The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 40



Lady Jia holds two feasts in one day in the Prospect Garden
And Faithful makes four calls on three dominoes in the
Painted Chamber

HEARING that he was wanted, Bao-yu hurried to the gate of the inner mansion. Amber was standing in front of the screen-wall waiting for him.
‘Hurry! You’re holding everyone up. There’s something they want to talk to you about,’ she said.
In fact, when he arrived at his grandmother’s room, she and his mother and the girls were already discussing it ‘it’ being the question of what arrangements they should make for the return party for Shi Xiang-yun.
‘I’ll tell you what to do,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Since there won’t be any outsiders at this party, instead of having a fixed menu and formally-laid tables, why not get them to do one or two of everyone’s favourite dishes, put them in those lacquer food-boxes that have different compartments for the different dishes, and serve them on little individual tables with a “self-service” wine-kettle each, so that everyone can pour their own wine? I’m sure that would be jollier than a formal party.’
Grandmother Jia was much taken with this proposal and at once sent orders to the kitchen to do as he had suggested.
‘Tell them that tomorrow we want them to choose some of the things they know we like and put them in boxes – one box for each of us. And tell them that we shall want lunch served in the Garden tomorrow as well.’
The lamps had by now been lit. Of the night which followed our record gives no account.
Rising early next morning, they were delighted to observe that it was going to be a beautiful clear, autumn day. Li Wan was among the earliest up, and at once began to supervise the older women and maids in sweeping up fallen leaves, polish?ing chairs and tables, and getting ready the sets of teacups, winecups and so forth that would be needed for the party. Xi-feng’s maid Felicity, accompanied by Grannie Lin and little Ban-er, arrived while they were in the midst of this activity.
‘You are very busy, Mrs Zhu,’ said Grannie Liu.
Li Wan smiled.
‘I told you you’d never get away! You kept saying yesterday that you had to go, but I knew they wouldn’t let you.’
‘It was Her Old Ladyship that kept me,’ said Grannie Liu. ‘She said she wanted me to enjoy meself for a day or two be?fore I went back.’
Felicity produced several large keys.
‘Mrs Lian says the little tables already in use may not he enough and we’d better open the upstairs storeroom and get some more out, just for today. She meant to come over herself and see to it, but she’s with Her Ladyship at the moment and can t get away, so she says would you mind Opening the store?room for her and getting some of the servants to carry them down?’
Li Wan sent Candida to the storeroom with the keys and told one of the old women to go to the inner gate and get some of the pages on duty there to help with the carrying. She herself went and stood in the courtyard behind Prospect Hall and watched from below while the Painted Chamber was opened up and the tables were one by one carried down from it. The team of maids, pages and old nannies worked together with such enthusiasm that soon more than twenty of the little tables had been manhandled downstairs into the courtyard.
‘Gently now, gently!’ said Li Wan as they were moving them. ‘No need to go at it as if all the devils in hell were after you! You’ll chip the edges off them if you’re not careful.’
She turned to Grannie Liu.
‘Wouldn’t you like to go up and have a look?’
The old woman needed no second asking. Holding Ban-er tightly by the hand, she scrambled up the stairway and looked inside. The interior was stacked high with folding screens, tables, chairs, lanterns and furniture of every kind. Much of what she saw she could not identify, but the dull gleam of gold, the rich glow of coloured lacquers, and the artistry and sump?tuousness of the objects drew many a pious ejaculation from her before she descended. The door of the storeroom was then locked and the remaining maids came down.
‘I wonder how energetic Lady Jia will be feeling today,’ said Li Wan. ‘Perhaps while you are about it you had better get out the oars and punt-poles and paddles and some boat-awnings as well, in case she decides to go on the water.’
‘Yes’m,’ said the maids, and proceeded to unlock the store?room again and carry down the items specified. Li Wan mean?while sent one of the pages to tell the boatwomen that they were to pole a couple of punts out from the boathouse and have them by in readiness.
While this activity was still in progress, Grandmother Jia arrived at the head of a troupe of females. Li Wan hurried for?ward to greet her.
‘You are very energetic this morning, Grandmother; I didn’t expect you in the Garden so soon. I was hoping that you would still be doing your hair. I’ve picked some chrysan?themums for you to wear and I was just about to send them round to you.’
Even as she was saying this, Casta arrived carrying a large dish of peacock-green glaze shaped like a lotus-leaf, in which chrysanthemum-flowers of many different colours were being kept in moisture. Grandmother Jia chose a dark red one to fasten in the side of her hair. As she turned her head to do so, she caught sight of Grannie Liu and smiled at her in welcome.
‘Come over here! You must have one too!’
Before she had finished, Xi-feng had already seized the old woman by the hand and was dragging her over.
‘Come on, let me dress you up properly!’
She began sticking the chrysanthemums into her hair, put?ting them in at every angle, and continued until all the flowers in the dish had been used up. The effect was so ludicrous that Grandmother Jia and the rest all burst out laughing. Grannie Liu, not a whit perturbed, good-humouredly joined in the laughter.
‘I don’t know what my poor old head can have done to deserve so much honour,’ she said.
‘You ought to pull them out and throw them in her lace,’ said the others. ‘She’s made you look like an old vamp!’
‘I may be getting on now,’ said Grannie Liu, ‘but I used to be a stylish young woman in my time. I loved to have a bit of powder for my cheek and a flower to wear in my hair. ‘Tis no matter: now I shall be a stylish old ‘un.’
During this exchange they had been moving towards Drenched Blossoms Pavilion. Maids went on ahead with a rolled-up patterned rug which they spread out on one of the bench-boards that ran along the inner sides of the balustrades. Seating herself on the rug with her back against the railings, Grandmother Jia invited Grannie Liu to sit down beside her and tell her what she thought of the Garden.
