The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 50

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CHAPTER 50

Linked verses in Snowy Rushes Retreat
And lantern riddles in the Spring In Winter Room

‘I THINK We ought to have a fixed order,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Just let me write the names down and we can decide what it is to be by lot.’
When she had written down their names and torn up the paper, the slips were drawn and she copied them down in the order in which they came out. Li Wan, by coincidence, re?tained the first place.
‘If this is what you are doing,’ said Xi-feng, ‘I may as well contribute a line of my own to start you off with.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said the others. ‘Please do!’
Bao-chai added the name ‘ Feng’ to the list, above that of ‘Farmer Sweet-rice’, while Li Wan explained what the subject was and what sort of line it had to be. Xi-feng listened attentively and thought for some moments before speaking.
‘You mustn’t laugh if this sounds a bit unpolished,’ she said at last, ‘but at least I think it’s the right length. Mind you, I’ve no idea how it could go on.’
‘Never mind how unpolished it is,’ they said. ‘just tell us what it is; then you can leave, if you want to, and get on with your own work.’
‘Well, when it snows, there’s always a north wind,’ said Xi-feng, ‘and last night I could hear the north wind blowing all night long; so I’ve made a line up about that:

Last night the north wind blew the whole night through.

There you are—take it or leave it!’
The others ‘looked at each other in pleased surprise.
‘Even if the language of this line is a bit unpolished and you can’t see what’s going to follow it, it’s exactly the kind of line that a skilled poet would begin with. Not only is the line good in itself, but it leaves so many possibilities open to the person who follows. Put that down for our first line then, Sweet-rice, and you can finish the couplet.’
Before they proceeded any further, however, Xi-feng, Mrs Li and Patience drank two cups of wine with them, after which they left. As soon as they had gone, Li Wan wrote out the line that Xi-feng had given them, adding a line of her own to make it into a couplet and a third line after that to make the beginning of a second couplet. Thereafter, as each of them in turn completed the couplet started by the previous person and then added the first line of another couplet, she continued to write down the lines at their dictation:

XI-FENG:
Last night the north wind blew the whole night through—
LI WAN:
Today outside my door the snow still flies.
On mud and dirt its pure white flakes fall down—
CALTROP:
And powdered jade the whole earth beautifies.
Flakes on the dead plants weave a winter dress—
TAN-CHUN:
And on dry grasses gemlike crystallize.
Now will the farmer’s brew a good puce fetch—
LI QI
His full barn to a good year testifies.
The ash-filled gauge shows winter’s solstice near—
LI WEN:
And the Wain turns as Yang revivifies.
Snow robs the cold bills of their emerald hue—
XIU-YAN:
And frost the river’s motion petrifies.
Snow settles thickly on sparse willow boughs—
XIANG-YUN:
But on dead plantain-leaves less easy lies.
Now perfumed coals in precious braziers burn—
BAO-QIN:
And heavy furs the girls’ slim shapes disguise.
Firelight the mirror by the window catches—
DAI-YU:
And burning nard the chamber purifies.
Still sobbing through the night the mournful wind—
BAO-YU:
Each sleeper’s dreams with sadness sanctifies.
Somewhere a melancholy flute is playing—
BAO-CHAI:
Whose sad notes with the wind’s plaint harmonize.
With groans the Earth Turtle sideways shifts his load—

At this point Li Wan laid down her brush and rose to her feet.
‘I think I’ll just slip out and see about getting some more wine heated. Someone else can take my place.’
Ban-chai took up the writing-brush and called on Bao-qin to complete the couplet; but before she could do so, Xiang-?yun had leapt to her feet with two lines of her own:

XIANG-YUN:
As dragons brawl, the cloud-wrack liquefies.
A lone boat from the lonely shore puts out—
Nothing daunted, Bao-qin completed that couplet instead:

DAO-QIN:
While from the bridge a horseman waves good-byes.
Now warm clothes to the frontier are dispatched—
Xiang-yun would yield to no one; and her invention was so much quicker than anyone else’s, that they were content to let her break the order, and watched with amusement as she returned now, exulting, to the attack:

XIANG-YUN:
And wives to distant dear ones send supplies.
On still untrodden ways masked pitfalls threaten—
‘That’s a good line!’ said Bao-chai admiringly as she wrote down what Xiang-yun had recited; and she followed with two lines of her own:

BAO-CHAI:
In snowbound woods a bough’s creak terrifies.
The wind-blown snow around the traveller whirls—
Dai-yu hurriedly followed:

