The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 76

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CHAPTER 76

Flute-playing at Convex Pavilion provokes
too much melancholy
And linked verses at Concave Pavilion betray
a morbid sensitivity

After Jia She and Jia Zheng had left, taking the two younger men with them, Grandmother Jia had the screen removed and proposed that those sitting at both tables should combine to make a single party. The serving-women cleared and wiped the table, replenished and replaced the plates of foodstuff, and set out clean winecups and chopsticks. While they were doing this, Grandmother Jia and the other members of the family were putting on more clothing, washing their hands; rinsing their mouths out, and drinking tea. When all was ready they arranged themselves round the one table. As they did so, Grandmother Jia noticed, for the first time that evening, that Bao-chai and Bao-qin were not there. With Li Wan and Xi-feng also away ill, the family gathering seemed sadly depleted. She commented on this fact to Lady Wang.
‘In past years, when Sir Zheng was away, we invited your sister to enjoy the Mid-Autumn moon with us. To be sure, we had some very happy times with her, but the recollection that one of our dear ones was missing – in my case a son, in yours a husband, in the children’s a father somewhat dampened our enjoyment. This year, now that he is back, I was looking forward to a really jolly family party; but now, unfortunately, it’s your sister and her children who can’t be with us. Well, I suppose as she’s got two more members of her family with her this year we could hardly expect her to leave them behind and come over here simply to keep me amused. But what a pity that Feng should have chosen this time to be ill! She is always such a tonic as good as ten other people at a party! It only goes to show. One can’t have everything.’
She sighed.
‘Fetch me a bigger cup,’ she said presently, ‘and pour me some good hot wine.’
Lady Wang smiled.
‘You have both your sons with you this year, Mother. Surely that is a gain? There may have been more females present in previous years, but surely having all your own children about you is better?’
‘Yes, yes, of course it is,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘I am happy. That is why I have asked for a larger cup. You must all have larger cups too.’
It was getting very late now and the other ladies had no real inclination for carousing; but as Grandmother Jia showed no signs of flagging, they were obliged to keep her company. The effect of forcing themselves to drink with her was that they became unbearably sleepy.
Grandmother Jia called for a carpet to be spread out at the top of the terrace steps. The remaining mooncakes, melons and other eatables were carried over there and the maids and womenservants invited to sit round in a big circle, eating them and enjoying the moon.
Grandmother Jia, too, looked up at the moon. It had now reached its meridian and was even clearer and more beautiful than it had been earlier in the evening.
‘To get full enjoyment of so fine a moon,’ she said, ‘the music of a flute is indispensable.’
She had the girls of the family’s little ten-piece orchestra summoned; but when they arrived, they were informed that not all of them would be required to play.
‘Too much sound would spoil the effect,’ she said. ‘The flute on its own will be enough. And we should like to hear it from quite a long way away.’
The flautist went off obediently to do her bidding. A moment after she had left, one of Lady Xing’s women came hurrying up and whispered something in Lady Xing’s ear.
‘What is it?’ said Grandmother Jia.
‘It’s Sir She,’ said Lady Xing. ‘On his way back just now he tripped over a rock and twisted his ankle.’
Grandmother Jia at once sent two of her own women to see how he was and told Lady Xing that she was to go back immediately and look after him. Lady Xing rose and took her leave.
‘Zhen’s wife may as well go back now too,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘Then I shall go home to bed.’
‘I don’t intend to go back at all tonight,’ said You-shi. ‘I have resolved to spend the night here with you.’
‘That will never do!’ said Grandmother Jia, laughing. ‘Tonight of all nights a young couple like you ought to be together. I can’t have you staying away from your husband for my sake!’
You-shi coloured.
‘Really, Grandma, what a thing to say! I suppose Zhen and I are still comparatively young, but we have been married nearly twenty years, you know: we are both nearly forty. And in any case, we’re still in mourning for Sir Jing. I’d much better spend the night here with you.’
‘Yes, of course,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘I’d quite forgotten you were still in mourning. Poor Sir Jing! It must be more than two years now – but I ought not to have forgotten. I shall drink this big cupful as a punishment! All right, you’d better stay and keep me company then. Let Rong’s wife see Lady Xing out. After that, she can go back home herself.’
