The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 49

0
188

CHAPTER 49

Red flowers bloom brighter in dazzling snow
And venison reeks strangely on rosebud lips

WHEN Caltrop saw the cousins talking and laughing about her, she came forward, smiling herself, and handed the poem she was carrying to Dai-yu.
‘See what you think of this one,’ she said. ‘If this one is all tight, I shall go on learning; if it’s still no good, I shall just have to give up the whole idea.’
The others clustered round Dai-yu to look. This is what they read:

Ethereal splendour no cloud can blot out!
Chaste lovely presence of the cold night sky!
From a white world the washer’s dull thud sounds,
Till in the last watch cocks begin to cry,
While, by a fisherman’s sad flute entranced,
A lady leans out from her casement high;
And you, White Goddess, lulled in sweet delight,
Wish every night could be a fifteenth night.

There were exclamations from all of them when they had finished reading it.
‘But this is not just “all right”,’ they said, ‘this is a good and highly original poem. It shows the truth of the proverb: “Nothing is too difficult for one who has a mind to do it.” We shall definitely be inviting you now to join our poetry club.’
Caltrop, supposing that they were only saying this to humour her, could not quite believe them and continued to press Dai-yu and Bao-chai for the truth.
Just at that moment a number of maids and old serving women came hurrying towards them in a state of great ex?citement:
‘Mrs Zhu! Young ladies! Come and meet you relations! A whole lot of young ladies and other people we’ve never seen before have just arrived.’
Li Wan laughed.
‘What are you talking about? Whose relations have just arrived?’
There are two young cousins of yours, Mrs Zhu,’ they said, ‘and there’s a young lady who says she’s Miss Bao’s cousin, and a young gentleman that’s cousin to Mr Xue. We’re on our way now to fetch Mrs Xue. Why don’t you and the young ladies go on ahead and meet them?’
They hurried off to complete their mission.
‘It sounds as if my cousin Xue Ke and his sister must have come,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Can it be them, though?’
‘And it sounds as if my Aunt Li must have decided to bring her two daughters to the capital,’ said Li Wan. ‘But how strange that they should have arrived together I’
When she and the cousins entered Lady Wang’s main recep?tion room, they found it packed with people. Apart from the ones whom the servants had mentioned, they found Lady Xing’s brother’s wife with her daughter Xing Xiu-yan. The three of them, Lady Xing’s brother and his wife and daughter, had come up to the capital to put themselves under the protec?tion of Lady Xing. By a coincidence Xi-feng’s brother Wang Ren was starting out for the capital just as they were plan?ning to set out themselves, so, on the strength of the marriage connection (Wang Ren being the brother of Lady Xing’s daughter-in-law), they had elected to travel in his company.
While stopping at one of the canal ports half-way along their route, they had made the acquaintance of Li Wan’s widowed aunt and her two daughters, Li Wen and Li Qi, also on their way to the capital, and when it emerged that all of them were marriage-relations of the Jia family, these three, too, had joined the party. A little after this, Xue Pan’s cousin Xue Ke had decided to bring his sister Bao-qin to the capital to attend to the formalities of her betrothal, Some years previously her father, while temporarily residing in the capital, had prom?ised her to the son of a certain Academician Mei, but had died before the betrothal could be made formal. Hearing that his aunt’s kinsman Wang Ren was also on his way to the capital, Xue Ke and his sister had pushed on ahead to -join him. Thus it was that today all these people presented themselves simultaneously at the Rong mansion lo6lting for their various relations.
When at last the introductions and courtesies were over, it became clear that Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang were delighted with the new arrivals.
I knew something nice was going to happen from the way the lampwick was behaving last night,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘It kept flaring up and then forming into little balls at the top. You see, I was tight!’
A general exchange of family talk ensued, and the handling over by the visitors of the presents they had brought with them. After that Grandmother Jia invited them all to take lunch with her, with wine to celebrate.
Xi-feng, it goes without saying, was now busier than ever. Li Wan and Bao-chai, who had a great deal of catching up on family news to do, were also kept busy exchanging informa?tion with their relations about all the things that had hap?pened during the years since they last met. Dai-yu, observing them, at first shared in their happiness, but when she began to reflect on the contrast with her own solitary and orphaned state, she was obliged to go away in order to hide her tears. Bao-yu, well aware of the reason for her sudden disappearance, went after her, and with a good deal of coaxing, succeeded at last in comforting her.
As soon as Dai-yu had dried her tears, Bao-yu hurried back to Green Delights to tell Aroma, Musk and Skybright about the visitors.