DAI-YU:
And clouds of powdery snow at each step rise.
Steamed taros makes a good snow-party fare—
She nudged Bao-yu to follow: but Bao-yu was so absorbed in watching the contest that seemed to be developing between Xiang-yun on the one hand and Bao-qin, Bao-chai and Dai-yu on the other, that he was failing to think up lines of his own to follow their half-couplets with. He did the best he could, how?ever, in response to Dai-yu’s nudge:

BAO–YU:
The guests on ‘scattered salt’ themes improvise.
Now is the woodman’s axe no longer heard—
Clear off, you—you’re no good!’ said Xiang-yun, laugh?ing. ‘All you’re doing is getting in other people’s way!’
Her pausing to say this gave Bao-qin an opportunity of cut?ting in:

BAO-QIN:
Yet still his rod the straw-clad fisher plies.
Mountains like sleeping elephants appear—

Xiang-yun hurried back into the fray:

XIANG-YUN:
A snake-like path the climber’s skill defies.
After long cold the trees strange frost-fruits bear—

This evoked admiring murmurs from Bao-chai and the rest.
Tan-chun managed to get in a contribution at this point:

TAN-HUN:
Which, bold in beauty, winter’s blasts despise.
The hushed yard startles to a cold chough’s chatter—

Xiang-yun was ready at once with two lines to follow, but as she was feeling thirsty, she first stopped to gulp down some tea. In doing so, she lost her turn to Xiu-yan:

XIU-YAN:
An old owl wakes the vale with mournful cries.
The driving flakes make angles disappear—

Xiang-yun put down her teacup in a hurry, before more ground could be lost:

XIAN-G-YUN:
But dimples on -the water’s face incise.
In the clear morn how radiant gleams the snow!—

Dai-yu followed:

DAI-YU:
How ghostly, as the too short daylight dies!
Its cold the Chengs’ disciples could withstand—

Xiang-yun laughed excitedly as she hurried to complete the couplet:

XIANG-YUN:
Its promise can a king’s cares exorcise.
Who’d lie abed all stiff with cold indoors—

Bao-qin laughed, too, as she followed:

BAO-QIN:
When friends invite to red-cheeked exercise?
Who o’er the land the menfolk’s silk unrolls—?

Xiang-yun quickly capped this:

XIANG-YUN:
Who the white weft from Heaven’s loom unties?

But before she could begin another couplet, Dai-yu slipped in a line of her own:

DAI-YU:
Tall tiled pavilions cold and-empty stand—

Xiang-yun capped it:

XIANG-YUN:
Snug thatch more favour finds in poor men’s eyes.

Bao-qin, concluding that this was now a free-for-all, -cut in with the next half couplet:

BAO-QIN:
Ice lumps we thaw and boil to make our tea Xiang-yun, having evidently thought of something amus?ing, began to giggle:

XIANG-YUN:
The fuel being damp, they greatly tantalize.

Dai-yu began to giggle too:

DAI-Y-U:
The Zen recluse with non-broom sweeps the ground—

The infection of giggles had now reached Bao-qin:

BAO-QIN:
His stringless lute-play still more mystifies.

Xiang-yun was by now so doubled up with laughter that the others could not make out the words of her next line.
‘What? ‘they asked her. ‘What was that you said?’ Xiang-yun had to repeat it:

XIANG-YUN:
On the stone tower a stork unwatchful sleeps—

Dai-yu was laughing so much that -she had to clutch painfully at her chest and the words she recited came out in a laughing shout:

DAI-YU:
On the warm mat a cat contented sighs.

All the lines that followed were uttered in rapid succession and to the accompaniment of much laughter.

BAO-QIN:
In moonlit caves the silvery water laps—

XIANG-YUN:
And red flags flutter against sunset skies.

DAI-YU:
Soaked winter plums make the breath fresh and sweet—

‘That’s a good line,’ said Bao-chai. She capped it herself:

BAO-CHAI:
And melted snow the wine-fumes neutralize.

BAO-QIN:
The stiffened aigrette gradually thaws—

XIANG-YUN:
The snow-soaked silken girdle slowly dries.

DAI-YU:
The wind has dropped, but snow still wetly falls—

Bao-qin capped this, laughing:

BAO-QIN:
And frequent drips the passer-by baptize.

