Chapter 50
In the Lu Hsueeh pavilion, they vie with each other in pairing verses on the scenery. In the Nuan Hsiang village, they compose, in beautiful style, riddles for the spring lanterns.

But to continue. “We should, after all,” Pao-ch’ai suggested, “make some distinction as to order. Let me write out what’s needful.”

After uttering this proposal, she urged every one to draw lots and determine the precedence. The first one to draw was Li Wan. After her, a list of the respective names was made in the order in which they came out.

“Well, in that case,” lady Feng rejoined, “I’ll also give a top line.”

The whole party laughed in chorus. “It will be ever so much better like this,” they said.

Pao-ch’ai supplied above ‘the old labourer of Tao Hsiang’ the word ‘Feng,’ whereupon Li Wan went on to explain the theme to her.

“You musn’t poke fun at me!” lady Feng smiled, after considerable reflection. “I’ve only managed to get a coarse line. It consists of five words. As for the rest, I have no idea how to manage them.”

“The coarser the language, the better it is,” one and all laughed. “Out with it! You can then go and attend to your legitimate business!”

“I fancy,” lady Feng observed, “that when it snows there’s bound to be northerly wind, for last night I heard the wind blow from the north the whole night long. I’ve got a line, it’s:

“‘The whole night long the northern wind was high;’

“but whether it will do or not, I am not going to worry my mind about it.”

One and all, upon hearing this, exchanged looks. “This line is, it’s true, coarse,” they smiled, “and gives no insight into what comes below, but it’s just the kind of opening that would be used by such as understand versification. It’s not only good, but it will afford to those, who come after you, inexhaustible scope for writing. In fact, this line will take the lead, so ‘old labourer of Tao Hsiang’ be quick and indite some more to tag on below.”

Lady Feng, ‘sister-in-law’ Li, and P’ing Erh had then another couple of glasses, after which each went her own way. During this while Li Wan wrote down:

The whole night long the northern wind was high;

and then she herself subjoined the antithetical couplet:

The door I ope, and lo the flakes of snow are still toss’d by the wind, And drop into the slush. Oh, what a pity they’re so purely white!

Hsiang Ling recited:

All o’er the ground is spread, alas, this bright, refulgent gem; But with an aim; for it is meant dry herbage to revive.

T’an Ch’un said:

Without design the dying sprouts of grain it nutrifies. But in the villages the price of mellow wine doth rise.

Li Ch’i added:

In a good year, grain in the house is plentiful. The bulrush moves and the ash issues from the tube.

Li Wen continued:

What time spring comes the handle of the Dipper turns. The bleaky hills have long ago their verdure lost.

Chou-yen proceeded:

On a frost-covered stream, no tide can ever rise. Easy the snow hangs on the sparse-leaved willow twigs.

Hsiang-yuen pursued:

Hard ’tis for snow to pile on broken plantain leaves. The coal, musk-scented, burns in the precious tripod.

Pao-ch’in recited:

Th’ embroidered sleeve enwraps the golden sable in its folds. The snow transcends the mirror by the window in lustre.

Pao-yue suggested:

The fragrant pepper clings unto the wall. The side wind still in whistling gusts doth blow.

Tai-yue added:

A quiet dream becomes a cheerless thing. Where is the fife with plum bloom painted on?

Pao-ch’ai continued:

In whose household is there a flute made of green jade? The fish fears lest the earth from its axis might drop.

“I’ll go and see that the wine is warm for you people,” Li Wan smiled.

But when Pao-ch’ai told Pao-ch’in to connect some lines, she caught sight of Hsiang-yuen rise to her feet and put in:

What time the dragon wages war, the clouds dispel. Back to the wild shore turns the man with single scull.

Pao-ch’in thereupon again appended the couplet:

The old man hums his lines, and with his whip he points at the ‘Pa’ bridge. Fur coats are, out of pity, on the troops at the frontiers bestowed.

But would Hsiang-yuen allow any one to have a say? The others could not besides come up to her in quickness of wits so that, while their eyes were fixed on her, she with eyebrows uplifted and figure outstretched proceeded to say:

More cotton coats confer, for bear in memory th’ imperial serfs! The rugged barbarous lands are (on account of snow) with dangers fraught.

Pao-ch’ai praised the verses again and again, and next contributed the distich:

The twigs and branches live in fear of being tossed about. With what whiteness and feath’ry step the flakes of snow descend!

Tai-yue eagerly subjoined the lines:

The snow as nimbly falls as moves the waist of the ‘Sui’ man when brandishing the sword. The tender leaves of tea, so acrid to the taste, have just been newly brewed and tried.

As she recited this couplet, she gave Pao-yue a shove and urged him to go on. Pao-yue was, at the moment, enjoying the intense pleasure of watching the three girls Pao-ch’ai, Pao-ch’in and Tai-yue make a joint onslaught on Hsiang-yuen, so that he had of course not given his mind to tagging any antithetical verses. But when he now felt Tai-yue push him he at length chimed in with:

The fir is the sole tree which is decreed for ever to subsist. The wild goose follows in the mud the prints and traces of its steps.