‘You ought to go and have a look,’ he told them. ‘This nephew of my Aunt Xue’s is completely different from Cousin Pan. From his looks and behaviour you’d think he was Bao-chai’s brother. He’s certainly more like her than Pan is. And as for the sister—you’re always saying what a beauty Cousin Chai is, but wait till you’ve seen her! And then there are my sister-in-law’s two cousins—well, words just fail-me! Heavenly lord, what a store of beauty you must have at your disposal to be able to produce such paragons! I’ve been like the frog living at the bottom of the well who thought the world was a little round pool of water. Up to now I’ve always believed that the girls in this household were without equals anywhere; but now, even without my needing to go outside, here they come, each one more beautiful than the last! Today has been an education for me. Don’t tell me there are any more like this:
the shock would be too great!’
He laughed excitedly. Aroma saw that he was in one of his crazy moods and refused to go and look. But Skybright and the others were more curious and at once hurried over for a peep. They returned soon after, full of smiles, to report on what they had seen.
‘Do go and look!’ they urged Aroma. ‘There’s Lady Xing’s niece and this cousin of Miss Bao’s and Mrs Zhu’s two cousins: it’s not often you get a chance to see four such beautiful bul?rushes together!’
Scarcely had these words been uttered when a smiling Tan-chun came in looking for Bao-yu.
‘Our poetry club is in luck,’ she said, finding him indoors with the maids. ‘Think of all those new members!’
‘Yes,’ said Bao-yu. ‘What a happy inspiration of yours it was to start it! It’s almost as though providence had sent these people here to make it prosper. But are you sure they can all write poetry?’
‘I’ve already asked them,’ said Tan-chun. ‘They are too modest to say outright, of course, but from what I can judge I’m pretty sure that either they all can, or even if they can’t, would learn very quickly. Look how quick Caltrop has been.’
‘Which of the four do you think is the prettiest, Miss?’ said Skybright. ‘I say Miss Bao’s cousin.’
‘Yes, I think I agree,’ said Tan-chun. ‘I think even Bao-chai is not quite as beautiful as her.’
Aroma had been listening to all this with growing curiosity. ‘This is certainly news to me!’ she said. ‘I shouldn’t have thought it possible to find anyone more beautiful than Miss Bao. I must go and have a look.’
‘Grandmother was completely captivated as soon as she set eyes on her,’ said Tan-chun. ‘She’s already insisted that Mother should become her godmother, and it’s decided that Grandmother shall bring her up as her own grandchild.’
‘Really?’ Bao-yu seemed delighted.
‘When have I ever told you a lie?’ said Tan-chun. There was a glint of mischief in her eye: ‘Now that she’s got such a beautiful granddaughter, she’ll probably lose interest in her darling grandson.’
‘That doesn’t matter,’ said Bao-yu unconcernedly. ‘She ought to give preference to girls. That’s as it should be. By the way, it’s the sixteenth today. It’s the day for our poetry dub meeting.’
‘Cousin Lin has only recently got up, and Ying-chun is ill again,’ said Tan-chun. ‘We’re not really in any shape for a meeting at the moment.’
‘Ying-chun doesn’t care much about writing poetry any?way,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Surely we can manage without her?’
‘Yes, but I think we ought to wait a few days, even so” said Tan-chun. ‘Why don’t we wait until we’ve got to know the newcomers a bit better and then invite them to join us? I shouldn’t think sister-in-law or Cousin Chai can either of them be much in the mood for writing poetry at the moment. And Xiang-yun isn’t here. And Frowner has only just recovered. No one is really up to it yet. We ought to wait until Yun arrives and the new lot have settled in; then, when Frowner is completely better and sister-in-law and Cousin Chai are a bit less preoccupied and Caltrop has made some more progress, we can invite everyone to a plenary session. What you and I ought to do now is go round to Grandma’s and see what arrangements are being made about these people’s accom?modation. We know that Chai’s cousin is staying here, be?cause Grandma has adopted her; but we don’t know yet about the others. If there are no plans for them to stay here, we must ask Grandma to invite them. If possible we should get her to let them live in the Garden. It would be fun to have some more neighbours.’
Bao-yu grew quite radiant at the thought.
‘How clever you are, Tan!’ he told his sister admiringly.
‘I’m such a stupid ass. I get so carried away that I don’t think about the important things like you do.’
Brother and sister then went together to Grandmother Jia’s apartment, where they found the old lady in wonderful high spirits following Lady Wang’s recognition of Xue Bao-quin as her god-daughter. She considered that this entitled her to treat the girl as her grandchild, which she had begun doing by insisting that she end the nights with her in her apartment and not in the Garden with Bao-chai. Xue Ke would naturally stay with his aunt and occupy the study that Xue Pan had vacated.
‘This niece of yours surely doesn’t need to go back to her parents yet?’ Grandmother Jia said to Lady Xing. ‘Let her stay in the Garden for a few days and enjoy herself.’
