The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 22

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CHAPTER 22

Bao-yu finds Zen enlightenment
in an operatic aria
And Jia Zheng sees portents of doom in
lantern riddles

Hearing that Xi-feng wanted to consult him about something, Jia Lian halted and asked her what it was.
‘It’s Bao-chai’s birthday on the twenty-first,’ said Xi-feng. ‘What do you think we ought to do about it?’
‘How should I know?’ said Jia Lian. ‘You’ve managed plenty of big birthday celebrations before in your time. Why have you become so helpless all of a sudden?’
‘There are fixed rules for everything when you are planning a big grown-up celebration,’ said Xi-feng; ‘but in Bao-chai’s case she’s neither exactly grown-up nor exactly a child any longer. That’s why I wanted your advice.’
Jia Lian lowered his head and thought for a moment.
‘Why, you’re being stupid!’ he said presently. ‘There’s a precedent right in front of you. What about Dai-yu? All you’ve got to do is find what arrangements you made in the past for her and do exactly the same for Bao-chai now.’
‘Do you suppose I didn’t think of that?’ said Xi-feng with scorn. ‘I’m not that stupid! The point is that yesterday, be?cause of something Grandma said, I started asking them all their birthdays and ages, and it seems that on this birthday of hers on the twenty-first Bao-chai is going to be fifteen. Now that doesn’t qualify for a full-scale celebration, but it is a sort of coming-of-age, and when Grandma heard about it she said she wanted to sponsor something for it herself. So obviously, whatever we do, it can’t be quite the same as what we’ve done in the past for Dai-yu.’
‘Well in that case,’ said Jia Lian, ‘take what you did for Dai-yu as a basis and just add on a bit.’
‘That’s what I’d thought of doing,’ said Xi-feng; ‘but I wanted to see what you thought before doing anything definite, because I didn’t want to go adding extras on my own initiative and then have you complaining that you hadn’t been properly consulted.’
‘You can cut that out!’ said Jia Lian — though not ill-?humouredly. ‘You know you don’t really mean a word of it! Just stop snooping on me all the time, that’s all I ask. You won’t hear any complaints from me then about not being consulted!’
With that he walked off: but whither, or to whom, our narrative does not disclose.
It tells us instead that Shi Xiang-yun, having spent a con?siderable part of the New Year holiday with the Jias, was now on the point of returning home, but was urged by Grand?mother Jia to wait for Bao-chai’s birthday and not go back until she had seen the plays. Xiang-yun agreed to stay and sent someone home with instructions to tell them that she would be returning a little later than planned and to fetch a couple of pieces of her own embroidery that she could give to Bao-chai as a birthday-present.
Ever since Bao-chai’s first arrival, Grandmother Jia had been pleasurably impressed by her placid and dependable disposition, and now that she was about to spend her first ‘big’ birthday in the Jia household, the old lady resolved to make it a memorable one. Taking twenty taels of silver from her private store, she summoned Xi-feng and directed her to spend it on providing wine and plays for a celebration. Xi-feng made this the occasion for a little raillery.
‘If the old lady says she wants her grandchild’s birthday celebrated,’ she said, ‘then celebrated it must be, and we must all jump to it without arguing! But if she’s going to start asking for plays as well, all I can say to that is that if she’s in the mood for a bit of fun, I’m afraid she’s going to have to pay for it. She’s going to have to cough up something out of those private savings of hers she’s been hoarding all these years – not wait until the last minute and then fish out a measly little twenty taels to pay for the party: that’s just another way of telling us we’ve got to pay for it ourselves. I mean, if you were really hard up, it would be another matter: but you’ve got boxes and boxes of boodle — the bottoms are dropping out of them, they’re so full! It’s pure meanness, that’s what it is! You forget, Grannie, when you go to heaven young Bao-yu won’t be the only one who’ll walk ahead of the hearse. You’ve got other grandchildren too, don’t forget! You don’t have to leave everything to him. The rest of us may not be much use, but you mustn’t be too hard on us. Twenty taels! Do you really think that’s enough to pay for a party and plays?’
At this point the entire company burst into laughter, which Grandmother Jia joined in herself.
‘Just listen to her!’ she said. ‘I thought I had a fairly sharp tongue, but I’m no match for this one: “Clack-clack, clack-clack” — it’s worse than a pair of wooden clappers! Even your mother-in-law daren’t argue with me, my dear! Don’t pick on me!’
‘Mother-in-law is just as soppy about Bao-yu as you are,’ said Xi-feng. ‘I’ve got no one to tell my troubles to. And you say I’m sharp-tongued!’
Xi-feng’s mock-lugubriousness set the old lady off in another squall of laughter. She loved to be teased, and Xi-feng’s bantering put her in great good humour.