‘Holy Name!’ said Grannie Liu. ‘You know, we country folk like to get a picture at the New Year that we can stick up on the wall. Every year just before New Year the farmers come into town to buy one. Many’s the time of an evening when the day’s work was done we’ve sat and looked at the picture on our wall and wished we could get inside it and walk around, never imagining that such beautiful places could really be. Yet now I look at this Garden here, and it’s ten times better than any picture I ever saw. If only I could get someone to make a painting of it all, just the way it is, that I could take back to show the others, I do believe I should die content!’
Grandmother Jia smilingly pointed a linger in Xi-chun direction.
‘You see my little great-niece over there? She can paint. Shall we get her to do you a painting of it?’
Grannie Liu jumped up and going over to Xi-chun, took her impulsively by the hand.
‘Dear Miss!’ she said. ‘To think that one so young and pretty should be so gifted and all! I do believe you must be one of the holy spirits born in a human shape!’
The simple earnestness with which this was uttered made the others all laugh. After resting a little longer, Grandmother Jia, who intended to show her guest as much of the Garden as possible, got up again and resumed the tour.
The first place they came to was the Naiad’s House. The green bamboos engulfed them as they entered the gate and brilliant green moss carpeted the ground beneath. Through the midst of the bamboos a raised cobbled path wound its way towards the house. Grannie Liu stepped aside to let Grandmother Jia and the rest walk on it while she herself walked on the ground below. Amber held a hand out to draw her up.
‘Walk on the path, Grannie! You’ll slip on the moss down there.’
‘Don’t you mind me, my dear!’ said Grannie Liu. ‘I’m used to it. You keep to the path, though, with the rest. You don’t want to muddy those fancy shoes of yours.’
Unfortunately the necessity of looking up to talk to some?one who was walking at a higher level had distracted her attention from the ground beneath, and even as she said this, her feet slipped on the treacherous moss, her legs flew out from under her, and she landed on her posterior with a thump. The girls clapped their hands delightedly. Grandmother Jia laughed too, though trying her hardest to sound cross.
‘Little monsters!’ she said, ‘Don’t just stand there laughing. Help her up!’
But Grannie Liu bad already scrambled up unaided, and was laughing herself.
‘It serves me right,’ she said. ‘I shouldn’t have spoken so soon!’
‘Are you sure you haven’t hurt your back?’ Grandmother Jia asked her. ‘Let one of the maids massage it for you.’
‘God bless my soul!’ said Grannie Liu. ‘I’m not that deli?cate! I don’t suppose a day goes by but what I take a tumble or two. If I was to have meself massaged every time, it would never
Nightingale was already waiting with the bamboo blind raised for them to enter. Grandmother Jia led her party through the doorway and sat down inside. Dai-yu waited on her in person; offering her tea in a covered cup which she carried on a little tray.
‘We shan’t be taking tea, niece,’ said Lady Wang. ‘Don’t bother to pour for the rest of us.’
Hearing this, Dai-yu ordered one of the maids to fetch the chair by the window that she normally sat on herself and bring it up for her aunt to sit on. Grannie Liu noticed the inkstone and brushes on the table in front of it and all the books on the bookshelves and said that she supposed this must be ‘the young gentleman’s study’.
Grandmother Jia smiled and pointed to Dai-yu.
‘It belongs to her – my little granddaughter.’
As though incredulous, Grannie Liu studied Dai-yu atten?tively for some moments in silence.
‘It doesn’t look at all like a young lady’s room,’ she said finally. ‘It looks to me like a very high-class young gentleman’s study.’
‘Where is Bao-yu, by the way?’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘He’s on the lake in one of the punts,’ said the maids.
‘Oh? Whose idea was it to get the punts out?’ she asked.
‘It was my idea,’ said Li Wan hurriedly. ‘It occurred to me just now when we were getting things out of the storeroom that you might perhaps feel like going on the water today.’
Grandmother Jia was about to make some comment when Aunt Xue’s arrival was announced and she rose up, together with the rest of the company, to welcome her.
‘Aren’t you energetic today, Lady Jia!’ said Aunt Xue smilingly when all were seated once more. ‘Here already!’
‘We were just discussing what sort of fine to impose on late arrivals,’ said Grandmother Jia teasingly. ‘We didn’t have you in mind, of course!’
A certain amount of good-humoured banter followed. In the course of it Grandmother Jia chanced to notice that the gauze in Dai-yu’s windows was faded, and drew Lady Wang’s attention to it.
‘This kind of gauze looks very well on a window when it’s new,’ she said, ‘but after a while it loses its greenness. Green isn’t a suitable colour for the windows here in any case. There are no peach or apricot trees outside to make a contrast when they are in flower, and there is already enough green in all those bamboos. I seem to remember that we used to have four or five different shades of window gauze somewhere or other.
You must look some out tomorrow for her and have this changed.’
‘The other day when I had to open the silk-store,’ said Xi-feng, ‘I came across a lot of rose-coloured “cicada wing” gauze in a long wooden chest. It was a beautiful fresh colour and the material was beautifully soft and light. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any quite like it before. I’d like to have taken a couple of lengths of it for facing quilts with. I’m sure it would make lovely quilts.’
‘Pooh!’ said Grandmother Jia scornfully. ‘I thought you were supposed to be such an authority on materials — and you can’t even name a gauze properly! You’re not as clever as you thought, my girl! You’ll have to watch your tongue a bit in future.’
Aunt Xue put in an extenuating word for her niece, while laughing with the rest at her discomfiture.
‘However much of an authority she may be, I’m sure she would never presume to compete with you, Lady Jia. If she is wrong about the gauze, you must give her the benefit of your greater experience and put her right. I am sure the rest of us would like to know too.’
