A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 78

0
181

Chapter 78

An Old Scholar at Leisure

Has Eulogies Composed

His Unorthodox, Witless Son

Laments the Hibiscus

After the two abbesses had taken the young actresses away, Lady Wang called to pay her morning respects to the Lady Dowager. And finding her in a good mood she reported:

“Baoyu’s maid Qingwen has grown up row, and this last year or so she’s kept falling ill. I’ve noticed too that she’s saucier and lazier than the others. Recently she was ill again for over ten days, and the doctor diagnosed it as consumption; so then and there I dismissed her with in­structions not to come back when she’s better, giving her to her family to marry off. I also took it on myself to send away those few young ac­tresses. Because, on account of their theatrical training, they talked in a wild way we don’t want our girls to hear; and as they performed for us here for a time, it wouldn’t have been right to ask for money for them. In any case, we have too many maids. If we need more in future, we can always pick a few others.”

“Quite right and proper.” The old lady nodded approval. “Exactly what I had in mind myself. But I always thought Qingwen a very nice girl. How could she have turned out so badly? She struck me as smarter than the other maids, with a ready tongue too and better at needlework the best choice as a concubine for Baoyu in future. Who could have dreamed that she’d change for the worse?”

“You made the right choice, madam, only she wasn’t fated to have such good fortune. That’s why she contracted this illness. As the saying goes, ‘A girl changes eighteen times before reaching womanhood.’ And the smarter the girl, the more out of hand she’ll get. You must have seen many such cases.

“Three years ago when I thought about this question too, she was my first choice. No one’s a match for her in other ways, it’s just that she’s

2373

a bit flighty. For steadiness and propriety, Xiren comes first. Though what’s wanted in a wife is virtue, they say, and in a concubine beauty, still it’s better to choose a girl with a sweet disposition and steady character. Xiren may not be up to Qingwen in looks, yet she’s the best for Baoyu’s chamber. Trustworthy, too, and honest. These last few years she’s never once led Baoyu into mischief. In fact, whenever he does wrong she tries her best to dissuade him — after watching her for two years I know this for certain. That’s why I secretly stopped her pay as a maid and gave her two taels a month from my own allowance, so that she’d understand and look after him even better. I didn’t make it public for two reasons: partly because Baoyu’s young, and if his father knew of this he might think it bad for his studies; partly because if she was known to be his concubine she wouldn’t dare gainsay him, and Baoyu would carry on more wildly than ever. This is why I didn’t report it to you earlier.”

The Lady Dowager smiled.

“If that’s the case so much the better. Xiren’s always been so quiet I felt she was rather stupid; but as you know her so well you can’t be wrong. I’m all in favour, too, of not letting Baoyu know. None of us must mention this, just let it be understood. I’m well aware that in future Baoyu won’t listen to his wife’s or concubines’ advice. I can’t understand him either. I’ve never known another child like him. One expects a boy to be mischievous, but this extraordinary liking he has for maids has been preying on my mind. I’m for ever finding him fooling about with them. At first I thought this intimacy was because he’d grown big enough to know about sex; but watching him more closely I realized that wasn’t the rea­son, which makes it even odder. Could it be that he was really meant to be born a girl….”

This set every body laughing. Then Lady Wang went on to describe how Jia Zheng had praised Baoyu today and taken the boys out with him to pay a call. This pleased the old lady still more.

Soon Yingchun, dressed to go out, came to take her leave. Then Xifeng arrived to pay her respects and wait upon the old lady as she had break­fast. They chatted till it was time for her siesta, when Lady Wang called Xifeng over to ask her whether she had prepared her pills.

“Not yet,” was the answer. “I’m still taking herb-cordials. But don’t

2375

you worry, madam. I’m much better.”

Lady Wang believed her, having seen that she looked more energetic. She told her of Qingwen’s dismissal.

“How come you didn’t know that Baochai — of her own accord— had moved home to sleep with her mother?” she continued. “A couple of days ago I made a search of all the other apartments in the Garden. And, just imagine, I found young Lan’s new nurse a regular vamp! I didn’t like the look of her at all. So I urged your sister-in-law to send her packing, as in any case he’s big enough now not to need so many nurses. And I asked her, ‘Surely you knew about Baochai’s leav­ing?”

“She said yes, but Baochai had told her she’d be coming back in a few days, once Aunt Xue was better. Actually, there’s nothing much the matter with Aunt Xue apart from that chronic cough and backache of hers which she gets every year. So Baochai must have moved out for some other reason. Do you think somebody offended her? She’s a sensitive child, and it would be too bad if we offended her after living together for so long.”

“Why should anyone offend them for no reason?” asked Xifeng cheer­fully. “They spend all their time in the Garden, so if there has been any misunderstanding it must be among themselves.”

“Can Baoyu have been tactless?” wondered his mother. “He’s such a simpleton, so tacking in scruples, that in a fit of excitement he may have spoken wildly.”

“Don’t worry so much about him, madam. When Baoyu goes out on business, he may talk and behave like a simpleton. But when he’s at home with all these girl cousins of his, or even with the maids, he’s most considerate to them, afraid of giving offence. So no one could possibly be annoyed by him.