That night, when the young folk had finished paying their evening duty and were standing round her laughing and talking a while before retiring to their own apartments, Grandmother Jia asked Bao-chai what sort of plays she liked best and what her favourite dishes were. Bao-chai was well aware that her grandmother, like most old women, enjoyed the livelier, more rackety sort of plays and liked sweet and pappy things to eat, so she framed her answers entirely in terms of these preferences. The old lady was delighted.
Next day presents of clothing and various other objects, to which Lady Wang, Xi-feng, Dai-yu and the rest had all contributed, were sent round to Bao-chai’s. Our narrative supplies no details.
At last the twenty-first arrived. A dear little stage had been erected in the courtyard outside Grandmother Jia’s apartment and a newly trained troupe of child actors able to perform both Kun-qu and the noisier Yi-qiang type of plays had been en?gaged. In the apartment’s main sitting-room a semicircle of little tables were arranged facing outwards towards the stage and laid in preparation for a feast. No outsiders were invited. The guests of honour were Aunt Xue, Shi Xiang-yun and Bao-?chai herself. All the others invited were members of the family.
Early that morning Bao-yu, not seeing Dai-yu around, went to look for her in her room and found her still reclining on the kang.
‘Get up and have something to eat!’ he said. ‘The players will be starting shortly. Tell me some play you like so that I shall know which one to choose!’
‘If you’re so anxious to please me,’ said Dai-yu coldly, ‘you ought to hire a troupe specially and put on all my favourites. It’s a cheap sort of kindness to treat me at someone else’s expense!’
‘Never mind!’ said Bao-yu. ‘When we hire a troupe for you, you’ll be able to return the compliment.’
He hauled her up from the kang, and the two of them went off hand in hand together.
As soon as they had eaten, it was time to talk about choosing the plays and Grandmother Jia called on Bao-chai to begin. Bao-chai made a show of declining; but it was her birthday, and in the end she gave in and selected a piece about Monkey from The Journey to the West. Grandmother Jia was pleased.
Aunt Xue was now invited to pick a play, but as her own daughter had just chosen, she refused. Grandmother Jia did not press her and passed on to Xi-feng. Xi-feng would nor?mally have refused to take precedence over her aunt and mother-in-law, who were both present, but Grandmother had commanded and must be obeyed. As she happened to know that the old lady’s partiality for lively plays was particularly strong in the case of those which had lots of jokes and clowning in them, she selected a piece entitled Liu Er Pawns His Clothes in order to make sure that this element was not lacking from the programme. As she had anticipated, Grand?mother Jia was even more delighted by this second choice.
Next Dai-yu was asked to choose. She deferred to Aunt Xing and Aunt Wang; but Grandmother Jia was insistent:
‘I’ve brought you young people here today for some fun,’ she said. ‘I want you to enjoy yourselves. Never mind about them! I didn’t go to all this trouble just for their sakes! They are lucky to be here at all, having all this good food and enter?tainment for nothing: you surely don’t think that on top of that I’m going to let them choose the plays?’
The others all laughed, and Dai-yu chose a play. Then Bao-yu, Shi Xiang-yun, Ying-chun, Tan-chun, Xi-chun and Li Wan each chose a play in turn, after which the little players proceeded to perform them in the order in which they had been selected.
When the time came to bring in the wine and begin the feast, Grandmother Jia invited Bao-chai to choose again. This time she asked for Zhi-shen at the Monastery Gate.
‘Why do you keep choosing plays like that?’ said Bao-yu.
‘To hear you talk, it doesn’t sound as if all your years of play-going have taught you much,’ said Bao-chai. ‘This is an excellent play, both from the point of view of the music and of the words.’
‘I can’t stand noisy plays,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I never could.’
‘If you call this a noisy play,’ said Bao-chai, ‘it proves that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Come over here and I’ll explain. This Zhi-shen at the Monastery Gate is a “Ruby Lips” sequence in the Northern mode. That means, musically speaking, that it is in a vigorous, somewhat staccato style. In fact the musical excellence of this piece goes without saying. But apart from that, the libretto is good, too. The words of Zhi-shen’s “Clinging Vine” aria, which is the last but one in the sequence, are particularly fine.’
Bao-yu was interested, drew his chair closer, and begged her to let him hear them. Lowering her voice so as not to dis?turb the others, she half-sang, half-recited them for his benefit:

‘I dash aside the manly tear
And take leave of my monkish home.
A word of thanks to you, my Master dear,
Who tonsured me before the Lotus Throne:
‘T was not my luck to stay with you,
And in a short while I must say adieu,
Naked and friendless through the world to roam.
I ask no goods, no gear to take away,
Only straw sandals and a broken bowl,
To beg from place to place as best I may.’