Xiang-yun had collapsed, weak with laughing, upon Bao-chai’s shoulder. The others had long since given up trying to participate and become mere laughing spectators of the three-cornered contest between Xiang-yun, Dai-yu and Bao-qin. Dai-yu urged Xiang-yun to go on.
‘Don’t tell me you’ve run out of inspiration—! Surely your famous gift of the gab is still good for a few more lines?’
Bao-chai prodded Xiang-yun, who was now laughing help?lessly upon her lap.
‘See if you can exhaust the rhyme, Yun. If you can do that, I shall be really impressed.’
‘This isn’t verse-making,’ said Xiang-yun, raising her head from Bao-chai’s lap, it’s more like a duel to the death!’
‘Well, whose fault is that?’ they asked her, laughing.
Tan-chun, having decided that she would be unlikely to make any further contributions herself had some time before this taken over the task of amanuensis from Bao-chai. She now pointed out -that the poem needed finishing off. Li Wan, who had just arrived back, took the paper from her and embarked on a suitable finishing couplet:

LI WAN:
Our verses shall this happy day record—

Her cousin Li Qi completed it:

LI QI
And a wise Emperor loyally eulogize.

‘Now that’s enough;’ said Li Wan. ‘We still haven’t exhausted the rhyme, but if we go on any longer, we shall be tying ourselves up in knots trying to use words that aren’t really suitable.’
They now went over the whole poem from beginning to end and discussed it all in detail. It appeared that Xiang-yun had contributed far mote lines than anyone else. The others laughed.
‘It’s because of all that venison you ate!’
‘If we consider quality rather than quantity,’ said Li Wan, ‘I think all the contributions are of about equal merit. Except Bao-yu’s, of course. He goes to the bottom of the list, as usual.’
‘I can’t do Linked Verses, anyway,’ said Bao-yu. ‘You have to make allowances for me.’
‘That’s all very well,’ said Li Wan, smiling, ‘but we can’t make allowances for you at every single meeting. One time you’re in trouble because we have fixed rhymes, another time you fail to turn up altogether, and this time you tell us you “can’t do Linked Verses “I think this time there really has to be a penalty. I noticed just now that the red plum in Green Bower Hermitage is very fine. I’d like to have broken off a branch to put in a vase, but I find Adamantina such a difficult person that I prefer not to have anything to do with her. The first part of your punishment shall be to get us a branch of that red plum and put it in a vase here where all of us can admire it.’
‘What a delightful penalty!’ said the others. ‘How civil?ized!’
Bao-yu, too, was delighted with the penalty, but just as he was setting off to perform it, Xiang-yun and Dai-yu simul?taneously rose to their feet and detained him.
‘It’s very, very cold outside. Have a cup of hot wine before you go.’
Xiang-yun already had the wine-kettle in her hand. Dai-yu found an extra large cup for her to pour the wine in.
‘There!’ said Xiang-yun, filling it up to the brim. ‘If you come back empty-handed now, after drinking our wine, we shall double the rest of your penalty when you get back!’
Bao-yu quickly drank down the proffered cup of freshly heated wine and walked out into the snow. Li Wan wanted to send a servant out after him, but Dai-yu intervened.
‘I wouldn’t, if I were you. If he has anyone else with him, he won’t be able to get any.’
Knowing Adamantina, Li Wan reflected that this was probably true and nodded. She sent the maids to fetch a large mei?ping vase with wide shoulders and a very narrow neck to put the plum-blossom in when it arrived.
‘When he comes back, we must compose some red plum poems,’ she said.
‘I can do one now,’ said Bao-qin.
‘Oh no!’ said Bao-chai. ‘We’re not letting yon do any more. You’ve already hogged enough turns for today. It’s no fun for the others if they are left with nothing to do. No, it’s Bao-yu’s penalty we’ve got to think about, He said just now that he can’t do Linked Verses. When he comes back we ought to make him do some other kind of verses for us by himself.’
‘Good ideal’ said Dai-yu. ‘And I’ve got another idea. Several people didn’t get sufficient opportunity in the Linked Verses of showing what they can do. I propose that those who contributed least in the Linked Verses should be given the red plum poems to do?
‘Yes, I agree,’ said Bao-chai. ‘Cousin Xing, Cousin Wen and Cousin Qi were practically crowded out altogether—and they are, after all, our guests. Qin and Yun and you, Frowner, hogged nearly all the turns. This time the rest of us ought to keep out of it and let Cousin Xing and Cousin Wen and Cousin Qi have the floor to themselves.’
‘Qi isn’t very good at making verses,’ said Li Wan. ‘I think you’d better give her place to your cousin Bao-qin.’
This was scarcely what Bao-chai had intended, but she felt herself in no position to dissent.
‘Why don’t we use the words “red plum flower” as rhymes?’ she suggested. ‘Each of the three can do an octet on “Red Plum Flower”, but Cousin Xing can use “red” for her rhyme, Cousin Wen can use “plum” for hers, and Qin can use flower”.’
‘We seem to be letting off Bao-yu,’ said Li Wan. ‘I can’t agree to that.’
‘Give him a separate theme,’ Xiang-yun suggested.
‘What theme shall we give him?’ the others asked.
‘What about “On Visiting the Nun Adamantina with a Request for Red Plum blossom”?’ said Xiang-yun. ‘That might be interesting.’
‘Oh yes!’ said the others. ‘That would do splendidly.’
At that very moment the object of their discussion walked in, smiling triumphantly, with a flowering plum-branch in his hand. The maids at once relieved him of it and put it in the waiting vase, while the cousins crowded round them to admire it.
‘I hope you enjoy it, all -of you,’ said Bao-yu. ‘It took me enough trouble to get!’
Tan-chun handed him a cup of hot wine to revive him; but first the maids removed his cape and rain hat and shook the snow off them.
Maids from several different apartments now began arriving with extra-clothing for their mistresses. Bao-yu’s Aroma sent him an old surtout lined with fox’s belly-fur. Li Wan made the
servants fill three dishes, one with extra large steamed taros, the other two with blood-oranges, yellow Canton oranges and olives, to take back to her.
Xiang-yun now told Bao-yu the title of the poem they wanted him to compose and urged him to begin thinking a bout it.
‘I will,’ said Bao-yu; ‘but there’s just one thing I would ask of you all: please let me use my own rhymes ; please don’t make me do it to set rhymes.’
‘All right,’ said the girls. ‘Use whatever rhymes you like.’ They had been admiring the plum-blossom meanwhile. The vertical part of the branch—the part, that is, which was stuck into the neck of the vase—must have been less than two feet high; but growing at right-angles from the top of it was a side branch which rose and fell in a spreading cascade of blossom all of four feet long. Of the branchlets forming this flowery cascade