Pao-ch’in took up the clue, adding:

In the forest, the axe of the woodcutter may betimes be heard. With (snow) covered contours, a thousand peaks their heads jut in the air.

Hsiang-yuen with alacrity annexed the verses:

The whole way tortuous winds like a coiled snake. The flowers have felt the cold and ceased to bud.

Pao-ch’ai and her companions again with one voice eulogised their fine diction.

T’an Ch’un then continued:

Could e’er the beauteous snow dread the nipping of frost? In the deep court the shivering birds are startled by its fall.

Hsiang-yuen happened to be feeling thirsty and was hurriedly swallowing a cup of tea, when her turn was at once snatched by Chou-yen, who gave out the lines,

On the bare mountain wails the old man Hsiao. The snow covers the steps, both high and low.

Hsiang-yuen immediately put away the tea-cup and added:

On the pond’s surface, it allows itself to float. At the first blush of dawn with effulgence it shines.

Tai-yue recited with alacrity the couplet:

In confused flakes, it ceaseless falls the whole night long. Troth one forgets that it implies three feet of cold.

Hsiang-yuen hastened to smilingly interpose with the distich:

Its auspicious descent dispels the Emperor’s grief. There lies one frozen-stiff, but who asks him a word?

Pao-ch’in too speedily put on a smile and added: Glad is the proud wayfarer when he’s pressed to drink. Snapped is the weaving belt in the heavenly machine.

Hsiang-yuen once again eagerly quoted the line:

In the seaside market is lost a silk kerchief.

But Lin Tai-yue would not let her continue, and taking up the thread, she forthwith said:

With quiet silence, it enshrouds the raised kiosque.

Hsiang-yuen vehemently gave the antithetical verse:

The utter poor clings to his pannier and his bowl.

Pao-ch’in too would not give in as a favour to any one, so hastily she exclaimed:

The water meant to brew the tea with gently bubbles up.

Hsiang-yuen saw how excited they were getting and she thought it naturally great fun. Laughing, she eagerly gave out:

When wine is boiled with leaves ’tis not easy to burn.

Tai-yue also smiled while suggesting:

The broom, with which the bonze sweepeth the hill, is sunk in snow.

Pao-ch’in too smilingly cried:

The young lad takes away the lute interred in snow.

Hsiang-yuen laughed to such a degree that she was bent in two; and she muttered a line with such rapidity that one and all inquired of her: “What are you, after all, saying?”

In the stone tower leisurely sleeps the stork.

Hsiang-yuen repeated.

Tai-yue clasped her breast so convulsed was she with laughter. With loud voice she bawled out:

Th’ embroidered carpet warms the affectionate cat.

Pao-ch’in quickly, again laughingly, exclaimed:

Inside Selene’s cave lo, roll the silvery waves.

Hsiang-yuen added, with eager haste:

Within the city walls at eve was hid a purple flag.

Tai-yue with alacrity continued with a smile:

The fragrance sweet, which penetrates into the plums, is good to eat.

Pao-ch’ai smiled. “What a fine line!” she ejaculated; after which, she hastened to complete the couplet by saying:

The drops from the bamboo are meet, when one is drunk, to mix with wine.

Pao-ch’in likewise made haste to add:

Betimes, the hymeneal girdle it moistens.

Hsiang-yuen eagerly paired it with:

Oft, it freezeth on the kingfisher shoes.

Tai-yue once more exclaimed with vehemence:

No wind doth blow, but yet there is a rush.

Pao-ch’in promptly also smiled, and strung on:

No rain lo falls, but still a patter’s heard.

Hsiang-yuen was leaning over, indulging in such merriment that she was quite doubled up in two. But everybody else had realised that the trio was struggling for mastery, so without attempting to versify they kept their gaze fixed on them and gave way to laughter.

Tai-yue gave her another push to try and induce her to go on. “Do you also sometimes come to your wits’ ends; and run to the end of your tether?” she went on to say. “I’d like to see what other stuff and nonsense you can come out with!”

Hsiang-yuen however simply fell forward on Pao-ch’ai’s lap and laughed incessantly.

“If you’ve got any gumption about you,” Pao-ch’ai exclaimed, shoving her up, “take the second rhymes under ‘Hsiao’ and exhaust them all, and I’ll then bend the knee to you.”

“It isn’t as if I were writing verses,” Hsiang-yuen laughed rising to her feet; “it’s really as if I were fighting for very life.”

“It’s for you to come out with something,” they all cried with a laugh.

T’an Ch’un had long ago determined in her mind that there could be no other antithetical sentences that she herself could possibly propose, and she forthwith set to work to copy out the verses. But as she passed the remark: “They haven’t as yet been brought to a proper close,” Li Wen took up the clue, as soon as she caught her words, and added the sentiment:

My wish is to record this morning’s fun.

Li Ch’i then suggested as a finale the line:

By these verses, I’d fain sing th’ Emperor’s praise.

“That’s enough, that will do!” Li Wan cried. “The rhymes haven’t, I admit, been exhausted, but any outside words you might introduce, will, if used in a forced sense, be worth nothing at all.”

