The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 37

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CHAPTER 37

A happy inspiration prompts Tan-chun to found the
Crab-flower Club
And an ingenious arrangement enables Bao-chai to settle the
chrysanthemum poem titles

THIS year Jia Zheng was appointed Commissioner for Edu?cation in one of the provinces, with instructions to leave for his tour of duty on the twentieth of the eighth month. When the day for his departure arrived, he took leave of his ancestors in the family shrine, kotowed to his mother, and was seen on his way as far as the hostelry of the ‘Tearful Parting’ (the first post-halt on his journey) by Bao-yu and other junior male members of the clan.
Jia Zheng’s doings after his departure are not recorded in this history; we merely observe that the departure left Bao-yu free to play and idle in the Garden to his heart’s content witout the least fear of restraint or reprisal.

The days in idleness passed by
To swell the tale of wasted years

On the day of which we write Bao-yu was feeling very bored. He had returned from perfunctory morning calls on his mother and grandmother and had just finished changing back into his everyday clothes, when Tan-chun’s maid Ebony arrived carrying a carefully-folded letter from her mistress.
‘I’m glad you’ve come,’ said Bao-yu, as she handed him the letter. ‘I’d been meaning to see your mistress this morning, but I forgot. How is she? Is she any better?’
‘She’s quite better, thank you,’ said Ebony. ‘She’s stopped taking her medicine today. It was only a slight chill that she was suffering from.’
Bao-yu unfolded the elegant patterned notepaper and glanced at the contents:
Dear Brother,
Some nights ago, when the moon came out in a sky freshly clear after the rain, the garden seemed veritably awash with moonlight, and sleep in the face of so rare a spectacle was unthinkable. Thrice the clepsydra had been turned, and still I lingered beneath the tall paulownias, reluctant to go in. But in the end the treacherous night air betrayed me, and by morning I was lamentably indisposed.
How kind of you to have visited me in my sickroom! and how exquisitely thoughtful to have sent your maid-servant shortly after?wards with solicitous inquiries and with those delicious lychees and the calligraphy by Yan Zhen-qing!
While I have been lying here quietly on my own, I have been thinking how in the olden days even men whose lives were spent amidst the burly-burly of public affairs would keep some quiet retreat for themselves with its tiny corner of mountain and trickle of running water; and how they would seek, by whatever arts and blandishments they knew of, to assemble there a little group of kindred spirits to share in their enjoyment of it; and how, on the basis of such leisure-time associations, rhymers’ guilds and poetry clubs were then founded, so that the fleeting inspirations of an idle hour might often be perpetuated in imperishable masterpieces of verse.
Now although I am no poet myself, I am privileged to live ‘midst rocks and streams’ and in the company of such gifted practitioners of the poetic art as Xue and Lin; and it seems to me a great pity that the romantic courts and pavilions of our Garden should not echo with the jocund carousal of assembled bards, and its flowering groves and blossoming banksides not become places of wine and song. Why should the founding of poetry clubs be the sole preroga?tive of the whiskered male, and female versificators allowed a voice in the tunable concert of the muses only when some enlightened patriarch sees fit to invite them?
Will you come, then, and rhyme with us? The pathway to my door is swept to receive you and your arrival is eagerly awaited by
Your affectionate Sister,
Tan-chun

When Bao-yu had finished reading, he clapped his hands delightedly.
‘Dear Tan-chun! Bless her poetic soul! I must go and dis?cuss this with her straight away.’
He strode off immediately, with Ebony following at his heels. But he had got no further than Drenched Blossoms Pavilion when he saw one of the old nannies on duty at the back gate of the Garden hurrying from the opposite direction with a note in her hand. She came up to him when she saw who he was and handed him the note.
‘From Mr Yun, sir. He’s waiting at the back gate. He sends his compliments and says would I please give you this.’
Bao-yu opened it and read.

Dear Father,
I have the Honour to present my Humble Duty and hope this finds you as it leaves me in the Best of health, ever since you did me the great Kindness to recognize me as your Son I have been looking for some means of showing my appreciation of your great kindness but so far no opportunity has presented itself, to date. However, thanks to your esteemed Advice I have got to know several Nur?serymen also a number of famous gardens and now through this contacts I have come across a very rare Variety of autumn crab flower (Pure White) only very little to be had, but using every means possible I have got two pots of it I hope you will think of me as a real Son and not refuse to keep them for your enjoyment. However, owing to the present Hot Weather I did not like to call in Person as the Young Ladies are outside in the Garden a lot owing to the heat, and not wishing to give Inconvenience
I remain,
Honoured Father,
Your Dutifully and Affected Son,
Jia Yun

