The Deer And The Cauldron 32


The Deer And The Cauldron 32
第三十二回 歌喉欲断从弦续 舞袖能长听客夸

The Peerless

Trinket called on the Satrap the following day to enquire after his health, and was received by his second son, who informed him that there had been no change in his father’s condition’ the Satrap was sleeping and could not be disturbed. Further enquiry elicited the information that General Xia was out and about in the city with a battalion of soldiers, maintaining law and order and dealing with any signs of possible unrest. On the subject of the Satrap’s eldest son, and his unmentionable wound, Trinket received the vaguest possible reply. Trinket sensed a growing suspicion and hostility emanating from the Satrap’s camp. This was going to make it harder than ever, if not altogether impossible, to secure the release of the remaining members of the Mu Family. As for the Green Girl, to try and rescue her now would probably provoke an all’out attack from the Satrap’s men, and might lead to his own premature demise in the city of Kunming.

The following day, Trinket was discussing the deteriorating situation with his Triad friends, when the arrival was announced at the outer gate of an elderly Taoist nun, with a personal letter for him. Trinket asked one of the Triads to open the letter, which was written on yellow paper, and read it out to him. It began’ ‘Ah Kor is in serious trouble-‘ ‘What!’ Trinket jumped up in alarm.

The Triads knew nothing of his own involvement with the White Nun and her beautiful disciple. He must tread carefully. Those are the exact words with which the letter begins,’ said Tertius, who had read them out. The rest seems to make very little sense, and it is not even signed at the end. It just says that you are to go with the bearer of the letter, if you wish to discuss how to rescue this person.’ Trinket hurried out to the main gate, in one of the side’rooms of which he found the nun waiting patiently for him, seated on a bench. She rose to her feet and bowed. ‘Who sent you here?’ asked Trinket. ‘Please follow me, sir’ replied the old lady. ‘All will becomeclear.”Where to?”If you will just follow me, sir. I really can’t say.’ ‘Very well.’

Trinket ordered a horse and carriage, but the old nun begged him to travel with her in her simple cart, so as not to attract undue attention. Apothecary Xu, Butcher Qian, and other Triads insisted on following at a discreet distance, fearful that this might be a trap set by one of Trinket’s adversaries.They left the city by the west gate and were soon in the countryside, which grew more and more lonely and desolate. Trinket began to have misgivings.’Where are we going?’ he asked.’We’ll be there soon’ replied the old nun, inscrutable as ever.A mile or two further on they changed course and began heading north down a narrow track, just wide enough for their simple cart. Finally they arrived outside what seemed to be a tiny hermitage.’Here we are’ said the old nun. Trinket alighted from the cart. Above the entrance hung an inscription, of which he was able to decipher the first word ‘Three.’ Glancing over his shoulder, he spotted his Triad Brothers lurking in the distance. Somewhat reassured, he walked in with the old nun.

The interior of the hermitage was spotlessly clean and immaculately tidy. In the centre of the courtyard were several camellia bushes and a Judas tree, while a statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, gazed down on them from the main hall directly ahead. It was a fine figure, with a feminine, if slightly austere, charm. Trinket was favourably impressed.

The old nun led him to a side’room on the east side, and served tea. As Trinket raised the lid of his cup, the most delicious aroma assailed his nostrils. The brew was a wonderful pale green colour, and he immediately recognized it as a fine blend of Dragon Well tea from the Hangzhou region. These must be well’heeled nuns, he thought to himself, to be able to afford such expensive tea in this remote corner of the south’west. Next the old nun came in carrying a lacquer tray on which was an exquisite white porcelain bowl filled with an assortment of snacks’ pine’nut candies, a piece of walnut cake, slices of dried peach, rose’petal flavoured cookies,candied almonds, green bean’cake, lotus pastry, and arbutus berries preserved in cassia honey. These were all choice Suzhou delicacies, the sort of thing Trinket was only too familiar with from his own childhood in the southern city of Yangzhou. The Madame at Vernal Delights regularly served her customers with such things, and from time to time the young Trinket had managed to nibble one or two when no one was looking. Seeing them once again in this far’flung region was like being reunited with a gang of old friends! ‘Old Trink’s beginning to feel quite at home!’ he chuckled to himself in delight.