While continuing their arguments, the various inmates drew near and kept up a searching criticism for a time.

Hsiang-yuen was found to be the one among them, who had devised the largest number of lines.

“This is mainly due,” they unanimously laughed, “to the virtue of that piece of venison!”

“Let’s review them line by line as they come,” Li Wan smilingly proposed, “but yet as if they formed one continuous poem. Here’s Pao-yue last again!”

“I haven’t, the fact is, the knack of pairing sentences,” Pao-yue rejoined with a smile. “You’d better therefore make some allowance for me!”

“There’s no such thing as making allowances for you in meeting after meeting,” Li Wan demurred laughing, “that you should again after that give out the rhymes in a reckless manner, waste your time and not show yourself able to put two lines together. You must absolutely bear a penalty today. I just caught a glimpse of the red plum in the Lung Ts’ui monastery; and how charming it is! I meant to have plucked a twig to put in a vase, but so loathsome is the way in which Miao Yue goes on, that I won’t have anything to do with her! But we’ll punish him by making him, for the sake of fun, fetch a twig for us to put in water.”

“This penalty,” they shouted with one accord, “is both excellent as well as pleasant.”

Pao-yue himself was no less delighted to carry it into execution, so signifying his readiness to comply with their wishes, he felt desirous to be off at once.

“It’s exceedingly cold outside,” Hsiang-yuen and Tai-yue simultaneously remarked, “so have a glass of warm wine before you go.”

Hsiang-yuen speedily took up the kettle, and Tai-yue handed him a large cup, filled to the very brim.

“Now swallow the wine we give you,” Hsiang-yuen smiled. “And if you don’t bring any plum blossom, we’ll inflict a double penalty.”

Pao-yue gulped down hurry-scurry the whole contents of the cup and started on his errand in the face of the snow.

“Follow him carefully.” Li Wan enjoined the servants.

Tai-yue, however, hastened to interfere and make her desist. “There’s no such need,” she cried. “Were any one to go with him, he’ll contrariwise not get the flowers.”

Li Wan nodded her head. “Yes!” she assented, and then went on to direct a waiting-maid to bring a vase, in the shape of a beautiful girl with high shoulders, to fill it with water, and get it ready to put the plum blossom in. “And when he comes back,” she felt induced to add, “we must recite verses on the red plum.”

“I’ll indite a stanza in advance,” eagerly exclaimed Hsiang-yuen.

“We’ll on no account let you indite any more to-day,” Pao-ch’ai laughed. “You beat every one of us hollow; so if we sit with idle hands, there won’t be any fun. But by and bye we’ll fine Pao-yue; and, as he says that he can’t pair antithetical lines, we’ll now make him compose a stanza himself.”

“This is a capital idea!” Tai-yue smiled. “But I’ve got another proposal. As the lines just paired are not sufficient, won’t it be well to pick out those who’ve put together the fewest distiches, and make them versify on the red plum blossom?”

“An excellent proposal!” Pao-ch’ai ventured laughing. “The three girls Hsing Chou-yen, Li Wen and Li Ch’i, failed just now to do justice to their talents; besides they are visitors; and as Ch’in Erh, P’in Erh and Yuen Erh got the best of us by a good deal, it’s only right that none of us should compose any more, and that that trio should only do so.”

“Ch’i Erh,” Li Wan thereupon retorted, “is also not a very good hand at verses, let therefore cousin Ch’in have a try!”

Pao-ch’ai had no alternative but to express her acquiescence.

“Let the three words ‘red plum blossom,'” she then suggested, “be used for rhymes; and let each person compose an heptameter stanza. Cousin Hsing to indite on the word ‘red;’ your elder cousin Li on ‘plum;’ and Ch’in Erh on ‘blossom.'”

“If you let Pao-yue off,” Li Wan interposed, “I won’t have it!”

“I’ve got a capital theme,” Hsiung-yuen eagerly remarked, “so let’s make him write some!”

“What theme is it?” one and all inquired.

“If we made him,” Hsiang-yuen resumed, “versify on: ‘In search of Miao Yue to beg for red plum blossom,’ won’t it be full of fun?”

“That will be full of zest,” the party exclaimed, upon hearing the theme propounded by her. But hardly had they given expression to their approval than they perceived Pao-yue come in, beaming with smiles and glee, and holding with both hands a branch of red plum blossom. The maids hurriedly relieved him of his burden and put the branch in the vase, and the inmates present came over in a body to feast their eyes on it.

“Well, may you look at it now,” Pao-yue smiled. “You’ve no idea what an amount of trouble it has cost me!”

As he uttered these words, T’an Ch’un handed him at once another cup of warm wine; and the maids approached, and took his wrapper and hat, and shook off the snow.

But the servant-girls attached to their respective quarters then brought them over extra articles of clothing. Hsi Jen, in like manner, despatched a domestic with a pelisse, the worse for wear, lined with fur from foxes’ ribs, so Li Wan, having directed a servant to fill a plate with steamed large taros, and to make up two dishes with red-skinned oranges, yellow coolie oranges, olives and other like things, bade some one take them over to Hsi Jen.