some were like writhing serpents,
some were like frozen worms;
some were as straight and smooth as a writing-brush,
some were as densely twigged as a tiny coppice.

As for the blossoms, they had

A colour like the rosy lips of love
And scent that made summer’s scents seem uninviting.

While the others-were studying the blossoming branch and praising its beauties, Xing Xiu-yan, Li Wen and Bao-qin were busy composing their poems about it and presently began writing them out for the others to inspect.
This is what the others were now able to read:

On a Branch of Red Plum Flower

I
Rhyming ‘red’ By Xing Xiu-yan

So brave, so gay they bloom in winter’s cold,
Before the fragrant peach and almond red;
Like rosy clouds that clothe the springtime slopes
Of Yu-ling, where my dream-soul oft has sped.
Each little lamp in its green calyx lies
Like drunken snow-sprite on a rainbow bed.
Yet do these flowers, of hue so rich and rare,
Reckless, in ice and snow their charms outspread.

II
Rhyming ‘plum’ By Li Wen
What richness blooms before my drunken eyes?
’Tis not the white I sing, but the red plum.
See, its pale cheeks are streaked with blood-red tears,
Even though its bitter heart with cold is numb.
No flower this, but a fairy maid transformed
And here transplanted from Elysium
In this bleak North it makes such brave display,
I’ll tell the bees that spring’s already come.

III
Rhyming ‘flower’ By Xue Bao-qin

Like spendthrift youths in spring’s new fashions dressed,
Its bare thin branches burst in glorious flower.
Snow no more falls, but a bright rosy cloud
Tints hills and streams in one long sunset hour.
Through this red flood my dream-boat makes its way,
While flutes sound chill from many a maiden’s bower.
Sure from no earthly stock this beauty came,
But trees immortal round the Fairy Tower.

They read these poems with smiles of pleasure. There were words of praise for all three of them; but Bao-qin’s, they finally agreed, was the best of the three. Bao-yu, realizing that she was the youngest present, was greatly impressed. Dai-yu and Xiang-yun between them poured out a tiny cupful of wine and offered it to her in celebration of her victory.
‘All three were equally good,’ Bao-chai deprecatingly.
‘It was you two who in the past were always fooling me that poems were the best. Now, it appears, you’ve found someone else to fool.’
‘What about you?’ Li Wan asked Bao-yu. ‘Is yours ready yet?’
‘I did have one ready,’ said Bao-yu, ‘but these three are so much better that reading them has made me nervous and put it completely out of my mind. You’ll have to give me a bit longer while I think up another.’
Xiang-yun picked up one of a pair of large bronze chop?sticks used as tongs for feeding the stove with and beat a preliminary tattoo with it on her metal hand-warmer.
‘I’ll drum for you;’ she said ‘If you can’t produce something each time the drumming stops, we’ll double your penalty.’
‘I think I’ve got something,’ said Bao-yu. Dai-yu picked up a writing-brush, ‘I’ll write it down for you while you recite it,’ she said. Xiang-yun struck up a tattoo.
‘Right!’ she said presently, as she stopped her drumming. ‘End of first round.’
‘Yes, I’ve got something,’ said Bao-yu. ‘Get ready to write.’

