Lady Xing and the other ladies were waiting for them. The bright moonlight, coloured lanterns, scents and incense evoked an ethereal splendour defy­ing description.

The terrace was spread with carpets and silk cushions. The Lady Dowager washed her hands, burned incense and kowtowed; then all the rest followed suit. After that she said it would be better to enjoy the view of the moon from a height, and ordered the feast to be served in the big pavilion on the ridge of the hill. Attendants hurried there to make prepa­rations while she had a short rest in the Hall of Auspicious Shade, sipping tea and chatting with her family. When presently it was announced that all was ready she started up the hill, leaning on some maids’ shoulders.

‘The mossy stones may be slippery,’ warned Lady Wang. ‘Why not go up in a bamboo chair?’

‘The path is swept every day and it’s very smooth and wide,’ coun­tered the old lady. ‘I may as wall walk to loosen up my old bones.’

Jia She and Jia Zheng led the way, followed by two old nurses with horn-lanterns. Yuanyang, Hupo and Madam You kept beside the old lady to help her along while Lady Xing and the rest clustered behind, and a mere hundred paces brought them to the summit on which stood Convex Emerald Hall, so called because it was built on a promontory. On its front terrace, partitioned into two by a large screen, were tables and chairs all round in shape to symbolize perfect reunion. The old lady took the centre seat with Jia She, Jia Zhen, Jia Lian and Jia Rong on her left, on her right ha Zheng, Baoyu, Jia Huan and Jia Lan. The circle, however, was only half complete, the other half being conspicuously vacant.

‘I don’t usually feel there are too few of us, yet tonight I do,’ ob­served the old lady. ‘Why, in the old days, on an evening like this there’d have been thirty to forty menfolk and womenfolk and it would have been ever so lively. This is too small a party. We can’t ask others to join us, as they’re all celebrating at home with their own parents, so let’s get some of the girls to fill up the gap on the other side.’

Yingchitn, Tanchun and Xichun were fetched, and Jia Lian, Baoyu and the other boys stood up to offer them seats, taking lower places themselves. Then the Lady Dowager called for a twig of osmanthus and ordered a serving-woman to beat a drum on the other side of the screen as the twig passed from hand to hand. Whoever had it when the drum­ming stopped had to drink a cup of wine and tell a joke as forfeit. The game started with the old lady passing the twig to Jia She, and so on in turn. After two rounds Jia Zheng was left with it in his hand and had to drink up, while his children, nephews and nieces nudged or tugged at each other meaningly as they waited, smiling, to hear what joke he would tell. As his mother was in high spirits he felt constrained to do his best to please her.

‘If you can’t make us laugh,’ she warned, ‘we shall punish you by making you tell another.’

‘1 have only the one joke, madam. If you don’t find it funny I’ll accept the penalty… .There was a man who was hen-pecked….’

He was interrupted here by a burst of laughter, as Jia Zheng had never told jokes of this type before.

‘This must be a good one,’ said the old lady, laughing.

‘If you think it good, you must drink another cup, madam.’

‘Agreed.’

He went on, ‘This hen-pecked husband never dared go anywhere without his wife’s permission. But on the Moon Festival, going out to do some shopping, he met friends who dragged him home to drink with them. He got drunk and slept in their house. The next day when he woke up, quite conscience-stricken, he had to go home to apologize. It hap­pened that his wife was washing her feet.

‘She said to him, ‘Well, if you lick my feet I’ll forgive you.’

‘So the man had to lick her feet. But he couldn’t help retching, and this so enraged his wife that she threatened to beat him.

‘‘What insolence!’ she cried.

‘He fell on his knees in fright and explained, ‘It’s not that your feet stink, madam, but all the rice-wine and mooncakes I had yesterday have turned my stomach today.

The whole company laughed, and Jia Zheng at once poured a cup of wine for the old lady.

‘If that’s how you feel, let’s replace this wine with spirits,’ she pro­posed. ‘We don’t want you to be sick.’

Amid general mirth the drumming started once more, stopping this time when Baoyu had the osmanthus. His father’s presence made him feel on edge, but here he was caught with the twig in his hand. If I fail to tell a good joke I’ll be scolded for being too stupid even to tell a joke, he thought. If I tell an amusing one he’ll say I’m no good at studying, only able to gab, and blame me all the more. So I’d better get out of it.

He stood up and pleaded, ‘I’m no good at telling jokes. Please set me some other forfeit.’

‘Well then,’ said Jia Zheng, ‘write an occasional poem with ‘au­tumn’ as the rhyme. If it’s good you’ll get a reward. If not, look out tomorrow!’