Hsiang-yuen also communicated to Pao-yue the subject for verses they had decided upon a short while back. But she likewise urged Pao-yue to be quick and accomplish his task.

“Dear senior cousin, dear junior cousin,” pleaded Pao-yue, “let me use my own rhymes. Don’t bind me down to any.”

“Go on as you like,” they replied with one consent.

But conversing the while, they passed the plum blossom under inspection.

This bough of plum blossom was, in fact, only two feet in height; but from the side projected a branch, crosswise, about two or three feet in length the small twigs and stalks on which resembled coiled dragons, or crouching earthworms; and were either single and trimmed pencil-like, or thick and bushy grove-like. Indeed, their appearance was as if the blossom spurted cosmetic. This fragrance put orchids to the blush. So every one present contributed her quota of praise.

Chou-yen, Li Wen and Pao-ch’in had, little though it was expected, all three already finished their lines and each copied them out for herself, so the company began to peruse their compositions, subjoined below, in the order of the three words: ‘red plum blossom.’

Verses to the red plum blossom by Hsing Chou-yen.

The peach tree has not donned its fragrance yet, the almond is not red. What time it strikes the cold, it’s first joyful to smile at the east wind. When its spirit to the Yue Ling hath flown, ’tis hard to say ’tis spring. The russet clouds across the ‘Lo Fu’ lie, so e’en to dreams it’s closed. The green petals add grace to a coiffure, when painted candles burn. The simple elf when primed with wine doth the waning rainbow bestride. Does its appearance speak of a colour of ordinary run? Both dark and light fall of their own free will into the ice and snow.

The next was the production of Li Wen, and its burden was:

To write on the white plum I’m not disposed, but I’ll write on the red. Proud of its beauteous charms, ’tis first to meet the opening drunken eye. On its frost-nipped face are marks; and these consist wholly of blood. Its heart is sore, but no anger it knows; to ashes too it turns. By some mistake a pill (a fairy) takes and quits her real frame. From the fairyland pool she secret drops, and casts off her old form. In spring, both north and south of the river, with splendour it doth bloom. Send word to bees and butterflies that they need not give way to fears!

This stanza came next from the pen of Hsueeh Pao-ch’in,

Far distant do the branches grow; but how beauteous the blossom blooms! The maidens try with profuse show to compete in their spring head-dress. No snow remains on the vacant pavilion and the tortuous rails. Upon the running stream and desolate hills descend the russet clouds. When cold prevails one can in a still dream follow the lass-blown fife. The wandering elf roweth in fragrant spring, the boat in the red stream. In a previous existence, it must sure have been of fairy form. No doubt need ‘gain arise as to its beauty differing from then.

The perusal over, they spent some time in heaping, smiling the while, eulogiums upon the compositions. And they pointed at the last stanza as the best of the lot; which made it evident to Pao-yue that Pao-ch’in, albeit the youngest in years, was, on the other hand, the quickest in wits.

Tai-yue and Hsiang-yuen then filled up a small cup with wine and simultaneously offered their congratulations to Pao-ch’in.

“Each of the three stanzas has its beauty,” Pao-ch’ai remarked, a smile playing round her lips. “You two have daily made a fool of me, and are you now going to fool her also?”

“Have you got yours ready?” Li Wan went on to inquire of Pao-yue.

“I’d got them,” Pao-yue promptly answered, “but the moment I read their three stanzas, I once more became so nervous that they quite slipped from my mind. But let me think again.”

Hsiang-yuen, at this reply, fetched a copper poker, and, while beating on the hand-stove, she laughingly said: “I shall go on tattooing. Now mind if when the drumming ceases, you haven’t accomplished your task, you’ll have to bear another fine.”

“I’ve already got them!” Pao-yue rejoined, smilingly.

Tai-yue then picked up a pencil. “Recite them,” she smiled, “and I’ll write them down.”

Hsiang-yuen beat one stroke (on the stove). “The first tattoo is over,” she laughed.

“I’m ready,” Pao-yue smiled. “Go on writing.”

At this, they heard him recite:

The wine bottle is not opened, the line is not put into shape.

Tai-yue noted it down, and shaking her head, “They begin very smoothly,” she said, as she smiled.

“Be quick!” Hsiang-yuen again urged.

Pao-yue laughingly continued:

To fairyland I speed to seek for spring, and the twelfth moon to find.

Tai-yue and Hsiang-yuen both nodded. “It’s rather good,” they smiled.

Pao-yue resumed, saying:

I will not beg the high god for a bottle of the (healing) dew, But pray Shuang O to give me some plum bloom beyond the rails.

Tai-yue jotted the lines down and wagged her head to and fro. “They’re ingenious, that’s all,” she observed.

Hsiang-yuen gave another rap with her hand.

Pao-yue thereupon smilingly added:

I come into the world and, in the cold, I pick out some red snow. I leave the dusty sphere and speed to pluck the fragrant purple clouds. I bring a jagged branch, but who in pity sings my shoulders thin? On my clothes still sticketh the moss from yon Buddhistic court.