‘As a matter of fact that gauze is a good deal older than any of you here,’ said Grandmother Jia, ‘so it is not very surpris?ing that Feng mistook it for cicada wing. There is a certain resemblance, and cicada wing is what anyone would most likely take it to be who hadn’t seen it before. The proper name for it, though, is “haze diaphene”.’
‘What a pretty name!’ said Xi-feng. ‘I must have seen several hundred different gauzes in my time; but I must con?fess I’ve never heard that name mentioned before.’
Grandmother Jia laughed.
‘And what great age have you now reached, my dear, to be talking so freely about your vast experience? Haze diaphene used to come in four colours: “clear-sky blue”, “russet green”, “pine green” and “old rose”. Hung up as bed-curtains or pasted in windows it looks from a distance like a coloured haze. That’s why they called it “haze diaphene”. The old rose kind is sometimes called “afterglow”. You won’t find fabric made as fine or as soft as that nowadays, not even among the gauzes made for the Imperial Household.’
‘Never mind about Feng,’ said Aunt Xue, ‘I’ve never heard about this kind of gauze before either.’
While they continued to talk about it, Xi-feng sent someone to fetch a piece from the storeroom.
‘That’s right, that’s it!’ said Grandmother Jia when it arrived. ‘When we first had it, we used it only for covering windows with, but later on we began experimenting and found that it made very good quilts and bed-curtains as well. Get a few lengths of it out tomorrow. You can use the “old rose” kind to re-cover these windows with.’
Xi-feng promised to see to it. Meanwhile the others were examining the gauze and admiring its quality. Grannie Liu was particularly impressed, uttering a whole series of ‘Holy Names’ as she subjected it to close and careful scrutiny. ‘I could never hope to get anything as good as this to make a dress with,’ she said. ‘It seems a terrible waste to use it on windows.’
‘Actually it isn’t much good for clothing,’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘What about this, then?’ said Xi-feng, pulling out a flap of the quilted crimson gauze dress she was wearing underneath her jacket and holding it up for them to see.
‘Yes, very fine,’ said Grandmother Jia, examining it. ‘Ah, yes, now there you are! This is a modern Imperial Household gauze; but you see it’s still not as good as that one there.’
‘Well, what do you make of that?’ said Xi-feng. ‘That one there is only an “Official Use” fabric, yet this one I’m wear?ing, which isn’t as good quality, is “Imperial Household” !’
‘Anyway, have another look tomorrow,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘I think you’ll find that besides the “old rose” pieces you saw in that chest, there’s a lot of “clear-sky blue” somewhere as well. If there is, get it all out; give a length of it to our kins?woman here; I should like two lengths myself for a set of bed-hangings; and any left over can be matched with suitable lining-material and made up into waistcoats for the girls. There’s no point in keeping it until it gets mildewed.’
Xi-feng, having first promised that she would do all these things, told the servant who had brought the sample to take it back to the storeroom.
‘We’re a bit cramped in here,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Let’s move on to somewhere else now.’
‘They say that “great families live in great houses”,’ said Grannie Liu, ‘and truly, when I first went into Your Lady?ship’s apartment yesterday and saw those great chests and cupboards and tables and beds, the size of everything fairly took my breath away. That great wardrobe of yours is higher and wider than one of our rooms back home. I’m not sur?prised you keep a ladder in the back courtyard. When I first saw it, I thought to myself, “Now what can they need a ladder for? They don’t ripen things on the roofs as we do, so it can’t be for that.” And then of course I realized: it must be for getting things out of the compartment on top of that ward-robe of yours, for you could never reach it else. And yet this place here, for all it’s so much smaller, seems to me more per?fect than your big one. The things here are all so pretty. I don’t know what they are, some of them, but the more I look at them, the less I want to leave!’
‘There are other pretty places besides this,’ said Xi-feng. ‘We’re taking you to see them all.’
As they left the Naiad’s House, they could make out, at some distance from where they stood, a number of people punting on the lake. Remarking that since the boats were al?ready out they might just as well use them, Grandmother Jia conducted her little party in the general direction of Amaryllis Eyot and Flowery Harbour. Before they had reached the water’s edge, however, a number of elderly women ap?proached, each bearing one of those large summer food-boxes of the kind they make in Soochow, with tops and bottoms of varicoloured lacquer-work delicately patterned in needle-en?graving of gold, and panels of gilded bamboo basket-work in their sides. Seeing them approach, Xi-feng asked Lady Wang where she wanted lunch to be laid.
‘Ask Grandmother,’ said Lady Wang. ‘Wherever she wants it, of course.’
Grandmother Jia, who had been moving on, now turned back to tell them.
‘Your Cousin Tan’s would be a nice place to have it. You go on ahead and lay it there, and the rest of us will follow by boat.’
Xi-feng, accompanied by Li Wan, Tan-chun, Faithful and Amber, led the women with the lunch-boxes by a short cut to the Autumn Studio. They put out a couple of tables there in the Paulownia Room.
‘We’re often hearing how the gentlemen at their parties outside have a buffoon to provide them with their laughs,’ said Faithful while they were getting ready. ‘Today we’ve got a buffoon of our own — a female one.’
Li Wan, being a good, simple soul, did not understand what she meant; but Xi-feng knew immediately that she was referring to Grannie Liu and gleefully agreeing that they should have some laughs at the old woman’s expense, at once began plotting something with Faithful.
‘You two are awful!’ Li Wan protested laughingly. ‘Anyone would think you were a couple of mischievous children. And what will Lady Jia say?’
‘Don’t worry, Mrs Zhu!’ said Faithful. ‘You won’t be involved in this one little bit. I promise to keep you out of it.’
Grandmother Jia now arrived with the others, the company sat down informally, and maids went round and served every one with tea. When they had all finished their tea, Xi-feng came in carrying a bundle of silver-tipped and silver-ornamented ebony chopsticks wrapped in a West Ocean linen napkin, and proceeded to lay the places.