The old nun withdrew and left Trinket alone in the room. Clouds of sandalwood incense smoke drifted from a little bronze censer on the table. Trinket recognized the exact variety of sandalwood’ he had encountered it once in the Empress Dowager’s palace. The thought brought him to his feet with a start. ‘Oh no! Disaster! Not her’ Don’t tell me the Old Whore’s here! That means big trouble!’ At that very moment, he heard’soft footsteps outside the door, and a woman came in. She brought her hands together in the traditional Buddhist salutation, and bowed to her visitor. ‘Welcome to my simple hermitage, Lord Wei,’ she said. Her voice had a clear, gentle ring to it, and she spoke with a discernible Suzhou accent.

She looked like a woman of about forty years of age, and was wearing a pale’yellow nun’s habit. The statue Trinket had seen in the main hall was of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, but this nun had lustrous long hair in the free manner of a Taoist nun. She also had the most wondrously luminous eyes and exquisitely curved brows. As Trinket gazed at her, he thought to himself that he had never in his life set eyes on such a ravishingly beautiful specimen of feminine humanity. He rose to his feet and stood there with his tea’cup still in his hands, riveted to the spot, gaping open’mouthed at this apparition, incapable of either speech or movement. The lady smiled. ‘Please be seated, sir.’ ‘Yes, ma’am,’ mumbled Trinket incoherently. His knees went all wobbly, and he half sat, half collapsed into his chair, spilling his tea all over himself in the process.

The lady seemed not the least bit put out. It was as if she had watched this happen a thousand times before-this disabling effect she had on men. Countless times she had seen grown men totally unmanned by her stunning beauty. This time it was just a fifteen’or sixteen’year’old youth who had been conquered. She smiled again.’For such a very great and important man, sir, you seem dreadfully young. But then there was the famous Gan Luo in ancient times, who was made Prime Minister when he was still only a boy of twelve. And I am sure you are in no way his inferior.”Nor you, ma’am,’ replied a confused Trinket. ‘I mean, you’re not inferior to the fabulous beauties of olden days, ma’am.’She raised a silken sleeve to mask the smile that was spreading across her face. The enchantment of that smile soon gave way to an expression of great seriousness”Alas, that the beauty with which nature endowed me should have served only to bring suffering! To myself, and to many other sentient beings. Here, beside my lonely lamp and beneath the gaze of the ancient image of our Lord Buddha, I strive to make amends for the follies of my past. Alas! A thousand beatings of the wooden fish, a thousand chantings of the sutras are not enough to redeem the smallest part of the karma handed down from my former days!’

Her eyes reddened, and Trinket could see tears stealing down her cheeks. He had no idea what it was she was talking about. But he was reduced to pity by the mere sight of this beautiful woman and by the spectacle of her grief, which seemed to plumb the very depths of human despair. Without understanding what the cause of her sorrow was, he could feel himself being carried away by an indescribable welling of compassion that surged throughout his being. An irresistible impulse took hold of him, to sacrifice himself for her, to die if need be on her behalf. He rose to his feet and began beating his chest.’Who has treated you cruelly, ma’am?’ he proclaimed heroically. ‘Who has caused you to suffer’ Tell me, and I will avenge you! Lay all your troubles on my shoulders. I will wipe out the wrong done to you, or else I will sever this head of mine from my body and present it to you as penance!’As he was describing with such high’flown eloquence this most improbable sequence of actions, he raised his right hand, and brought the edge of the palm down with a chopping motion on his neck. His speech and gesture both breathed an exaggeratedly knightly air. At any other moment in our hero’s life the whole thing would have been nothing more than a contrived performance, not something to be taken seriously. But on this occasion, extraordinarily, for the very first time, Trinket really meant it.