Bao-yu listened enthralled tapping his knee and nodding his head in time to her singing. When she had done, he agreed enthusiastically about the excellence of the words and congratulated her on the extraordinary breadth of her know?ledge.
‘Sh!’ said Dai-yu, looking round crossly in Bao-yu’s direction. ‘Can’t you be a bit quieter and attend to the play? This is Zhi-shen at the Monastery Gate we’re supposed to be listening to, not Jing-de Acts the Madman!’
Xiang-yun found this very funny.
They continued to watch plays until the evening. Grand?mother Jia had taken a particular fancy to the little player who had acted the heroine’s parts and the one who had played the clown, and when the last performance was over, she asked for them to be brought in to see her. She found them very ‘sweet’ – even more so on a closer inspection – and asked them their ages. The leading lady turned out to be eleven and the clown only nine! There were murmurs and exclamations from all present when they heard this, and Grandmother Jia told someone to give them delicacies from the table and a present of money each, in addition to what they would receive as members of the troupe.
Meanwhile Xi-feng appeared to be very much amused about something.
‘The way that child there is made-up makes him look so like someone we know,’ she said. ‘Haven’t any of you noticed?’
Bao-chai knew whom she was referring to, but merely nodded her head slightly without replying. Bao-yu, too, nodded, but did not dare to reply. Only Xiang-yun was tactless enough to say anything:
‘Oh, I know!’ she blurted out. ‘Like Cousin Lin, you mean?’
Bao-yu shot a quick glance in her direction; but it was too late. Xiang-yun’s reply had prompted the others to look more carefully, with the result that they all instantaneously burst out laughing, so striking was the resemblance. Shortly after this the party broke up.
During the evening Xiang-yun ordered Kingfisher to start packing. Kingfisher remonstrated:
‘What’s the hurry? Why not wait till we’re going? There’ll be plenty of time before we go.’
‘We’re going first thing tomorrow,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘What’s the point of staying any longer? You can see from the looks on their faces that we are not welcome here.’
Bao-yu chanced to overhear this remark and hurried in to her:
‘You’re wrong to be offended with me, coz. The others all know how sensitive Cousin Lin is, and they wouldn’t answer because they were afraid of upsetting her. When you sud?denly spoke up without realizing, I knew she was bound to be upset, and that’s the reason why I looked at you like that. I was worried for your sake, because I was afraid she would be offended with you. That you should now get angry with me is really rather unfair. If it had been anyone else but you, I shouldn’t have minded whether they offended her or not. I shouldn’t have felt that much concern about them.’
Xiang-yun silenced him with an imperious wave of her hand:
‘You can save your fine speeches for someone else. They’re wasted on me. Obviously I’m not in the same class as your Cousin Lin. It’s all right for other people to laugh at her; but as soon as I say anything about her, I’m at once in the wrong. I’m not really worthy to speak about her at all. She’s the young lady of the house. I’m only a little nobody!’
‘I was only thinking of you,’ said Bao-yu in great agitation, ‘yet now you put me in the wrong. May I straightway turn into dust and be trodden beneath ten thousand feet if I had any but the kindest intentions!’
‘You are too glib with your ridiculous oaths,’ said Xiang-?yun. ‘This is no time for swearing. You can keep that kind of talk for that sensitive, easily upset person you were talking about. She knows how to handle you. Don’t try it on me: it makes me thick!’
With these words she walked off into the inner room of Grandmother Jia’s apartment and lay down on the kang in a rage.
Very much out of countenance, Bao-yu went off to look for Dai-yu. She must have been waiting for him, for just as he was entering the room, she pushed him out again and shut the door. Totally at a loss to understand her behaviour, he called to her softly through the window:
‘Dai, dear! Dai!’
But she took no notice.
Bao-yu stood there disconsolately, hanging his head in silence. Nightingale knew what was happening, but judged the time not ripe for her to intervene; so he continued to stand there like an idiot, until at last Dai-yu thought he must have gone back to his own room, and opened the door again. When she saw him still standing there, she had not the heart to shut the door on him a second time, and allowed him to follow her back into the room.
‘There’s always a reason for everything,’ he said. ‘If you tell people what it is, they don’t feel so bad about it. You can’t suddenly get angry with me for no reason whatever. What is all this about?’
‘Don’t ask me! said Dai-yu coldly. ‘I don’t know. I’m only a figure of fun – the sort of person you might compare with a child actor in order to get a good laugh from the others.’
‘I never made the comparison,’ said Bao-yu hotly, ‘and I never laughed at you. Why should you be angry with me?’
‘You would like to have made the comparison; you would like to have laughed,’ said Dai-yu. “To me your way of not comparing and not laughing was worse than the others’ laughing and comparing!’
Bao-yu found this unanswerable.
‘However,’ Dai-yu went on, ‘that I could forgive. But what about that look you gave Yun? Just what did you mean by that? I think I know what you meant. You meant to warn her that she would cheapen herself by joking with me as an equal. Because she’s an Honourable and her uncle’s a marquis and I’m only the daughter of a commoner, she mustn’t risk joking with me, because it would be so degrading for her if I were to answer back. That’s what you meant, isn’t it? Oh yes, you had the kindest intentions. Only unfortunately she didn’t want your kind intentions and got angry with you in spite of them. So you tried to make it up with her at my expense, by telling her how touchy I am and how easily I get upset. You were afraid she might offend me, were you? As if it were any busi?ness of yours whether she offended me or not, or whether or not I got angry with her!’
When Bao-yu heard her say this, he knew she must have overheard every word of his conversation with Xiang-yun. He reflected that he had only acted in the first place from a desire to keep the peace between them: yet the only outcome of his good intentions had been a telling-off by either party. It put him in mind of something he had read a day or two previously in Zhuang-zi:

The cunning waste their pains;
The wise men vex their brains;
But the simpleton, who seeks no gains,
With belly full, he wanders free
As drifting boat upon the sea.

and of another passage from the same book about timber trees inviting the axe and sweet springs being the cause of their own contamination. The more he thought about it, the more dejected he became.
‘If I can’t even get on with the few people I live with now,’ he asked himself, ‘how am I going to manage later on…?’
At that point in his reflections it seemed to him that there was no further point in arguing, and he turned to go back to his room.
Dai-yu realized that he must have thought of something upsetting to go off like this. But not to be answered was al?together too provoking. She felt the anger mounting inside her.
‘All right, go!’ she shouted after him. ‘And don’t ever come back! And don’t ever speak to me again!’
Bao-yu ignored her. He went straight back to his own room, threw himself on the bed, and lay staring at the ceiling. Aroma knew what the trouble was but dared not, for the time being at any rate, refer to it. She tried distracting him with talk of other matters.
‘I suppose there’ll be more plays after today, won’t there? Miss Bao is sure to give a return party, isn’t she?’
‘Whether she does or not,’ said Bao-yu, ‘what concern is it of mine?’
This was certainly not the sort of answer Aroma was used to getting. She tried again, smiling breezily:
‘That’s no way of looking at it! This is the New Year holi?days, when their ladyships and the young ladies are all en?joying themselves. We can’t have you mooning around like this!’
‘Whether their ladyships and the young ladies are enjoying themselves or not,’ said Bao-yu, ‘what concern is it of mine?’
Aroma laughed.
‘Seeing that they’re all doing their best to be agreeable, couldn’t you try to do likewise? Surely it’s much better ail round if everyone will give and take a bit?’
‘What do you mean, “give and take a bit”?’ said Bao-yu in the same lack-lustre voice as before. ‘They can give and take a bit if they like. My destiny is a different one:
naked and friendless through the world to roam.’
A tear stole down his cheek as he recalled the line from the aria.
He continued to ponder its words and to savour their mean?ing, and ended up by bursting into tears and crying outright. Jumping up from the bed, he went over to his desk, took up a writing-brush, and wrote down the following lines in imitation of a Buddhist gāthā:
I swear, you swear,
With heart and mind declare;
But our protest
Is no true test.
It would be best
Words unexpressed
To understand,
And on that ground
To take our stand.
After writing it, he was still not satisfied. Though now enlightened himself, he feared that someone reading his gāthā might not be able to share his enlightenment. Accordingly, with the words of the ‘Clinging Vine’ aria still running in his head, he added another set of verses after it to explain his point. That done, he read the whole through to himself out loud, then, with a wonderful feeling of liberation, went to bed and fell fast asleep.
Curious to know the sequel to Bao-yu’s departure, Dai?-yu, on the pretext of wanting to see Aroma about something, eventually came round herself to have a look. Aroma told her that Bao-yu was already in bed asleep. She was on the point of going back again when Aroma smilingly detained her:
‘Just a moment, Miss! There’s a note here. Would you like to see what it says?’
She handed her the sheet of paper containing Bao-yu’s gāthā and the ‘Clinging Vine’ poem. Dai-yu could see that they must have been written under the influence of their recent quarrel and could not help feeling both amused by them and a little sorry. But all she said to Aroma was:
‘It’s only a joke. Nothing of any consequence.’
She took it with her back to her own room and showed it to Xiang-yun. Next day she showed it to Bao-chai as well. Bao-chai glanced at the second poem. This is what Bao-yu had written:
You would have been at fault, if not for me;
But why should I care if they disagree?
Free come, free go, let nothing bar or hold me!
No more I’ll sink and soar between gloom and elation,
Or endlessly debate the depth of our relation.
What was the point of all of that past pother?
When I look back on it, it seems scarce worth the bother.