Bao-yu laughed when he had finished reading it.
‘Is he alone?’ he asked the old woman, ‘or is there someone with him?’
‘He’s got a couple of young chaps with him carrying potted plants.’
‘I see. Well go back and thank him for me. Tell him it’s very kind of him and I very much appreciate it. And have the pots taken to my room.’
When he had given these instructions, he continued with Ebony on his way to Autumn Studio. He arrived to find that Bao-chai, Dai-yu, Ying-chun and Xi-chun had all got there before him. They laughed excitedly when they saw him enter.
‘Here comes another one!’
‘I hadn’t realized that I was so popular!’ said Tan-chun. ‘I wrote to you all more or less on the spur of the moment. It was no more than a tentative suggestion. I had no idea it would meet with this instant response from everybody.’
‘It’s a pity you didn’t think of it earlier,’ said Bao-yu. ‘We ought to have started a club long ago.’
‘Well I don’t think it’s a pity,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Do, by all means, have a poetry club if you’re all so keen to, only count me out of it, please. I don’t feel up to it.’
Ying-chun laughed.
‘If you’re not, then what about the rest of us?’
‘This is no time for false modesty,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Here is a serious proposition and one which we are obviously all enthu?siastic about. What we need are some ideas that we can all discuss. Come on, Chai! Let’s hear what you have got to say first, then perhaps we can hear from Cousin Lin.’
‘What’s the hurry?’ said Bao-chai. ‘We’re not even all here yet.’
Just as she was saying that, Li Wan arrived. She smiled at them all as she entered.
‘My! What a poetic lot we are! If you are going to have a poetry club, may I propose myself for president? The idea of having one did in fact occur to me earlier in the year, but I thought that as I can’t write poetry myself, a proposal coming from me might seem a bit presumptuous, and I did nothing about it. Now that my poetical sister-in-law has had the same idea, I should like to do what I can to help her get it started.’
‘If we are definitely going to have a poetry club,’ said Dai-yu, ‘then as members of the club we are all equals and fellow-poets. We can’t go on calling ourselves “cousin” and “sister-in-law” all the time;’
‘I quite agree,’ said Li Wan. ‘We ought to choose pen?names to sign our poems with, then we can use them for addressing each other by as well. I shall call myself “Farmer Sweet-rice”. I don’t suppose anyone else will want that title.’
‘I shall call myself “Autumn Studio”,’ said Tan-chun.
‘That’s pretty unoriginal!’ said Bao-yu. ‘Can’t you do any better than that? You’ve got all those paulownias and plantain-trees around your place: can’t you make a name out of them?’
‘All right,’ said Tan-chun. ‘I’m very fond of my plantains. I shall call myself “Under the Plantains”.’
‘That’s very original,’ said the others admiringly. But Dai-yu laughed.
‘Come on, everybody!’ she said. ‘Pop her in the stew-pot! We’ll have a nice piece of venison with our wine.’
As no one could understand this recondite joke, Dai-yu undertook to explain it for them.
“Under the plantains” is where the woodcutter in the old Taoist parable hid the deer he had killed; so the allusion means “a deer”. In calling herself by that pen-name, Cousin Tan is therefore offering herself to her fellow-members as venison for them to feast on in their carousals.’
‘Oh, all right, Miss Clever!’ said Tan-chun. “‘Plantain Lover”, then. You wait! I’ll be even with you yet. I’ve got just the name for her,’ she told the others. ‘When the Emperor Shun died, his two queens are supposed to have gone along the banks of the river Xiang looking for him. According to the legend, the two queens turned into river goddesses and their tears became the spots you find on the bamboos that grow along the banks of the river. That’s why there’s a kind of bamboo called “Naiad’s Tears”. Well now, Cousin Dai lives in the Naiad’s House, and she cries so much that I shouldn’t be at all surprised if one of these days the bamboos in her courtyard all turned out to have spots on them; so I think the best pen-name for her would be “River Queen”.’
The others, applauding, agreed that this was exactly the tight name for Dai-yu. Dai-yu herself hung her head and said nothing.
‘I’ve thought of one for Bao-chai,’ said Li Wan. ‘Not regal, like Dai-yu’s, but aristocratic, at any rate. What do you all think of “Lady All-spice”?’
‘I think the title becomes her very well,’ said Tan-chun.
‘What about me?’ said Bao-yu. ‘Isn’t anyone going to think of a name for me?’
‘Oh, you!’ said Bao-chai. ‘The obvious one for you is “Busybody” — because you are always so busy doing nothing.’
‘Why not stick to your old pen-name, “Lord of the Flowers”?’ said Li Wan.
‘Do you have to embarrass me by reminding me of my youthful indiscretions?’ said Bao-yu.
‘No, let me choose your name,’ said Bao-chai, ‘Actually I’ve already thought of one. It sounds a bit common, perhaps, but I think it suits you. You are a very lucky person, living in such luxurious and beautiful surroundings and you enjoy an exceptional amount of leisure—in fact, I can’t think of anyone who combines quite so much luck with quite so much leisure—so I suggest “Lucky Lounger” as the most suitable pen-name for you.’
Bao-yu laughed good-humouredly.
‘You are flattering me! I think you’d better all call me by whatever name each of you fancies.’
‘No, that won’t do,’ said Dai-yu. ‘As you live in the House of Green Delights, why don’t we simply call you “Green Boy”?’
‘Yes,’ said the others. ‘Good.’
‘Now, what names are we going to have for Cousin Ying and Cousin Xi?’ said Li Wan.
‘Neither of us is much good at poetry,’ said Ying-chun. ‘There doesn’t seem much point in having any.’
‘No, I think you ought to have pen-names,’ said Tan-chun.
‘As Ying-chun lives on Amaryllis Eyot, she could be “Amaryllis Islander”, and as Xi-chun lives by the Lotus Pavilion, she could be “Lotus Dweller”,’ said Bao-chai. ‘That would seem to be the simplest solution.’
‘Yes,’ said Li Wan. ‘Those names will do very nicely. Now, I’m the eldest here, so I’m going to propose some conditions that I’d like you all to agree to. I don’t think you’ll have much difficulty in doing so when you’ve heard what they are. The first one is that as three out of the seven of us founding this club—that’s to say Cousin Ying, Cousin Xi and myself—are no good at writing poetry, I propose that the rest of you should let us off versifying and allow us to act as your officers instead.’
‘“Cousin Ying”? “Cousin Xi”?’ said Tan-chun. ‘What’s the good of inventing all these new names if you’re not going to use them? I think that from now on there ought to be a penalty for not using them.’
‘First things first,’ said Li Wan. ‘Let’s get the club properly founded, and we can talk about penalties later on. I suggest that the club should hold its meetings at my place, because I’ve got the most room. I can’t write poetry myself, but if you don’t object to having so illiterate a person as your host, I’m sure that as time goes by I shall grow more poetical and re?fined under your influence.