She gazed at him. Then she sobbed’ ‘Your gallantry is more than I can ever be worthy of!’ Suddenly she fell to her knees and began kowtowing to him, knocking her head repeatedly on the ground before him. ‘No, ma’am!’ cried Trinket. ‘You mustn’t!’ He also fell to his knees, and began knocking his head in rhythm with hers. ‘You are a beauty descended to this mortal earth from fairy realms,’ he began. ‘You are the Goddess of Mercy reborn. I beg you to accept my humble service.’ ‘I shall die of shame!’ she mumbled almost inaudibly. She took hold of him by the arms and gave him the gentlest and chastest of embraces. Then the two of them rose to their feet. Trinket could see the tears glistening like pearls on her cheeks, and hurried to wipe them away .with the sleeve of his gown. ‘Don’t cry!’ he comforted her. ‘Whatever it is that is troubling you, together we will find a way to put things right! I promise we will!’

She was easily old enough to be his mother. But there was something so tender and feminine about her, something so fragile and ethereal about the way she spoke, something so captivating about her whole manner-it was enough to melt his boyish heart. Tell me’ Trinket continued. ‘What is your trouble?’ ‘Lord Wei,’ she replied, ‘I am so deeply grateful to you for coming to me so soon after you received my letter.’ ‘Yikesl’ cried Trinket suddenly, slapping himself in the face as he spoke, as if to wake himself from some dream. ‘Of course! The letter! Ah Kor!’ He stared at her again, and in that instant the truth dawned on him. ‘You’re her mother, aren’t you!’

‘You are very clever to have guessed, sir,’ she mumbled. ‘I would never have told you of my own accord.’ ‘It was easy. The two of you look so alike. But my sister’inarms . . . she’s beautiful all right, but she isn’t half as beautiful as you are!’ She flushed. The pink glow made her usually pale, lustrous [ace more beautiful than ever. It was like a delicate smear of rouge on a piece of white jade.’Did you call her your sister’in’arms?’ she enquired softly.’Yes,’ replied Trinket. ‘We are disciples of the same Shifu.’He told the whole story’ how he had first encountered Ah Kor how they had both travelled to Kunming with their Shifu, Sister Tribulation, the White Nun. He even described in detail his own feelings of adoration towards Ah Kor, and the low regard in which (alas!) she held him. He refrained, however, from going into the details of the White Nun’s past as Princess Royal, and said nothing of their shared determination to strike against the Satrap.

When he had finished his tale, the nun (who had listened carefully to every word he said) gave a little sigh.’Alas! In a woman’s beauty so often lie the seeds of calamity! Women know nothing of the greater good; and men are so hastily led astray!”No, ma’am!’ cried Trinket, shaking his head vehemently. ‘I’ve heard the story’tellers say the same thing, but it’s not true. They always lay the blame at the woman’s door. But I say it’s the men, the wretched, despicable, worthless men-Emperors, generals, whatever! They’re the ones at fault! Take Satrap Wu’ people say that he would never have betrayed his own Emperor to the Manchus if it hadn’t been for the Peerless Consort, the beautiful Chen Yuanyuan, the woman he was so crazy about. But I don’t see it that way. It was his own fault! If Satrap Wu had been a better man to start with, if he’d been loyal to the Throne, twenty Peerless Consorts would never have been able to lead him astray! Tamardy! It was his fault, everything was his fault, the foul turtle’head!’The lady bowed to Trinket several times.

Thank you, my lord, for your generous words. You speak on behalf of a much wronged woman.’Trinket hurriedly returned her bow. Then”But. . .’ he stammered. ‘You … oh my goodness! That’s it, isn’t it! You’re her, aren’t you! You’re the one! Of course! You’re the Peerless One! Peerless! How could there be anyone else in the whole world as beautiful as you! Forgive me! I must be going crazy, I just don’t know what’s going on, I don’t understand any of this at all. If you’re the Satrap’s Peerless Consort, what are you doing here in this hermitage’ And how could … Green … Ah Kor … be your daughter?’