Lady Xing’s brother and sister-in-law had been living in extremely straitened circumstances, and now that they had come up to the capital, were relying on her to provide them with accommodation and financial assistance. She was natur?ally only too delighted to have one less person to her charge, and promptly handed Xiu-yan over to Xi-feng to dispose of.
Bearing in mind the varied, somewhat peculiar, tempera?ments of the Garden’s inhabitants, Xi-feng doubted the wis?dom of putting Xiu-yan in with one of the others; on the other hand she foresaw disadvantages in opening up a separate establishment for her. In the end she put her in with Ying chun, reflecting that if the girl did experience any difficulties in -living with Ying-chun, then even if Lady Xing got to hear of it, she, Xi-feng, could not be held responsible, since Ying-?chun was Lady Xing’s own half-daughter.
From this time onwards, not counting the time she spent at home with her parents, Xiu-yan received, for every whole month that she lived with Ying-chun in Prospect Garden, an allowance from Xi-feng of exactly the same amount as -the monthly allowance that was paid to Ying-chun herself.
To Xi-feng’s dispassionate eye it soon became apparent that in both temperament and behaviour Xiu-yan was quite unlike Lady Xing and her parents that she was in fact an extremely sweet and lovable person. Sorry that so gentle a soul should be so poor and unfortunate, Xi-feng treated her with a tact and considerateness that she did not always show the others. Lady Xing, on the other hand, seemed -scarcely aware of her niece’s existence.
Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang esteemed Li Wan as a good and virtuous young woman who, having lost her hus?band at an early age, bore widowhood with fortitude and restraint. Now that this widowed aunt had arrived, they re?fused to bear of her taking lodgings outside, and though the good lady made many polite efforts to decline, insisted that she and her two daughters, Li Wen and Li Qi, should move into Sweet-rice Village and stay there with Li Wan at the family’s expense.
No sooner had the new arrivals begun settling in than news came that Grandmother Jia’s nephew Shi Ding, the Marquis of Zhong-jing, was being transferred to an important position in one of the outer provinces and would shortly be leaving for his new post, taking his family with him. Grandmother Jia could not bear the idea of a permanent separation from her great-niece, and so it was agreed that Xiang-yun, too, should move into residence with the Jias. It was Grandmother Jia’s original intention that Xi-feng should set up a separate establishment for her in the Garden; but as Xiang-yun herself rigorously opposed this idea and insisted on living with her beloved Bao-chai, she was allowed to have her way.
The Garden’s society was now larger and livelier than it bad ever been before. With Li Wan as its doyenne it numbered if you counted Xi-feng as an honorary member thirteen people: Li Wan, Ying-chun, Tan-chun, Xi-chun, Bao-chai, Dai-yu, Xiang-yun, Li Wen, Li Qi, Bao-qin, Xing Xiu-yan, Bao-yu and Xi-feng. Apart from the two young married women, the rest were all fifteen, sixteen or seventeen years old. Most of them were in fact born in the same year, several of them in the same month or even on the same day. Not only Grandmother Jia and Lady Wang and the servants, even the young people themselves had difficulty in remembering who was senior to whom, and soon gave up trying, and abandoned any attempt at observing the usual formalities of address.
Caltrop could now think of nothing else all day long but writing poetry. Up to now she had refrained from importun?ing Bao-chai too persistently for advice, but with the arrival of an unwearying talker like Shi Xiang-yun upon the scene she was in her element. Xiang-yun was only too willing to accede to her requests for instruction, and morning, noon and night the two of them were to be found together, always in ani?mated discussion.
‘You two are deafening me with your perpetual chatter,’ Bao-chai complained. ‘Imagine how ridiculous and un?maidenly it would seem to a man of letters if he heard that girls were treating poetry as a serious occupation! Caltrop on her own was bad enough, but with a chatterbox like you on top of it, Yun, I’m finding it a bit too much. Everywhere I go it’s “the profundity of Du Fu”, or “Wei Ying-wu of Soochow’s limpidity”, or “the somewhat meretricious charm of Wen Ting-yun”, or “Li Shang-yin’s obscurity”. Still, there are two important living poets I’ve so far heard no men?tion of.’
‘Oh?’ said Xiang-yun, all agog. ‘Which two?’
‘I’ve heard no mention of Crazy Caltrop’s prodigious pertinacity or the linguipotent loquacity of Shi Xiang-yun,’ said Bao-chai.
The other two burst out laughing.
At that moment Bao-qin arrived. She was wearing a magni?ficent rain-cape that glittered as she moved with gold and greenish lights. Bao-chai asked her where she had got it from.
‘Lady Jia gave me it,’ said Bao-qin. ‘She looked it out for me because it was beginning to sleet.’
Caltrop examined it curiously.
‘No wonder it looks so beautiful: this is woven out of peacock’s down.’
‘That’s not peacock’s down,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘It’s made from mallard’s head-feathers.’ She smiled at Bao-qin teasingly:
‘One can see how fond of you she must be. She’s fond of Bao-yu, but she’s never let him wear this.’
Bao-chai laughed:

‘To each a different fortune meted—

that’s certainly a true saying. I never dreamt that she would be coming here—much less that when she did, Lady Jia would immediately fail for her like this!’
‘Apart from the time you spend with Her Old Ladyship,’ Xiang-yun advised Bao-qin, ‘I should stick to the Garden as much as possible if I were you. In these two places you can eat and drink and play anywhere you please. But be careful of Lady Wang’s place. If she’s in when you go there, then you can sit and talk with her as long as you like; but if she’s not, it’s best not to go inside. There are a lot of nasty people in there who like to do us harm.’
This highly indiscreet warning was uttered so matter-of-?factly that Bao-chai, Bao-qin, Caltrop and Oriole were com?pelled to laugh.
‘I won’t say you are thoughtless,’ said Bao-chai, because you obviously mean well; but you really are a bit too out?spoken. You and Qin ought to be -sisters, since you are so concerned about her.’
Xiang-yun looked at Bao-qin appraisingly.
‘She is the only one of us who could wear this cape,’ she said. ‘Anyone else would look wrong in it.’
Just then Amber walked in with a message from Grand?mother Jia:
‘Her Old Ladyship says please Miss Bao don’t be too strict with Miss Qin; she’s still only little and should he allowed to have her own way. And she says if there’s anything Miss Qin wants, she shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it.’
Bao-chai stood up politely to acknowledge the message. Afterwards she nudged Bao-qin playfully.
‘I don’t know! Some people have all the luck. You’d better leave us, hadn’t you, before we start maltreating you? It beats me. What have you got that I haven’t got?’
She was still teasing Bao-qin when Bao-yu and Dai-yu arrived. ‘You say that in jest, Chai,’ said Xiang-yun, noting their entry, but I know someone who really thinks that way.
‘If anyone’s really upset, it must be him,’ said Amber, pointing her finger at Bao-yu.
Xiang-yun laughed at her simple-mindedness:
‘No, he’s not that sort of person..’
‘Then if it’s not him you mean, it must be her,’ said Amber, pointing now at Dai–yu.
Xiang7yun fell silent. This time it was Bao-chai who spoke:
‘Wrong again. She feels the same way about my cousin as I do. in fact, I believe if anything she’s even fonder of her; so how could she be upset? Don’t be taken in by Miss Shi’s nonsense, my dear Amber. When did you ever hear Miss Shi say anything serious?’
From past experience Bao-yu—who still knew nothing of Dai-yu and Bao-chai’s recent rapprochement was too fami?liar with Dai-yu’s jealous disposition not to feel appre?hensive that Grandmother Jia’s new partiality for Bao-qin might upset her. He was puzzled, therefore, by Bao-chai’s rejoinder, and even more puzzled when he studied the ex?pression on Dai-yu’s face and found that, far from showing any trace of the resentment he would have expected, it exactly tallied with what Bao-chai had said.
‘Those two used not to be like this,’ he thought. ‘Yet to judge from appearances, they are ten times friendlier towards each other now than they are towards anyone else.’
Shortly after this he heard Dai-yu calling Bao-qin ‘dear’ and fussing over her as if she were Bao-qin’s elder sister.
Bao-qin was a young, warm-hearted creature; she was, moreover, highly intelligent and had been taught her letters from an early age. By the time she had been a couple of days in the ha household, she had already formed some impression of its members, Finding that her cousins were quite different from the vapid, giggling creatures to be found in the women’s quarters of so many houses, she was soon on friendly terms with all of them and was careful not to show off; but in Dai-yu she recognized a superior intelligence, and consequently felt even more affection and respect for her than she did for any of the others. Hence the intimacy which Bao-yu had just witnessed. He studied the pair of them curiously and marveled in silence.
Shortly after this, when Bao-chai and Bao-qin had gone off to Aunt Xue’s place and Xiang-yun had gone to see Grand?mother Jia and Dai-yu had gone back to her own room to rest, Bao-Yu went after Dai-yu to question her.
‘I’ve read The Western Chamber,’ he said, ‘and understood it well enough to have offended you on more than one occa?sion by quoting it at you; yet there’s one line in it I still don’t understand. Do you think, if I told you it, you could explain it-to me?’
Dai-yu realized that something must lie behind this request, nevertheless she smilingly promised that she would do her best.
‘It comes in the section called “Ying-ying’s Reply”,’ said Bao-yu:
‘Since when did Meng Guang accept Lang Hong’s tray?