As soon as Tai-yue had done writing, Hsiang-yuen and the rest of the company began to discuss the merits of the verses; but they then saw several servant-maids rush in, shouting: “Our venerable mistress has come.”

One and all hurried out with all despatch to meet her. “How comes it that she is in such good cheer?” every one also laughed.

Speaking the while, they discerned, at a great distance, their grandmother Chia seated, enveloped in a capacious wrapper, and rolled up in a warm hood lined with squirrel fur, in a small bamboo sedan-chair with an open green silk glazed umbrella in her hand. Yuean Yang, Hu Po and some other girls, mustering in all five or six, held each an umbrella and pressed round the chair, as they advanced.

Li Wan and her companions went up to them with hasty step; but dowager lady Chia directed the servants to make them stop; explaining that it would be quite enough if they stood where they were.

On her approach, old lady Chia smiled. “I’ve given,” she observed, “your Madame Wang and that girl Feng the slip and come. What deep snow covers the ground! For me, I’m seated in this, so it doesn’t matter; but you mustn’t let those ladies trudge in the snow.”

The various followers rushed forward to take her wrapper and to support her, and as they did so, they expressed their acquiescence.

As soon as she got indoors old lady Chia was the first to exclaim with a beaming face: “What beautiful plum blossom! You well know how to make merry; but I too won’t let you off!”

But in the course of her remarks, Li Wan quickly gave orders to a domestic to fetch a large wolf skin rug, and to spread it in the centre, so dowager lady Chia made herself comfortable on it. “Just go on as before with your romping and joking, drinking and eating,” she then laughed. “As the days are so short, I did not venture to have a midday siesta. After therefore playing at dominoes for a time, I bethought myself of you people, and likewise came to join the fun.”

Li Wan soon also presented her a hand-stove, while T’an Ch’un brought an extra set of cups and chopsticks, and filling with her own hands, a cup with warm wine, she handed it to her grandmother Chia. Old lady Chia swallowed a sip. “What’s there in that dish?” she afterwards inquired.

The various inmates hurriedly carried it over to her, and explained that ‘they were pickled quails.’

“These won’t hurt me,” dowager lady Chia said, “so cut off a piece of the leg and give it to me.”

“Yes!” promptly acquiesced Li Wan, and asking for water, she washed her hands, and then came in person to carve the quail.

“Sit down again,” dowager lady Chia said, pressing them, “and go on with your chatting and laughing. Let me hear you, and feel happy. Just you also seat yourself,” continuing, she remarked to Li Wan, “and behave as if I were not here. If you do so, well and good. Otherwise, I shall take myself off at once.”

But it was only when they heard how persistent she was in her solicitations that they all resumed the seats, which accorded with their age, with the exception of Li Wan, who moved to the furthest side.

“What were you playing at?” old lady Chia thereupon asked.

“We were writing verses,” answered the whole party.

“Wouldn’t it be well for those who are up to poetry,” dowager lady Chia suggested; “to devise a few puns for lanterns so that the whole lot of us should be able to have some fun in the first moon?”

With one voice, they expressed their approval. But after they had jested for a little time; “It’s damp in here;” old lady Chia said, “so don’t you sit long, for mind you might be catching cold. Where it’s nice and warm is in your cousin Quarta’s over there, so let’s all go and see how she is getting on with her painting, and whether it will be ready or not by the end of the year.”

“How could it be completed by the close of the year?” they smiled. “She could only, we fancy, get it ready by the dragon boat festival next year.”

“This is dreadful!” old lady Chia exclaimed. “Why, she has really wasted more labour on it than would have been actually required to lay out this garden!”

With these words still on her lips, she ensconced herself again in the bamboo sedan, and closed in or followed by the whole company, she repaired to the Lotus Fragrance Arbour, where they got into a narrow passage, flanked on the east as well as the west, with doors from which they could cross the street. Over these doorways on the inside as well as outside were inserted alike tablets made of stone. The door they went in by, on this occasion, lay on the west. On the tablet facing outwards, were cut out the two words representing: ‘Penetrating into the clouds.’ On that inside, were engraved the two characters meaning: ‘crossing to the moon.’ On their arrival at the hall, they walked in by the main entrance, which looked towards the south. Dowager lady Chia then alighted from her chair. Hsi Ch’un had already made her appearance out of doors to welcome her, so taking the inner covered passage, they passed over to the other side and reached Hsi Ch’un’s bedroom; on the door posts of which figured the three words: ‘Warm fragrance isle.’ Several servants were at once at hand; and no sooner had they raised the red woollen portiere, than a soft fragrance wafted itself into their faces. The various inmates stepped into the room. Old lady Chia, however, did not take a seat, but simply inquired where the painting was.

“The weather is so bitterly cold,” Hsi Ch’un consequently explained smiling, “that the glue, whose property is mainly to coagulate, cannot be moistened, so I feared that, were I to have gone on with the painting, it wouldn’t be worth looking at; and I therefore put it away.”

“I must have it by the close of the year,” dowager lady Chia laughed, “so don’t idle your time away. Produce it at once and go on painting for me, as quick as you can.”