“I think Baochai must have left because of the search the other night, naturally concluding that we didn’t trust certain people in the Garden. As she’s a relative, we could hardly search her servants. But for fear that her household might be suspected, being sensitive as she is she took her self off so as to avoid suspicion. And quite right, too.”

Convinced by this estimate, Lady Wang lowered her head and after

2377

some reflection told a maid to invite Baochai over. She explained about the recent search to set her niece’s mind at rest then urged her to move back into the Garden.

“I’d been meaning to move out for some time,” said Baochai with a smile. “Only I didn’t find the occasion to ask you, as you have so much important business to attend to. But that day, as it happened, my mother was unwell again and our only two reliable maids were ill; so I took the chance to move out. Now that you know about it, I can explain the rea­son and ask leave today to move my things out too.”

Neither Lady Wang nor Xifeng would hear of this.

“Don’t be so stubborn!” they cried laughingly. “What you should really do is move in again, not let something so inconsequential come between us.

“I don’t understand what you mean.” Baochai rejoined. “I didn’t leave because of anything that happened here, but because my mother’d been feeling less energetic and at night she had nobody to rely on but me. Besides, my brother will soon be getting married. There’s a lot of needle­work to do, his rooms still have to be furnished, and I have to help her with all the preparations. You know, aunt and Cousin Xifeng, how it is in our family and that I’m not fibbing.

“For another thing, after I moved into the Garden that small side gate in the southeast corner was kept open for me to go through; but other people wanting to take a short cut could use it too, and there was nobody to make a check there. If trouble had come of it, it would have been awkward for both families.

“Besides, my moving into the Garden to sleep was of no great conse­quence. A few years ago we were all young and I had no business at home, so I was better off here than outside, able to do needlework with the other girls and amuse myself with them—that was better than sitting idly at home by myself. Now we’ve all grown up and have our different tasks. Moreover, these years you’ve had various troubles, aunt. And the Garden is too big for you to keep an eye on everything. The fewer the people there, the less you need worry. So now I’ve not only made up my mind to move out, but I’ll venture to advise you, aunt, to cut down as far as possible, for that won’t make us lose face. It seems to me

2379

that much of this expenditure in the Garden could be avoided. After all, times have changed. You know our family well, aunt — we weren’t as badly off as this in the old days!”

Xifeng after hearing this said to Lady Wang, “She’s right. We needn’t insist.”

Lady Wang nodded.

“I’ve no anawer to that. Just do as you think fit.”

At this point Baoyu came back with the other boys.

“My father is still feasting,” he said. “As it will soon be growing dark, he told us to come home first.”

Lady Wang hastily asked, “Did you make any gaffes today?”

“No,” he answered with a smile. “Not only that but I’ve brought back a lot of loot.”

Then some old serving-women fetched in from the pages at the inner gate the presents the young masters had received. Lady Wang saw these were three fans, three fan-pendants, six boxes of writing brushes and ink-tablets, three strings of scented beads and three jade rings, which Baoyu explained had been given them by Academician Mei, Vice-Minister Yang and Secretary Li—one set apiece. He then pulled a talisman, a small sandalwood Buddha, from his pocket.

“This was a gift just for me from the Duke of Jingguo.”

Lady Wang asked what guests had been there and what poems they had written, then took the three boys to pay their duty visit to the old lady, ordering the servant carrying Baoyu’s presents to accompany them.

The Lady Dowager, delighted, inevitably cross-examined them too. Baoyu was so worried about Qingwen, however, that after answering her questions he told her that his bones ached after riding.

“Go back quickly then,” urged the old lady. “Once you’ve changed your clothes and rested, you’ll feel better. But mind you don’t lie down.”

Thereupon Baoyu hurried back to the Garden.

Sheyue and Qiuwen had been waiting in the old lady’s place with two younger maids. When Baoyu left they followed him, Qiuwen carrying his presents.

“How hot it is!” he kept complaining.

While walking he took off his hat, belt and outer garment, which Sheyue

2381

carried for him. Baoyu was now wearing only a green satin jacket above a pair of blood-red trousers, and Qiuwen noticing that these were trou­sers which Qingwen had made for him heaved a sigh.

“Better keep those trousers as a memento,” she said. “Really, though she’s gone her handiwork is still here.”

“Yes, that’s Qingwen’s work,” said Sheyue, then quoted the saying: “‘The handiwork remains though the maker’s gone.”’ Qiuwen nudged her, saying more cheerfully:

“Those trousers, with that green jacket and the blue boots make a vivid foil for black hair and a snow-white complexion.”

Baoyu in front pretended not to have heard them and walked on a few paces, then stopped.

“Is it all right if I take a stroll?” he asked.

“What are you afraid of in broad daylight?” Sheyue answered. “You can’t get lost.” She told the two young maids to accompany him. “We’ll join you after we’ve put these things away.

“Won’t you wait for me here, good sister?”

“We’ll be back soon,” Sheyue promised. “With both our hands full we’re like a regular retinue, one carrying the ‘four treasures of the study,’ one a hat, belt and garments— it looks so ridiculous!”

As this was what Baoyu had hoped for, he let them go. He then led the two young maids behind a rockery. Without further ado he asked:

“After I left, did Sister Xiren send anyone to see Sister Qingwen?”

“She sent Mrs. Song,” one girl told him.

“What did she say after she came back?”