‘My next condition is that you should make me your presi?dent. And as I shan’t be able to manage all the official business on my own, I should like to be allowed to co-opt two vice-presidents. I therefore nominate Amaryllis Islander and Lotus Dweller as my assistants, one to set the themes and rhymes in our competitions and the other to act as invigilator and copyist.
‘And lastly, although we three officers don’t have to do any versifying, we should not be precluded from trying our hand at it if we want to. So if there is ever a fairly simple subject with easy rhymes and we feel like joining in, we should be allowed to do so. The rest of you, of course, have no option.
‘Well, those are my conditions. If you agree to them, I’ll be glad to help you found the club. If not, I don’t think there would really be much point in my tagging along.’
The proposed arrangement was highly agreeable to Ying-?chun and Xi-chun, neither of whom had much enthusiasm for writing poetry—least of all in competition with experts like Bao-chai and Dai-yu—and they assented readily. The rest, when they saw how willingly Ying-chun and Xi-chun acquiesced, felt that they could scarcely object themselves and added their assent— though Tan-chun did remark, somewhat ruefully, that it seemed a little hard, when she was the one who had thought of the idea in the first place, that she should now have these other three sitting in judgement over her.
‘Right,’ said Bao-yu. ‘That’s all settled. Let’s all move over to Sweet-rice Village, then.’
‘You’re always in such a hurry!’ said Li Wan. ‘Today’s meeting is just a preliminary discussion. Now you will have to wait for me to issue an invitation.’
‘Before we do anything else,’ said Bao-chai, ‘we had better decide how often we are going to meet.’
‘Not too often, I hope,’ said Tan-chun, ‘otherwise it will no longer be a pleasure. I suggest not more than two or three times a month.’
‘Twice a month will be quite enough,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Once we’ve decided which two days to meet on, we should under-take always to turn up on those two days, wet or fine. At the same time, we should be allowed to arrange additional meet?ings outside the fixed dates as and when the fancy takes any of us to do so. If we leave it that much flexible, it will be more enjoyable.’
The others agreed that this was a good proposal and should be adopted.
‘The poetry club was originally my idea,’ said Tan-chun. ‘I hope you will at least allow me the pleasure of being your hostess at its first meeting.’
‘All right,’ said Li Wan. ‘We’ll have a meeting tomorrow and you shall entertain us,’
Why wait until tomorrow?’ said Tan-chun. ‘There’s no time like the present. You choose a title for us, Amaryllis Islander can set the rhymes, and Lotus Dweller can supervise us while we compose our poems.’
‘If you ask me,’ said Ying-chun, ‘I think that rather than always have the same two people to choose the titles and set the rhymes, it would be better to draw lots.’
‘As I was on my way here just now,’ said Li Wan, ‘I saw them carrying in two pots of white crab-blossom. It was so pretty. Couldn’t you have white crab-blossom for your sub?ject?’
‘We haven’t all seen it yet,’ said Ying-chun. ‘How are they going to write poems about it if they haven’t seen it?’
‘We all know what white crab-blossom looks like,’ said Bao-chai. ‘I don’t see why we necessarily have to look at it in order to be able to write a poem about it. The ancients used a poetic theme as a vehicle for whatever feelings they happened to want to express at that particular moment. If they’d waited until they’d seen the objects they were supposed to be writing about, the poems would never have got written!’
‘Very well, then, I’ll set your rhymes,’ said Ying-chun.
She took a book of verse off the shelf, opened it at random, and held it up for the others to see.
‘There you are: an octet in Regulated Verse. That’s the form.’
She closed the book again and turned to a little maid who was leaning in the doorway looking on.
‘Give us a word,’ she said. ‘Any word.’
‘Door,’ said the girl.
‘That means the first line must end with “door”,’ said Ying-chun. She turned again to the girl: ‘Another one.’
‘Pot,’ said the girl.
‘Right, “pot”,’ said Ying-chun, and going over to a little nest of drawers in which rhyme-cards were kept, she pulled out one of them and asked the maid to select two cards from it at random. These turned out to be the cards for ‘not’ and ‘spot’.
‘Now,’ she said to the girl, ‘pick any card out of any drawer. Just one.’
The girl pulled out another drawer and picked out the card for ‘day’.
‘All right,’ said Ying-chun. ‘That means that your first line must end in “door”, your second in “pot”, your fourth in “not”, your sixth in “spot”, and the rhyming couplet in the seventh and eighth lines must end in “day”.’
Tan-chun’s maid Scribe laid out four identical sets of brushes and paper for the competitors, who all, except Dai-yu, now began, with quiet concentration, to consider what they were going to write. Dai-yu wandered around outside, playing with the bark of the paulownia trees, admiring the signs of autumn in the garden, occasionally joking with the maids, and in general not giving the slightest indication that she was engaged in the throes of composition. Ying-chun told one of the maids to light a stick of Sweet Dreams—a kind of incense which is only about three inches long and has a very thick wick so that it burns down fairly rapidly – and told the competitors that they had to complete their poems by the time the incense had burned itself out, otherwise they would be penalized.
Tan-chun soon had a poem ready. Taking up a brush, she wrote it out and, after going over it and making a few cor?rections, handed it in to Ying-chun. Then she turned to Bao-chai.
‘How are you doing, Lady All-spice? Have you thought of a poem yet?’
‘Well—yes, I’ve thought of something,’ said Bao-chai, ‘but I’m not very happy about it.’
Bao-yu, meanwhile, was pacing up and down, hands clasped behind his back, in the loggia outside. Hearing this exchange, he paused to address Dai-yu.
‘Do you hear that?’ he said. ‘The other two have nearly finished.’
‘Kindly mind your own business, would you?’ said Dai-yu. Bao-yu glanced inside and saw that Bao-chai was busy writ?ing her poem down.
‘Lord!’ he said. ‘There’s only an inch left.’ He turned to Dai-yu again: ‘The incense has nearly burned out. What are you still squatting over there on the damp grass for?’
Dai-yu ignored him.
‘Oh well,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I haven’t got time to worry about you. I’ll have to start writing my own now, whether it’s any good or not.’
He went in then, and sat down at the table to write.
‘I’m going to start reading the poems now,’ said Li Wan. ‘Anyone who hasn’t handed in by the time I’ve finished read?ing will have to pay a fine.’
‘Farmer Sweet-rice may not be much good at writing poetry,’ said Bao-yu, ‘but she is jolly good at reading it. She’s a very fair critic. I’m sure we shall all be willing to accept her judgement.’ The others nodded in agreement. Li Wan picked up Tan-?chun’s draft and the others crowded round to read it with her:

A wintry sunset gilds the vine-wreathed door
Where stands, mossed by old rains, the flower-pot.
Its snowy blooms, as snow impermanent,
Are pure as pure white jade that alters not.
O fragrant frailty, that so fears the wind!
Most radiant whiteness! Pull moon without spot!
White flower-sprite, shake your silken wings! Away!
And join with me to hymn the dying day!

All complimented Tan-chun on her poem when they had finished reading it. Then they looked at Bao-chai’s:

Guard the sweet scent behind closed courtyard door,
And with prompt waterings dew the mossy pot!
The carmine hue their summer sisters wore
These snowy autumn blossoms envy not—
Pot beauty in plain whiteness best appears,
And only in white jade is found no spot.
Chaste, lovely flowers! Silent, they seem to pray
To autumn’s White God at the close of day.

Li Wan smiled.
‘That has the All-spice touch all right!’ Next they looked at Bao-yu’s poem.

White Autumn’s sister stands beside the door;
Like summer snow her blossoms till the pot—
A Yang-fei rising naked from the bath,
With a cool, chaste allure that she had not.
The dawn wind could not dry those pearly tears
With which night’s rain each floweret’s eye did spot.
Pensive and grave, her blossoms gently sway,
While a sad flute laments the dying day!

When they had finished reading, Bao-yu said he liked Tan-?chun’s poem best of the three, but Li Wan insisted that Bao?-chai’s was superior. It had ‘more character’ she said. She was about to press Dai-yu for her contribution when Dai-yu sauntered in of her own volition.
‘Oh! have you all finished?’
She picked up a brush and proceeded, writing rapidly and without a pause, to set down the poem that was already com?pleted in her mind. She wrote on the first sheet of paper that came to hand and, having finished, threw it nonchalantly across the table for the others to inspect.

Beside the half-raised blind, the half-closed door,
Crushed ice for earth and white jade for the pot,

They had got no further than the first couplet, when Bao-yu broke out into praises.
‘Clever! How do you get these ideas?’

Three parts of whiteness from the pear-tree stolen,
One part from plum for scent (which pear has not)—

All of them were impressed by this second couplet.
‘This is good. Original. It’s quite different from the other three.’
Moon-maidens stitched them with white silken thread,
And virgins’ tears the new-made flowers did spot,
Which now, like bashful maids that no word say,
Lean languid on the breeze at close of day.

‘Yes, this is the best,’ they said. ‘This is the best of the four.’
‘For elegance and originally, yes,’ said Li Wan; ‘but for character and depth I prefer Lady All-spice’s.’
‘I think that’s a fair judgement,’ said Tan-chun. ‘I think River Queen’s has to take second place.’
‘At all events,’ said Li Wan, ‘Green Boy’s is bottom. Do you accept that judgement, Green Boy?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Bao-yu. ‘It’s a perfectly fair one. Mine is just not a good poem. But’ — he smiled hopefully —‘I think we ought to reconsider the placing of All-spice’s and River Queen’s contributions.’
‘You agreed to abide by my decisions,’ said Li Wan. ‘I don’t think the rest of you have any say in the matter. If anyone questions a decision of mine in future, he will have to pay a penalty.’
Bao-yu was obliged to let the matter drop.
‘I propose that our two meetings should be on the second and sixteenth of each month,’ said Li Wan. ‘On those occasions I shall be responsible for choosing the subjects and the rhymes. If any of you ever feels like having an extra meeting in be?tween those dates, there’s nothing to stop you. In fact, there’s nothing to stop you having a meeting every day, if you feel like it. But that’s entirely up to you. On the second and six?teenth you must all come round to my place, and the meetings on those two days are my responsibility.’
‘We really ought to have a name for the club,’ said Bao-yu. ‘We don’t want anything banal,’ said Tan-chun; ‘on the other hand we don’t want anything too weird and wonderful. As we started off with a poem about white crab-blossom, why don’t we simply call ourselves “The Crab-flower Club”? That might have seemed a somewhat banal title other things being equal, but in our case it wouldn’t be because it would com?memorate our founding meeting.’
Tan-chun’s proposal was followed by general discussion. After partaking of the liquid and other refreshment which she provided, the party then broke up, some returning to their own apartments in the Garden, some going on to Grand?mother Jia’s or Lady Wang’s apartments outside. Our record leaves them at this point and does not specify.