‘Put that little yellow cedar-wood table next to my place so that Mrs Liu can sit by me,’ said Grandmother Jia.
As the maids hastened to comply, Xi-feng tipped a wink at Faithful, who took the opportunity presented by this diver?sion to draw Grannie Lu aside and quietly brief her on the decorums to be observed by anyone eating with the family.
‘It’s part of the rules of this household,’ she told tile old woman in conclusion. ‘If you don’t do it properly, they will laugh at you.’
The places being now all laid, the company sat down to table, with the exception of Aunt Xue, who had eaten already and continued sitting where she was, drinking tea. Bao-yu, Xiang-yun, Dai-yu and Bao-chai sat at one of the two large tables with Grandmother Jia at their head, and Ying-chun, Tan-chun and Xi-chun sat at the other one, presided over by Lady Wang. Grannie Liu had a little table of her own next to Grandmother Jia.
Normally when Grandmother Jia took her meals it was the junior maids who stood with spittoons, fly-whisks and napkins in their hands behind the chairs. Faithful had long since graduated from such menial duties. On this occasion, how?ever, she borrowed a fly-whisk from one of the younger girls and did some whisking herself. This was a signal for the other maids, who knew that something was afoot, to melt discreetly away, leaving the stage clear for Faithful. Fly-whisk in hand, Faithful took up a position on her own and darted a question?ing glance at her victim.
‘All right, Miss, don’t worry!’ said Grannie Liu, and hav?ing settled herself in her place, picked up her chopsticks. She found them extremely heavy and unwieldy. They were a pair of old-fashioned, square-handled ivory ones inlaid with gold, which Xi-feng and Faithful had planted on her in furtherance of their plan.
‘What’s this you’ve given me?’ said Grannie Liu. ‘A pair of tongs? These are heavier than one of our iron shovels. I shall never be able to manage with these.’
The others all laughed.
A woman-servant now entered carrying one of the luncheon?boxes and stood in the middle of the room holding it while a maid removed the lid. There were two dishes inside. Li Wan took out one of them and set it down on Grandmother Jia’s table. The second, a bowl of pigeon’s eggs (deliberately chosen for their mirth-provoking possibilities) was taken out by Xi-feng and set down in front of Grannie Liu.
‘Please!’ said Grandmother Jia, waving her chopsticks at the food as a polite indication that they should begin. At once Grannie Liu leaped to her feet and, in ringing tones, recited the following grace:
‘My name it is Liu,
I’m a trencherman true;
I can eat a whole sow
With her little pigs too.’

Having concluded, she puffed out both her cheeks and stared in front of her with an expression of great determina?tion.
There was a moment of awestruck silence; then, as it dawned on them that they really had heard what they thought they had heard, the whole company, both masters and ser?vants, burst out into roars of laughter.
Shi Xiang-yun, unable to contain herself, spat out a whole mouthful of rice.
Lin Dai-yu, made breathless by laughter, collapsed on the table, uttering weak ‘Aiyos’.
Bao-yu rolled over, convulsed, on to his grandmother’s bosom.
Grandmother Jia, exclaiming helplessly ‘Oh, my heart!’ ‘Oh, my child!’, clung tightly to her heaving grandson.
Lady Wang pointed an accusing finger at Xi-feng, but laughter had deprived her of speech.
Aunt Xue exploded a mouthful of tea over Tan-chun’s skirt.
Tan-chun planted a bowlful of rice on the person of Ying-?chun.
Xi-chun got up from the table and going over to her nurse, took her by the hand and asked her to massage her stomach.
The servants were all doubled up. Some had to go outside where they could squat down and laugh with abandon. Those who could control themselves sufficiently helped the casual?ties to mop up or change their clothes.
Only Xi-feng and Faithful remained straight-faced through?out this outburst, politely urging Grannie Liu to begin. Mani?pulating the unwieldy chopsticks with considerable difficulty, the old woman prepared to do so.
‘Even your hens here are special,’ she remarked. ‘Such pretty little eggs they lay! I must see if I can’t get one of these under me belt!’
Under the impact of these remarks the company’s composure, which it had only just recovered, once more broke down. Grandmother Jia, abandoning any attempt at self-control, was now actually weeping with laughter. Amber, who feared a seizure, pounded her energetically on the back.
‘That wicked devil Feng is behind this,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Don’t believe a thing she tells you!’
‘They cost a silver tael apiece,’ said Xi-feng, as Grannie Liu continued to praise the diminutive ‘hen’s’ eggs. ‘You should eat them quickly, while they’re still hot. They won’t be so nice when they’re cold.’
Grannie Liu obediently held out her chopsticks and tried to take hold of one, but the egg eluded her. After chasing it several times round the inside of the bowl, she did at last suc?ceed in getting a grip on it. But as she craned forward with open mouth to reach it, it slipped through the chopsticks and rolled on to the floor. At once she laid down the chopsticks, and would have gone down on hands and knees to pick it up, but before she could do so one of the servants had retrieved it and carried it off for disposal.
‘That’s a tael of silver gone,’ Grannie Liu said regretfully, ‘and we didn’t even hear the clink!’
The others had by now lost all interest in eating, absorbed by the entertaining antics of their guest.
‘Who got those chopsticks out?’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘They’re not meant for occasions like this; they’re for using at formal banquets. Whoever it was, I expect it was that wicked Feng who put them up to it. Take them away at once and get her another pair!’
The servants had in point of fact had nothing to do with the chryselephantine chopsticks, which had been smuggled in at the last moment by Faithful and Xi-feng; nevertheless, on hearing the order, they obediently came forward and replaced them with a silver and ebony pair like those that had been provided for the rest.
‘Out goes gold and in comes silver!’ said Grannie Liu. ‘But when all’s said and done, our wooden ones at home are han?dier.’