“She said Sister Qingwen was crying out all night. First thing this morning, she closed her eyes and stopped calling because she’d fainted away and couldn’t get a sound out, just gasping for breath.”

“Whom was she calling all night?” he hastily asked.

“Her mother.”

Baoyu wiped his tears.

“Who else?”

“Nobody else.”

“You silly thing, you can’t have heard her clearly.”

The other girl by him was smarter. When she heard this she stepped

2383

forward.

“She really is silly,” she told Baoyu. “I not only heard her clearly, I went over on the sly to see Qingwen.”

“Why did you do that?”

“Because I remembered how good Sister Qingwen always was to us—not like other people. Though she’d been unfairly treated and left, if we couldn’t find any other way to help her, we should at least go to see her to repay her former kindness. Even if we were found out and reported to the mistress, and if we got beaten for it, we’d gladly put up with that. That’s why, at the risk of a beating, I slipped over to see her. She always had intelligence, and was clear in her head right up to the time of her death. She only closed her eyes because she didn’t want to talk to those vulgar people. When she saw me, she opened her eyes and took my hand.

“‘Where is Baoyu?’ she asked me. “I told her where you’d gone.

“She sighed, ‘I shan’t be able to see him again then.’

“Why not wait till he’s back?’ I asked. ‘Then he can see you once more, which is what you both want.’

“She smiled and told me, ‘You don’t understand. I’m not going to die. There’s a vacancy now in heaven for a flower goddess, and the Jade Emperor has appointed me. I have orders to go to my new post at half past two; but Baoyu won’t be back till a quarter to three — too late by a quarter of an hour to see me. When people are fated to die and the King of Hell summons them, he sends small devils to fetch their spirits away. If someone wants to delay a bit he can burn paper money and serve some porridge; then while the devils are scrambling for the money, the one who’s dying can have a short reprieve. But now I mustn’t delay, as I’ve been invited by the gods in heaven.’

“At the time. I didn’t quite believe her. But when I got back and looked carefully at the clock, it was true that she died at half past two, and at a quarter to three your return was announced. So she’d got both the times right.”

“You don’t understand because you can’t read,” Baoyu answered. “This is absolutely true. Every single flower has its goddess, and there’s

2385

also a goddess in charge of all the flowers. I wonder whether she’s gone to take charge of them all, or of one particular flower.”

The maid had no ready answer. As it happened to be the eighth month and hibiscus was blooming beside the pond in the Garden, she took her cue from that.

“I asked her to let us know what flower she’d be in charge of,” she said, “so that in future we can sacrifice to her. She told me, ‘Heaven’s secrets can’t be disclosed; but as you are so pious I’ll tell you. You can let Baoyu know, but no one else — if you do, you’ll be struck dead by a thunderbolt!’ Then she told me she was in charge of the hibiscus.”

Baoyu, far from being surprised, felt his grief turn into pleasure. He pointed at the hibiscus.

“This flower needs a girl like her to care for it,” he observed, “I always thought that someone with her talents was bound to be given a responsible task.”

But although Qingwen had departed this sea of woe, the thought that they could never meet again inevitably filled him with grief and longing.

“Though I didn’t see her at the end,” he reflected, “I must go and sacrifice now at her shrine, for the sake of our friendship these last half dozen years.

Accordingly, he went straight back to change his clothes and, on the pretext of going to see Daiyu, went out of the Garden alone to the house where he had last visited Qingwen, assuming that her coffin would be there.

However, as soon as Qingwen died, her cousin and his wife had re­ported this in the hope of getting some money at once for the funeral. Lady Wang on hearing this news gave them ten taels of silver and ordered them to have the body taken out of town immediately to be cre­mated, for as Qingwen had died of consumption it must not be kept in the vicinity. The cousin and his wife took the money, then lost no time in having her body coffined and taken to the crematorium outside the city. Her clothes and trinkets, which were worth some three or four hundred taels, they kept for future use. Then they locked up the place and went to attend her funeral.

Baoyu, finding no one there, stood outside the door for a while; then,

2387

as there was nothing he could do, he had to return to the Garden. Back in his own rooms, he felt so depressed that he decided to call on Daiyu. However, he found she was out. When he asked where she had gone, her maids told him:

“To Miss Baochai’s place.”

Baoyu went then to Alpinia Park, only to find it quiet and deserted—even the furnishings had been removed. He was very much taken aback. He inquired of an old serving-woman who chanced to come along just then what had happened.

“Miss Baochai has gone,” she informed him. “We’ve been told to look after the place until everthing’s been moved away. After we’ve cleared these things away, the compound will be locked up. You’d better go now, young master, so that we can sweep up the dust. You won’t have to make any more trips here, sir, in future.”

For a while Baoyu stood there stupefied. He saw that the fragrant herbs and creepers in the courtyard were as green and luxuriant as ever, but they suddenly seemed to have grown disconsolate too, and the sight added to his grief. He left in silence. It had struck him that for some time no one had passed the tree-lined dyke outside the gate, whereas in the old days a whole succession of maids from different quarters had kept com­ing here all of their own accord. Looking down, and seeing that the stream at the foot of the dyke was still flowing smoothly past, he marvelled that nature could be so lacking in feeling. After grieving awhile he reflected:

“Five girls have gone, among them Siqi, Ruhua and Fangguan; and now Qingwen is dead, and Baochai’s household has left. Though Yingchun hasn’t gone yet, she’s been away these days and match-makers keep coming to arrange her marriage. It probably won’t be long before all the girls in the Garden disperse. Still, it’s no use moping over this. I may as well call on Daiyu and keep her company for a while before coming back to pass the time with Xiren. Most likely only the two or three of us will remain together till our dying day.”