But scarcely had she concluded her remark, than she unexpectedly perceived lady Feng arrive, smirking and laughing, with a purple pelisse, lined with deer fur, thrown over her shoulders. “Venerable senior!” she shouted, “You don’t even so much as let any one know to-day, but sneak over stealthily. I’ve had a good hunt for you!”

When old lady Chia saw her join them, she felt filled with delight. “I was afraid,” she rejoined, “that you’d be feeling cold. That’s why, I didn’t allow any one to tell you. You’re really as sharp as a spirit to have, at last, been able to trace my whereabouts! But according to strict etiquette, you shouldn’t show filial piety to such a degree!”

“Is it out of any idea of filial piety that I came after you? Not at all!” lady Feng added with a laugh. “But when I got to your place, worthy senior, I found everything so quiet that not even the caw of a crow could be heard, and when I asked the young maids where you’d gone, they wouldn’t let me come and search in the garden. So I began to give way to surmises. Suddenly also arrived two or three nuns; and then, at length, I jumped at the conclusion that these women must have come to bring their yearly prayers, or to ask for their annual or incense allowance, and that, with the amount of things you also, venerable ancestor, have to do for the end of the year, you had for certain got out of the way of your debts. Speedily therefore I inquired of the nuns what it was that brought them there, and, for a fact, there was no mistake in my surmises. So promptly issuing the annual allowances to them, I now come to report to you, worthy senior, that your creditors have gone, and that there’s no need for you to skulk away. But I’ve had some tender pheasant prepared; so please come, and have your evening meal; for if you delay any longer, it will get quite stale.”

As she spoke, everybody burst out laughing. But lady Feng did not allow any time to dowager lady Chia to pass any observations, but forthwith directed the servants to bring the chair over. Old lady Chia then smilingly laid hold of lady Feng’s hand and got again into her chair; but she took along with her the whole company of relatives for a chat and a laugh.

Upon issuing out of the gate on the east side of the narrow passage, the four quarters presented to their gaze the appearance of being adorned with powder, and inlaid with silver. Unawares, they caught sight of Pao-ch’in, in a duck down cloak, waiting at a distance at the back of the hill slope; while behind her stood a maid, holding a vase full of red plum blossoms.

“Strange enough,” they all exclaimed laughingly, “two of us were missing! But she’s waiting over there. She’s also been after some plum-blossom.”

“Just look,” dowager lady Chia eagerly cried out joyfully, “that human creature has been put there to match with the snow-covered hill! But with that costume, and the plum-blossom at the back of her, to what does she bear a resemblance?”

“She resembles,” one and all smiled, “Chou Shih-ch’ou’s beautiful snow picture, suspended in your apartments, venerable ancestor.”

“Is there in that picture any such costume?” Old lady Chia demurred, nodding her head and smiling. “What’s more the persons represented in it could never be so pretty!”

Hardly had this remark dropped from her mouth, than she discerned some one else, clad in a deep red woollen cloak, appear to view at the back of Pao-ch’in. “What other girl is that?” dowager lady Chia asked.

“We girls are all here.” they laughingly answered. “That’s Pao-yue.”

“My eyes,” old lady Chia smiled, “are getting dimmer and dimmer!”

So saying, they drew near, and of course, they turned out to be Pao-yue and Pao-ch’in.

“I’ve just been again to the Lung Ts’ui monastery,” Pao-yue smiled to Pao-ch’ai, Tai-yue and his other cousins, “and Miao Yue gave me for each of you a twig of plum blossom. I’ve already sent a servant to take them over.”

“Many thanks for the trouble you’ve been put to,” they, with one voice, replied.

But speaking the while, they sallied out of the garden gate, and repaired to their grandmother Chia’s suite of apartments. Their meal over, they joined in a further chat and laugh, when unexpectedly they saw Mrs. Hsueeh also arrive.

“With all this snow,” she observed, “I haven’t been over the whole day to see how you, venerable senior, were getting on. Your ladyship couldn’t have been in a good sort of mood to-day, for you should have gone and seen the snow.”

“How not in a good mood?” old lady Chia exclaimed. “I went and looked up these young ladies and had a romp with them for a time.”

“Last night,” Mrs. Hsueeh smiled, “I was thinking of getting from our Madame Wang to-day the loan of the garden for the nonce and spreading two tables with our mean wine, and inviting you, worthy senior, to enjoy the snow; but as I saw that you were having a rest, and I heard, at an early hour, that Pao-yue had said that you were not in a joyful frame of mind, I did not, in consequence, presume to come and disturb you to-day. But had I known sooner the real state of affairs, I would have felt it my bounden duty to have asked you round.”

“This is,” rejoined dowager lady Chia with a smile, “only the first fall of snow in the tenth moon. We’ll have, after this, plenty of snowy days so there will be ample time to put your ladyship to wasteful expense.”

“Verily in that case,” Mrs. Hsueeh laughingly added, “my filial intentions may well be looked upon as having been accomplished.”

“Mrs. Hsueeh,” interposed lady Feng smiling, “mind you don’t forget it! But you might as well weigh fifty taels this very moment, and hand them over to me to keep, until the first fall of snow, when I can get everything ready for the banquet. In this way, you will neither have anything to bother you, aunt, nor will you have a chance of forgetting.”