‘If there’s any poison in what you are eating,’ said Xi-feng, ‘the silver will tell you by changing colour.’
‘If this food is poisoned,’ said Grannie Liu, ‘then what we eat at home must be pure arsenic. Anyway, I intend to eat it all, come what may!’
Delighted to have found someone who, besides being so amusing, had so evident a relish for her food, Grandmother Jia insisted on making all her own portion over to Grannie Liu and ordered one of the older women to go round with a pair of chopsticks and a bowl and make a selection from all the dishes to give to little Ban-er.
Presently, when they had finished eating, Grandmother Jia and the others moved into Tan-chun’s bedroom for a chat, while in the Paulownia Room the servants cleared away the remains of the meal and hastily relaid a table for Li Wan and Xi-feng. Grannie Liu, who had lingered behind, observed them sitting down at opposite sides of it to begin their meal. She was greatly impressed by this glimpse of the upper-class etiquette which requires young married women to eat on their own when the rest have finished.
‘What I like best of all here,’ she said, ‘is your way of doing things. I’m not surprised they say that “good breeding is to be found in great houses”.’
The compliment was sincerely meant, but Xi-feng under?stood it in a different sense.
‘I do hope we haven’t hurt your feelings,’ she said. ‘It was only a joke, you know.’
The words were scarcely out of her mouth when Faithful came hurrying in.
‘Please don’t be offended, Mrs Liu. I’ve come in to apolo?gize.’
‘Bless you, I’m not offended!’ said Grannie Liu. ‘We were only cheering up Her Ladyship, dear old soul. What should I be offended for? I knew when you told me to say those things it was only for a laugh. If I’d felt offended, I should never have said them.’
A chastened Faithful turned angrily on the other servants. ‘Come on! Why aren’t you pouring Mrs Liu some tea?’ ‘That’s all right,’ said Grannie Liu hurriedly. ‘I’ve had some already. I drank the tea that the young woman handed to me a while ago. You get on with your own lunch, Miss. Don’t mind me!’
Xi-feng took Faithful by the hand.
‘Yes, eat now with us. It’ll keep you out of mischief.’ Faithful sat down and one of the old women laid another bowl for her and another pair of chopsticks. When the three young women had finished, Grannie Liu, who had been watching them, remarked on how little they had eaten.
‘None of you here seems to eat more than a bite or two,’ she said. ‘It’s a marvel to me you’re not famished. No wonder you all look as if the wind could blow you over!’
‘There is a lot left over today,’ Faithful commented. ‘Where are all the others?’ she asked the old serving-woman.
‘They’re still here in waiting, Miss,’ said the old woman. ‘They’re not off duty yet. We can give it to them, if you like, before they go.’
‘They’ll never finish all this lot,’ said Faithful. ‘Pick out a couple of bowlfuls and take them to Patience in Mrs Lian’s room.’
‘No need,’ said Xi-feng. ‘She’s had her lunch already.’
‘If she can’t eat it herself, she can give it to the cat,’ said Faithful.
The old woman put the contents of two of the dishes into a box and carried it off to give Patience.
‘Where’s Candida?’ said Faithful.
‘She’s in there eating with the rest,’ said Li Wan. ‘What do you want her for?’
‘It’s all right,’ said Faithful. ‘Nothing.’
‘Aroma isn’t here,’ said Xi-feng. ‘Why don’t you send her a couple of dishes?’
Faithful gave orders for this to be done. She inquired of the remaining old women whether the boxes for the drinking party were ready yet.
‘I think they’ll be a while yet,’ said one of them.
‘Hurry them up a bit, will you?’ said Faithful, and the old woman went off to do her bidding.
The young women, accompanied by Grannie Liu, now went into Tan-chun’s room, where Grandmother Jia and the others were chatting and laughing together.
This room, a three-frame apartment which Tan-chun, who loved spaciousness, had left undivided, had in the midst of it a large rosewood table with a Yunnanese marble top piled high with specimen-books of calligraphy and littered with several dozen miscellaneous ink-stones and a small forest of writing-brushes standing in brush-holders and brush-stands of every conceivable shape and size. On one side of the table was a bucket-sized ‘pincushion’ flower-vase of Ru ware stuck all over with snow-white pompom chrysanthemums. On the west wall of the room hung a ‘Landscape in Mist and Rain’ by Mi Fei, flanked by a pair of scrolls bearing a couplet written by the Tang calligrapher Yan Zhen-qing:

My heart has discovered true ease amidst the clouds and mists of the mountains;
My life has gained a fierce freedom from the rocks and torrents of the fells.

Against the wall beneath was a long, high table. On it, to?wards the left, stood a large Northern Song porcelain dish heaped with those ornamental citrus fruits they call ‘Buddha’s hands’, whose brilliant yellow contrasted agreeably with the greenish blue of the glaze. To the right a white jade chime in the form of a two-headed fish hung in a varnished wooden frame to whose side a tiny hammer was attached. Ban-er, whom growing familiarity was making bolder, was with diffi?culty restrained from unfastening the hammer and striking the fish with it. He then said that he wanted one of the ‘yellow things’ to eat, and Tan-chun selected a Buddha’s hand from the dish and gave it to him.
‘There you are,’ she said, ‘but it’s only to play with. It isn’t good to eat.’
On the opposite side of the room was a large four-poster bed whose silk gauze hangings had a pattern of bright green plants and insects in reversible embroidery. Ban-er ran over to it and began identifying the insects:
‘That’s a cricket. That’s a grasshopper
Grannie Liu dealt him a hefty slap:
‘Little varmint! Who said you could go running around putting your dirty hands on everything? Just because you’ve been allowed in to have a look, it doesn’t mean you have to start getting above yourself.’
The blow had been hard enough to make him cry, and it took the combined efforts of the others present to comfort him.