Then she read the gāthā. She laughed.
‘I’m afraid this is all my fault. It must have been that aria I told him about yesterday which started it all. Those Taoist writings and Zen paradoxes can so easily lead people astray if they do not understand them properly. I shall never forgive myself if he is going to start taking this sort of nonsense seriously and getting it fixed in his head. It will all be because of that aria!’
She tore the paper into tiny pieces and gave them to one of the maids:
‘Here, burn this – straight away!’
Dai-yu laughed at her.
‘You needn’t have torn it up. If you will both come with me and wait while I put a question to him, I can guarantee to drive this nonsense from his mind once and for all.’
The three girls went round to Bao-yu’s room together.
‘Bao-yu,’ said Dai-yu, addressing him in a heavily mock-?serious manner, ‘I wish to propound a question to you: “Bao” is that which is of all things the most precious and “yu” is that which is of all things the most hard. Wherein lies your preciousness and wherein lies your hardness?’
Bao-yu was unable to think of an answer. The girls all laughed and clapped their hands.
‘Ha, ha, ha! He can’t reply. For a student of Zen he does seem remarkably obtuse!’
‘You say in your gāthā,’ Dai-yu continued,
‘ “… It would be best
Words unexpressed
To understand,
And on that ground
To take our stand.”

Now that’s all right as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. I should like to add a few lines to it. Like this:

But, I perpend,
To have no ground
On which to stand
Were yet more sound.
And there’s an end!’

‘Ah, that’s better!’ said Bao-chai. ‘That sounds like a real “insight”. When the Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng first came to Shao-zhou looking for a teacher, he heard that the Fifth Patriarch Hong-ren was living at the monastery on Yellow?-plum Mountain, so he found employment there in the monas?tery kitchen. When the Fifth Patriarch wanted to choose a successor, he ordered each of the monks to compose a gāthā; The Elder Shen-xiu recited this one:

“Our body like the Bo-tree is,
Our mind’s a mirror bright.
Then keep it clean and free from dust,
So it reflects the light!”

Hui-neng happened to be hulling rice in the kitchen at the time, and he shouted out, “That’s not bad, but it’s still not quite right.” Then he recited this gāthāof his own:

“No teal Bo-tree the body is,
The mind no mirror bright.
Since of the pair none’s really there,
On what could dust alight?”

The Fifth Patriarch at once handed him his robe and bowl as a sign that he was to succeed him. Your improvement on Cousin Bao’s gāthāis on very much the same lines, Dai. There’s just one thing, though: what about that “koan” of yours he couldn’t answer? Surely you’re not going to let him get away with it?’
‘Failure to answer means defeat,’ said Dai-yu. ‘In any case, if he were to answer now, it would hardly count. The only condition I impose as victor is that he should henceforth be forbidden to talk any more about Zen. You see,’ she told Bao-yu, ‘even Bao-chai and I know more about it than you do. It’s too ridiculous that you should set yourself up as a Zen authority!’
Bao-yu had in fact believed that he had attained an En?lightenment; but now suddenly here was Dai-yu propounding koans he couldn’t answer and Bao-chai quoting with easy familiarity from the Saying of the Patriarchs — though neither had shown any evidence of these accomplishments in the past. It was clear that their understanding of these matters was far in advance of his own. He consoled himself with the reflection that if they, whose understanding was so superior, were mani?festly still so far from Enlightenment, it was obviously a waste of time for him to go on pursuing it. Having reached this comfortable conclusion, he accepted Dai-yu’s condition with a laugh:
‘Who wants to be an authority on Zen? It was only a joke, any way!’