‘Wine not yet broached nor verses yet composed—’

Dai-yu wrote down the words, shaking her head as she did so.
‘That’s a very indifferent beginning.’
‘Come on!’ said Xiang-yun. ‘Hurry!’ Bao-yu continued:

‘In quest of spring I sped to Elysium—

Dai-yu and Xiang-yun nodded.
‘Hmn. Not bad.’
Bao-yu went on:

“Twas not the balm from Guanyin’s vase I craved
Across that threshold, but her flowering plum—,

Dai-yu -shook her bead again as she wrote this down.
‘That’s a bit contrived, isn’t it?’
Xiang–yun began-another tattoo on the hand-warmer. When she finished, Bao-yu continued at once:

‘A frozen worldling, for red flowers I begged;
The saint cut fragrant clouds and gave me some.
Pity my verse so angular and thin,
For convent snow has soaked it to the skin!’

As soon as Dai-yu had finished writing this down, Xiang-?yan and the rest began a critical discussion of the whole poem. They were till in the midst of this when a little maid dashed in to announce that Grandmother Jia was approaching. Bao-yu and the girls hurried out, laughing and chattering, to welcome her.
‘She must be feeling in good spirits,’ they said, ‘to come out in the snow like this.’
Grandmother Jia was still quite a way off when they saw her. She was sitting in a little bamboo carrying-chair and holding a green silk umbrella over herself. A large cape and squirrel-lined hood almost completely enveloped her. Faithful, Amber and three or four other maids, all carrying their own umbrellas, formed a little escort around the chair and its bearers. Li Wan and the others would have gone out into the snow to meet her, but Grandmother Jia called out to them to stay where they were.
‘Wait there under cover. I’ll come over to you..’
‘I’ve given Feng and your Aunt Wang the slip,’ she told them, chuckling mischievously, when the chair had reached them and they were helping her out of it. It’s all right for me, going out in all this snow, because I’m sitting in this thing; but I didn’t want them trudging along in the snow beside me, get?ting cold and miserable.’
Some of them relieved her of her snow-clothes while others supported her on either -side and conducted her into the room where the heated kang was.
‘What pretty plum-blossom!’ she said as they entered it. ‘You children certainly know bow to enjoy yourselves. I feel quite angry with you for not inviting me!’
Li Wan made the servants bring in a big wolfskin rug and spread it out in the middle of the kang for Grandmother Jia to sit on.
‘Now you just all go on enjoying yourselves exactly as you were before I came,’ said the old lady when she had settled herself on the rug. ‘I daren’t sleep after lunch at this time of year, because the days are so short. I had a little game of dominoes instead; then I started wondering what you were all up to and thought I would come over and join you.’
Li Wan handed her a hand-warmer while Tan-chun fetched a winecup and a pair of chopsticks, poured out a cup of warm wine, and offered it to her with both her hands. Grandmother Jia accepted it from her and sipped the wine.
‘What have you got in that dish over there?’ she asked them.
‘Pickled quails,’ said one of the cousins, bringing the dish over for her inspection.
‘That will do very nicely,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Tear off a little leg for me, will you?’
Li Wan called for water, and having first washed her hands, performed the operation for her in person.
‘Now I want you all to sit down again and go on talking,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘It does me good to hear you. —You too,’ she said to Li Wan. ‘You’re to sit down as well. I want you to behave exactly as if I hadn’t come. Otherwise I shall go away again.’
At this the others resumed their former places—all except bearers turned into this and put the chair down just inside it for Grandmother Jia to get out. Xi-chun was already waiting there to welcome her and conducted them all through the covered way which ran round the sides of the courtyard from the gateway to her living quarters at the back. A framed board hanging underneath the eaves announced the name of the building:

SPRING IN WINTER.