The question seems rather an apposite one. Those two little words “since when” particularly intrigue me. Kindly ex?pound them for me, will you? Since when did Meng Guang accept Liang Hong’s tray?
Dai-yu could not but be amused by the droll way in which he had gone about making his inquiry.
‘That’s a good question,’ she said. ‘It was a good question when Reddie asked it in the play, and it’s a good question when you ask it now.’
‘There was a time, not so long past, when you might have been deeply offended by it,’ said Bao-yu, ‘yet now you say nothing.’
‘It’s because now I know she’s a very good person,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Before I used to think she was two-faced.’
She proceeded to tell him, at some length, about the motherly talking to Bao-chai had given her after her lapses in the drinking game and about the gift of bird’s nest and sugar and the long talk Bao-chai had had with her when she was ill.
‘I see,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I needn’t have been so puzzled then. It seems that the question

Since when did Meng Guang accept Liang Hong’s tray?

could have been answered with another line from the same act of the same play. It was since you spoke

Like a child whose unbridled tongue knows no concealment!

Dai-yu went on to talk about Bao-qin, whom she evidently looked on as a younger sister. Alas, this only reminded her that she had no real sister of her own and she began to cry. Bao-yu would have none of this.
‘Now come on, Dai! You’re making yourself upset. Look at you! You’re thinner than ever this year. It’s because you won’t take care of yourself. You positively look for ways of making yourself miserable. It’s almost as though you felt you hadn’t spent the day properly unless you’d had at least one good cry in it!’
‘No,’ said Dai-yu as she wiped her eyes. ‘I feel very low these days, but I don’t think cry as much as I used to.’
‘I’m sure you do,’ said Bao-yu. ‘It’s just that it’s become so much a habit with you that you no longer know whether you’re crying or not. I’m sure you cry just as much as you always did.’
Just then one of the maids from his room arrived carrying his scarlet felt rain-cape.
‘Mrs Zhu has just sent someone round with a message for you, Master Bao,’ said the maid.’ She says it’s starting to snow now and she wants to discuss with you about inviting people for the poetry meeting.’
She had barely finished speaking when Li Wan’s emissary arrived to deliver the same message to Dai-yu. Bao-yu sug?gested that they should go to Sweet-rice Village together and waited while she put on a pair of little red-leather boots which had a gilded cloud pattern cut into their surface, a pelisse of heavy, dark-red bombasine lined with white fox-fur, a complicated woven belt made out of silvery green shot silk, and a snow-hat. The two of them then set off together through the snow.
They arrived to find that nearly all the others were there already, mostly in red felt or camlet snow-cloaks. The exceptions were Li Wan, who wore a simple greatcoat of plain woollen material buttoned down the front, Xue Bao-chai in a pelisse of ivy-green whorl-patterned brocade trimmed with some sort of exotic lamb’s wool, and Xing Xiu-yan, who had no protection against the snow of any kind beyond the every day clothes she was wearing.
Presently Xiang-yun arrived. She was wearing an enormous fur coat that Grandmother Jia had given her. The outside was made up of sables’ heads and the inside lined with long-haired black squirrel. On her head was a dark-red camlet ‘Princess’ hood lined with yellow figured velvet, whose cut-out cloud shapes were bordered with gold, and round her neck, muffling her up to the nose, was a large sable tippet.
‘Look, Monkey!’ said Dai-yu, laughing at this furry appari?tion. ‘Trust Yun to turn the need for wearing snow-clothes into an excuse for dressing up! She looks just like a Tartar groom!’
‘You haven’t seen what I am wearing underneath yet,’ said Xiang-yun, and opened out the fur coat to show them.
She had on a short, narrow-sleeved, ermine-lined tunic jacket of russet green, edge-fastened down the centre front, purfled at neck and cuffs with a triple band of braiding in contrasting colours, and patterned all over with dragon-roundels embroidered in gold thread and coloured silks. Under this she was wearing a short riding-skirt of pale-red satin damask lined with white fox belly-fur. A court girdle of different-coloured silks braided into butterfly knots and ending in long silken tassels was tied tightly round her waist. Her boots were of deerskin. The whole ensemble greatly enhanced the somewhat masculine appearance of her figure with its graceful, athletic bearing.
The others laughed:
‘She loves dressing up as a boy. Actually she looks even more fetching in boy’s clothes than she does as a girl.’
‘Let’s get down to business,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘What I want to know is, who’s paying for the entertainment this time?’
‘Well, this is what I thought,’ said Li Wan. ‘We’ve already passed the date for our regular meeting, and we don’t want to wait until the next one comes round, because it’s too far ahead. As it’s snowing, I thought it would be rather nice if we clubbed together for a little snow-party in honour of the newcomers and used it as an occasion for doing some poetry-making as well. What do the rest of you think?’
‘I think that’s exactly what we should do,’ said Bao-yu. ‘The only thing is, it’s a bit late for a party today, but if we wait until tomorrow, the snow may have stopped by then and it won’t be so much fun.’
‘It’s very unlikely to,’ said the others. ‘And even if it has stopped by tomorrow morning, it will surely be snowing still tonight, so it should be well worth looking at in the morning.’
‘This place here is all right, of course,’ said Li Wan, ‘but I thought that for this occasion it would be nicer if we met in Snowy Rushes Retreat. I’ve already told them to light the stove there and get the underground heating system started. I don’t think Grandma would much like the idea of our sitting round the stove making verses, so, as it’s only a very little party, I propose that we don’t tell her about it. As long as we let Feng know, it should be sufficient. As regards contributions: if each of you will bring one tael to me here, it ought to be enough. Not you five;’ she pointed to Caltrop, Bao-qin, Li Wen, Li Qi and Xiu-yan—‘And Ying-chun and Xi-chun won’t be contributing either. Ying-chun is ill and Xi-chun is on leave of absence. That leaves only Bao-chai, Dai-yu, Xiang-yun and Dai-yu. If you four will contribute one tael each, I will undertake to contribute five or six taels myself. Together that should be ample.’
Bao-chai and the other three promised to bring her their contributions later and went on to ask what titles and rhymes should be set for the poetry-making.
‘I’ve already decided that,’ said Li Wan. ‘Let it be a surprise for you when you come.’
Arrangements for the party having now been settled, the cousins chatted together for a while longer before going off in a body to visit Grandmother Jia.
That concludes the narrative for that day,