Thinking in this way, he went to Bamboo Lodge; but Daiyu was still out. He thought next of attending Qingwen’s funeral, then decided against this, guessing that it would only make him feel sadder. So he returned dejectedly to his rooms.

2389

He was just wondering what to do when a maid from Lady Wang came to find him.

“The master’s back and wants you,” she announced. “He has an­other good subject for poetry. Go quickly. Hurry!”

Baoyu had to accompany her to Lady Wang’s place, only to find that his father had left already. His mother ordered the servants to take him to his father’s study.

Jia Zheng was discoursing with his secretaries on the beauty of the autumn scenery.

“Before the last party broke up,” he remarked, “we spoke of an incident which was surely the most enchanting tale of all times. ‘Gallantry and sub­limity, loyalty and magnanimity’ — not one quality was missing. So it should make a fine subject for an elegiac poem. Suppose we write one?”

His protégés promptly asked what wonderful story this was.

“There was a certain Prince Heng who governed Qingzhou,”’ Jia Zheng told them. “What he loved most was feminine beauty, and when at leisure he liked to practise the military arts. So he selected a number of beautiful girls and made them train for battle every day. When at a loose end, he would feast his beauties for days and ask them to display their swordsmanship or to seize or defend a bastion. One of these girls named Lin, the fourth child of her family, was a surpassing beauty and expert too in military arts. She was known as Fourth Mistress Lin. The prince, delighted with her, put her in command of all the other girls and called her his ‘Lovely General’.”

The secretaries all exclaimed in wonder.

“‘Lovely’ followed by ‘General’ — what a very gallant and ro­mantic title! This is really miraculous. Prince Heng himself must have been the most romantic figure of all time!”

Jia Zheng smiled.

“Quite so. But what followed is even more amazing and heart-rend­ing.”

His protégés all asked eagerly, “What was that?”

“The next year the Yellow Turbans, Red Brows2 and other rebels joined forces to raid the region east of the Taihang Mountains. The prince,

2391

thinking them rabble who did not need to be taken seriously, led a light force to wipe them out. However, those rebels were crafty. His forces lost two battles, and the prince was killed by the rebels. Then all the civil and military officers in the provincial capital said to each other:

“‘If even the prince could not beat them, what can we do?’

“They wanted to surrender. But Fourth Mistress Lin hearing this bad news assembled her women soldiers and announced:

“‘We were shown such favour by the prince in the past that we shall never be able to repay a fraction of it. Now that he has fallen in defence of the royal cause, I want to die for him too. Any of you who wish to follow me may— the rest are free to leave.’

“When the other women saw how determined she was, they all vol­unteered to join her. So that same night Fourth Mistress Lin led them out of the city to attack the rebels’ camp. The rebels were caught unawares and several of their chieftains were killed. Then seeing that their oppo­nents were only a few women whom they reckoned couldn’t amount to much, they counter-attacked and after some hard fighting killed them all, including Fourth Mistress Lin. And so she succeeded in proving her loy­alty. When this was reported to the capital the Emperor and all his minis­ters were shocked and moved and naturally sent troops to crush the rebels. As soon as the Imperial troops arrived, the rebellion was suppressed —we need not go into that.

“But, gentlemen, after hearing this story of Fourth Mistress Lin, don’t you think it admirable!”

“Truly admirable and amazing!” exclaimed his secretaries. “This is really a wonderful subject. We should all write something to commemo­rate her.”

One of them had already picked up a brush and written a short pref­ace based on ha Zheng’s account simply changing a few words. He now handed this to his patron to read.

“That’s the idea,” said Jia Zheng. “Actually, a short account has already been written. The other day an Imperial Decree was issued or­dering a search to be made for all those who should have been com­mended but were left out of past records, whether monks, nuns, beggars or women, as long as they had performed some worthy deed. The ac­-

2393

counts were to be sent to the Board of Rites for the Emperor’s ap­proval. So this account was sent to the Board of Rites. And after hearing this story, you should all write a poem on the Lovely General’s loyalty and sense of honour.”

“So we should,” they all agreed, laughing. “And what’s still more admirable is the fact that our dynasty is showing such unprecedented kindness, unmatched in earlier times. The men of Tang said, ‘Our saga­cious court overlooks nothing,’ and this has come true today. Our dy­nasty lives up to this prediction.”

Jia Zheng nodded.

“Exactly.”

As they were speaking, Huan and Lan arrived, and Jia Zheng told them to look at the subject. Though both of them, like Baoyu, could write poetry, this was not their special line. When it came to writing examina­tion papers, Huan and Lan might surpass Baoyu; but when it came to literature in general, they were much inferior. Besides, they lacked Baoyu’s literary brilliance and poetic flair. Thus the poems they wrote were like eight-section essays, inevitably stereotyped and pedantic.