“Well, since that be so,” old lady Chia remarked with a laugh, “your ladyship had better give her fifty taels, and I’ll share it with her; each one of us taking twenty-five taels; and on any day it might snow, I’ll pretend I don’t feel in proper trim and let it slip by. You’ll have thus still less occasion to trouble yourself, and I and lady Feng will reap a substantial benefit.”

Lady Feng clapped her hands. “An excellent idea,” she laughed. “This quite falls in with my views.”

The whole company were much amused.

“Pshaw!” dowager lady Chia laughingly ejaculated. “You barefaced thing! (You’re like a snake, which) avails itself of the rod, with which it is being beaten, to crawl up (and do harm)! You don’t try to convince us that it properly devolves upon us, as Mrs. Hsueeh is our guest and receives such poor treatment in our household, to invite her; for with what right could we subject her ladyship to any reckless outlay? but you have the impudence, of impressing upon our minds to insist upon the payment, in advance, of fifty taels! Are you really not thoroughly ashamed of yourself?”

“Oh, worthy senior,” lady Feng laughed, “you’re most sharp-sighted! You try to see whether Mrs. Hsueeh will be soft enough to produce fifty taels for you to share with me, but fancying now that it’s of no avail, you turn round and begin to rate me by coming out with all these grand words! I won’t however take any money from you, Mrs. Hsueeh. I’ll, in fact, contribute some on your ladyship’s account, and when I get the banquet ready and invite you, venerable ancestor, to come and partake of it, I’ll also wrap fifty taels in a piece of paper, and dutifully present them to you, as a penalty for my officious interference in matters that don’t concern me. Will this be all right or not?”

Before these words were brought to a close, the various inmates were so convulsed with hearty laughter that they reeled over on the stove-couch.

Dowager lady Chia then went on to explain how much nicer Pao-ch’in was, plucking plum blossom in the snow, than the very picture itself; and she next minutely inquired what the year, moon, day and hour of her birth were, and how things were getting on in her home.

Mrs. Hsueeh conjectured that the object she had in mind was, in all probability, to seek a partner for her. In the secret recesses of her heart, Mrs. Hsueeh on this account fell in also with her views. (Pao-ch’in) had, however, already been promised in marriage to the Mei family. But as dowager lady Chia had made, as yet, no open allusion to her intentions, (Mrs. Hsueeh) did not think it nice on her part to come out with any definite statement, and she accordingly observed to old lady Chia in a vague sort of way: “What a pity it is that this girl should have had so little good fortune as to lose her father the year before last. But ever since her youth up, she has seen much of the world, for she has been with her parent to every place of note. Her father was a man fond of pleasure; and as he had business in every direction, he took his family along with him. After tarrying in this province for a whole year, he would next year again go to that province, and spend half a year roaming about it everywhere. Hence it is that he had visited five or six tenths of the whole empire. The other year, when they were here, he engaged her to the son of the Hanlin Mei. But, as it happened, her father died the year after, and here is her mother too now ailing from a superfluity of phlegm.”

Lady Feng gave her no time to complete what she meant to say. “Hai!” she exclaimed, stamping her foot. “What you say isn’t opportune! I was about to act as a go-between. But is she too already engaged?”

“For whom did you mean to act as go-between?” old lady Chia smiled.

“My dear ancestor,” lady Feng remarked, “don’t concern yourself about it! I had determined in my mind that those two would make a suitable match. But as she has now long ago been promised to some one, it would be of no use, were I even to speak out. Isn’t it better that I should hold my peace, and drop the whole thing?”

Dowager lady Chia herself was cognizant of lady Feng’s purpose, so upon hearing that she already had a suitor, she at once desisted from making any further reference to the subject. The whole company then continued another chat on irrelevant matters for a time, after which, they broke up.

Nothing of any interest transpired the whole night. The next day, the snowy weather had cleared up. After breakfast, her grandmother Chia again pressed Hsi Ch’un. “You should go on,” she said, “with your painting, irrespective of cold or heat. If you can’t absolutely finish it by the end of the year, it won’t much matter! The main thing is that you must at once introduce in it Ch’in Erh and the maid with the plum blossom, as we saw them yesterday, in strict accordance with the original and without the least discrepancy of so much as a stroke.”

Hsi Ch’un listened to her and felt it her duty to signify her assent, in spite of the task being no easy one for her to execute.

After a time, a number of her relatives came, in a body, to watch the progress of the painting. But they discovered Hsi Ch’un plunged in a reverie. “Let’s leave her alone,” Li Wan smilingly observed to them all, “to proceed with her meditations; we can meanwhile have a chat among ourselves. Yesterday our worthy senior bade us devise a few lantern-conundrums, so when we got home, I and Ch’i Erh and Wen Erh did not turn in (but set to work). I composed a couple on the Four Books; but those two girls also managed to put together another pair of them.”

“We should hear what they’re like,” they laughingly exclaimed in chorus, when they heard what they had done. “Tell them to us first, and let’s have a guess!”