*

At first light next morning Bao-yu, who in excited anticipa?tion of the day ahead had barely slept all night, crawled from the covers and lifted up a corner of the bed-curtain to inspect the weather. Although the doors and windows were still fastened, there was an ominous brightness about the latter which led him to conclude inwardly groaning with dis?appointment that the snow must have cleared and the sun be shining. Jumping out of bed, he opened one of the inner casements and looked through the glass. It was not the sun after all, he found, but the white gleam of snow. It had been snowing all night; there was a good foot of snow on the ground and it was still coming down in great, soft flakes, I like the flock from a torn-up quilt.
Overjoyed to find that he had been wrong, he at once began shouting for his maids, and as soon as he had finished washing and dressed himself in an aubergine-coloured gown lined with fox, a jacket with a sealskin shoulder-cape, and a belt round his waist for warmth, he donned his elegant rain-bat and cape (the Prince of Bei-jing’s present that Dai-yu had so much admired), stepped into his pear wood patterns, and set off for Snowy Rushes Retreat.
Once outside tile courtyard gate, the Garden stretched out on every hand in uniform whiteness, uninterrupted except for the dark green of a pine-tree or the lighter green of some bamboos here and there in the distance. He felt as if he was standing in the middle of a great glittering crystal bowl. Proceeding on his way, he had just turned a spur in the miniature mountain whose foot he was skirting, when his senses were suddenly ravished by a delicate cold fragrance. On looking around him, he found it to be coming from the dozen or so trees of winter-flowering red plum growing inside the walls of Green Bower Hermitage where the nun Adamantina lived. The brilliance of their carmine hue against the white background and the bravura of their blossoming amidst the snow so enchanted him that he stopped for some minutes to admire them.
As he moved on again, he saw someone carrying a green oiled-silk umbrella crossing over Wasp Waist Bridge. It was one of Li Wan’s servants on her way to invite Xi-feng to the party.
Arriving at Snowy Rushes Retreat, be found several women-servants outside, sweeping a pathway up to the door.
Snowy Rushes Retreat was built at the water’s margin in the shelter of a little hill. It had a thatched roof and adobe walls and a post-and-bar fence round it and bamboo-barred windows, just like a farmhouse or a peasant’s cottage. By merely opening a casement and leaning out, it was possible to fish in the lake from its rear windows. Reeds and rushes grew all around it. A meandering pathway through them led to the bamboo bridge by which Lotus Pavilion could be approached from the back.
When the snow-sweepers caught sight of Bao-yu in his rain hat and cape, they paused from their labours and laughed.
‘We were just saying a moment ago that all we need now is an old fisherman, and here he comes! You’re too impatient, Master: the young ladies won’t be coming until they’ve eaten.’
Hearing that, there was nothing for Bao-yu to do but go back again.
Looking out from Drenched Blossoms Pavilion while he was crossing over the bridge, he caught sight of his sister Tan-chun emerging from Autumn Studio. She was wearing a dark-red camlet cloak and Guanyin hood and leaning on the arm of a little maid. A woman-servant walked behind her carrying a green oiled-silk umbrella. Realizing that she must be on her way to see Grandmother Jia, Bao-yu waited by the pavilion for her to catch up with him and accompanied her out of the Garden.
When they arrived, Bao-qin was still at her toilet in the inner room. The other cousins joined them shortly after. Bao-yu kept telling everyone how hungry he felt and grumbling because the servants were so long in serving. When the food at last arrived, the first dish to be put on the table was unborn lamb stewed in milk.
‘That’s a health food,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘It’s for old folk like me. I’m afraid you young people couldn’t eat it. It’s a creature that’s never seen the light. There’s some fresh venison today, though. Why don’t you wait and have some of that?’