Meanwhile Grandmother Jia had been looking through the gauze-covered windows into the courtyard behind.
‘Those paulownias by the verandah eaves are still very fine,’ she remarked. ‘It’s a pity they’ve begun losing their leaves.’
A little gust of wind blew across the courtyard as she spoke, bearing on it a faint strain of music from outside.
‘That must be a wedding,’ she said. ‘I didn’t realize we were so near to the street here.’
‘You could never hear the street from here, Mother,’ said Lady Wang, laughing. ‘Those are our twelve little actresses rehearsing.’
‘If they’re going to be playing anyway,’ said Grandmother Jia, ‘we may as well have them to play in here. It will be entertainment for us and it will make an outing of sorts for them.’
Xi-feng at once ordered the troupe to be summoned, and made hurried arrangements for a long table to be brought in, that the actresses could sit down to perform at, and covered with a red rug.
‘Much better put them in Xi-chun’s water pavilion,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘The music will sound even better coming across the water. Later on when we take our wine we can sit in the downstairs of the Painted Chamber. It’s nice and open there and close enough to the pavilion for listening to the music from.’
Everyone agreed that this would be a good idea.
Grandmother Jia now turned with a smile to Aunt Xue.
‘I think we’d better be on our way now. These young people don’t much like having visitors, you know. They are terrified of getting their rooms dirty. We mustn’t be tactless and overstay our welcome. I think we’d better take another little turn in the boats now, and then it will be just about time to go and have our drinks.’
‘How unfair!’ said Tan-chun laughing. ‘When I ask you or Mother or Aunt Xue to come here, you never do.’
‘Oh, my little Tan is all right,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘It’s those two Yus who are so detestable. We shall go and brawl in their rooms later on when we are drunk!’
The others (including the detestable Yus) all laughed.
Emerging in a single group from the Autumn Studio, they arrived after a short walk at Duckweed Island, where their specially imported Soochow boatwomen were waiting with two elegantly decorated punts. Grandmother Jia, Lady Wang, Aunt Xue, Grannie Liu, Faithful and Silver were handed one by one aboard the first one. They were joined a little later by Li Wan, and finally by Xi-feng, who stood in the bows and said she was going to punt.
‘Feng!’ Grandmother Jia called nervously from inside the cabin. ‘It’s too dangerous to fool about. It isn’t like the open river here, but it’s still quite deep. Come in here with us!’
‘It’s all right, Grannie! Don’t be nervous!’ said Xi-feng, laughing, as she shoved off from the bank. But the punt, being somewhat overloaded, was hard to manage, so that by the time they were in midstream she was already in difficulties and had to hand the pole over to one of the boatwomen and sit down rather abruptly on her haunches.
When their elders were safely away, Bao-yu and the six girls got into the second punt and were poled along in the wake of the first one. The maids and older women proceeded in the same direction on foot along the shore.
These raggedy-looking lotus-leaves everywhere are rather ugly,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I can’t think why they haven’t been cleared away.’
‘Now when could they have been?’ said Bao-chai. ‘With parties being held here practically every day this autumn, the Garden has never been free long enough.’
‘I can’t abide the poems of Li Shang-yin,’ said Dai-yu, ‘but there is just one line of his that I am rather fond of:

Leaves but dead lotus-leaves for the rain to play on.

Trust you not to “leave the dead lotus-leaves”!’
‘It is a good line, I agree,’ said Bao-yu. ‘We’ll tell them that in future they are not to remove them.’
They were drifting into Flowery Harbour now, and the dank chill of its creeper-hung grotto seemed to penetrate their bones. Dead reeds and dying caltrop-leaves added to the autumnal melancholy of the scene. A clean, airy-looking build?ing was visible at some distance beyond the bank above.
‘Isn’t that Bao-chai’s place?’ said Grandmother Jia.
On being told that it was, she asked the women to moor the boats there, and having disembarked, ascended from the landing-stage by a flight of cloud-shaped stone steps and proceeded, with the rest of the party, to the gateway of Allspice Court.
A delectable fragrance assailed their nostrils as they en?tered. Outside the house the leaves of the mysterious, un?namable creepers had turned an even intenser green in the colder weather, and where before there had been flowers, there now hung trusses of the most beautiful coral-red berries. Indoors, however, it was stark and bare. The only decoration in Bao-chai’s room was a vase of the cheaper kind of Ding ware on the table, with a few chrysanthemums in it. Apart from the flowers there were only a few books and some tea?-things on the table. The bed-hangings were of black gauze, and the quilts and covers were of the same forbidding plain?ness as the hangings.
‘This child is really too self-effacing!’ Grandmother Jia mut?tered, evidently shocked by what she saw. The tone in which she addressed Bao-chai was a somewhat reproachful one: ‘If you haven’t any things of your own, why ever didn’t you as your Aunt Wang for some? I’m afraid I never thought about it before. Of course. I realize now. You must have left all your stuff behind in Nanking.’
She at once ordered Faithful to supply Bao-chai with some Ornaments, and then turned, with some asperity, on Xi-feng.
‘Really, Feng! I do think it rather stingy of you! Couldn’t you have spared your cousin a few knick-knacks?’
Lady Wang and Xi-feng both laughed.
‘She said herself that she didn’t want any. We gave her some things, but she sent them all back again.’
Aunt Xue corroborated this.
‘She was just the same in Nanking, Lady Jia. She’s never cared much for that sort of thing.’
Grandmother Jia shook her head.