Baoyu, though not to be reckoned a good scholar, had innate intelli­gence and loved to browse on literature of all kinds. He believed that some ancient classics were apocryphal and contained errors too, thus they should not be taken for gospel; moreover, if one had too many scruples and just stuck together phrases from old books, such writing would be most uninteresting. These being his views, when he saw a subject for poetry — whether difficult or easy — he would write on it effortlessly, just as glib talkers having nothing to go on rely on their ready tongues to hold forth at random, spinning lengthy yarns which though they have no basis in fact delight all those who hear them. Even strict sticklers for the truth cannot beat such entertaining fantasies.

Jia Zheng, growing old now, no longer hankered after fame and profit; besides, by temperament, he was fond of poetry, wine and liberal talk. Although he felt constrained to guide his sons and nephews along the right path, when he saw that Baoyu albeit not fond of study had some understanding of poetry, he decided that this did not really disgrace their ancestors; for they themselves, he recalled, had been the same and though

2395

working hard for the examinations had never distinguished themselves —apparently this was the Jia family’s destiny. Moreover, his mother doted on this grandson. So Jia Zheng did not insist too much on Baoyu working for the examinations and had recently treated him more leniently. And he wished that Huan and Lan, apart from writing eight-section essays, would follow Baoyu’s example. This was why, whenever they were composing poetry, he would summon all three boys together to write. But enough of this.

Now Jia Zheng told them to write a poem apiece, promising the re­ward to one who finished first and to give an additional prize for the best poem. As Huan and Lan had recently written several poems in com­pany, they no longer lacked confidence. After reading the topic, they went off to think it over. Before long, Lan was the first one to finish. And Huan, afraid to be left behind, finished his too. By the time both had copied their verses out, Baoyu was still lost in thought. Jia Zheng and his secretaries read the two younger boys’ verses. Lan’s heptasyllabic quatrain read as follows:

Fourth Mistress Lin, Lovely General,

Had jade-like beauty but an iron will;

Because she gave her life to requite Prince Heng

Today the soil of her district is fragrant still.

The secretaries said admiringly, “When a boy of thirteen can write like this, it truly shows the influence of a scholarly family.”

Jia Zheng smiled.

“The language is childish, but it’s quite a good effort.”

Then they read Huan’s eight-line pentameter, which was as follows:

Fair young ladies know no sorrow,

But a general has no relief;

Wiping her tears she left her broidered hangings

And took the battlefield, her heart filled with grief.

She wanted to requite the prince’s kindness—

Who else would wreak vengeance on the enemy.

Let us, at her grave, eulogize her loyalty

And her eternal, peerless gallantry.

“This is even better!” the secretaries exclaimed. “Being a few years

2397

older after all, he is more original.”

“It’s not too bad,” said Jia Zheng, “but it still lacks real feeling.”

“It’s quite good enough,” they protested. “The Third Young Master is only a couple of years older — he’s not reached manhood yet. If they go on working hard like this, in a few years they’ll be like the poets Yuan Ji and Yuan Xian.”

Jia Zheng laughed.

“You’re praising them too highly. The trouble with them is that they don’t study hard.” Then he asked Baoyu how he was getting on.

His protégés said, “The Second Young Master is composing his care­fully. It’s bound to be more stylish and poignant than the others.”

Baoyu said with a smile, “This subject seems unsuitable for a poem in the later style. Only a long poem in the old style— some song or ballad—can convey the spirit.”

The secretaries rose to their feet, nodding and clapping.

“We knew he’d come out with something original,” they said. “When presented with a subject, the first thing to consider is what is the most suitable form for it. This shows he’s an old hand at versifying. This is like tailoring—you must measure your customer before cutting out a gown. As this is a eulogy of the Lovely General and there is a preface to it, it should be a longish ballad something like Wen Tingyun’s The Pitcher Song3 or some other old ballad, or like Bai Juyi’s Song of Eternal Sor­row,4 half narrative and half lyrical, lively and graceful. That’s the only way to do justice to such a good subject.”

Jia Zheng, approving this, took up the brush ready to write the poem down.

“Very well then,” he said to Baoyu, smiling. “Dictate it to me. If it’s no good, I’ll give you a thrashing for making such a shameless boast.”

Baoyu started off with one line:

“Prince Heng loved martial arts, the fair sex too….”

Jia Zheng having written this down shook his head.

“Crude!”

“That’s the classical style. Surely not crude,” one of his protégés remonstrated. “Let’s see how he continues.

2399

“We’ll keep it for the time being,” Jia Zheng conceded. Baoyu resumed:

“He taught girls horsemanship and archery,

Taking no joy in splendid song or dance,

Only in spearmanship and soldiery.”

When Jia Zheng had written this out, the secretaries said, “The third line has a classical flavour and is vigorous too — excellent. And these four lines are apt, fitting the narrative style.”

“Don’t overdo your praise.” demurred Jia Zheng. “Let’s see how he turns the subject.”

Baoyu went on:

“No dust was seen to rise by watching eyes,

By the red lantern stood the general fair.”

After these two lines the rest exclaimed in approval.

“Wonderful — ‘No dust was seen to rise’ followed by ‘the red lantern’ and ‘general fair.’ The choice of words and images is superb.”