Servants held up the red felt portiere for them as they approached its doorway. They could feel the hot air fanning their cheeks as they entered it.
Grandmother Jia tackled Xi-chun as soon as they were in?side, not even waiting to sit down.
‘What’s happened to the painting?’
‘The glue gets tacky in this cold weather,’ said Xi-chun. ‘It stops the paint from going on properly. I’ve put the painting away because I was afraid it might get spoiled.’
Grandmother Jia brushed aside this excuse with a dis?missive laugh.
‘I want that painting ready by the end of the year. Don’t be so lazy! Fetch it out at once and get on with it, my girl!’
Just then a smiling Xi-feng made her appearance. A purplish woollen gabardine was thrown loosely over her shoulders.
‘You’ve led me a fine dance,’ she grumbled, ‘sneaking off on your own like this!’
The old lady was delighted to see her.
‘I didn’t want you all catching colds; that’s why I told them not to let you know I was going out. I suppose I ought to have realized that that sharp little nose of yours would soon ferret me out again. You mustn’t think you are being dutiful in tracking me down like this.’
‘Being dutiful!’ said Xi-feng. ‘That’s not at all the reason why I came out to look for you. Just now when I went round to your apartment I found it all deathly quiet, and it was quite clear from the maids’ answers, when I tried to find out where you had gone, that they didn’t want me to go into the Garden to look for you. That aroused my suspicions; and when a moment later a couple of nuns appeared on the scene, my suspicions were confirmed: I realized that they must have come to make their annual collection for some charity or other and that my dear, saintly Grannie, who no doubt has rather a lot of subscriptions to pay out at this time of year, had gone into hiding to avoid them. I asked the nuns, and sure enough it was for your annual subscription that they had come. I paid it for you myself. So now your creditors have gone, you can come out of hiding. You ought to be getting back now in any case. You’ve got some nice, tender pheasant for dinner and if you leave it much longer it will spoil.’
All this was spoken, of course, to the accompaniment of much laughter from the others. Before Grandmother Jia could say anything in reply, Xi-feng had ordered the bearers to bring up the bamboo carrying-chair and Grandmother Jia, in laughing acquiescence, took Xi-feng’s hand, got back into it, and was at once lifted up and whisked away by the bearers. The others followed after, chattering and laughing as they went.
As they emerged from the east end of the alley-way into the silvery snowscape of the Garden, they could see Bao-qin, identifiable by the glossy green mallard-cape, standing a long way off behind the shoulder of a little hill, waiting for the rest of them to arrive. A maid, hugging a large vase with a branch of red plum in it, was standing behind her.
‘So there she is!’ said the others. ‘We thought there seemed to be two of us missing. And she’s got herself some plum ?blossom, as well.’
Grandmother Jia smiled proprietorially at the distant figure.
‘What does that remind you all of, seeing her there on that snowy bank, wearing a cape like that and with the spray of plum-blossom behind her?’
‘Why,’ they said, ‘it’s like that painting by Qiu Ying you have hanging in your room: “The Beauty of the Snow”.’
Grandmother Jia shook her head.
‘No, the girl in that picture isn’t wearing a cape like that—and she isn’t half as pretty as Qin, either.’
Just at that moment a third figure, previously invisible, stepped out from behind Bao-qin’s back. Whoever it was was wearing a red felt snow-cape.
‘Which of the girls is that?’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘There aren’t any more girls; we’re all here,’ said the others laughing. ‘That’s Bao-yu.’
‘My eyes are getting worse and worse,’ said Grandmother Jia. Soon they had caught up with the three figures on the hill and she could see that it was indeed Bao-yu whom she had failed to recognize with Bao-qin and the maid.
‘I’ve been over to Green Bower Hermitage again,’ Bao-yu told the girls. ‘Adamantina ended up by giving me a branch of plum-blossom for each of you. I’ve just been arranging to have them delivered to your rooms.’
The others thanked him for his kindness.
Talking as they went, they presently passed through the gate of the Garden and accompanied Grandmother Jia back to her apartment. After dinner, while they were still sitting there in conversation, Aunt Xue arrived.
‘What a heavy fall of snow!’ she said. ‘I haven’t been able to come over and see you all day long. You ought to go out and have a look at it, Lady Jia, if you are feeling low. It would do you good.’
‘Who said I was feeling low?’ said Grandmother Jia with some amusement. ‘I’ve only just got back from visiting the children. I’ve been having a fine old time!’
‘Oh?’ said Aunt Xue. ‘Yesterday evening I was intending to ask if my sister and I could have the use of the Garden today so that we might arrange a little snow-viewing party for you, but you’d already gone to bed, and Bao-chai said that you were feeling out of Sorts, so I thought I’d better not bother you. If I’d known differently, I’d have come round this morning and invited you.’
‘We’re only just into the eleventh month,’ said Grand?mother Jia. ‘There’ll be plenty more snow yet and plenty more opportunities for taking advantage of your kind offer.’
‘I do hope so,’ said Aunt Xue. ‘It’s something I should very much like to do for you.’
‘Isn’t there a danger you might forget, Aunt?’ said Xi-feng. ‘Why not weigh out fifty taels now and leave them with me? Then next time it snows, I can get it all ready for you. That would save you the trouble of arranging it yourself and also avoid the danger of your forgetting.’
‘In that case you and I might just as well split the money between us,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Next time it snows, all I have to do is say that I’m feeling out of sorts, and you won’t have to do anything at all. That way Mrs Xue will have even less trouble, while you and I will each of us have twenty-five taels cleat profit.’
Xi-feng clapped her hands delightedly.
‘What a wonderful idea! Why didn’t I think of it myself?’
The others laughed.
‘Shameless hussy!’ said Grandmother Jia, laughing with the rest. ‘You’re-like the monkey on the pole: give you an inch and you take an ell. What you ought to have said is: “No, Aunt, you are our guest Since you honour us by staying in our house, it is we who should be inviting you. We can’t allow you to go spending money on us.” That’s what you ought to have said; not asked your poor aunt for fifty taels. Whoever heard of such a thing!’
‘She’s a canny old lady, this Grandma of ours,’ Xi-feng explained to Aunt Xue. ‘She watches you first to see if you’ll weaken or not. If you’d weakened and coughed up the fifty taels, she’d have been quite willing to go halves with me and pocket twenty-five of them herself; but having gauged that you probably won’t, she adopts a holier-than-thou attitude and makes an example of me, even though she was the one who suggested it. All right, all right. I’ll pay for the whole party myself, and when Grandma arrives, I’ll have fifty taels out of my own savings wrapped up all ready to give her as a present. That shall be my punishment for having opened my big mouth and occupied myself with other people’s affairs.’
Bao-yu and the girls were by this time rolling about on the kang.
Presently, when the conversation got round to what a beautiful picture Bao-qin had made standing in the snow with the spray of plum-blossom behind her, Grandmother Jia began inquiring about her parentage and the exact day and hour of her birth. Aunt Xue guessed that she was considering her as a possible match for Bao-yu. She would have been glad enough to go along with this had not Bao-qin already been promised to the Meis; however, since Grandmother Jia had not asked her outright, she could do no more than hint at a prior attach?ment.
‘She’s been very unlucky, poor child. The year before last her father died quite suddenly. She used to go with him every-where on his travels, so she has seen a great deal of the world for one so young. Her father was a great one for combining business with pleasure. He always took the family with him when he went away on business. They would spend perhaps a whole year in one province, seeing all the sights; then the next six months they might spend travelling around in another. At one time and another they must have covered well over half the provinces of the Empire in that way. While he was on one of his trips to the capital, he promised her to Academician Mei’s boy, but unfortunately it was in the year after that he died, so nothing could be done about it. And now her poor mother has gone down with a consumption…’
Xi-feng interrupted, sighing and stamping her foot in an exaggerated display of disappointment.
‘Oh, what a shame! I was just going to offer my services as a match-maker, but it seems that she’s already betrothed.’
Who did you have in mind?’ Grandmother Jia asked her. ‘Never you mind!’ said Xi-feng. ‘I’m sure they would have made a very good pair; but since she’s already got someone else, there doesn’t seem any point in discussing it.’
Grandmother Jia knew very well whom Xi-feng had in mind, but hearing that Bao-qin was already spoken for, she dropped the subject and made no further mention of it.
The company talked for a while longer before breaking-up; but of the rest of that day and the night which followed our narrative supplies no account.

