The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 18

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CHAPTER 18

A brief family reunion is permitted by the
magnanimity of a gracious Emperor
And an Imperial Concubine takes pleasure in the
literary progress of a younger brother

Just at that moment a servant came in to say that the workmen needed some gauze for pasting on window-lattices and asked Xi-feng if she would unlock the storeroom for them. Then another servant arrived and asked her to take charge of some gold and silver plate. Lady Wang and her maids also seemed to be fully occupied. Thoughtful Bao-chai pointed out to Bao-yu and the rest that they were getting in everyone’s way, and at her suggestion they all adjourned to Ying-chun’s room.
Lady Wang’s business in fact continued unabated until well into the tenth month. By then the contractors had fulfilled their contracts and the various buildings in the garden been stocked with appropriate ornaments and antiques; supplies of livestock—storks, deer, rabbits, chicken, geese, and so forth–had been purchased and distributed to the parts of the garden where they were to be reared; Jia Qiang’s young ladies had rehearsed and were word-perfect in twenty or thirty operatic pieces; and the little Buddhist and Taoist nuns had mastered the essential parts of their respective liturgies. Jia Zheng could now feel reasonably well satisfied that things were as they should be, and invited Grandmother Jia into the garden for a final inspection in which she was to suggest any last-minute alterations that might still be needed. When not the slightest shadow of an imperfection could any more be found, he at last sent in his written application for a Visitation. The Gracious Reply arrived on the very same day:

Her Grace will make a Family Visitation next year on the fif?teenth of the first month, being the Festival of Lanterns.

The receipt of this reply seemed to throw the Jia family into an even greater frenzy of preparation than before, so that even its New Year celebrations that year were somewhat scamped.
In no time at all the Festival of Lanterns seemed to be almost upon them. On the eighth of the first month a eunuch came from the Palace to inspect the layout of the Separate Residence and to establish where the Imperial Concubine would ‘change her clothes’, where she would sit to converse with her family, where she would receive their obeisances, where she would feast them, and where she would retire to when she wanted to rest. The eunuch Chief of Security also arrived with his eunuch minions and supervised a great deal of sealing-up and screening-off everywhere. He also instructed the members of the household in the regulations for leaving and entering, serving food and bringing messages, all of which had to be done through special entrances and exits and by special routes.
Outside the mansion the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and a gentleman from the Board of Works were busy supervising the sweeping of the surrounding streets and the chasing away of all idlers, onlookers and other suspicious-looking characters.
Meanwhile Jia She and the consortium were putting up ornamental lanterns everywhere in the gardens and fixing fireworks in place for a pyrotechnic display in honour of the visit. By the fourteenth everything was finally ready. No one in the Jia household, whether master or servant, had a wink of sleep throughout the whole of that night.
By five o’clock next morning, when it was still dark night outside, all those in the family from Grandmother Jia down?wards who held any sort of rank or title were already dressed in full court rig. In the Separate Residence
painted phoenix and coiling dragon
flapped and fluttered on drapes and curtains,
gold and silver-work gleamed and glinted,
jewels and gems made a fiery sparkle,
subtle incenses smouldered in brazen censers,
‘everlastings’ blossomed in china vases;
—and all was so silent, that throughout the whole of that great garden not the sound of a cough was to be heard.
Jia She and the other menfolk drew themselves up outside the west gate. Grandmother Jia stood outside the main gate with the female members of the family. They noticed that the ends of the street and the entrances of the side-streets leading into it had all been screened off.
Just as they were beginning to grow impatient, a eunuch trotted up on horseback and was stopped and questioned by Jia Zheng
‘Oh, you’re much too early yet!’ said the eunuch. ‘Her Grace won’t be taking her lunch until one o’clock; then at two she goes to divine service in the Bao-ling chapel. Five o’clock, when she has an appointment to feast with the Emperor in the Da-ming Palace and look at the New Year lanterns, is the first opportunity she will have of asking permission to leave. I should be surprised if she got started much before seven o’clock this evening!’
‘Well,’ said Xi-feng to Grandmother Jia when she heard this, ‘you and Aunt Wang may as well go back to your room. You will be able to come back later on nearer the time.’
Grandmother Jia and the other ladies took her advice and went off, leaving Xi-feng to attend to whatever still needed doing in the garden. Under her direction some of the stewards carried off the eunuchs and treated them to food and wine, while other servants fetched great bundles of wax candles to illuminate the garden’s many lanterns with.
Suddenly, as afternoon drew towards evening, a clatter of many hooves was heard, and after a short pause, a group of ten or so eunuchs rushed in out of breath, clapping their hands as they ran. This was taken by the other eunuchs as a sign that the Imperial Concubine was on her way, for they at once jumped up and hurried to their prearranged places. The family, too, took up their positions once more, Jia She and the menfolk outside the west gate and Grandmother Jia with the ladies outside the main entrance.
For a long time there was total silence. Then a couple of eunuchs on horseback came riding very, very slowly up to the west gate. Dismounting, they led their horses out of sight behind the cloth screens, then returned to take up their stand at the sides of the road, half-facing towards the west. After a considerable wait, two more eunuchs arrived and went through the same motions as the first pair. Then another two, and then another, until in all some ten pairs were standing at the sides of the road, their faces turned expectantly towards the west.
Presently a faint sound of music was heard and the Imperial Concubine’s procession at last came in sight.
First came several pairs of eunuchs carrying embroidered banners.
Then several more pairs with ceremonial pheasant-feather fans.
Then eunuchs swinging gold-inlaid censers in which special ‘palace incense’ was burning.
Next came a great gold-coloured ‘seven-phoenix’ umbrella of state, hanging from its curve-topped shaft like a great drooping bell-flower. In its shadow was borne the Imperial Concubine’s travelling wardrobe: her head-dress, robe, sash and shoes.
Eunuch gentlemen-in-waiting followed carrying her rosary, her embroidered handkerchief, her spittoon, her fly-whisk, and various other items.
Last of all, when this army of attendants had gone by, a great gold-topped palanquin with phoenixes embroidered on its yellow curtains slowly advanced on the shoulders of eight eunuch bearers.
As Grandmother Jia and the rest dropped to their knees eunuchs rushed up and helped them to get up again. The palanquin passed through the great gate and made for the entrance of a courtyard on the east side of the forecourt. There a eunuch knelt beside it and invited the Imperial Concubine to descend and ‘change her clothes’. The bearers carried it through the entrance and set it down just inside the courtyard. The other eunuchs then withdrew, leaving Yuan-chun’s ladies-in-waiting to help her from the palanquin.
The courtyard she now stepped out into was brilliant with coloured lanterns of silk gauze cunningly fashioned in all sorts of curious and beautiful shapes and patterns. An illuminated sign hung over the entrance of the principal building:

PILLED WITH FAVOURS BATHED IN BLESSINGS

Yuan-chun passed beneath it into the room that had been prepared for her, then, having ‘changed her clothes’, came out again and stepped back into the palanquin, which was now borne into the garden.
Her first impression was a confused one of curling drifts of incense smoke and gleaming colours. There were lanterns everywhere, and soft strains of music. She seemed to be enter?ing a little world wholly dedicated to the pursuit of ease and luxury and delight. Looking at it from the depths of her palanquin she shook her head a little sadly and sighed:
‘Oh dear, this is all so extravagant!’
At that moment a eunuch knelt beside the palanquin and invited the Imperial Concubine to proceed by boat. Stepping out onto the waiting barge she saw an expanse of clear water curving between its banks like a sportive dragon. Lanterns of crystal and glass were fixed to the balustrades which lined the banks, their silvery radiance giving the white marble, in the semi-darkness, the appearance of gleaming drifts of snow. Because of the season, the willows and apricot trees above them were bare and leafless; but in place of leaves they were festooned with hundreds of tiny lanterns, and flowers of gauze, rice-paper and bast had been fastened to the tips of their branches. Other lanterns made of shells and feathers, in the form of lotuses, water-lilies, ducks and egrets floated on the surface of the water below. It would have been hard to say whether the water below or the banks above presented the more brilliant spectacle. Together they combined to make a fairyland of jewelled light. And to these visual delights were added the many charming miniature gardens on the barge itself—not to mention its pearl blinds, embroidered curtains, and the carved and painted oars and paddle with which it was furnished. While Yuan-chun was still admiring all this, her boat approached a landing-stage in a grotto, above which hung a lantern-sign inscribed with these words:

SMARTWEED BANK AND FLOWERY HARBOUR

Stone’s Note to Reader:
You may find it surprising that ‘Smartweed Bank and Flowery Harbour’, ‘The Phoenix Dance’ and those other names, which in the last chapter we showed Bao-yu inventing in an aptitude test imposed at random by his father, should actually have been used on the occasion of the Imperial Concubine’s first visit to her family. Surely, you will say, a household as long established and highly cultivated as the Jias’ must have had several well-known talents at its disposal which it could have called upon for such important purposes as these? These were no wealthy parvenus whose vulgarity would be satisfied with the effusions of a gifted schoolboy for filling in the gaps where inscription are felt to be de rigueur.
The answer lies in Yuan-chun’s special relationship with Bao-yu. Before Yuan-chun entered the Palace, she had been brought up mainly by Grandmother Jia; and when Bao-yu appeared on the scene (at a time when his mother was already middle-aged and unlikely to have any more children) she had lavished all her affection on this little brother who spent all his time with her at their grandmother’s. When he was still a very little boy of only three or four and had not yet begun his schooling, she had taught him to recite several texts and to recognize several thousand characters. Although they were brother and sister, their relationship was more like that of a mother and her son; and even after she entered the Palace, she was always writing letters to her father and her male cousins in which she expressed concern for the little boy who was so constantly in her thoughts. ‘I beg you to be most careful in your handling of this child,’ she once wrote. ‘If you are not strict with him, he will never grow up into a proper man. But if you are too strict, you may endanger his health and cause Grandmother to be distressed.’
When, some months previously, Jia Zheng received a favourable report from Bao-yu’s schoolmaster in which his creative ability was commended, he had used the visit to the garden as a means of trying him out. The results were not, of course, what a great writer would have produced in similar circumstances, but at least they were not unworthy of the family’s literary traditions, and Jia Zheng resolved that his daughter should see them, so that she might know that the progress made by her beloved younger brother fully came up to the measure of those ardent hopes she had so often expressed in her letters.
—Incidentally, Bao-yu had, in the intervening time, supplied many more inscriptions for the places they had been unable to cover on that first occasion.
Stone

When Yuan-chun saw the words ‘Smartweed Bank and Flowery Harbour’ she laughed.
‘Surely “Flowery Harbour” is enough by itself? Why “Smartweed Bank” as well?’
At once an attendant eunuch disembarked and rushed like the wind to tell Jia Zheng, who
immediately gave orders to have the inscription changed.
By this time the barge had drawn alongside the bank and Yuan-chun disembarked and
stepped once more into her palanquin. Soon she was borne into that part of the garden where
‘Roof above roof soared
Eye up-compelling …’
and saw the white marble memorial arch which had so strongly affected Bao-yu when he first saw it. It now bore a temporary inscription:

PRECINCT OF THE CELESTIAL VISITANT

Yuan-chun gave orders that the words ‘The House of Reunion’ should be substituted.
She now ascended the terraces and entered the open-fronted hall of audience.
From a ring of cressets against the night sky
a fragrant scatter dropped on the flagstones;
and candelabra like fiery fir-trees
gleamed festively in the gilded casements;
there were blinds looped and fringed like a prawn’s belly,
there were rugs in rows like an otter’s offering;
and tripods smoked with perfumes of musk and borneol,
and behind the throne waved fans of pheasant feathers.
It was a scene no whit less splendid than that fairy palace of which the poet sings:

The abode of the Princess has cassia halls and orchid chambers.