*

Just then it was announced that the Imperial Concubine had sent someone round from the Palace with a lantern-riddle which they were to try and guess. After they had guessed the answer, they were each to make up a riddle of their own and send it back to her.
As soon as they heard this, the four of them hurried to the reception room in Grandmother Jia’s apartment, where they found a young eunuch with a square, flat-topped lantern of white gauze specially made for hanging riddles on. There was one hanging on it already which they crowded round to read while the eunuch gave them their instructions:
‘When the young ladies have guessed, will they please not tell anyone the answer, but write it down secretly. The answers will be collected and taken back to the Palace in a sealed en?velope so that Her Grace can see for herself who has guessed correctly.’
Bao-chai went up to the lantern and looked at the riddle, which was in the form of a quatrain. It was not a particularly ingenious one, but she felt obliged to praise it, and therefore remarked that it was ‘hard to guess’ and pretended to have to think about the answer, though in truth it had been obvious to her at a glance. Bao-yu, Dai-yu, Xiang-yun and Tan-chun had also guessed the answer and were busy writing it down. Presently Jia Huan and Jia Lan were summoned, and they too wrote something down after a good deal of puzzling. After that everyone made up a riddle about some object of their choice, wrote it out in the best kai-shu on a slip of paper, and hung it on the lantern, which was then taken away by the eunuch.
Towards evening the eunuch returned and reported what the Imperial Concubine had had to say about the results:
‘Her Grace’s own riddle was correctly guessed by everyone except Miss Ying and Master Huan. Her Grace has thought of answers to all the riddles sent her by the young ladies and gentlemen, but she does not know whether or not they are correct.’
He showed them the answers written down. Some were right and some were wrong, but even those whose riddles had been incorrectly answered deemed it prudent to pretend that the answers they had received were the right ones.
The eunuch proceeded to distribute prizes for answering the Imperial Concubine’s riddle. Everyone who had guessed correctly received an ivory note-case made by Palace craftsmen and a bamboo tea-whisk. Ying-chun and Jia Huan were the only ones who did not receive anything. Ying-chun treated the matter as a joke and rapidly dismissed it from her mind, but Jia Huan was very much put out. To make matters worse, the eunuch went on to query Jia Huan’s own riddle:
‘Her Grace says that she has not answered Master Huan’s riddle because she could not make any sense of it. She told me to bring it back and ask him what it means.’
Intrigued, the others crowded round to look. This is what Jia Huan had written:

‘Big brother with eight sits all day on the bed;
Little brother with two sits on the roof’s head.’.