‘That will never do. It saves trouble, no doubt, to keep one’s room so bare. But what would any of our relations think if they were to come here and see this? Besides, it isn’t natural for a young girl to be so austere. If girls are to live so austerely, what sort of a stable ought an old woman like me to live in? Think of the descriptions of young ladies’ boudoirs you find in plays and romances such exquisite refinement of luxury! I’m not exactly suggesting that you should emulate them — but you shouldn’t fall too far short, all the same. After all, when the things are there for the asking, it seems silly not to use them. Use them sparingly, by all means, if your tastes are on the austere side; but don’t dispense with them alto?gether! I’ve always had rather a flair for decorating interiors. I don’t exercise it much nowadays, because I’m too old; but I think the girls have inherited a little of it from me. The thing one always has to be on one’s guard against is bad taste – which generally means no more than arranging good things in a bad way. I don’t think any of my girls has bad taste. Now why don’t you let me decorate this room for you? I promise you it shall look both dignified and austere. There are still a few things tucked away in my dowry that Bao-yu doesn’t know about. (I wouldn’t let him see them, or they’d have disappeared long ago!).’
She called Faithful to her and instructed her what to bring. ‘I want you to fetch that bonseki and the little screen and the little tripod of smoky agate. Those three things arranged on the table here will be enough. There’s also a set of white satin hangings hand-painted in black ink. I’d like you to get them too and put them up in place of these bed-curtains.’
‘Yes, madam,’ said Faithful. ‘But these things are all stored in the attic over the east wing and I’m not sure which chests they’re in, so it will take me quite a while to find them. Can’t I leave it until tomorrow?’
‘Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow is immaterial,’ said Grandmother Jia, ‘as long as it gets done.’
After sitting for a while longer in Bao-chai’s room, they got up and again moved on to the covered area underneath the Painted Chamber. élégante and the other little actresses came forward to make their curtseys and to inquire what pieces they should play.
‘Choose a few of the ones you are most familiar with,’ said Grandmother Jia, and the little actresses went off to the Lotus Pavilion. No further mention of them is made in this part of our narrative.
Supervised by Xi-feng, the servants had by now completed the seating arrangements for the drinking-party. Two wooden couches covered with woven grass mats and embroidered cushions had been placed side by side at the head. Each had a pair of carved lacquer tables in front of it. On one of each pair there was an incense set — a miniature metal vase, a miniature cassolette and a miniature tripod, all for burning different kinds of incense in – on the other was a large lacquer box. These two couches with a pair of tables each were for Grandmother Jia and Aunt Xue.
Of the places ranged below them only one, Lady Wang’s, had a couch and two tables; all the rest had one table and a chair. On the east side, nearest to Grandmother Jia, sat Grannie Liu with Lady Wang below her; on the west side Xiang-yun had been laid first, nearest to Aunt Xue, then Bao-chai, then Dai-yu, then Ying-chun, then Tan-chun, then Xi-chun, with Bao-yu in the very last place of all. A table and chairs had been laid for Li Wan and Xi-feng between the inner and outer mosquito screens which protected those inside the room from the insects of the lake.
The little lacquer tables were of many different shapes — some four-lobed like a begonia leaf, some five-lobed like plum-flowers, some shaped like multi-petalled sunflowers, some like lotus leaves, some square, some round – and the lacquer boxes were designed to match the shapes of the tables. Everyone had his own nielloed silver ‘self-service’ wine kettle and a little polychrome cloisonné winecup.
‘Well now,’ said Grandmother Jia when they were all seated, ‘let’s have a cup or two to warm up on, and after that I think it would be more fun if we played a drinking game.’
‘I am sure you know lots of good ones,’ said Aunt Xue, ‘but what about the rest of us? I am afraid this is just a trick to make us all drunk. We might just as well drink the extra cups now, since we’re bound to lose anyway, and forget about the game!’
‘Come, Mrs Xue, you’re being excessively modest all of a sudden!’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘But perhaps you think I’m too old for this sort of thing?’
‘No, no, no. And I’m not being modest, either,’ said Aunt Xue, laughing. ‘I am afraid of not being able to give the answers and making a fool of myself.’
‘Even if we can’t give the answers,’ said Lady Wang, ‘it only means drinking a few more cups of wine. And if we get drunk, we can go to bed. No one is going to laugh at us, I hope!’
Aunt Xue smiled and nodded.
‘Very well, I shall do as I am told then. But I think Lady Jia ought to drink a cup first, as proposer of the game.’
‘Of course,’ said Grandmother Jia, and drained off a cup forthwith.
Xi-feng stepped forward into their midst to make a proposal:
‘If you are going to play a drinking game, may I suggest that you have Faithful as your M. C.?’
The others, knowing that when Grandmother Jia played drinking games it was generally Faithful who helped her out, agreed readily to this proposal, whereupon Xi-feng went to fetch Faithful and drew her into their midst.
‘If Faithful is going to be our M.C.,’ said Lady Wang, ‘we can’t possibly have her standing up all the time.’ She turned to one of the little maids behind her: ‘Put a chair for her over there, will you, where Mrs Zhu and Mrs Lian are sitting.’
When the chair had been brought, Faithful, offering polite resistance, allowed herself to be propelled towards it, and having first apologized for the liberty of doing so, sat down. At once she established her authority by drinking a bumper-cup.
‘Right,’ she said. ‘The rules of drinking are as strict as the rules of war. Now that you’ve made me your M. C., any of you who doesn’t do exactly as I say, no matter who it is, has to pay a forfeit.’
‘Agreed, agreed,’ said the others. ‘Hurry up and tell us what the game is.’
Before she could do so, Grannie Liu, waving her hand in protest, got up and began to go.
‘’Tisn’t right to make sport of folks like this. I’m going home!’
‘No, no, we can’t have that!’ said the others, laughing.
‘Back to the chair with her!’ Faithful shouted to the younger maids. They complied gleefully, seizing the old woman on either side and marching her back to her seat.
‘Let me off this game!’ she pleaded, as they forced her into it; but Faithful was adamant.
‘Another word from you,’ she said, ‘and you’ll be made to drink a whole kettleful as a punishment.’
Grannie Liu’s protests then ceased.