Baoyu resumed:

“Her sweet breath scented every battle-cry,

Hard for one so frail to wield cold sword and spear.”

All clapped their hands and laughed.

“It’s drawn to the life! Was Master Bao there at the time to see her delicate form and smell her sweet breath? If not, how could he have conjured it up like this?”

“When ladies practise fighting,” Baoyu explained, “however fearless they are they’re no match for men. It goes without saying they’ll appear rather delicate.”

“Stop blethering,” said his father, “and go on quickly.”

After a moment’s reflection Baoyu recited:

“Her knots of clove and her hibiscus belt

The secretaries commented, “A change of rhyme here is excellent, showing flexibility and fluency. Besides, this line is charming in itself.”

Jia Zheng wrote it down, observing. “This line is no good. He’s al­ready given us sweet breath’ and ‘hard for one so frail to wield.’ Why go on like this? It’s lack of substance that makes him pad out his lines in

2401

this way.

“A long poem needs certain ornate images to add some touches of colour,” ventured Baoyu.

“If you just hunt for images,” said his father, “how can you move on to the fighting? Another couple of lines like this will be superfluous.”

“In that case I suppose I can revert to the subject in the next line.”

Jia Zheng smiled scornfully.

“What great skill have you got? You’ve just made a fresh opening by bringing in something irrelevant. If now in one line you try to round it off and revert to the main theme, you’ll find you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.”

Baoyu lowered his head to think, and then continued:

“Enchain no pearls but a keen blade enchain.”

He asked hastily, “Will this line do?”

All the secretaries applauded.

Jia Zheng having copied this out said with a smile, “We’ll let it go. Carry on.”

“If this is all right, I’ll go straight on; if it’s not, I’ll scrap it and think up something else.”

“Be quiet!” snapped his father. “If it’s no good you’ll have to do it again. If you had to write a few dozen poems, would you complain it was hard work?”

Baoyu had to rack his brains and then declaimed:

“After a night’s manoeuvres she is exhausted,

Powder and rouge her silken headscarf stain.”

Jia Zheng said, “This is another stanza. What follows?” Baoyu re­sumed:

“The next year rebels rampaged east of the mountains,

Fierce tigers and leopards, swarming hornets were they.”

Again the others exclaimed, “That fine word ‘rampaged’ shows skill, and the turn in the narrative is natural too.”

Baoyu went on:

“The prince led Imperial troops to wipe them out;

One battle, then another—they lost the day.

2403

A reeking wind swept down the fields of wheat,

Flags and empty commander’s tent the sun did gild;

Green hills were silent, the stream gurgled on;

Now, in the heat of battle, Prince Heng was killed.

Rain drenched the bones of the dead, blood stained the grass;

Moonlight fell cold on the sand, ghosts hovered around.”

“Wonderful, wonderful!” cried the secretaries. “Composition, narra­tion and imagery—all are perfect. Let’s see how he proceeds now to the Fourth Mistress. There’s bound to be another skilful transition and more remarkable lines.”

Baoyu continued:

“Commanders and men thought only of fleeing to safety,

The city must speedily be razed to the ground.

Who would have looked in a boudoir for loyalty?

The prince’s favourite rose up wrathfully.”

All commented, “A good narraitve style.”

“Too wordy,” said Jia Zheng. “It may grow tedious.” Then Baoyu resumed:

“Who might that be, the favourite of Prince Heng?

Fourth Mistress Lin the fair general— none but she!

She gave the order to her lovely troops,

Fair as peach and plum-blossom they set off to fight;

Tears stained their embroidered saddles, heavy their grief,

No clank from their armour in the chilly night.

None could know the outcome— victory or defeat—

But they vowed at all costs their lord’s kindness to repay;

The rebels were too powerful to rout,

They crushed these willows and blooms—alack the day!

Their ghosts stayed by the city, close to home;

Steeds trampled their sweet rouged corpses where they lay;

This news, sent posthaste to the capital,

Filled every family with sore dismay.

The city’s loss appalled the Emperor,

Generals and ministers hung their heads in shame,

For not one of the court officials could compare

With lovely Fourth Mistress Lin of deathless fame.

2405

For this fair lady I sigh and sigh again

And, my song ended, my thoughts with her remain.”

After Baoyu had finished, all the secretaries heaped praise on him and read through the poem once more.

Jia Zheng observed with a smile, “Well, though there are some good lines it’s not moving enough.”

Then he dismissed the three boys. They left like prisoners reprieved to return to their different quarters.

We need not concern ourselves with all the others, who went to bed as usual when night fell. Only Baoyu, whose heart was heavy as he went back to the Garden, suddenly noticed the hibiscus in bloom and remem­bered the young maid’s account of Qingwen’s appointment as the god­dess in charge of this flower. Imperceptibly, his spirits rose again as he gazed at the hibiscus, sighing. All of a sudden it occurred to him that he had not yet paid his respects by her coffin, and it would be only fitting to sacrifice now before the flower — this would be more original than the vulgar ceremonies before the bier.

He was on the verge of bowing to the flowers when he had second thoughts. “Even if I do this, I mustn’t be too casual about it,” he told himself. “I’ll have to dress properly and have the sacrifice well pre­pared to show my sincere respect.”