You-shi instructed her daughter-in-law accordingly, where?upon little Hu-shi accompanied Lady Xing as far as the main gate of the mansion. There both ladies got into their carriages and went their separate ways.
Meanwhile the company had been over to the other side of the terrace to admire the cassia. They now took their places at table once more and were served with freshly heated wine.
In the midst of their chattering and laughter, suddenly startling them into silence, the undulant, lamenting sound of a flute came floating up to them from the cassia-trees below. Beautiful at any time, such music heard in the stillness of the night under the great vault of the sky with a bright moon above and only the cold, invisible night wind stirring in the earth below steals like a balm over the soul, soothing and dissolving all earthly griefs and cares. They listened, rapt and silent, with upturned, attentive faces. The music continued for about the space in which one could comfortably have drunk two cups of tea and then stopped. The momentary silence which followed it was broken by cries of admiration from all present. The winecups were replenished with warm wine.
‘You see,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘It is good, isn’t it?’
‘It truly is,’ they agreed. ‘Who could have imagined anything so beautiful? If it weren’t for you, Grandma, we might never have had this experience.’
‘It could have been much better,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘To get the full benefit you need to hear something really slow.’
She had a large cup of wine poured and ordered one of her women to take it to the flautist.
‘Tell her to take her time with this, and say that when she’s finished drinking it, I’d like her to play us another piece, only more softly this time.’
While this woman went off with the message and the wine, the two women she had sent off earlier to inquire after Jia She’s ankle returned.
‘We’ve had a look at Sir She, Your Ladyship. His right ankle is rather swollen, but he’s taken some medicine and the pain is not so bad now. It doesn’t look very serious.’
Grandmother Jia nodded and sighed.
‘You see? The truth is, I worry too much. He was trying to make out that I don’t care about him at all!’
While she was saying this, Faithful appeared carrying a large cape and hood.
‘Here, put these on,’ she said. ‘It’s getting very late. You don’t want to be outside when the dew falls. Aren’t you afraid of catching cold? I think when you’ve sat a little longer, you ought to come back home to bed.’
‘Just when I’m enjoying myself you have to start nagging me to go to bed,’ said Grandmother Jia. ‘I hope you don’t think I’m drunk. I’ve decided to stay up till dawn.’
She called rebelliously for more wine, but did put the cape and hood on notwithstanding. The other ladies drank with her for company and did their best to be amusing. Then, silencing them once more, the sound of the flute concealed in the cassia-bushes below came stealing into their ears, this time more plaintive even than before. Indeed, this time the combination of the flute’s melancholy with the effects of nocturnal stillness and ghostly moonlight induced a feeling of such over?powering sadness in the listeners that they turned their backs on it and sought, with talk and somewhat forced laughter, to escape it. Fresh wine was called for and the flautist told to stop playing.
‘I’ll cheer you up, Lady Jia,’ said You-shi. ‘Let me tell you a funny story. I learnt it specially for the occasion.’
‘Ha, ha, ha. Yes, that would be very nice, a joke. Do tell me,’ said Grandmother Jia with a jollity that seemed somewhat strained.
‘There were once four brothers,’ You-shi began. ‘The eldest had only one eye, the second had only one ear, the third had only one nostril, and the fourth, though he had all his parts in order, was dumb.’
She had got no farther with her story when she became aware that the old lady’s head was nodding down upon her bosom and her eyelids drooping as though she was about to go to sleep. She broke off at once, and she and Lady Wang both called gently to her to wake up. Grandmother Jia opened her eyes wide and laughed.
‘I’m not sleeping, I was just resting my eyes. Go on with your story. I’m listening.’
‘It’s very late,’ said Lady Wang. ‘The air is cold tonight and there is a lot of dew. Won’t you go home and rest now, Mother? We can have another moon-party tomorrow night, if you feel like it. The moon on the sixteenth is still well worth watching.’
‘What time is it?’ Grandmother Jia asked.
‘Past two o’clock,’ said Lady Wang. ‘The children couldn’t hold out any longer. They have all gone off to bed.’
Grandmother Jia looked round the table. Only Tan-chun was still sitting there in the semicircle of empty chairs.
‘Well,’ said Grandmother Jia, ‘they are not used to staying up late. Considering the amount of weakness and sickliness there is among them, I suppose it is just as well. But there’s my little Tan, sitting there all on her own, poor child! You go to bed too, my dear. We’ll end the party now.’