*

Aroma had been present when Bao-yu received Tan-chun’s letter and had seen him rush off excitedly with Ebony as soon as he had finished reading it, but without having any idea what the cause of his excitement might be. Shortly after he left, two of the old women from the back gate arrived carrying pots of white-flowering autumn crab. Aroma asked them who the flowers were from, and when the old women had explained, showed them where she wanted them put, after which she took them into the servants’ quartets and made them sit down while she went off to Bao-yu’s room to fetch some money. She weighed out twelve penny-weights of silver and made it into a little parcel, then, taking out an additional three hundred copper cash, hurried back to the old women.
‘The silver is to pay the beaters with,’ she told them as she handed them the money. ‘The cash is for you to buy yourselves a drink with.’
The old women stood up, beaming all over their faces. How kind, how very kind, they said, they couldn’t possibly take it. But as Aroma insisted, they allowed themselves to be persuaded.
‘Are there any boys on duty outside the gate?’ Aroma asked them.
‘Oh yes, there are always four there,’ said the old women, ‘to do any errands you young ladies in the Garden happen to want done outside. If there’s anything you want done, Miss, just let us know and we’ll get them to do it for you.’
‘It isn’t for me,’ said Aroma smiling. ‘I wouldn’t presume. It’s Master Bao. He wants someone to go to the Marquis of Zhong-jing’s place to deliver some things to Miss Shi. I thought that now you’re here I might as well ask you if you wouldn’t mind when you get back telling the boys on the gate to go out and order a cab for me. Only if they do, will you come to me for the fare, please. Don’t go bothering them in the front about it.’
The old women departed, promising to do as she asked, while Aroma went back into the main apartment for a saucer to put some of the things on that she was planning to send to Xiang-yun. But when she looked on the dresser she found that the saucer shelf was completely empty. She glanced back to where Skybright, Ripple and Musk sat sewing together.
‘What happened to that white onyx saucer that used to be here ’ she asked them.
The girls looked at each other blankly, trying to remember. After some moments, Skybright’s face broke into a smile.
‘I remember. I took it to Miss Tan’s with those lychees on. It’s still there.’
‘Whatever did you take that one for, when there are so many other things you could have used?’
‘Well, yes, that’s what I said. But the dark brown lychees and the white-and-browny onyx did go very well together. Even Miss Tan said how pretty they looked. She made me leave the dish there, where she could look at it. That’s why I didn’t bring it back with me. By the way, that pair of identical vases that used to be on the very top of the dresser isn’t back yet, either.’
‘You’ll laugh if I tell you about them,’ said Ripple. ‘You know how Master Bao never does anything by halves. Well, the other day he had a sudden rush of dutiful feelings come over him. He’d just picked a couple of sprays of cassia and was going to put them in a vase, when suddenly he said, “Oh! these are the first cassia flowers I’ve picked this year. I mustn’t keep them for my own enjoyment.” So what does he do but fetch down those two vases, put the water in them and arrange the flowers in them himself, and go along with them (someone else carrying them, of course) to Her Old Ladyship and Her Ladyship to give them each a vase. Anyway, the beauty of it was that some of the effects of this rubbed off on the person carrying the vases—which it so happens was me. When Her Old Ladyship saw the flowers, she was so delighted you just can’t imagine. “Oh, look!” she said. “What a good boy he is to me! He can’t even see a flower without thinking of his old grannie! — And people grumble at me for being too fond of him!” Well, as I expect you know, Her Old Ladyship normally doesn’t seem to have much use for me—I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about me she doesn’t seem to like—but on this occasion she gave me a hundred cash. And she called me a “poor little thing”. “Poor little thing!” she said. “She looks so sickly! “ I can tell you, I never expected a piece of luck like that! I mean, a hundred cash is nothing, but the honour! – in front of all those people! Then when we got to Her Ladyship’s, Her Ladyship was with Mrs Lian and Mrs Zhao going through her chests and looking out some of the things she used to wear when she was a girl to give to someone — I don’t know who it was. Anyway, when she saw us, she left off to admire the flowers. So of course Mrs Lian has to make the most of it by putting in her pennyworth going on about how dutiful Master Bao is and how thoughtful and how this that and the other I can’t remember a half of what she said, there was a whole cartload of it – but whatever it was it gave Her Ladyship a lot of face, hearing him praised like that in front of everybody, and You Know Who not being able to say a word against him, so of course she was very pleased. And what do you think? She gave me two dresses! Admittedly, we get new dresses every year, so in itself being given two dresses may not seem so wonderful. But the honour!’
‘Pooh!’ said Skybright. ‘Silly girl! You don’t know much! Those would be two dresses that she thought weren’t good enough to give to the other person. I can’t see much honour in that!’
‘I don’t care,’ said Ripple. ‘It was still very kind of Her Ladyship, for all that.’
‘If it had been me, I shouldn’t have wanted them,’ said Skybright. ‘What? take someone else’s old left-overs? All of us here are only maids; none of us is supposed to be any higher than the rest, you know. Why should she give someone else the best and give me the left-overs? No, I’m sorry. I should have had to refuse, even if it meant offending her. I couldn’t take a thing like that lying down!’
‘Which of us was it that she gave those other dresses to?’ said Ripple, curious. ‘I’ve been home ill these last few days. I must have been away when it happened. Be a sport, Skyey — tell us who it was!’
‘Why, if I tell you, will you give those dresses back again?’
‘Of course not, silly! I’d just like to know,’ said Ripple. ‘I don’t care if it was Master Bao’s little puppy-dog she gave them to, I still think Her Ladyship meant to do me a kindness, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all that matters.’
The other maids laughed.
‘You’d better watch what you say! That’s just who she did give them to: Master Bao’s little dog, Flower.’
‘Wicked girls!’ said ‘Flowers’ Aroma, laughing in spite of herself, ‘taking my name in vain! Whenever you’ve got a few moments to spare you are making fun of me. There’s not one of you that will come to a good end!’
‘Oh, it was you,’ said Ripple. ‘I’m go sorry, I didn’t realize. Oh, I do apologize.’
‘All right, that’s enough fooling for now,’ said Aroma. ‘The question is, which of you is going to get that saucer?’
‘Better get the vases back too, while we’re about it,’ said Musk. ‘The one in Her Old Ladyship’s room should be safe enough, but I wouldn’t be too sure about the one at Her Ladyship’s. There are so many people in and out of that place – especially You Know Who and her lot. If they see anything from our room in there, they’re sure to find some way of breaking it accidentally-on-purpose, if they get half a chance. Her Ladyship won’t stop them. She never notices. We ought to get that one back, at least, as soon as we can.’
‘You’re right,’ said Skybright, laying down her sewing. ‘I’ll go and get it now.’
‘No, I’ll go for that,’ said Ripple. ‘You go and get your saucer.’
‘I’m going for the vase,’ said Skybright. ‘Why should you have all the windfalls? You others have all had a go. Now it’s my turn.’
‘You do exaggerate,’ said Musk. ‘It’s only Ripple who’s had the luck. And it was only because of the coincidence that Her Ladyship happened to be going through her dresses when she arrived. Do you suppose she’ll be going through them again if you go there now?’
‘Maybe not,’ said Skybright, with a tinge of malice. ‘On the other hand maybe she’ll notice how conscientious I am and pay me two taels a month out of her allowance. You see’ — she paused to add this on her way out of the room —‘I know what goes on in here. There’s no need for the play-acting.’
She ran off with a mocking laugh.
Ripple went, too, and fetched the onyx saucer from Tan-?chun’s room, after which Aroma made ready the things that were to go to Xiang-yun, and called in old Mamma Song – one of the nannies attached to Green Delights — to give her in?structions for their delivery.
‘Get yourself smartened up and change into your best things,’ she said. ‘I want you to go out presently and take some things for me to Miss Shi’s.’
‘You can give them to me now, Miss — and any message that you want me to deliver,’ said Mamma Song; ‘then I can go off straight away, as soon as I’ve got myself ready.’
Aroma fetched two little boxes of lacquer and bamboo basketwork and taking the tops off them, put foxnuts and caltrops in one and a saucerful of chestnut fudge (made of chestnut puree steam-cooked with cassia-flavored sugar) in the other.
‘These are all our own things or made from our own things freshly gathered in the Garden that Master Bao is sending Miss Shi a taste of,’ she said. ‘Tell her the onyx saucer the fudge is on is the one she was admiring last time she was here and she is to keep it. This silk bag has got the sewing in that she asked me to do for her. Tell her the needlework’s a bit on the rough side, but I’m sure she’ll understand. And say Master Bao sends his regards. And of course I present my compliments. I think that’s all.’
‘Isn’t there any message from Master Bao?’ said Mamma Song. ‘Perhaps you’d better ask him, Miss, just in case. We don’t want him saying afterwards that we’ve forgotten some?thing.’
‘Didn’t he go round just now to Miss Tan’s place?’ Aroma asked Ripple.
‘Yes,’ said Ripple. ‘They’re all round there. They were having a discussion about setting up a poetry club, what?ever that might be, and they were writing poems, some of them.’ She turned to Mamma Song. ‘I shouldn’t think he’d have anything to say. I should just push on, if I were you.’
Mamma Song took up the boxes and went off to get herself ready.
‘When you are ready, go out by the back gate,’ said Aroma as she was leaving. ‘You’ll find some of the boys there and a cab waiting for you.’
Mamma Song then left. The details of her expedition are unrecorded.