There was a loud laugh when they had finished reading it. Jia Huan told the eunuch the answer: a head-rest and a ridge-end. The eunuch made a note of it and, after taking tea, departed once more.
Fired with enthusiasm by Yuan-chun’s example, old Lady Jia decided to hold a riddle party. A very elegant lantern in the form of a three-leaved screen was hurriedly constructed on her orders and set up in the hall. When that had been done, she told all the boys and girls to make up a riddle – being careful to keep the answers to themselves – write it on a slip of paper, and stick it on her lantern-screen. Then, having pre?pared the best fragrant tea to drink, a variety of good things to eat, and lots of little gifts to serve as prizes, she was ready to begin. Jia Zheng observed the old lady’s excitement when he got back from Court and came along himself in the evening to join in the fun.
There were three tables. Grandmother Jia, Jia Zheng, Bao-yu and Jia Huan sat at the table on the kang, while below, Lady Wang, Bao-chai, Dai-yu and Xiang-yun sat at one table and Ying-chun, Tan-chun and Xi-chun at another. The floor below the kang was thronged with old women and maids in attendance. Li Wan and Xi-feng had a table to them?selves in an inner room.
‘Where’s my little Lan?’ said Jia Zheng, not seeing Jia Lan at any of the tables.
One of the serving-women went into the inner room to ask Li Wan. She rose to reply out of respect for her father-in-law:
‘He refuses to come because he says his Grandpa Zheng hasn’t invited him.’
The others were much amused when the woman relayed this answer back to Jia Zheng.
‘He’s a stubborn little chap when he’s made his mind up!’ they said. But they thought none the worse of him for that.
Jia Zheng quickly sent Jia Huan with two of the old women to fetch him. When he arrived, Grandmother Jia made him squeeze up beside her on her side of the table and gave him a handful of nuts and dried fruits to eat. The little boy’s presence provided the company with something to laugh and talk about. But not for long. Bao-yu, who normally did most of the talking on occasions like this, was today reduced by his father’s presence to saying no more than ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to remarks made by other people. As for the rest: Xiang-yun, in spite of her sheltered upbringing, was normally an animated, not to say indefatigable talker, but this evening she too seemed to have been afflicted with dumbness by Jia Zheng’s presence; Dai-yu was at the best of times unwilling to say very much in company from a sort of aristocratic lethargy which was a part of her nature; and Bao-chai, whose punctilious correctness made her always sparing in the use of words, even though on this occasion she was probably the least uncomfortable of those present, said little to advance the conversation. As a consequence, what should have been a jolly, intimate family party was painfully unnatural and restrained.
Grandmother Jia knew as well as everyone else that this state of affairs was entirely owing to Jia Zheng’s presence, and after the wine had gone round for the third time, she attempted to drive him off to bed. Jia Zheng, for his part, was perfectly well aware that he was being driven away so that the younger people could feel freer to enjoy themselves and, smiling forcedly, appealed against his banishment:
‘When they told me earlier today that you were planning to give a riddle party, I specially prepared a contribution to the feast so that I might come and join you. You have so much affection for your grandchildren, Mama. Can you not spare just a tiny bit for your son?’
Grandmother Jia laughed:
‘They can’t talk naturally while you are here. All you are doing is making it gloomy for me. I can’t abide it. Well, if you’ve come to answer riddles, I’ll give you a riddle. But if you can’t guess the answer, you will have to pay me a for?feit.’
‘Yes, of course,’ said Jia Zheng eagerly. ‘And if I guess right, I shall expect to be given a prize.’
‘Of course,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘The monkey’s tail reaches from tree-top to ground. It’s the name of a fruit.’
Jia Zheng knew that the answer to this hoary old chestnut was ‘a longan’ (long ‘un), but pretended not to, and made all kinds of absurd guesses, each time incurring the obligation to pay his mother a forfeit, before finally giving the right answer and receiving the old lady’s prize. Then he propounded a riddle of his own for her:

‘My body’s square,
Iron-hard am I.
I speak no word,
But words supply.

—It’s a useful object.’
He whispered the answer to Bao-yu, who, readily understand?ing what was expected of him, surreptitiously passed it on to Grandmother Jia. The old lady, having thought for a bit and decided that it sounded all right, said:
‘An inkstone.’
‘Bravo, Mamma! Right first time!’ said Jia Zheng, and turn?ing round to address the servants, he asked them to bring in the presents for Lady Jia. There was an answering call from the women below, and presently a number of them came for?ward bearing trays and boxes of various shapes and sizes which they handed up onto the kang. Grandmother Jia examined them one by one. They all contained traditional Lantern Festival presents, but in new and exquisite designs and of the very highest quality. The old lady was obviously pleased.
‘Come, children!’ she commanded jovially. ‘Give the Master a drink!’
Bao-yu stood up and poured wine from the wine-kettle into a little cup and Ying-chun handed it ceremoniously to her uncle.
‘Have a look at the riddles on the screen,’ said Grandmother Jia when Jia Zheng, with equal ceremony, had drained the cup. ‘They were all made up by the children. See if you can tell me the answers.’
Jia Zheng rose from his seat and went up to the lantern-screen. The first riddle he saw was Yuan-chun’s:

At my coming the devils turn pallid with wonder.
My body’s all folds and my voice is like thunder.
When, alarmed by the sound of my thunderous crash,
You look round, I have already turned into ash.
An object of amusement.

‘Would that be a firework?’ said Jia Zheng.
‘Yes,’ said Bao-yu.
Jia Zheng looked again, this time at Ying-chun’s:

Man’s works and heaven’s laws I execute.
Without heaven’s laws, my workings bear no fruit.
Why am I agitated all day long?
For fear my calculations may be wrong.
A useful object.
‘An abacus?’
There was a laugh from Ying-chun:
‘Yes.’
The next riddle was Tan-chun’s:

In spring the little boys look up and stare
To see me ride so proudly in the air.
My strength all goes when once the bond is parted,
And on the wind I drift off broken-hearted.
An object of amusement.