She got up herself as she said this, and after taking a sip or two of green tea, climbed into her bamboo carrying-chair and was borne out of the Garden by two women, the rest walking beside her or following close behind. But of her and them no more.
One of the women who remained behind to clear the table and stack the crockery noticed that a single porcelain cup was missing. After looking everywhere for it unsuccessfully, she appealed to the other servants.
‘I suppose one of you must have dropped it accidentally and thrown it away somewhere. Do please tell us, and let us have the broken pieces, so that when we report the loss we shan’t be accused of having stolen it.’
‘None of us has broken it,’ said the others. ‘It might have been a maid of one of the young ladies that broke it. If you can think who it might have been, I should go and ask them.’
‘You are right,’ said the woman, suddenly recollecting. ‘I remember Kingfisher coming to fetch a cup for her mistress. I must go and ask her for it.’
She had not far to look. A short way along the paved path at the bottom of the steps she came upon her and Nightingale walking along together. It was Kingfisher who spoke first.
‘Oh, has Her Old Ladyship ended the party then? I suppose you don’t know where my mistress has gone?’
‘I’ve come to ask you what you’ve done with one of our teacups,’ said the woman, ‘and you ask me about your mistress!’
Kingfisher laughed.
‘I poured out a cup of tea some time ago and handed it to her, and the next thing I knew was she’d disappeared – with the teacup.’
‘Her Ladyship said just now that the young ladies had all gone to bed,’ said the woman. ‘I don’t know where you two can have been larking about all this time not to know anything about it.’
‘I’m sure our mistresses wouldn’t have slipped off to bed without telling us,’ said Kingfisher. ‘More likely they just went off for a walk. Perhaps when Her Old Ladyship left they joined the others to see her back to her apartment. We’ll go over there now and have a look. If they are there, we shall know where your cup is. Why don’t you come round and ask me for it tomorrow? There’s no pressing hurry for it now, is there?’
‘There’s no hurry as long as I know where it is,’ said the woman. ‘I’ll call round and ask you for it tomorrow.’
She went back to the pavilion then, to finish stacking the crockery.
*
Lady Wang was wrong. Dai-yu and Xiang-yun had not gone to bed. The sight of all those Jias enjoying the moonlight (in spite of Grandmother Jia’s complaint that the numbers were so few) and the thought of Bao-chai and Bao-qin enjoying a moon-party of their own with Aunt Xue and the two Xue males made the occasion a painful one for Dai-yu. She had slipped away not in order to go to bed but to lean on the terrace railings and cry. Bao-yu on this occasion had little thought for anything but Skybright’s illness, which had lately taken a serious turn for the worse, and after several appeals from his mother to go to bed, he had availed himself of the excuse for going back in order to find out how she was. Tan?chun was still feeling too much out of temper after the recent domestic upheavals to have any appetite for amusement. Ying-chun and Xi-chun might have kept Dai-yu company, but since they did not as a rule get on with her very well, it would not have occurred to them to do so. That left only Xiang-yun to offer her some comfort.
‘Now coz, this won’t do! You’re an intelligent girl: you must take more care of yourself. I must say, it is too bad of Chai and Qin. All that talk about spending Mid-Autumn night enjoying the moon together and using the occasion to revive the Poetry Club with another linked couplets session – and then, when the time comes, they leave us in the lurch and go off to enjoy the moon by themselves! No Poetry Club, no linked couplets, nothing! It’s all the fault of those wretched men! You remember the remark made by the first Song emperor: “No one but me is allowed to snore in this bed?room!” That’s the menfolk’s attitude at a party. Never mind. Since the others haven’t come, we’ll make up some linked couplets ourselves and take them along tomorrow to shame them with.’
Xiang-yun was so enthusiastic a comforter that Dai-yu felt she could not show herself wholly unresponsive.
‘The trouble is, all these people here are making so much noise,’ she said. ‘It’s not an atmosphere very conducive to poetic inspiration.’