*

Some time after this Bao-yu got back. The first thing he did on arrival was to go and look at the autumn crab-flowers. When he had finished admiring them, he went into the house and told Aroma all about the poetry club, after which Aroma told him how she had sent Mamma Song to Shi Xiang-yun’s with a present of things from the Garden. Bao-yu smote his palms together in vexation.
‘Oh, we forgot about her! I knew there was something we ought to have done and hadn’t, but I couldn’t think what it was. I’m glad you’ve reminded me. We must invite her over at once, of course. The poetry club will be nothing without her in it.’
‘I don’t think I’d be in such a hurry to, if I were you,’ said Aroma. ‘It’s only an amusement, this poetry thing, and Miss Shi doesn’t have the time for amusement that the rest of you do. It isn’t as if she were her own mistress, you know. Even if you tell her about this and she wants to come, it doesn’t follow that they’ll let her. Suppose they don’t. She’ll only fret about it; and then all you’ll have done will be to have made her feel miserable for nothing.’
‘That’s no problem,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I shall ask Her Old Ladyship to have her fetched.’
Just then Mamma Song got back, mission completed, bear?ing Xiang-yun’s thanks to Aroma for the things.
‘She asked me what Master Bao was doing,’ said the nannie, ‘so I told her that he and the young ladies were starting a poetry club or some such. She was very upset. “Oh!” she said, “are they writing poetry? I wish they’d have told me about it!”’
Bao-yu waited to hear no more. Dashing round to his grandmother’s, he insisted that she should send instantly to have Xiang-yun fetched.
‘It’s too late now,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘We’ll send for her first thing tomorrow.’
Bao-yu had to be content with that, and went back to his room much downcast. He was round at Grandmother Jia’s first thing next morning again, pestering; but it was not until the early afternoon that Xiang-yun eventually arrived and his equanimity was restored.
As soon as they were all together, Bao-yu began to tell Xiang-yun how the club had come to be founded and what they had done at its first meeting. He was about to show her the poems that they had written, but Li Wan prevented him.
‘Don’t let her see them yet,’ she said. ‘Just tell her the rhymes. As she missed our first meeting, her penalty shall be to make up another poem now, using the same rhymes that we did. If it’s all right, we shall invite her to join the club straight away. If not, she must first entertain us all at our next meeting as a further penalty.’
‘I like that!’ said Xiang-yun, laughing. ‘You should be the ones to pay a penalty, for having forgotten to invite me. Well, show me the rhymes, then. I’m not much good at this sort of thing, but I don’t mind making a fool of myself. As long as you’ll let me join your club, I don’t mind what I have to do sweep the floor and light the incense for you, if you like!’
Delighted to see her so enthusiastic, and still reproaching themselves for having forgotten about her at their inaugural meeting, the rest of them made haste to give her the rhyme-words so that she could begin.
Xiang-yun was much too excited for careful composition. Having, even while they were all talking, concocted a number of verses in her head, she took up a brush and proceeded to write them down, without a single pause for correction, on the first piece of paper that came to hand.
‘There you are!’ she said, handing it to the others. ‘I’ve written two poems using the rhymes you gave me. I don’t know whether they’re any good or not, but at least I have done what was told!’
‘We thought our four had just about scraped the barrel,’ they told her. ‘We couldn’t have written one more poem on the subject, let alone two! Whatever can you have found to say in them? I bet they just repeat what we said in ours.’
But when they looked at the poems, this is what they read.