*

Next day the snow had cleared. After lunch Grandmother Jia told Xi-chun that, cold or no cold, she must get on with the painting as quickly as possible.
‘If you really can’t get it finished by the end of the year,’ she said, ‘it doesn’t matter. But what you must do is get Bao-qin with the maid and the branch of plum-blossom into it. I want you to do that straight away; and they are to be painted exactly as they looked when we saw them on that bank yester?day.’
Xi-chun said that she would, though miserably aware that she would find doing so extremely difficult. Later, when the others went round to her place to see how she was getting on, she was pondering gloomily over this latest problem. Li Wan somewhat heartlessly proposed that they should leave her to her own thoughts and carry on their conversation without her.
‘When we got back from Grandmother’s last night,’ she said, ‘Qi and Wen and I were unable to get to sleep, so we lay in bed making up riddles. I made up two using quotations from the Four Books and the other two each made up one.’
‘Ah yes, that’s what we all ought to be doing,’ said the others. ‘Tell us your four first and we’ll try to guess the answers.
‘Guan-yin lacks a biography,’ said Li Wan. ‘The answer is a phrase from the Four Books.’
‘Resting in the highest good,’
Xiang-yun promptly suggested.
‘What’s that got to do with “biography”?’ said Bao-chai.
‘Try again,’ said Li Wan.
‘I know,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Isn’t it

… though good, yet having no memorial?’