“The goddess of mercy has not been handed down by any ancestors.”

Li Ch’i smiled. “This refers to a passage in the Four Books.”

“In one’s conduct, one must press towards the highest benevolence.”

Hsiang-yuen quickly interposed; taking up the thread of the conversation.

“You should ponder over the meaning of the three words implying: ‘handed down by ancestors’,” Pao-ch’ai smiled, “before you venture a guess.”

“Think again!” Li Wan urged with a smile.

“I’ve guessed it!” Tai-yue smiled. “It’s:

“‘If, notwithstanding all that benevolence, there be no outward visible sign…'”

“That’s the line,” one and all unanimously exclaimed with a laugh.

“‘The whole pond is covered with rush.'”

“Now find the name of the rush?” Li Wan proceeded.

“This must certainly be the cat-tail rush!” hastily again replied Hsiang-yuen. “Can this not be right?”

“You’ve succeeded in guessing it,” Li Wan smiled. “Li Wen’s is:

“‘Cold runs the stream along the stones;’

“bearing on the name of a man of old.”

“Can it be Shan T’ao?” T’an Ch’un smilingly asked.

“It is!” answered Li Wan.

“Ch’i Erh’s is the character ‘Yung’ (glow-worm). It refers to a single word,” Li Wan resumed.

The party endeavoured for a long time to hit upon the solution.

“The meaning of this is certainly deep,” Pao-ch’in put in. “I wonder whether it’s the character, ‘hua,’ (flower) in the combination, ‘hua ts’ao, (vegetation).”

“That’s just it!” Li Ch’i smiled.

“What has a glow-worm to do with flowers?” one and all observed.

“It’s capital!” Tai-yue ventured with a smile. “Isn’t a glow-worm transformed from plants?”

The company grasped the sense; and, laughing the while, they, with one consent, shouted out, “splendid!”

“All these are, I admit, good,” Pao-ch’ai remarked, “but they won’t suit our venerable senior’s taste. Won’t it be better therefore to compose a few on some simple objects; some which all of us, whether polished or unpolished, may be able to enjoy?”

“Yes,” they all replied, “we should also think of some simple ones on ordinary objects.”

“I’ve devised one on the ‘Tien Chiang Ch’un’ metre,” Hsiang-yuen pursued, after some reflection. “But it’s really on an ordinary object. So try and guess it.”

Saying this, she forthwith went on to recite:

The creeks and valleys it leaves; Travelling the world, it performs. In truth how funny it is! But renown and gain are still vain; Ever hard behind it is its fate.

A conundrum.

None of those present could fathom what it could be. After protracted thought, some made a guess, by saying it was a bonze. Others maintained that it was a Taoist priest. Others again divined that it was a marionette.

“All your guesses are wrong,” Pao-yue chimed in, after considerable reflection. “I’ve got it! It must for a certainty be a performing monkey.”

“That’s really it!” Hsiang-yuen laughed.

“The first part is all right,” the party observed, “but how do you explain the last line?”

“What performing monkey,” Hsiang-yuen asked, “has not had its tail cut off?”

Hearing this, they exploded into a fit of merriment. “Even,” they argued, “the very riddles she improvises are perverse and strange!”

“Mrs. Hsueeh mentioned yesterday that you, cousin Ch’in, had seen much of the world,” Li Wan put in, “and that you had also gone about a good deal. It’s for you therefore to try your hand at a few conundrums. What’s more your poetry too is good. So why shouldn’t you indite a few for us to guess?”

Pao-ch’in, at this proposal, nodded her head, and while repressing a smile, she went off by herself to give way to thought.

Pao-ch’ai then also gave out this riddle:

Carved sandal and cut cedar rise layer upon layer. Have they been piled and fashioned by workmen of skill! In the mid-heavens it’s true, both wind and rain fleet by; But can one hear the tingling of the Buddhists’ bell?

While they were giving their mind to guessing what it could be, Pao-yue too recited:

Both from the heavens and from the earth, it’s indistinct to view. What time the ‘Lang Ya’ feast goes past, then mind you take great care. When the ‘luan’s’ notes you catch and the crane’s message thou’lt look up: It is a splendid thing to turn and breathe towards the vault of heaven, (a kite)

Tai-yue next added:

Why need a famous steed be a with bridle e’er restrained? Through the city it speeds; the moat it skirts; how fierce it looks. The master gives the word and wind and clouds begin to move. On the ‘fish backs’ and the ‘three isles’ it only makes a name, (a rotating lantern).

T’an Ch’un had also one that she felt disposed to tell them, but just as she was about to open her lips, Pao-ch’in walked up to them. “The relics of various places I’ve seen since my youth,” she smiled, “are not few, so I’ve now selected ten places of historic interest, on which I’ve composed ten odes, treating of antiquities. The verses may possibly be coarse, but they bear upon things of the past, and secretly refer as well to ten commonplace articles. So, cousins, please try and guess them!”

“This is ingenious!” they exclaimed in chorus, when they heard the result of her labour. “Why not write them out, and let us have a look at them?”

But, reader, peruse the next chapter, if you want to learn what follows.

>> Chapter 51


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