1

Of late a goddess came down to my door
And planted seeds of white jade in a pot,
From which a wondrous white Frost Maiden grew,
Who, loving cold, all other things loves not.
Last night a cloud passed by, whose autumn shower
Her cold, unweeping eyes with tears did spot;
Since when, the poet here takes up his stay,
To praise her loveliness by night and day.

2

Where flower-fringed steps approach the ivied door,
At the wall’s foot or in a graceful pot—
What flowers do more sad autumn-thoughts inspire
Than these, whose pureness others rival not?
Wax teats their petals seem, by wind congealed,
Or filtered moonlight, flecked with many a spot.
Weep they because the shadows stole away
Their goddess-queen, who now makes dark night day?

The reading of these poems was punctuated at the end of each line with expressions of admiration and surprise, and when they had got to the end, all of them agreed that these two poems had made the exercise a worth-while one and fully justified their naming the new society ‘The Crab-flower Club’.
‘You must let me provide the refreshments tomorrow as my penalty,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘I hope you will all consent to be my guests.’
‘Splendid!’ they said; and proceeded to show her the poems they had written the day before, and to discuss them with her.

*

That evening Bao-chai, who had invited Xiang-yun to spend the night with her at Allspice Court, sat with her guest under the lamplight while the latter discussed themes for the mor?row’s meeting and plans for the projected entertainment. As it became increasingly apparent that her ideas on the subject were quite impracticable, Bao-chai presently interrupted the flow.
‘The club has only just been founded and this will be its first entertainment,’ she said. ‘Although it’s all only a game, you are setting a precedent, so you need to think about it rather carefully. If the entertainment is to be equally enjoyable for everyone, you don’t want it to be too much of a burden on you; but on the other hand you don’t want the others to feel that they are being given short commons. Now, you are not your own mistress, and the few strings of cash they give you a month at home are not even enough for your own needs. And if your Aunt got to hear that you were spending money on a frivolous thing like this, she would have still more to grumble about than usual. In any case, even if you spent all you’d got, it still wouldn’t be enough to provide an entertainment for several people. So what are you going to do? You obviously can’t send home for money. Are you going to ask them here for some?’
Xiang-yun, brought back to the realities of her situation, was very much dashed. While she hesitated, Bao-chai went on.
‘Actually I’ve thought of a way out of this. An assistant in one of our pawnshops comes from a place where they have very good crabs. Now nearly everyone here from Lady Jia and Aunt Wang downwards is fond of crabs and only the other day Aunt Wang was saying that we ought to have a crab and cassia-viewing party for Lady Jia. It’s only because she has been otherwise occupied that she hasn’t done anything about it. Why not issue a general invitation, making no mention of the poetry club — we can write all the poems we want to after the rest of them have gone — and I shall ask my brother to let us have a few baskets of the biggest, fattest-looking crabs and tell him to get us a few jars of good wine and side-dishes for four or five tables from the shop? That should save a lot of trouble for you and make more of an occasion of it for every?body else.’
Xiang-yun felt deeply grateful to Bao-chai and praised her warmly for her thoughtfulness. Bao-chai smiled deprecatingly.
‘Now you mustn’t go imagining things and feel that you are being treated like a poor relation! It’s only because I am so fond of you that I have ventured to make this proposal. If you promise you won’t take it amiss, I can get them to arrange it for us straight away.’
‘My dearest girl!’ said Xiang-yun. ‘Of course I shan’t take it amiss! How can you suggest such a thing? If you do so again, I shall begin to think that you aren’t really fond of me at all! I may be a silly goose, but there are some things I understand! Do you think that if I didn’t look on you as my own true sister I should ever have told you last time I was here about all those tiresome things I have to put up with at home?’
Reassured, Bao-chai called in an old woman to take a mes?sage outside to her brother.
‘Tell Mr Pan to get us a few baskets of crabs like the ones we had the other day. It’s for after lunch tomorrow. We’re having a cassia-viewing party in the Garden for Their Ladyships. Tell him please not to forget, because I’ve already invited all the guests.’
The old woman went off to deliver her message. In due course she reported back again — but these are details omitted from our story.
Bao-chai resumed her conversation with Xiang-yun.
‘About the theme for tomorrow’s poems,’ she said. ‘We don’t want anything too outlandish. If you look at the works of the great poets, you find that they didn’t go in for the weird and wonderful titles and “daring” rhymes that people now?adays are so fond of. Outlandish themes and daring rhymes do not produce good poetry. They merely show up the poverty of the writer’s ideas. Certainly one wants to avoid clichés; but one can easily go too far in the pursuit of novelty. The im?portant thing is to have fresh ideas. If one has fresh ideas, one does not need to worry about clichés: the words take care of themselves. But what am I saying all this for? Spinning and sewing is the proper occupation for girls like us. Any time we have left over from that should be spent in reading a few pages of some improving book — not on this sort of thing!’
‘Yes,’ said Xiang-yun, without much conviction; but presently smiled as a new idea occurred to her.
‘I’ve just thought of something. Yesterday’s theme was “White Crab-blossom”. The flower I’d like to write about is the chrysanthemum. Couldn’t we have “Chrysanthemums” as our theme for tomorrow?’
‘It is certainly a very seasonable one,’ said Bao-chai. ‘The trouble is that so many people have written about it before.’
‘Yes,’ said Xiang-yun, ‘I suppose it is rather a hackneyed one.’
Bao-chai thought for a bit.