‘Although the hilltop is a good place for enjoying the moon from,’ said Xiang-yun, ‘the moon would look even better over water. I don’t know whether you realize it, but one side of this hill does actually give onto the lake. There is a little building there called the Concave Pavilion nestling in a hollow quite close to the water’s edge. Whoever made this Garden must have been quite an educated person. The place where we are now is obviously called the Convex Pavilion because it is on top of the convex hill, and Concave Pavilion must have been given its name because it is in a hollow. Those two words “concave” and “convex” are very seldom encountered in literature. Their use in landscape gardening for the naming of features must be even rarer. To my mind the linking together of these two pavilions by so unusual a pair of names suggests that they must have been specially designed for viewing the moon from: Convex Pavilion for those who like the small, remote moon of the mountains and high places, Concave Pavilion for those who prefer the silky whiteness of the great orb reflected in the surface of the water. “Convex” and “concave” are often thought of as vulgar, unpoetical words, but that is only because of their modern associations. Some people even call that well-known line of Lu You’s vulgar:
In well-worn concave patch the ground ink settles;
but I find that criticism rather silly.’
‘Lu You is by no means the only writer to have used those words in a work of literature,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Jiang Yan uses them in his prose-poem “Moss”, Dong-fang Shuo uses them somewhere in his Book of Marvels, and in Lives of the Painters they turn up in a description of Zhang Seng-yao’s decoration of the Ekayāna Monastery at Nanking. In fact, there must be countless instances in literature. I think it’s merely ignorance that nowadays leads people to dismiss them as “unpoetical”. To tell you the truth, it was I who gave these two pavilions their names. That year when Bao-yu did all the naming of places in the Garden there were several places left over afterwards which he either hadn’t got round to naming or had given names to that were thought unsuitable, and the task of naming them was given to us girls. The names we made up were taken to the Palace for Cousin Yuan’s approval and she sent word back saying that provided Uncle Zheng approved of them they were to be used. So that’s how I came to name these two pavilions. All right, let’s go down then.’
The two girls descended the slope of the little mountain. A few steps round a turn in the pathway which skirted the foot of it took them to the pavilion. Near the water’s edge, linking it with Lotus Pavilion farther along the shore, was a bamboo railing. The two old women who were on night watch in it, little imagining that an overspill from the hilltop party would come their way, had long since put their light out and gone to sleep. Dai-yu and Xiang-yun laughed when they saw that the pavilion was in darkness.
‘They’ve gone to sleep. Never mind. All the better. Let’s sit outside here on the covered verandah and look at the moonlight on the water.’
They found a couple of drum-shaped bamboo stools to sit down on. A great white moon in the water reflected the great white moon above, competing with it in brightness. The girls felt like mermaids sitting in a shining crystal palace beneath the sea. A little wind that brushed over the surface of the water making tiny ripples seemed to cleanse their souls and fill them with buoyant lightness.
‘If only I were in a boat now, with some wine to drink!’ said Xiang-yun. ‘If this were my own home, I should jump into a boat now immediately.’
‘There’s an old saying: “Who seeks perfection must abandon joy”,’ said Dai-yu. ‘If you ask me, I think we are very well the way we are. Why do we have to be in a boat to enjoy this?’
Xiang-yun laughed.
“‘One conquest breeds appetite for another.” That applies to most of us, you know, not only to generals.’
While she was speaking, a flute began to play. They listened for some moments to its plaintive rise and fall.
‘Grandma and Aunt Wang are obviously enjoying themselves,’ said Dai-yu, smiling. The flute is a very happy touch. We shall put it to our own purposes, you and I. It shall inspire our verse. We both like pentameters, don’t we? Let’s do linked pentameters as we did on that other occasion.’
‘What rhyme?’ said Xiang-yun.
‘We could use a number for a rhyme,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Let’s count the uprights in the railing as far as that angle over there. Whatever the number is shall be our rhyme.’
‘That’s a very ingenious idea,’ said Xiang-yun.
The two girls got up and walked along the railing to count. It turned out that there were exactly eight posts from one angle of the railing to the next.
‘Hmn,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘Eight. I wonder how far we shall get with that rhyme. The danger with this sort of thing always is that after a time the rhyming becomes forced – or else one simply can’t go on at all. Well, you begin.’
‘I’d like to have been able to see afterwards which of us had done better,’ said Dai-yu, ‘but unfortunately we haven’t got anything to write with.’
‘I’ll write it out tomorrow,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘I may not be very clever, but I’ve got a reasonably good memory.’
‘All right,’ said Dai-yu. ‘I’ll start with something very prosy and obvious.’