‘How is it that this place has no name?’ asked Yuan-chun.
‘This is the principal hall of the Residence, Your Grace. The family dared not give it a name without consulting you first.
Her Grace nodded.
A eunuch Master of Ceremonies now requested her to seat herself upon a chair of state in order to receive the obeisances of her family. Music struck up from a band stationed at either side of the steps as two eunuchs conducted Jia She and Jia Zheng onto the terrace beneath. The other male members of the family ranged themselves behind them and the whole party then began to advance in formation up the steps into the hall.
‘Excused!’
A lady-in-waiting came forward and uttered this single word as an indication that the Imperial Concubine wished to absolve them from the ceremonial, and with a slight bow they with?drew.
It was now the turn of Grandmother Jia (‘the Dowager Lady Jia of Rong-guo’ they called her) and the ladies of the household to make their obeisance. The eunuchs led them up the steps at the east side of the terrace on to the platform in front of the hall, where they ranged themselves in order of precedence.
Once more the lady-in-waiting pronounced the absolving word and they, too, withdrew.
After tea had been offered three times as etiquette prescribed, the Imperial Concubine descended from her throne, the music stopped, and she withdrew into a side room to ‘change her clothes’. A less formal carriage than the imperial palanquin had been prepared which carried her from the garden to her family’s own quarters.
Inside Grandmother Jia’s apartment Yuan-chun became a grandchild once more and knelt down to make her kotow. But Grandmother Jia and the rest knelt down too and prevented her from prostrating herself. She ended up, clinging to Grandmother Jia by one hand and Lady Wang by the other, while the tears streamed down her face, too overcome to say anything. All three of them, in fact, though there was so much they wanted to say, seemed quite incapable of speech and stood there holding each other and sobbing, apparently un?able to stop. The others present— Lady Xing, Li Wan, Wang Xi-feng, Ying-chun, Tan-chun and Xi-chun—stood round them weeping silently. No one spoke a word.
Yuan-chun at last restrained her sobs and forced a smile to her tear-stained face:
‘It hasn’t been easy, winning this chance of coming back among you after all those years since I was first walled up in That Place. Now that we are seeing each other at last, we ought to talk and be cheerful, not waste all the time crying! I shall be leaving again in no time at all, and Heaven only knows when I shall have another chance of seeing you!’
At this point she broke down once more and had to be comforted by Lady Xing. When she had composed herself, Grandmother Jia made her sit down while the members of the family came forward one at a time to greet her and say a few words. This was an occasion for further tears. Then the senior menservants of both the Rong-guo and Ning-guo mansions assembled in the courtyard outside and paid their respects. They were followed by the women servants and maids, who were allowed to come inside the room to make their kotow.
Yuan-chun asked why her Aunt Xue and her cousins Bao-chai and Lin Dai-yu were missing.
‘Relations outside the Jia family are not allowed to see you without a special invitation, dear,’ Lady Wang told her.
Yuan-chun asked them to be invited in immediately, and Aunt Xue and the two girls arrived after a few moments. They would have kotowed to her in accordance with court etiquette had not Yuan-chun hurriedly excused them from doing so. The three of them went up to her, and niece and aunt exchanged news of the years that had elapsed since they last met.
Next Lutany and the other maids who had accompanied Yuan-chun into the Palace came forward to make their kotows to Grandmother Jia. The old lady at once motioned to them to rise and gave instructions to her own servants to entertain them in another room.
The senior eunuchs and the ladies-in-waiting were now led off by members of the staffs of Jia She’s household and the Ning-guo mansion to be entertained elsewhere, leaving only three or four very junior eunuchs in attendance. Yuan-chun was at last free to chat informally with her mother and the other female members of her family and learned for the first time about many personal and domestic events that had occurred in the household since she left it.
Then there was her interview with Jia Zheng, which had to take place with her father standing outside the door-curtain of the room in which she was sitting. Now that she was the Emperor’s woman, this was the nearest to her he could ever hope to get. The sense of deprivation struck home to Yuan-?chun as she addressed him through the curtain.
‘What is the use of all this luxury and splendour,’ she said bitterly, ‘if I am to be always separated from those I love —denied the tenderness which even the poorest peasant who seasons his bread with salt and pickles and dresses in hempen homespun is free to enjoy?’
With tears in his eyes the good man delivered the following little speech to the daughter he could not see:
‘Madam.
That a poor and undistinguished household such as ours should have produced, as it were, a phoenix from amidst a flock of crows and pies to bask in the sunshine of Imperial favour and shed its reflected beams on the departed representatives of our ancestral line must be attributable to the concentration in your single person of the quintessences of all that is most admirable in celestial and terrestrial nature and the accumulated merit of many generations of our forebears, and is an honour and a blessing in which my wife and I are proud to be participators.
‘Our beloved Emperor, who embodies in his own Sacred Person those life-giving forces which are always invisibly at work in the natural cosmos, has showered down upon his grate?ful subjects a gracious kindness unprecedented in the annals of recorded history—a kindness which even the expenditure of our life’s blood to the veriest ultimate drop would be wholly inadequate to repay and which only the most unremitting pains and unswerving loyalty in the discharge of those duties to which it has pleased him to call us could adequately express.
‘It is our earnest prayer that His Sacred Majesty may con?tinue long to reign over us, a blessing to all his peoples; and that Your Grace should feel no anxiety concerning the welfare of my wife and myself during our now declining years, but should rather cherish and sustain your own precious person, in order to be the better able to serve His Sacred Majesty with care and diligence, seeking by that service to be worthy of the tender regard and loving favour which he has been graciously pleased to bestow upon you.’
To this formal speech the Imperial Concubine made a formal reply:
‘Sir. It is of course desirable that you should exercise the utmost diligence when engaged upon business of state, but it is to be hoped that you will take sufficient care of your own well-being whenever not so engaged, and will under no circumstances vex yourself with anxiety on our behalf.’
‘The inscriptions at present displayed on the pavilions and other buildings in the garden were composed by Bao-yu,’ said Jia Zheng. ‘If there are any places in the garden which particularly take your fancy, we hope you will name them for us.’
The news that Bao-yu could already compose inscriptions evoked a smile of pleasure.
‘He has made progress, then!’
Jia Zheng withdrew.
‘But why is Bao-yu not with us?’ she added.
‘The menfolk of the family are not supposed to see you without special reason,’ Grandmother Jia explained.
Yuan-hun at once gave orders that he should be summoned, and presently he was brought in by one of the little eunuchs. When he had completed his kotow she called him over, and stretching Out her arms, drew him to her bosom where she held him in a close embrace, stroking his hair and fondling the back of his neck.
‘What a lot you have grown—!’ she began. But the rest was drowned in a flood of tears.
You-shi and Xi-feng now approached to announce that a feast awaited her in the Separate Residence. Yuan-chun rose to her feet, and bidding Bao-yu lead the way, walked with the rest of the company to the gate of the garden. There, in the light of the innumerable lanterns, all kinds of spectacles had been prepared for her entertainment. The route led through ‘The Phoenix Dance’, ‘Fragrant Red and Lucent Green’, ‘The Hopeful Sign’, and ‘The Garden of Spices’. This time the inspection was no perfunctory one. Yuan-chun insisted on looking inside the buildings and climbing up and down their stairs. She crossed bridges, she walked round each tiny ‘mountain’, and every once in a while she stopped to look about her and admire the view. All the places she visited were so beautifully furnished and so ingeniously planned, that she could not conceal her delight. But there was a faint note of censure in her praise
‘You really mustn’t be so extravagant in future. This is far too much!’
They had now come to the main hall. Having first decreed that they should dispense with court etiquette—which would have prevented the older ladies from sitting down at all—she took her place at the main table, while Grandmother Jia and the rest sat at little tables on either side, and You-shi, Li Wan and Xi-feng moved to and fro, dispensing wine and helping with the service.
While they were still drinking, Yuan-chun sent for writing materials, and taking up a brush, began in her own hand to write out some names for the parts of the garden she had liked the best. The name she chose for the garden as a whole was ‘Prospect Garden’, and she composed the following couplet to go outside the main reception hall:

For all earth to share, his great compassion has been extended,
that children and humble folk may gratefully rejoice.
For all ages to admire, his noble institutions have been promoted,
that people of every land and clime may joyfully exult.

She altered ‘The Phoenix Dance’ to ‘The Naiad’s House’, and she renamed ‘Fragrant Red and Lucent Green’ ‘Crimson Joys and Green Delights’ and named the building in its grounds ‘The House of Green Delights’. The buildings belonging to ‘The Garden of Spices’ she named ‘All-spice Court’. Those of ‘The Hopeful Sign’ she gave the name ‘Washbrook Farm’. The main hall became ‘Prospect Hall’ with separate names for the high galleries on either side: ‘The Painted Chamber’ for the one on the east side, ‘The Fragrance Gallery’ for the one on the west. Among the other names which she invented for various other parts of the garden were:
‘The Smartweed Loggia’, ‘The Lotus Pavilion’, ‘Amaryllis Eyot’, and ‘Duckweed Island’. She also composed inscrip?tions for some of its prospects, including ‘Pear-tree blossom in springtime rain’, ‘Paulownia leaves in autumn wind’, and ‘Rushes in the winter snow’. The couplets composed by Bao-yu were to remain unaltered.
Having finished with the inscriptions, she proceeded to write out the following quatrain of her own composition:

Embracing hills and streams, with skill they wrought:
Their work at last is to perfection brought.
Earth’s fairest prospects all are here installed,
So ‘Prospect Garden’ let its name be called!

‘There!’ she said with a smile to the girls. ‘I’m no genius, as you all well know, and I have never been much of a poet. But tonight I thought I really must write something, for this beautiful garden’s sake. Later on, when I have more time to spare, I intend to write a Description of Prospect Garden and a set of verses to be entitled The Visitation in commemoration of this wonderful night. But meanwhile I should like each of you girls to compose an inscription that could be used somewhere in the garden, and also a poem to go with it. Just write anything that comes into your heads. I don’t want you to restrict yourselves by trying to make your poems in any way relate to my own poor effort. As for Bao-yu: I am very pleased that he is able to compose verses so well, and I want him to write me an octet for each of the four places in the garden I like best: the Naiad’s House, All-spice Court – those are my two favourites—the House of Green Delights, and Washbrook Farm. The couplets he has already written for them are very good, but these are four such special places, that I feel they deserve to have something more written about them. And apart from that, if Bao-yu can show me these four poems while I am here, I shall feel that the efforts I made at teaching him when he was a little boy were worth while.’
Bao-yu could scarcely refuse, and went off to rack his brains for some good lines.
Tan-chun was by far the most gifted of the Three Springs and joined Bao-chai and Dai-yu in writing octets. Li Wan, Ying-chun and Xi-chun, none of whom had any talent for versification, contented themselves with a quatrain apiece, but found even four lines a considerable effort.
When the girls had all finished, Yuan-chun took up the papers one by one and examined the results of their labours. Here is what they had written:

Ying-chun: Heart’s Ease

The garden finished, all its prospects please.
Bidden to write, I name this spot ‘Heart’s Ease’.
Who would have thought on earth such scenes to find
As here refresh the heart and ease the mind?