‘We’re just playing a drinking game,’ objected the old lady. ‘Why make him write a poem?’

‘He can do it,’ Jia Zheng assured her.

At once she sent for paper and a brush.

Jia Zheng warned, ‘Mind you don’t use ornate phrases like ‘frozen jade,’ ‘silver crystal,’ ‘bright splendour’ or ‘shining purity.’ Your poem must be original. I want to test your ability after these years of study.’

This was just what Baoyu had been hoping for. He promptly made up four lines and wrote them out, presenting the poem to Jia Zheng who nodded without any comment. The Lady Dowager took this as a good sign.

‘How is it?’ she asked.

To please her Jia Zheng answered. ‘Quite a good effort. But be­cause he hasn’t been studying the right books the language lacks distinc­tion.’

‘That’s good enough. After all, how old is he? Do you expect him to be a prodigy? You should encourage him, to make him pay more attention to study in future.’

‘Very well.’ Jia Zheng turned to order a nurse, ‘Go and tell the pages in my study to bring two of those fans I brought back from Hainan to give him.’

Baoyu having bowed his thanks sat down again, and they went on with the game.

This prize given to Baoyu made Lan now leave his seat to write a poem too, which he handed to his grandfather. Jia Zheng, very pleased with it, explained the contents of both poems to the old lady. And she was so delighted that she ordered a prize to be given to Lan too, after which they resumed their seats to continue the game. This time the drum­ming stopped when the osmanthus was in Jia She’s hand, and he had to drink a cup and tell a joke.

‘The son of a certain family was most filial,’ he began. ‘One day his mother fell ill, and unable to find physicians able to cure her they called in an old woman who practised acupuncture. As she knew nothing of the principles of pulse-taking, she diagnosed the illness as fire in the heart which a few acupuncture treatments would set right.

‘The son asked in alarm, ‘How can you needle her heart? Won’t that kill her?’

‘The old woman said, ‘There’s no need to needle the heart. Just needling the ribs will do.’

‘He protested, ‘But the heart isn’t anywhere near the ribs.’

‘She said, ‘That doesn’t matter. Don’t you know that all parents are biased, so that their hearts always incline to one side?’’

Amid general laughter his mother had to sip some wine.

After a short silence she said, ‘I suppose I should get that old woman to give me some acupuncture treatment too.’

Jia She realized then that she took the joke personally and he had offended her by his tactlessness. At once he stood up to pour her wine and tried to pass it off, and the old lady let the matter drop.

The game went on and this time Huan was caught holding the flower. Recently he had paid more attention to his studies; but, like Baoyu, in­stead of studying the orthodox classics he preferred to read poems, espe­cially those dealing with the bizarre and supernatural. When he saw Baoyu awarded a prize for his poem he wanted to show off too, but in his father’s presence dared not suggest it. Now that his turn had come to pay a forfeit, he also took paper and brush and wrote a four-lined verse which he handed to Jia Zheng. His father, although quite impressed, could read between the lines a lack of interest in study.

‘You brothers are alike,’ he rebuked them both. ‘All the ideas you express are heterodox. You’ll both turn out undisciplined reprobates. The ancients spoke of a ‘matchless pair,’ and that’s what you two are; only in your case ‘matchless’ means ‘incorrigible.’ The elder brother shame­lessly compares himself to Wen Tingyun, and now the younger considers himself another Cao Tang.’

Jia She and the others laughed, and Jia She asked to see the poem and was full of praise for it.

‘This seems to me to show character,’ he observed. ‘In our family we’re not like those poor pedants who must ‘study by the light of re­flected snow or glow-worms’ to pass the examination for the highest degree in order to climb up to exalted positions. Our sons should study too; but if they’re a bit more intelligent than average and look all right, they can hardly fail to get some official post. There’s no need for them to pore over tomes and become bookworms. That’s why I like this poem of his ‘ it shows the spirit of our noble house.’

Thereupon he ordered a servant to fetch some novelties from his room as a reward. And patting Huan on the head he said with a laugh, ‘Just go on writing like this – it’s our family’s style. I’m sure you’ll inherit our noble ranks in future.’

Jia Zhen protested, ‘He was just writing nonsense. How can these lines foretell the future?’ He poured a cup of wine for the old lady and the game went on.

Then the Lady Dowager suggested, ‘You gentlemen can take your leave now. there must be friends waiting for you outside. It won’t do to neglect them. Besides, it’s already past the second watch. Once you’ve gone, our girls will be able to enjoy themselves more freely for a while before we retire for the night.’

Jia She and the others stopped the game then and after a final toast took the younger men away. If you want to know the sequel, read the next chapter.

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