DAI-YU:
Fifteenth night of the Eighth, Mid-Autumn moon –

Xiang-yun thought a bit before following.

XIANG-YUN:
Whose joys the First Full Moon’s do emulate,
Under your crystal-constellated heaven –

DAI-TU:
The sounds of music everywhere pulsate.
At many a hoard the reckless winecups fly –

‘Ha! I like the “reckless winecups”,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘I must try to do them justice. Let me see.’
She thought for a bit.

XIANG-YUN:
Where friends are met your feast to celebrate.
The air is crisp, the wind more bracing blows –

‘You finished the couplet very well,’ said Dai-yu, ‘but that second line is a bit weak, isn’t it?’
‘We’ve got a long way to go and the rhyming will soon begin to get harder,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘I want to save up any good ideas I may have until later.’
‘Mind you produce some good lines later then,’ said Dai-yu. ‘Otherwise you are going to look pretty silly!’
She proceeded to finish the couplet.

DAI-YU:
In the clear sky the cold stars scintillate.
Grey hairs are mocked when they for cakes dispute -’

I don’t like that line,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘It sounds like an allusion, but I think you have just made it up to confuse me.’
‘That shows you don’t read much,’ said Dai-yu. ‘It’s a perfectly good allusion. There’s a story about quarrelling over cakes in the Official history of the Tang Dynasty. I’ll show you it tomorrow.’
‘Well, anyway, I’m not going to be confused,’ said Xiang yun. ‘I can cap that line.’

XIANG-YUN:
Green girls divide the melons, eight and eight.
New scents the jade-like cassia have enriched -’

‘Now that really is a bogus allusion,’ said Dai-yu.
‘We’ll look both our allusions up tomorrow and the others can judge between us,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘In the meanwhile, let’s get on with this and stop wasting time.’
‘That’s all very well,’ said Dai-yu, ‘but I don’t like your other line either. We ought to be able to manage without clichés like “lade-like cassia”. I call that mere padding.’

DAI-YU:
Closed day-lilies the morrow’s gold gestate.
A blaze of candles gilds the radiant feasters –

“‘Gold gestate”!’ said Xiang-yun. ‘Well, that’s one way of getting a rhyme – a pretty cheap one if you ask me! And your second line is quite as much padding as mine was.’
‘If you hadn’t started with “jade-like cassia”, I shouldn’t have brought in my gold-gestating day-lilies,’ said Dai-yu. ‘And as regards my second line, I should have thought a few words on the brilliance of the feast were called for, in order to do justice to the occasion.’
Since Dai-yu was evidently not going to concede anything, Xiang-yun was obliged to finish off the couplet.

XIANG-YUN:
Whom frequent sconcings soon inebriate.
Competing, they observe the game’s strict order –

‘Ah, that’s a good line!’ said Dai-yu.
She thought a bit before capping it.

DAI-YU:
And rules for ‘I spy’ gravely promulgate.
Some shake the pretty dice and make them roll –

‘I like “gravely promulgate”,’ said Xiang-yun, laughing. ‘It lifts a vulgar subject up and gives it tone. But then your “dice” in the next line bring us back again to the banal.’
She followed as best she could.

XIANG-YUN:
Or, to the drum’s quick beat, the branch rotate.
The clear rays glint on roofs and courts below –

‘Well capped!’ said Dai-yu. ‘But then in your next line you wander off the track. Is that the best you can do, padding out with that stuff about moonlight?’
‘In point of fact we haven’t said much about the moon yet,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘Surely a few words on the subject are in order? Isn’t that what our poem is supposed to be about?’
‘All right, let it pass,’ said Dai-yu. ‘We’ll have another look at it tomorrow.’

She continued.

DAI-YU:
And all in silvery light illuminate.
Prizes and forfeits impartially they ponder –

‘Oh dear! are we back with that lot again?’ said Xiang-yun. ‘Why not something about ourselves for a change?’