‘Unless of course you somehow involved the poet in the theme,’ she said. ‘You could do that by making up verb-object or concrete-abstract tides in which “chrysanthemums” was the concrete noun or the object of the verb as the case might be. Then your poem would be both a celebration of chrysanthemums and at the same time a description of some action or situation. Such a treatment of the subject has been tried in the past, but it is a much less hackneyed one. The combining of narrative and lyrical elements in a single treat?ment makes for freshness and greater freedom.’
‘It sounds a splendid idea,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘But what sort of verbs or abstract nouns had you in mind? Can you give me an example?’
Bao-chai thought for a bit.
‘What about “The Dream of the Chrysanthemums”?’
‘Yes, that’s a good one,’ said xiang-yun. ‘I’ve thought of one too. Couldn’t we have “The Shadow of the Chrysanthe?mums”?’
‘Ye-e-es,’ said Bao-chai, doubtfully. ‘The trouble is, it’s been used before. Still, if we had a lot of titles we could probably slip it in. I’ve thought of another.’
‘Well, come on then!’ said Xiang-yun.
‘What about “Questioning the Chrysanthemums”?’
Xiang-yun slapped the table appreciatively.
‘That’s a lovely one!’ Presently she added: ‘I’ve thought of another. What do you think of “Seeking the Chrysanthe?mums”?’
‘That should be interesting,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Let’s start making a list. We’ll write down up to ten titles and then see what we think of them.’
The two of them busied themselves for some minutes grinding ink and softening a brush. Xiang-yun then proceeded to write down the titles at Ban-chai’s dictation. Soon they had ten. Xiang-yun read them over.
‘Ten doesn’t make a set,’ she said. ‘We need two more to make a round dozen, then we shall have just the right number for a little album.’
Ban-chai supplied two more without too much difficulty.
‘If we’re thinking in terms of a sequence of poems,’ she said, ‘we may as well, while we’re about it, arrange these titles in some sort of order.’
‘That’s it!’ said Xiang-yun. ‘Then they will be all ready for making our “Chrysanthemum Album” with afterwards.’
“‘Remembering the Chrysanthemums” should come first,’ said Bao-chai.
‘Now, let’s see. When you remember them, you realize you haven’t got any, so you go and look for some. So “Seeking the Chrysanthemums” will be the second title.
‘Well, having found some, you will want to plant them; so “Planting the Chrysanthemums” will be the third title.
‘After you’ve planted them and the flowers have come out, you’ll want to stand and look at them; so the fourth title will be “Admiring the Chrysanthemums”.
‘You won’t be able to have enough of them by just standing and admiring them, so you’ll naturally want to pick some and arrange them in a vase so that you can enjoy them indoors. That means “Arranging the Chrysanthemums” for Number Five.
‘But however much you enjoy them, you will feel that they somehow lack their full lustre without words to grace them, and so you will want to celebrate them in verse. That means “Celebrating the Chrysanthemums” will be the sixth title.
‘Well now, let’s suppose you’ve just finished writing some verses about them. You’ve got the ink ready-made and the brush is still in your hand and you feel like paying the chrysanthemums a further tribute. What should you do but paint them? That’s Number Seven. “Painting the Chrysan?themums”.
‘Now in spite of these silent tributes, you still don’t know the secret of the chrysanthemums’ mysterious charm and you can’t resist asking them. Which brings us to Number Eight “Questioning the Chrysanthemums”.
‘And if the chrysanthemums could really reply, it would be so delightful that you would want to have them near you all the time – and how better than by “Wearing the Chrysanthe?mums”? That’s Number Nine.
‘That brings us to the end of the verb-object titles which involve the poet himself as the understood subject of the action. But there remain other kinds of treatment, in which we consider the flowers by themselves without postulating the presence of the poet. So we have “The Shadow of the Chrysanthemums” and “The Dream of the Chrysanthe?mums” as Numbers Ten and Eleven.
‘And of course “The Death of the Chrysanthemums” at the end of the album to round off on a suitable note of melan?choly.
‘There you are! All three months of autumn condensed into a single sequence of a dozen poems!’
Xiang-yun recopied the twelve titles in the order that Bao?-chai had indicated, then, after running her eye rapidly over them, she asked Bao-chai what rhyme-scheme they should set.
‘I have always disliked set rhymes,’ said Bao-chai. ‘If you have a good poem in the making, why shackle it with the constraints of an arbitrary rhyme-scheme? Let us leave set rhymes to vulgar pedants; all we need do is give out the titles and let the others choose their own rhyme-schemes for them?selves. After all, the object of the exercise is to give people enjoyment—the enjoyment gained by producing an occasional felicitous line. We aren’t out to make things difficult for them.’
‘I entirely agree,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘And I am sure that in this way we shall get better poems. There’s just one thing, though: we have twelve titles now but only five people writing poems. Presumably we aren’t going to ask each of them to produce a poem for every one of the titles?’
‘Oh no, that would be much too difficult,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Make a fair copy of the list of titles, merely indicating that the poems are to be octets in Regulated Verse, put it up on the wall where everyone can see it, and then simply let them choose whichever titles they like. If anyone has the energy to do them all, they are welcome to try. If they can’t manage more than one, let them do just one. Skill and speed are what we shall be looking for. As soon as all of the twelve tides have been covered, we shall call a halt, and anyone who goes on writing after that will be made to pay a penalty.’
Xiang-yun did not see that this last stipulation was neces?sary, but otherwise agreed with her, and the two girls, having satisfied themselves that their plans for the morrow were now complete, put out the light and composed themselves for sleep.
As to the outcome of their plans: that will be told in the following chapter.

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