The others agreed to wait, but Bao-yu professed himself unable to hold out, and helping himself to a bowl of plain boiled rice, poured a little tea over it and shovelled it straight from the bowl into his mouth with one or two collops of pickled pheasant-meat to help it down.
‘I know you’ve got something on today,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘That’s why you’ve no time to eat properly.’ She turned to the servants. ‘Save some of the venison for them to eat in the evening.’
‘There’s plenty more,’ said Xi-feng. ‘I’ve already spoken to them about it.’
Xiang-yun had a brief consultation on the subject with Bao-yu:
‘If they’ve got fresh venison, why don’t we ask for a piece and cook it ourselves in the Garden? That would be fun.’
Bao-yu eagerly took up her suggestion and begged a piece from Xi-feng. He got one of the women to take it into the Garden for them.
Presently, when they had all left Grandmother Jia’s place and reassembled in Snowy Rushes Retreat an-d were waiting to hear what themes and rhymes Li Wan had decided on, they noticed that Xiang-yun and Bao-yu were missing.
‘Those two should never be allowed together,’ said Dai-yu. ‘As soon as ever they get together there is some kind of mischief afoot. No doubt the reason they’ve gone off this time is because they have designs on that deer’s meat.’
Just then Li Wan’s aunt, Mrs Li, came in, drawn by the noise and numbers to see what was happening.
‘That boy with the jade and the girl with the gold kylin,’ she said to Li Wan anxiously, ‘they both seem such clean, well-bred children, and they look as if they had enough to eat, yet just now the two of them were discussing how to eat a piece of raw venison. They seemed to he quite serious about it, too. Can one eat venison raw? I find it hard to believe that it can be very good for you.’
‘Shocking I’ exclaimed the others. ‘Better go out and stop them.’
‘Yun is at the bottom of this,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Mark my words!’
Li Wan hurried off to find the culprits.
‘If you are proposing to eat raw meat,’ she said when she had found them, ‘I shall have to send you back to Grandma’s to do it there. You can take a whole deer and stuff yourselves sick on it as long as it’s not my responsibility. Come on, now! Come back and make verses with the rest of us. Out in all this snow—it’s much too cold!’
‘You’re absolutely mistaken,’ said Bao-yu, laughing. ‘We’re planning to roast it.’
‘Oh well’ said Li Wan, ‘that’s different.’
Some old women arrived just then, carrying an iron stove, some metal skewers and a grill.
‘Now be careful about cutting that meat,’ said Li Wan. ‘If you cut your fingers, you’ll have nobody to blame but yourselves I’
Having uttered that warning, she went indoors again.
Not long after she had gone in, Patience came by on her way to the Retreat. Xi-feng had sent her, in response to Li Wan’s invitation, to explain that she was unable to join them because she was busy seeing to the various annual payments that fall due at this time of year. Xiang-yun stopped her to exchange greetings, and having once stopped her, was unwill?ing to let her go again. Patience was by nature a fun-loving girl and she knew that Xi-feng would generally let her do as she liked. Considering the idea of cooking outdoors a great lark, she entered into the spirit of the thing, and taking off her bracelets, joined the other two round the brazier and asked for three of the cut-up pieces of venison to roast.
Bao-chai and Dai-yu had seen this kind of thing before and were not particularly interested, but it was a novelty to Mrs Li and Bao-qin and the newcomers, and they were greatly intrigued.
‘What a lovely smell!’ said Tan-chun, when she and Li Wan had finished discussing the theme for the verse-making. ‘You can smell it from here. I’m going outside to have some.’
She went out to join the three around the brazier. Li Wan followed her.
‘Everyone’s ready and waiting,’ said Li Wan. ‘Haven’t you two finished eating yet?’