XIANG-YUN:
Sibling verse-contests they adjudicate.
Poets lean on railings, seeking inspiration –

‘You’ve managed to get round to us at last!’ said Dai-yu.

DAI-YU:
Or hunt for rhymes, propped up against a gate.
The excitement lingers, though the party’s over –

‘Oh, does it?’ said Xiang-yun.

XIANG-YUN:
The sounds of music softly terminate.
Slowly the talk and laughter fade to silence –

‘It’s getting harder all the time now to rhyme,’ said Dai-yu.

DAI-YU:
Leaving a moonscape hushed and desolate.
On dewy steps the tiny toadstools sprout –

‘Just a minute, I can’t think how to rhyme this,’ said Xiang-yun.
She got up and paced to and fro, hands clasped behind her, thinking.
‘Ha, yes, that’ll do!’ she said after some moments. ‘Good job I thought of that word, otherwise I might have had to give up.’

XIANG-YUN:
Tight-curled albizzia bushes pernoctate.
A rain-swelled swirl rips through the brook-bed rocks –

Dai-yu leapt to her feet, unable to restrain a cry of admira?tion.

‘You wretch! You certainly have left the good things till last. “Pernoctate” is a splendid word. But what is “albizzia” for goodness’ sake?’
‘I came across it yesterday in the Prose Anthology,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘I was going to look it up because I didn’t know what kind of tree it was, but Cousin Chai told me I didn’t need to: she said it was another name for what we nowadays call “mimosa”. I didn’t believe her, so I looked it up all the same. She was right. That girl knows everything.’
‘Well, it was very clever of you to have thought of it,’ said Dai-yu, smiling, ‘especially as mimosa does in fact close up at night. But that “rain-swelled swirl” line is brilliant. That single line is worth all the lines we have made up so far put together. I shall have to think very carefully before capping it. I very much doubt whether, even so, I shall be able to think of anything as good.’
After thinking for a while, she produced the following.

DAI-YU:
And wind-combed leaves on ledges congregate.
The Weaving Maid in lonely splendour shines –

‘Your capping line is not at all bad,’ said Xiang-yun, ‘but that second line wanders off the track a bit. Still, I suppose you could say your “Weaving Maid” is saved from being mere padding by the “lonely”. It introduces an element of feeling into the line.’

XIANG-YUN:
Damp airs the silver Toad of the moon inflate.
See where the Hare immortal medicine pounds –

Dai-yu nodded silently for some moments before reciting her own two lines.

DAI-YU:
Thither Chang E was forced to emigrate.
A man moves upwards through the constellations –

Xiang-yun, gazing up at the moon, also nodded.

XIANG-YUN:
A raft floats skywards with a human freight.
Waxing or waning, the moon’s face, ever changing –

‘That capping line is not good,’ said Dai-yu. ‘It merely repeats what my line said in other words. You manage to get clear again with your second line. I suppose you wanted to compensate for the sameness of the first couplet by making a big jump in the second.’

DAI-YU:
Its substance changeless and inanimate.
Soon the clepsydra’s night-long drip will cease –

Xiang-yun was about to continue when Dai-yu drew her attention to a black shape in the middle of the lake.
‘Look, in that dark shadow there, like a human shape! Do you think it could be a ghost?’
Xiang-yun laughed.
‘Oh, she’s seeing ghosts now! I’m not afraid of ghosts. I shall throw a stone at it.’
She bent down to pick up a pebble and hurled it into the centre of the lake. They heard a plop and saw the distorted image of the moon expand and contract as concentric ripples travelled outwards from the shattered surface. There was a loud squawk, and from the middle of the dark shadow a white stork flew up and flapped his way across the water in the direction of Lotus Pavilion.
‘So that’s who it was!’ said Dai-yu. ‘I wasn’t expecting him to be there. He gave me quite a shock.’
‘I’m very grateful to that stork,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘He’s given me a first line for the next couplet.’