Then he reflected, “It definitely wouldn’t do to sacrifice to her in the usual vulgar manner, I must do something different and create a new ceremony which is romantic and original with nothing mundane about it

— only then will it be worthy of the two of us. Besides, the men of old said: Objects as humble as ditch-water and water-weeds can be offered to princes and deities. It’s not the value of the objects that counts, but only the heart’s sincerity and reverence. That’s the first thing.

“And secondly, the eulogy and elegy must be original too and uncon­ventional. It’s no good following the beaten track and padding the writing with high-sounding phrases; one should shed tears of blood, making each word a sob, each phrase a groan. It’s better to show grief and to spare, even if that makes for an unpolished style. At no cost must genuine feel­ing be sacrificed to meretricious writing. Besides this was deprecated by

2407

many of the ancients too — it’s not a new idea of mine today. Unfortu­nately, men today are so keen on official advancement that they have completely discarded this classical style, for fear of not conforming to the fashion and damaging their chances of winning merit and fame. As I’m neither interested in rank or honour, nor writing something for others to read and admire, why shouldn’t I follow the style of such poetic essays as The Talk of the Great, Summoning the Soul, The Lament and The Nine Arguments of the ancient Chu people, or The Withering Tree, The Queries, The Autumn Flood and Life of the Great Gentlmen? I can intersperse the writing with solitary phrases or occasional short couplets, using allusions from real life as well as metaphors, and writing whatever I feel like. If merry, I can write playfully; if sad, I can record my anguish, until I’ve conveyed my ideas fully and clearly. Why should I be restricted by vulgar rules and conventions?”

Baoyu had never been a good student, and now as he entertained such perverse ideas how could he produce any good poems or essays? Yet he wrote purely for his own enjoyment, not for others to read or admire. So giving free rein to his absurd imagination, he made up a long lament, and he copied this out neatly on a white translucent silk kerchief which Qingwen had fancied, entitling it Elegy for the Hibiscus Maid and giving it a preface and a concluding song.

He also had four of the things which Qingwen had liked best pro­vided. When it was dark and the moon was up, he told the young maid to place these before the hibiscus. First be bowed, then hung the elegy on a spray of flowers and, shedding tears, recited:

“In this year of lasting peace, this month when hibiscus and osmanthus bloom, and on this hapless day, loutish Baoyu of Happy Red Court pre­sents fresh flowers, icy mermaid’s silk, water from Seeping Fragrance Fountain and maple-dew tea, mere trifles to convey his sincere feelings and to sacrifice to:

The Hibiscus Maid in charge of this autumn flower in the Palace of the White Emperor.

The dedication:

Pensively, I reflect that sixteen years have passed since this girl came into the dusty world, and her former name and home district have long been lost beyond recall. Only for little more than five years and eight

2409

months did I have her together with me as a dear companion in my bed-chamber to help me with my toiler and to share my recreations. In life, neither gold nor jade could compare with her character; neither ice nor snow with her purity; neither sun nor stars with her fine spirit; neither flowers nor moon with her beauty. All the maids admired her goodness, all the nurses praised her kindness.

Who could know that the eagle would be trapped in a net because pigeons and falcons hated its soaring spirit, that the orchid would be cut down because weeds envied its fragrance? How could such a delicate flower withstand a fierce gale, or the care-stricken willow endure torren­tial rain? Slandered by poisonous pests, she fell mortally ill: her cherry lips lost their redness as she moaned, her apricot cheeks became wan and faded. Slanderous accusations came from behind screens and curtains; brambles and thorns choked doors and windows. It was not that she asked for trouble, but refuting false charges she was fated to die. She was trampled down without cease, endlessly accused. Like Jia Yi,5 She was attacked by those jealous of her noble character; and, like Gun,6 imper­illed by her integrity. She hid her bitterness in her heart, and who is thereto lament her life cut short?

Now the fairy clouds have scattered; no trace of her can be found. No search can be made for the incense that revives the dead, as the way to the Fairy Isles is lost. No medicine that restores life can be obtained, as the Magic Barge7 is gone. Only yesterday I was painting those bluish eyebrows; today, who will warm her cold fingers with the jade rings? Medicine remains in the tripod on the stove; the tear-stains on my gown are still wet. Sad it is to open the mirror-case, for the phoenixes on its back have parted company with the broken mirror. Her comb has broken, alas and flown off like a vanishing dragon; her gold hair-pin has dropped in the grass; her emerald hair clasp is in the dust; the magpies8 are gone, the needle of the Double Seventh Festival rests idle; the love belt is broken, and who is there to weave the multicoloured silk thread?

In this autumn season ruled over by the White Emperor, I dream in my lonely bed in a deserted room. In the dim moonlight under the plane tree, her charming image and sweet spirit have vanished; fragrance clings to the lotus curtain, but her scented breath and easy talk are no more. With­ered grass stretches to the horizon, and everywhere crickets keep up a mournful chirping. In the evening the mossy steps are wet with dew, but no sound of pounding clothes comes through the portiere. As rain pat-

2411

ters down on the vine-covered wall, one hardly hears fluting from the other court. The cockatoo before the eaves still remembers her sweet name; the begonia withering outside the balustrade foretold her death. No more games of hide-and-seek behind the screen, her dainty footsteps are silent; no more matching-herbs contests in the court where orchids burgeon in vain. The embroidery thread cast aside, who is there to decide the coloured patterns on silk? Linen crumpled, who is there to iron and scent it? Yesterday, on my father’s orders, I was borne far off in a carriage to another garden; today offending my mother, I wept over the removal of her lonely bier. When I heard that her coffin was to be cremated I blushed with shame at breaking my vow to die, be buried and reduced to ashes together with her!