‘I need wine to inspire my verse,’ said Xiang-yun, speaking with a mouth full of venison, ‘and eating roast venison gives me a thirst for wine. So if I didn’t eat this venison, I shouldn’t be able to write any poetry for you.’
She caught sight of Bao-qin, in the beautiful drake’s head cloak that Caltrop had thought was made of peacock’s feathers, hanging back somewhat from the rest and smiling wistfully.
‘Thoppy!’ she called out to her. ‘Come and try thome!’
‘Too dirty!’ said Bao-qin.
‘Go and try some,’ Bao-chai urged her. ‘It’s very good. The only reason your Cousin Lin isn’t having any is because she’s delicate and can’t digest it. If it weren’t for that, she would love to have some herself.’
Hearing this, Bao-qin went over and nibbled a bit, and finding it good, began to tuck in with as much gusto as the rest.
Presently a little maid arrived from Xi-feng summoning Patience to return; but Patience told the girl to go back without her and tell her mistress that she was being detained by Miss Shi. Shortly after the maid’s departure Xi-feng herself arrived, with a rain-cape over her shoulders.
‘This looks good,’ she said jovially. ‘You might have told me!’
With that she joined the other five in their alfresco feast round the brazier
‘You look like a party of down-and-outs,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Oh dear, oh dear! Poor Snowy Rushes Retreat, polluted by Butcher Yun and her reeking carnivores! I weep for you!’
‘What do you know about it?’ said Xiang-yun scornfully. ‘“True wits make elegant whate’er they touch.” Yours is a false purity. Odious purity! Now we may reek and raven; but presently you will see us with the pure spirit of poetry in our breasts and the most delicate, silken phrases On our lips!’
‘You’d better see to it that the verses you make are good ones,’ said Bao-chai, laughing, ‘otherwise we shall make you expiate the pollution by plucking the venison from your in?sides and stuffing you with snowy rushes!’
They had now made an end of eating, and washed their hands. In putting on her bracelets again, Patience noticed that one of them was missing; but though she and the others looked all around them, they were unable to find it. They were still puzzling over its disappearance when Xi-feng smilingly put an end to the search:
‘I know where the bracelet’s gone. You others go in and get on with your poetry.’
‘There’s no need to look for it any longer,’ she told Patience. ‘You will have to go home without it; but I promise that within three days from now you shall have it back again.’
‘What are your poems to be about this time ?’ she asked the cousins. ‘Grandma says that as it’s getting near the end of the year, we shall soon be needing some First Month lantern riddles.’
‘Ah yes, of course!’ they said. ‘We’d quite forgotten, We’d better make some good ones up in advance to have ready for the festival.’
During this exchange they had been trooping into the room in the Retreat which had the under-floor heating. Wine-cups and prepared dishes had been laid there in readiness by the servants. A paper stuck to the wall announced the theme, form and rhyme for the forthcoming poetry contest. Bao-yu and Xiang-yun, who had not yet seen it, quickly went over to look. This is what it said:

Theme: The Snow
Form: Linked Pentameters
Rhyme: Eyes

No order of composition had been indicated.
‘I’m not much good at poetry myself,’ said Li Wan, ‘so I shall merely start you off by giving you the first three lines. After that, whoever is the first to think of a good following line can carry on.’
‘I think we ought to have a fixed order,’ said Bao-chai. As to whether or not her advice was taken, that will be made clear in the following chapter.

Previous articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 31
Next articleThe Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 48
Discover the wonders of China through studying abroad - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand your horizons, immerse yourself in a rich and diverse culture, and gain a world-class education.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here