XIANG-YUN:
Black shades the lamp’s last gleams annihilate
A stork’s dark shape crosses the cold, bright water –

Dai-yu murmured admiringly, but stamped with vexation when she began to think about finishing the couplet.
‘Wretched stork, coming to her aid like that! This is not like the “rain-swelled swirl” couplet: I’m not going to be able to complete it by paralleling the whole line. A contrast for the dark moving shape is the most I can hope for. But your line is so natural, so simple and expressive. I feel almost like giving up.’
‘Perhaps if we both thought about it we could finish it together,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘Or, if you prefer, let’s break off now and you can try again tomorrow.’
Dai-yu stared up at the sky, ignoring her. Suddenly, after remaining immobile for some seconds, she gave a little laugh.
‘Stop your chatter, girl! I can finish this couplet. Listen:

DAI- YU:
Where, moon-embalmed, a dead muse lies in state.

Xiang-yun clapped her hands.
‘Excellent! Couldn’t be better! I love your “dead muse”!’ She sighed. ‘I mean excellent from a purely poetic point of view, because it’s so original. It’s a bit morbid, though. I don’t think it can be good for a person in your state of health to indulge in such chilling fantasies.’
‘With you to compete against, how else could I keep my end up?’ said Dai-yu. ‘Because I put so much into that last line -’
Just at that moment a figure stepped out from behind the spur of rock beyond the railings.
‘Bravo! An excellent line!’ said this person. ‘But it is, indeed, a little too melancholy. Don’t do any more. If you go on from there, the danger is that you may produce something forced and mechanical, which instead of offsetting the beauty of your line will merely spoil it.’
Startled by this unexpected interruption, the two girls looked hard in the direction from which it came and with some surprise recognized the speaker as Adamantina.
‘What are you doing here?’ they asked her.
‘Hearing the sounds of your moon-watching party, followed later by the sound of a flute playing, I was tempted to come out and enjoy the moon myself. I wanted to see it over this open expanse of water, where it appears to most advantage, and as I approached, I could hear you both reciting. Such pure refinement constrained me to stay and listen. But there were lines which, in spite of their excellence, contained a note of almost decadent melancholy, lines which made me fearful for the person uttering them. That is why I came out of my concealment and prevented you from going on. Lady Jia has long since broken up the party. Everyone else in the Garden must be in bed by now. I wonder where your maids are. Doubtless they are somewhere looking for you. Are you not afraid of catching cold? Come with me, and I shall give you some hot tea to drink. It must be nearly dawn.’
Dai-yu laughed.
‘I’d no idea the night was so far advanced.’
The three of them walked together to Green Bower Hermitage. A faint light still flickered in the Buddha shrine and the incense in the burner gave off a tiny smoke. All the old lay-sisters were asleep. A little maid, nodding sleepily on Adamantina’s meditation mat, appeared to be the only person still up. She roused herself when Adamantina called to her and made some tea with water from the already boiling kettle. Just at that moment there was a knocking at the gate and the little maid hurried to open it. It turned out to be Nightingale and Kingfisher with two or three old womenservants, looking for their mistresses. They found their mistresses drinking tea inside.
‘Well!’ they said. ‘You’ve led us a fine old dance! We’ve been all over the Garden looking for you. We even tried Mrs Xue’s outside. In the end we happened to go to that little pavilion under the mountain, just as the caretakers were waking up. When we asked them about you they said, “There were two people talking outside on the covered verandah a while ago, then a third one came along and we heard them saying they were going to the Hermitage.” That’s how we knew you were here.’
Adamantina told the little maid to take them round to the back where they could sit down and have some tea. She herself took paper, inkstone, brush and ink and began writing out the poem in linked couplets at the other two’s dictation.
Dai-yu was impressed by Adamantina’s enthusiasm.
‘I have never before liked to ask for your opinions about poetry because I have never before seen you show so much interest,’ she said; ‘but since you now obviously are in the mood for discussing it, won’t you please favour us with some criticism? If you think that what we have done is no good at all, let us burn it; hut if you can see ways of improving it, do please correct it for us.’
‘I certainly would not presume to alter any of it,’ said Adamantina smiling; ‘but as there are no less than twenty-three couplets here, I am pretty sure that all your best lines must have been used up by now, and that if you were to go on, there would be a danger that you might begin to flag. What I should have liked to do would have been to go on for you myself; but I am afraid that if I did, I might only succeed in adding a dog’s tail to your leopard-skin!’
Dai-yu had never seen Adamantina compose poetry before and took her up eagerly on her obvious willingness to do so now.
‘Oh please do, if you have a mind to! Though our verses may be of little value, they will gain distinction by being associated with yours.’
‘In order to conclude what you have done so far,’ said Adamantina, ‘it will be necessary to bring the poem back to what we Buddhists call the “proper aspect”. If we continue to abandon reality and go chasing after the bizarre and the supernatural, we shall be guilty not only of unmaidenliness but also of losing sight of our subject.’
Mesdemoiselles Lin and Shi agreed.
Adamantina picked up the brush and began, muttering and writing by turns, until, having knocked off some dozen or so couplets, all in the same apparently effortless manner, she laid the brush down again and handed the paper over for the other two to read. This is what she had written:

In golden censers figured incense burns;
Unguents in their jade pots coagulate.

A flute provokes the grieving widow’s weeping;
She craves some warmth her bed’s chill to abate.

Its cheerless hangings stir in the wind of autumn,
Its love-ducks mock a mistress without mate.

Thick dews make treacherous the slippery moss,
And spears of frost the tall bamboos serrate.

Better the winding lakeside path to follow,
Or lonely hilltop to perambulate.

Bound demons seem to writhe in the tortured rock-shapes;
In the trees’ black shadows wild things pullulate.

Light’s harbingers begin with the dark to struggle,
And morning’s first dews to accumulate.

Birds in a thousand treetops wake the woodland;
In the echoing valley sad apes ululate.

My footsteps tread the path’s familiar turnings,
Nor need the stream’s source to investigate.

From Green Bower convent sounds the matin bell;
And Sweet-rice cocks the dawn anticipate.

Why should this rapt enjoyment end in sorrow,
Or timid cares our conscience irritate?

Poets ought in themselves to find their pleasure,
Not in the message they communicate.

As daylight breaks let none of us plead tiredness,
But over tea continue our debate.

At the end of these couplets she had written down the title for the whole poem:
Mid-Autumn Night in Prospect Garden: A Poem in Thirty-five Couplets
Dai-yu and Xiang-yun were full of admiration.
‘Strange that we should be always looking round for poetic talent,’ they said, ‘and all the time we have had a poet like you on our very doorstep! These verses of yours make anything we have ever done look very amateurish.’
‘I must have another look at them tomorrow and touch them up a bit,’ said Adamantina smiling. ‘It’s already dawn. We really must go to bed.’
Dai-yu and Xiang-yun got up and took their leave. Their maids left with them. Adamantina saw them outside the gate and stood a long while watching them go. They had already covered a good part of the way back when she at last went in again and closed the gate after her.
Kingfisher wanted Xiang-yun to go to Li Wan’s place to sleep.
‘The people at Mrs Zhu’s are expecting you, miss. You ought to go there.’
‘Drop in there on the way and tell them not to wait up for me any longer,’ said Xiang-yun. ‘Mrs Zhu is still ill. If I went back there to sleep now, I’m afraid I might disturb her. If I’m going to disturb anyone, let it be Miss Lin.’
When they reached the Naiad’s House, they found half the servants there asleep. The girls took off their ornaments and outer clothes, washed, and got into bed. Nightingale let down the bed-curtains, and having set the lamp down within easy reach of the bed, went out and closed the door.
But neither of the girls could sleep, Xiang-yun because she always had difficulty in getting to sleep in a strange bed, and Dai-yu because her anaemic condition always made sleeping difficult for her, and because on this occasion she had long since passed beyond tiredness, so that for her sleep was in any case out of the question. For a long time the two of them lay tossing and turning on the bed.
‘Can’t you get to sleep?’ Dai-yu asked Xiang-yun eventually.
‘I can never get to sleep in a strange bed,’ said Xiang-yun with a rueful laugh. ‘Anyway, I’m too tired to get to sleep. I’ll just have to lie and rest. Can’t you get to sleep either?’
Dai-yu sighed.
‘This is no novelty for me,’ she said. ‘I don’t suppose I get more than ten really good nights’ sleep in a year.’
‘No wonder you’re always ill,’ said Xiang-yun.
Our story continues in the following chapter.

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