‘What I’m going to do,’ said Faithful, ‘is to call threesomes with the dominoes, starting from Her Old Ladyship, going round in an anti-clockwise direction, and ending up with Mrs Liu. First I shall make a separate call for each of the three dominoes and after that I shall make a call for the whole three?some, so you’ll get four calls each. Every time I call, you’ve got to answer with something that rhymes and that has some connection with the call. It can be something from a poem or song or ballad, or it can be a proverb or some well-known expression anything you like as long as there is a connection and it rhymes.’
‘Good!’ said the others approvingly. ‘That’s a good game. Let’s have a call then.’
‘Right,’ said Faithful. ‘Here comes the first one.’ She laid down a double six. ‘On my left the bright blue sky.’
‘The Lord looks down from heaven on high,’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘Bravo!’ said the others.
The second domino was a five-six.
‘Five and six together meet,’ said Faithful.
‘By Six Bay Bridge the flowers smell sweet.’
‘Leaves six and ace upon the right.’
‘The red sun in the sky so bright,’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘Altogether that makes: “A shock-headed devil with hair like tow”,’ said Faithful.
‘The devil shouts, “Zhong Kui, let me go!”,’ said Grand?mother Jia.
Amidst laughter, and applause for the successful completion of her turn, she picked up and drained her winecup.
‘Here comes the next one,’ said Faithful, laying down a double five. ‘On my left all the fives I find.’
‘Plum-blossoms dancing in the wind,’ said Aunt Xue.
‘On my right all the fives again,’ said Faithful.
‘Plum-blossoms in the tenth month’s rain,’ said Aunt Xue.
‘Between them, two and five make seven.’
‘On Seventh Night the lovers meet in heaven.’
‘Together that gives: “The Second Prince plays in the Five Holy Hills”.’
‘The immortals dwell far off from mortal ills.’
Again there was applause, and Aunt Xue drank her wine.
‘Next threesome coming up,’ said Faithful. ‘All the aces, one and one.’
‘Two lamps for earth, the moon and sun,’ said Xiang-yun.
‘On my right once more aces all.’
‘And flowers to earth in silence fall,’ said Xiang-yun.
‘Between them, ace again with four.’
‘Apricot trees make the sun’s red-petalled floor,’ said Xiang-yun.
‘Together that makes nine ripe cherries.’
‘Winged thieves have stripped the Emperor’s trees of ber?ries,’ said Xiang-yun, and drank her wine.
‘A pair on the left then, three and three,’ said Faithful.
‘Swallows in pairs round the old roof-tree,’ said Bao-chai.
‘A pair of threes upon the right,’ said Faithful.
‘Green duckweed-trails on the water bright.’
‘A three and six between them lie.’
‘Three peaks upon the rim of sky,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Together that gives “The lone boat tied with an iron chain”,’ said Faithful.
‘The waves on every hand and the heart’s pain,’ said Bao-chai, and drank what remained in her winecup.
‘Sky on the left, the good fresh air,’ said Faithful, putting down a double six.
‘Bright air and brilliant morn feed my despair,’ said Dai-yu.
Bao-chai, recognizing the quotation, turned and stared; but Dai-yu was too intent on keeping her end up to have noticed.
‘A four and a six, the Painted Screen,’ said Faithful.
‘No Reddie at the window seen,’ said Dai-yu, desperately dredging up a line this time from The Western Chamber to meet the emergency.
‘A two and a six, four twos make eight.’
‘In twos walk backwards from the Hall of State,’ said Dai?-yu, on safer ground with a line from Du Fu.
‘Together makes: “A basket for the flowers you pick”,’ said Faithful.
‘A basket of peonies slung from his stick,’ Dai-yu con?cluded, and took a sip of her wine.
‘Four and five, the Flowery Nine,’ said Faithful.
‘The flowering peach-tree drenched with rain,’ said Ying-chun.
‘Forfeit! Forfeit!’ said the others, laughing. ‘It doesn’t rhyme; and besides, the words don’t fit.’
Ying-chun laughed and sipped her wine. As a matter of fact her failure was intentional. Eager for more laughs, Xi-feng and Faithful had secretly intimated to the four remaining cousins that they should give the wrong answers on purpose, in order to come the more quickly to Grannie Liu. Accordingly Tan-chun, Xi-chun and Bao-yu, all deliberately fell down on their first calls as well, leaving only Lady Wang to dispose of, which Faithful accomplished by the simple expedient of sup?plying the answers for her herself. It was now Grannie Liu’s turn.
‘We often play a game like this ourselves back home when we get together of an evening,’ said Grannie Liu, ‘only the way we do it, it doesn’t sound so pretty as this. Howsomever. I don’t mind having a try.’
‘It’s easy, really,’ said the others. ‘Don’t worry about what it sounds like. Just say what comes naturally.’
Faithful began to lay.
‘A pair of fours on the left, the Man.’
Grannie Liu was a good long while puzzling over this. Finally she said.
‘Is it a farmer?’
The others roared with laughter.
‘That’s all right,’ said Grandmother Jia reassuringly. ‘That answer will do very well.’
‘You young people shouldn’t laugh at me,’ said Grannie Liu to the others. ‘I’m a countrywoman born and I can’t help my country talk.’
‘Green three, red four, contrasting colours,’ called Faithful.
‘The fire burns up the caterpillars,’ said Grannie Liu.
‘Why, so it might,’ said the others. ‘Stick to your “country talk”, Grannie, you’re doing fine!’
‘Red four on the right and the ace is red,’ said Faithful.
‘A turnip and a garlic-head.’
More laughter.
‘ “That Flower” those three together show,’ said Faithful.
‘This flower will to a pumpkin grow,’ said the flower-bedecked ancient, gesturing with her hands to demonstrate the size of the imagined pumpkin.
The following chapter will show how the party progressed.

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