By the old temple in the autumn wind, will-o’-the-wisps are lingering; on the desolate mount in the setting sun, a few scattered bones only remain; elm trees rustle; tangled artemisia sighs; gibbons wail beyond the misty wilderness; ghosts weep around the foggy graveyard path­ways. The young lording behind red gauze curtains is filled with longing for the ill-fated maid in her mound of yellow earth. Facing the west wind, for you I shed tears of blood, while the master of Zi Ze9pours out his grief to the cold moon in silence.

Alas! This calamity was caused by evil spirits, not because the gods were jealous. Slashing the slanderer’s mouth would be too good for her! Cutting out the shrew’s heart could not vent my anger! Though you had a short stay on earth, so deep was my feeling for you that I took careful thought and made detailed inquiries. Then I learned that the Heavenly Emperor had graciously summoned you to the Palace of Flowers; for in life you were like an orchid, and in death you are in charge of the hibis­cus. Though the young maid’s words seemed fantastic, in my humble opinion there are good grounds for them. Of old, Ye Fashan10 summoned a spirit to write an epitaph for him, and Li He1’ was ordered by Heaven to make a record-different happenings but the same in principle. For suit­able tasks are selected for different talents, and the wrong choice of person would do the flowers injustice. This convinces me that the Heav­enly Emperor makes most fitting use of his power, appointing those best suited to each post.

In the hope that her immortal spirit may descend here, I offer my poor composition for her compassionate ears. And here is the song to sum­mon her spirit:

2413

Grey, grey is the sky!

Are you riding a jade dragon in the void?

Vast, vast is the earth!

Are you descending in jade and ivory carriage?

So bright and sparkling your canopy

Is it the radiance from the zodiac’s tail?

Are there coloured plumes leading the way

And on either side constellations?

Are you escorted by the God of Clouds,

Approaching with the Courier God of the Moon?

I hear the creaking of your carriage wheels —Are you coming in a phoenix equipage?

I smell a subtle fragrance —Are you wearing scented herbs?

Sparkling the light from your skirt —Have you carved the bright moon for your pendant?

On an altar of luxuriant orchid leaves

I burn scented oil in lotus lamps,

And pour you osmanthus wine

In goblets of gourds.

Gazing intently through the cloudy air

I seem to glimpse some vision;

Bending over the depth to listen,

Methinks I catch a sound.

Can you, roaming through boundless space,

Bear abandoning me in the dust?

If I beg the God of Wind to drive my carriage,

May I hope to ride with you?

Wrathful is my heart,

But what use is it lamenting?

You are resting now in peace;

Is it destiny that has thus changed my life?

Tranquil you sleep in your secluded vault;

Can you leave it to change once more?

I remain enfettered here.

Ah, spirit, will you come at my call?

Are you approaching or tarrying?

Come, I implore you!

Since you live in the silent unknown, even if you approach me my eyes cannot see you. With ivy as your screen, rush-swords as your retinue, you rouse the willows to open their drowsy eyes and dispel the bitterness in lotus seeds. Met by the Goddess of Music at Cassia Cliff, you are welcomed by the Goddess of the River Luo12 at Orchid Isle; Nong Yu13 plays the flute and Han Huang14 sounds the clapper to summon the Queen of Mount Song and the Dowager of Mount Li.15 The Divine Tor­toise manifests itself in the River Luo, wild beasts dance to the melody Xianchi,16 dragons sing below the Red Stream, and phoenixes alight at the Pearl Forest.

I am sacrificing with sincerity, caring little what sacrificial vessels I am using.

Setting out in your chariot from the City of Bright Morning Clouds,17 you return with your banners to the Hanging Garden.18 One moment your form seems faintly visible, the next it is suddenly blotted out by mist. The clouds and mist converge, then part again; fog and rain obscure the sky; then the mist withdraws, high above gleam stars, and the moon in mid sky brightens the hills and streams.

My heart is beating fast, like one just waking from a dream. I weep with longing and shed tears, not knowing where to go. All human voices are hushed; the only sounds are the rustling of bamboo, birds taking wing in fright, fish blowing bubbles….

In my grief I invoke you and, these rites at an end, look for some sign.

Ah, may your spirit come to the sacrifice!”

After chanting this he burned the silk and poured a libation of tea, still reluctant to leave the place. The young maid had to urge him several times before he turned away. Then, abruptly, they heard laughter behind some rocks.

“Please wait a bit!” cried a voice.

The two of them gave a start. And the maid looking back, saw a figure emerging from behind the hibiscus blooms.

“Help! A ghost!” she cried. “Qingwen’s spirit has really come!”

Baoyu in fright turned to look too.

To know whether or not it was a ghost, read the next chapter.

Previous articleA Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 77
Next articleA Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 79
Discover the wonders of China through studying abroad - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand your horizons, immerse yourself in a rich and diverse culture, and gain a world-class education.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here