‘It looks as if that ought to be a kite’, said Jia Zheng.
‘Yes,’ said Tan-chun.
The next riddle he looked at was Dai-yu’s:

At court levée my smoke is in your sleeve:
Music and beds to other sorts I leave.
With me, at dawn you need no watchman’s cry,
At night no maid to bring a fresh supply.
My head burns through the night and through the day,
And year by year my heart consumes away.
The precious moments I would have you spare:
But come fair, foul, or fine, I do not care.
A useful object.

‘That must be an incense-clock.’
Bao-yu answered for her:
‘Yes.’
Jia Zheng looked at the next riddle:

Southward you stare,
He’ll northward glare.
Grieve, and he’s sad.
Laugh, and he’s glad.
A useful object.

‘Very good!’ said Jia Zheng. ‘If the answer is “a mirror”, it is a very good riddle.’
Bao-yu laughed:
‘That is the answer.’
‘Who is it by?’ said Jia Zheng. ‘There is no name on it.’
‘I expect that one is by Bao-yu,’ said Grandmother Jia.
Jia Zheng said nothing and passed on to the next one in silence. It was by Bao-chai:

My ‘eyes’ cannot see and I’m hollow inside.
When the lotuses surface, I’ll be by your side.
When the autumn leaves fall I shall bid you adieu,
For our marriage must end when the summer is through.
A useful object.

Jia Zheng knew that the answer must be ‘a bamboo wife’, as they call those wickerwork cylinders which are put between the bedclothes in summertime to make them cooler; but a growing awareness that all the girls’ verses contained images of grief and loss was by now so much affecting him that he felt quite unable to go on.
‘Enough is enough!’ he thought. ‘What can it be that makes these innocent young creatures all produce language that is so tragic and inauspicious? It is almost as if they were all destined to be unfortunate and short-lived and were un?consciously foretelling their destiny.’
The gloom into which this reflection plunged him was evident in the melancholy expression on his face and in his bowed and dejected stance. Grandmother Jia noticed it but attributed it to fatigue. She feared that in this melancholy mood his continued presence would place an even greater restraint on the young folk’s gaiety.
‘I think you really oughtn’t to stay,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you go and lie down? The rest of us will sit up for a bit, but I don’t expect we shall go on very much longer.’
‘Yes,’ said Jia Zheng, roused from his reverie by her voice. ‘Yes, of course.’
But he forced himself to resume his former jovial manner and to drink another cup or two of wine with her before finally retiring. Back in his own apartment, he became lost in reverie once more; but whichever direction his thoughts took him in, he remained melancholy and troubled.
Meanwhile the party he had just left was proceeding some?what differently.
‘Now, my dears, you can enjoy yourselves!’ Grandmother Jia said as soon as he had left the room; and the words were no sooner out of her mouth than Bao-yu leaped up from his seat and over to the screen and began criticizing the riddles on it – this one had a line wrong here — that one’s words didn’t suit the subject — pointing with his finger and capering about for all the world like a captive monkey that had just been let off its chain.
‘Can’t we sit down and enjoy ourselves quietly, as we were doing just now,’ said Dai-yu, ‘instead of all this prancing about?’
Xi-feng put in a word too, emerging from the inner room to say it:
‘You ought to have Uncle Zheng with you every day and never budge an inch from his side!’ She turned to the others: ‘What a pity I didn’t think of it at the time: we ought to have got Uncle to make him compose some more riddles for us. Then we should have seen him sweat!’
Bao-yu was greatly exasperated by this remark and tried to seize hold of her. Xi-feng tried to ward him off, and the result was that the two of them became locked in a sort of playful wrestling-match.
Grandmother Jia continued for a while to laugh and joke with Li Wan and the girls, but soon began to feel tired and sleepy. The night-drum was sounding, and when they stopped to listen they found it was already the beginning of the fourth watch. She ordered the food to be cleared away, telling the servants that they might have what was left over for them?selves.
‘Time for bed, children!’ she said, rising to her feet. ‘We can do this again tomorrow, if you like; but now we must have some sleep.’
With that the party gradually broke up and they all dis?persed to their rooms.
What happened thereafter will be told in the following chapter.

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