There were too many unanswered questions in his head. ‘Yes’ replied the woman, ‘I am Chen Yuanyuan. It is a very long story. After all the gallant things that you have said, I cannot possibly hide the truth from you. For twenty years I have been reviled by all my fellow countrymen. I have been held to blame for our country’s defeat, for our national disgrace. There are only two great men of distinction alive, two famous men of letters, who understand the truth. One is you. The other is the great poet, Wu Weiye.’ Needless to say, Trinket knew next to nothing about Chen Yuanyuan’s past, and whether or not she had indeed been to blame for the falling of Peking to the Tartars and their subsequent conquest of China. All he knew (now that he had seen her for himself) was that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. That was argument enough for him. And he also knew that he loathed Satrap Wu. So why not blame everything on him’ There was also a sufficiently powerful logic in that. But at least he was honest enough to disown any claims to being a great man of letters! ‘Actually I’m afraid I can’t read or write’ he confessed. ‘You’d really better not make the mistake of calling me a Great Man of Letters. Doctor Dog Fart would be a far better title for me.’

She smiled. ‘You are a young man of courage and wisdom. That’s what counts.’ Hearing such words of praise from such a gorgeously attractive woman sent Trinket into a swoon. He could hardly believe his ears. ‘Come with me’ said Chen Yuanyuan. ‘I want to tell you the whole story myself. In my own way.’ She led him out of the room, down a little cobbled path, to her private chamber. The Ballad of the Peerless Consort Her chamber was bare apart from two mats (of the kind used for meditation), a long calligraphic scroll on the wall, and a piba mandolin which hung next to it. ‘Please be seated’ said Chen Yuanyuan. When Trinket had lowered himself onto one of the mats, she took down the piba and sat down on the other mat, cradling the instrument on her lap. Pointing to the calligraphy on the wall, she explained that it was a long ballad written for her by the famous poet Wei Wuye. It was called the ‘Ballad of the Peerless Consort’.Today is a very special occasion’ she continued. ‘Ours has been such an important meeting. I should like to sing the Ballad for you, if you would like to hear it.’That would be wonderful’ said a delighted Trinket. ‘But I hope you’ll explain it as you go along. Otherwise I won’t have the faintest idea what it’s all about. Don’t forget, Doctor Dog Fart’s not very strong on the book’learning, I’m afraid.’

She smiled again.’You are too modest.’She tuned the strings of her instrument and plucked a few notes.’I haven’t played this piece for a long time. You must forgive me if I go astray from time to time.”Don’t worry’ replied Trinket. ‘I’d be the last person to notice.’She began with a few slow, gentle introductory measures on the piba. Then she sang:

‘Twas when the Son of Heaven forsook the world,
That General Wu stormed through the Pass of jade;
The soldiers all for grief in white were dad,
But he alone at beauty’s flight did rage.

She explained this first verse for Trinket’s benefit.’You see, when the last Son of Heaven, or Emperor, of the Ming dynasty, Chong Zhen, died, General Wu, the one people today sometimes call the Satrap, though they should really just call him Prince of the West, joined forces with the Manchu Tartars to take Peking away from the rebel commander Li Zicheng, the one they call General Bash’em. Li and his rebel army had taken control of the Capital, the last Ming Emperor was dead, and Li was already setting himself up as the new Emperor. The combined forces of General Wu’s Chinese troops and the Tartars defeated Li at the famous Battle of the Pass. The Chinese soldiers were all dressed in white, in mourning for their dead Emperor; but the song says that Wu was not really fighting against Bash’em and for the Emperor- he did it all for love of me! Because Li, General Bash’em, had stolen me from him.’Trinket nodded.’I don’t blame him! I’d have gone over to tne i

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