*

Tan-chun: Brightness and Grace

Water on hills and hills on waters smile,
More bright and graceful than the Immortal Isle.
Midst odorous herbs the singer’s green fan hides;
Her crimson skirt through falling petals glides.
A radiant jewel to the world is shown,
A fairy princess from her tower come down:
And since her steps the garden’s walks have trod,
No mortal foot must desecrate its sod.

*

Xi-chun: Art the Creator

The garden’s landscape far and wide outspreads;
High in the clouds its buildings raise their heads;
Serene in moonlight, radiant in the sun—
Great Nature’s handiwork has been outdone!

*

Li Wan: All Things Bright and Beautiful

The finished garden is a wondrous sight.
Unlettered and unskilled, I blush to write.
Its marvels are not in one phrase expressed,
Yet ‘Bright and Beautiful’ I judge the best.

*

Xue Bao-chai: Auspicious Skies

West of imperial walls the garden lies;
The sun beams on it from auspicious skies.
Its willows orioles from the vale invite;
Tall bamboos tempt the phoenix to alight.
Poetic arts this night must celebrate
Filial affection dressed in robes of state.
Dare I, who have those jewelled phrases read,
Add more to what She has already said?

*

Lin Dai-yu: The Fairy Stream

To fairy haunts far from the world’s annoy
A royal visit brings a double joy.
A thousand borrowed beauties here combined
In this new setting new enchantment find.
Its odours sweet a poet’s wine enrich;
Its flowers a queenly visitor bewitch.
May she and we this favour hope to gain:
That oft-times she may pass this way again!

*

As soon as she had finished reading the poems, Yuan-chun praised them all warmly. ‘But Cousin Lin’s and Cousin Xue’s poems are specially good,’ she said. ‘Our Jia girls are no match for them!’
Dai-yu had confidently expected that this night would give her an opportunity of deploying her talents to the full and amazing everyone with her genius. It was very disappointing that no more had been required of her than a single little poem and an inscription; and though she was obliged to confine her?self to what the Imperial Concubine had commanded, she had composed her octet without enthusiasm and in a very per?functory manner.
Meanwhile Bao-yu was far from finished with his consignment. He had finished composing the poems for the Naiad’s House and All-spice Court and was still in the middle of a poem on the House of Green Delights. Bao-chai took a peep over his shoulder and noticed that his draft contained the line

Some wear sheathed skirts of lucent green curled tight.

When no one was looking she gave him a nudge:
‘You can tell Her Grace didn’t like “lucent green” because she only lust now altered it to something else in your inscrip?tion. If you insist on using it in your poem, it will look as if you are deliberately flaunting your difference of opinion. There are so many allusions to plantain leaves you could use, you shouldn’t have much difficulty in substituting something else.’
‘It’s all very well for you to talk,’ said Bao-yu, mopping the perspiration from his brow, ‘but at this particular moment I can’t think of any allusion that would do.’
‘Why don’t you put “in spring green waxen sheaths” in place of your “sheathed skirts of lucent green”?’
‘Where do you get “green waxen” from?’ said Bao-yu.
‘Tut, tut, tut!’ Bao-chai shook her head pityingly. ‘If this is what you are like tonight, Heaven knows what you’ll be like in a few years’ time when you come to take the Palace Examina?tion. Probably you’ll find you have forgotten even the Child’s First Primer of Rhyming Names. It’s from the Tang poet Qian Xu’s poem “Furled Plantains”:

Green waxen candles from which no flames rise.

Do you mean to say you’ve forgotten that?’
The scales fell from Bao-yu’s eyes.
‘Good gracious, how stupid of me! The words are there ready-made and I didn’t think of them! I shall have to call you my “One Word Teacher”, like the poet in the story! I shan’t be able to treat you like a sister any more, I shall have to say “sir” when I speak to you!’
‘Sister!’ said Bao-chai with a little laugh. ‘Stop fooling about and get on with your poem! That’s your sister, sitting up there in the golden robe. I’m no sister of yours!’
Fearing that he would waste more time if she stayed, she slipped quietly away.
The poem finished, Bao-yu had now completed three out of the four commanded. At this point Dai-yu, who was still full of dissatisfaction because her talent had been under?employed, noticed that Bao-yu was struggling and came over to the table at which he was working. Observing that ‘The Hopeful Sign’ still remained to be done, she told him to get on with the copying out in fair of the three poems he had already completed while she thought of something for ‘The Hopeful Sign’. When she had completed a poem in her head, she scribbled it out on a piece of paper, screwed it into a little ball, and tossed it in front of him. Bao-yu smoothed it out on the table and read it through. It seemed to him to be ten times better than the ones he had written himself. He copied it out in neat kai-shu after the other three and handed the finished task to Yuan-chun for her inspection.
This is what she read:

The Phoenix Dance

Perfected now at last, this place is fit
For Bird of Paradise to enter it.
Bach graceful wand lets fall a dewy tear;
Each glossy leaf breathes coolness on the air.
Through narrow-parted blocks the pent stream leaps;
Through chinks of blind the incense thinly seeps.
Let none the checkered shade with violence rude
Disrupting, on the slumberer’s dreams intrude!

*

The Garden of Spices

Fragrance of flower-drifts in these quiet confines
Mingles with headier scents of eglantines,
And summer’s herbs in a soft, spicy bed
Their aromatic perfumes subtly spread.
Light mist half screens the winding walks from view,
Where chilly verdure soaks the clothes with dew.
Here, slumbering quietly at the fountain’s side,
The dreaming poet all day long may bide.

*

The House of Green Delight

In this quiet plot, where peace reigns through the year,
Bewitching ladies rank on rank appear:
Some wear in spring green waxen sheaths curled tight,
Some carmine caps, that are not doffed at night.
Some from the trellis trail their purple sleeves,
Some lean on rocks, where thin mists cool their leaves.
Their Mistress, standing in the soft summer breeze,
Finds quiet content in everything she sees.

*

The Hopeful Sign

An inn-sign, through the orchards half-discerned,
Promises shelter and a drink well-earned.
Through water-weeds the pond’s geese make their way;
Midst elms and mulberry-trees the swallows play.
The garden’s chives are ready to prepare;
The scent of young rice perfumes all the air.
When want is banished, as in times like these,
The spinner and the ploughman take their ease.

Yuan-chun was genuinely delighted.
‘You really have made progress!’ she said. She singled out ‘The Hopeful Sign’ as the best of the four and changed the name ‘Washbrook Farm’ back to ‘Sweet-rice Village’ by way of acknowledgement. She made Tan-chun copy all ten poems — Bao-yu’s and the girls’ — on to a sheet of fancy paper and sent a eunuch to show it to the gentlemen outside. Jia Zheng and the others were very complimentary, and Jia Zheng presented a eulogy of his own composition entitled The Visitation. Yuan-chun also ordered Bao-yu and Jia Lan to be given presents of junket and mince, both of some special kind only made in the Imperial kitchens. At this period Jia Lan was still only a very little boy and did not really know what was going on. He was taken by his mother Li Wan into Yuan-chun’s presence and stood beside his uncle Bao-yu to make his little bow of thanks.
All this time Jia Qiang and his troupe of girl players had been waiting impatiently below for an order to begin their performance. Just as they were reaching a peak of impatience, a eunuch came running down to them.
‘They’ve finished writing poems,’ he said. ‘Quick, give me a play-bill!’
Jia Qiang hurriedly handed him a list of the pieces they had rehearsed, together with a brochure containing the stage names of each of the twelve players and some notes on the parts which each of them played. Four pieces were chosen: ‘Shi-fan Entertains’ from The Handful of Snow, ‘The Double Seventh’ from The Palace of Eternal Youth, ‘The Meeting of the Immortals’ from The Han-dan Road and Li-niang’s death-scene from The Return of the Soul. Jia Qiang supervised the prepara?tions, and soon the rock-splitting little voices and spell-bind?ing movements of the actresses had taken over, and the stage was full of passions which were no whit less overwhelming for being counterfeit.
No sooner had they finished than a eunuch came round, bearing a variety of fancy cakes and sweetmeats on a gilded salver.
‘Which is “Charmante”?’ he asked, referring to the stage name of the little soubrette who had played the part of Li?-niang’s maid in The Return of the Soul and a dashing young huntsman in the ‘play within a play’ in The Handful of Snow.
Jia Qiang realized that the confectionery was a present for the little actress, and taking the salver from the eunuch, made Mademoiselle Charmante come forward and kotow her thanks.
‘Her Grace says that she enjoyed Mademoiselle Charmante’s performance the most and would like to see her in two more pieces,’ said the eunuch. ‘She may choose any two she likes.’
Having replied to the eunuch, Jia Qiang told Charmante that she ought to play two more pieces from The Return of the Soul: ‘The Walk in the Garden’ and ‘The Dream’. But neither had a part suitable for a soubrette in it, and Charmante obdurately refused. She said she would do ‘The Assignation’ and ‘The Altercation’ from The Bracelet and the Comb, in which the part of the pert young maidservant would allow her comic talent a fuller scope. Jia Qiang failed to talk her out of this decision and had to let her do as she wished. Yuan-chun was delighted, and gave special instructions that Charmante was to be well treated and to have the best possible training. She also awarded her, over and above her share of the presents that the whole troupe would receive in commemoration of her visit, two dress-lengths of tribute satin, two embroidered purses, and some miniature gold and silver ingots.
The feast was now cleared away and Yuan-chun recom?menced her tour of the garden, visiting those places which she had not had time to look at before dinner. When they came to the little convent nestling under its hill, she washed her hands and entered the shrine-hall to offer incense and pray before the image of the Buddha. She also wrote an inscription for the board which hung above the image:

THE SHIP OF MERCY ON THE SEA OF SUFFERING

and gave instructions for various extra presents to be bestowed on the little nuns in addition to those which, along with all the other members of the household, they were already due to receive in commemoration of her visit.
A list for the latter had already been drawn up and presently it was submitted to Yuan-chun by a kneeling eunuch for her approval. After reading through it in silence she approved its contents and asked that they should be distributed forthwith. The presents distributed were as follows:

To Grandmother Jia:
one golden ru-yi sceptre
one jade ditto
a staff of carved aloeswood
a rosary of putchuk beads
four lengths of ‘Fu Gui Chang Chun’ tribute satin
four lengths of ‘Fu Shou Mian Chang’ tribute silk
ten medallions of red gold with a design showing an
ingot, a writing-brush and a sceptre (which in the
riddling rebus-language used by the makers of
such objects meant ‘All your heart’s desire’)
ten silver medallions with a design showing a stone?-
chime flanked by a pair of little fish (carrying the
rebus-message ‘Blessings in abundance’)

Lady Xing, Lady Wang and Aunt Xue each received the same selection of gifts as Grandmother Jia with the omission of the sceptres, staff and rosary.

To Jia Jing, Jia She and Jia Zheng (each):
two new books of His Imperial Majesty’s own composition
two boxes of ink-sticks (collector’s pieces)
one solid gold wine-cup
one solid silver ditto
silks and satins as above.

To Bao-yu, Dai-yu, Ying-chun, Tan-chun and Xi-chun (each):
one new book
one inkstone (collector’s piece)
two specially designed medallions in gold
two ditto in silver

To Bao-yu and Jia Lan (each):
one gold necklet
one silver ditto
two gold medallions
two silver ditto

To You-shi, Li Wan and Xi-feng (each):
two gold medallions
two silver ditto
four dress-lengths of tribute silk

(Also twenty-four lengths of silk and one hundred strings of unmixed Imperial Mint copper cash for the women-servants and maids in attendance on Grandmother Jia, Lady Wang and the girls)

To Cousin Zhen, Jia Lian, Jia Huan and Jia Rong (each):
one length of tribute satin
one gold medallion
one silver ditto

There were also a hundred bales of variegated satins, a thousand taels of silver and an unspecified number of bottles of Palace wine for the senior servants of the Rong and Ning Mansions and Separate Residence responsible for construction and maintenance, attendance, theatre management, and light?ing, and an additional five hundred strings of unmixed Im?perial Mint copper cash for the cooks, entertainers and Miscellaneous.

When all had expressed their thanks, one of the eunuchs in charge announced that it was a quarter to three and time for Her Grace to return to the Palace. At once Yuan-chun’s eyes filled with tears, and even though she forced herself to smile, she was unable to prevent a few drops from falling. Clinging to Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang as if she would never let them go, she begged them again and again not to grieve for her.
‘Now you mustn’t worry about me, my dears: just look after yourselves! Thanks to the Emperor’s kindness, we are now allowed visits in the Palace once a month: so you see we can see each other quite easily. It is silly of us to be so upset! And if His Majesty is gracious enough to permit another Visitation next year you really mustn’t be so extravagant again on my account!’
Grandmother Jia and the others were now sobbing audibly and were much too overcome to reply. But Yuan-chun, how?ever hard it was to leave her family, dared not infringe the regulations of the Imperial Household, and steeled herself to re-enter the palanquin which was to carry her away. It was all the rest of the family could do to restrain Grandmother Jia from making a scene, and when she was somewhat calmed, she and Lady Wang had to be led weeping from the garden in a state of near-collapse.
What followed will be told in the next chapter.

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