‘Ah yes, that must be it,’ said the others.
‘What is the green plant that grows in the water?’ said Li Wan.
‘That just has to be
‘It is a fast-growing rush,’

said xiang-yun. ‘I don’t see how that ‘could be wrong.’
‘Good for you!’ said Li Wan. ‘Now here is Wen’s riddle:

Beside the rocks the water runs cold.

It’s the name of an historical person.’
‘That must be “Shan Tao”,’ said Tan-chun. ‘His surname means “mountain”—that’s the “rocks”—and “Tao” means “billows”
‘Right,’ said Li Wan. ‘Now Qi’s riddle is just a single word:

Firefly

The answer is a single- word, too.’
They all puzzled for a long time over this without being able to think of any answer. It was Bao-qin who finally came up with the solution.
‘Yes, I see. It’s rather involved. The answer is “flower” isn’t it?—I mean the flower that grows.’
Li Qi acknowledged smilingly that this was correct.
‘What has “flower” got to do with “firefly”?’ the others asked her.
Bao-qin explained:
‘In the Record of Rites it says
Corrupt grass by transmutation breedeth fireflies.
Now the character for “flower” is written with “grass” at the top and “change”—or, if you like, “transmutation”—under?neath. So “corrupt grass by transmutation”—which, accord?ing to the Rites, produces fireflies—makes the character for “flower
The others laughingly acknowledged that the riddle was an ingenious one.
‘All four of these riddles are very good,’ said Bao-chai, ‘but I don’t think they are quite the sort of thing that Lady Jia had in mind. I think we ought to make up some about fairly easy, everyday objects, so that those of us who aren’t quite so learned can enjoy them as well.’
Xiang-yun thought for a bit.
‘I’ve got one,’ she said presently. ‘It’s in the form of a “Ruby Lips” stanza:

Far away
From the high fell
Where I used to dwell
Amidst men I play.
But for what gain?
My labour’s vain;
My tale is hard to tell.’

No one was able to make out what this could be. After puzzling for a long time, they produced a number of different guesses. Someone thought it was ‘a monk’; someone else thought it was ‘a Taoist’; a third person suggested that it might be ‘a marionette player’.
‘You’re all wrong,’ said Bao-yu, who had been grinning silently to himself while the others guessed, ‘I’ve thought of the answer. It’s “a performing monkey”.’
‘That’s it” said Xiang-yun.
‘We can understand the first part all right,’ said the others; ‘but what about the last line? What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Have you ever seen a performing monkey that hadn’t had its tail docked?’ said Xiang-yun.
Groans and laughter.
‘Trust Yun’s to have a frightful pun in it—as if the riddle wasn’t hard enough already!’
‘Mrs Xue was telling us yesterday that you’ve travelled a lot and been to all sorts of interesting places,’ Li Wan said to Bao-qin. ‘With so much material you ought to be just the person for making up riddles—especially as you’re so good at verse-making as well. Why don’t you make up a few, and the rest of us will try to guess them?’
Bao-qin said nothing, but smiled and nodded, and at once went off into a corner to think.
Bao-chai had now composed a riddle, too, and recited it for them to try and guess while Bao-qin was doing her thinking.

‘Tier upon compact tier of fragrant wood:
No craftsman’s hand could carve one half so well.
A gale blows all about the temple’s eaves,
Yet, though it shakes, no sound comes from my bell.’

While the others were still trying to guess the answer to this, Bao-yu recited one that he had just completed himself:

‘’Twixt heaven and earth amidst the clouds so high
Bamboo gives warning to the passer-by.
Eyes strain some feathered traveller to descry
Who’ll bear my answer back into the sky.’

Dai-yu also had one ready, and proceeded to recite it to them:
‘See my little prancing steed!
Of silken rein he has no need,
Round the city wall he goes,
Wreaking havoc on his foes.
At his master’s touch he moves
With thunder of advancing hooves.
In isles by tortoises supported
His deeds are honourably reported.’
Tan-chun, too had composed a riddle, but as she was on the point of reciting it, Bao-qin came back from her corner to announce that she had finished.
‘I’ve been visiting places of historical interest ever since I was little,’ she said, ‘so I really have seen quite a lot. What I’ve done now is to choose ten of them, mostly associated with some famous person or other, and make up a poem about each one. The verses themselves may sound rather like doggerel, but the point about them is that, as well as commemorating these famous places and people, each of them contains hidden references to some common object which you have to guess.’
‘Ah, that sounds very ingenious!’ they said. ‘But why not write them down, so that we can take our time thinking about them?’
What happened next will be related in the following chapter.

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