"You idiot," Hsiang-yn laughingly cried, "come and have a mouthful to taste."
"It's too filthy!" Pao-ch'in replied smiling.
"You go and try it." Pao-ch'ai added with a laugh. "It's capital! Your cousin Lin is so very weak that she couldn't digest it, if she had any. Otherwise she too is very fond of this."
Upon hearing this, Pao-ch'in readily crossed over and put a piece in her mouth; and so good did she find it that she likewise started eating some of it.
In a little time, however, lady Feng sent a young maid to call P'ing Erh.
"Miss Shih," P'ing Erh explained, "won't let me go. So just return ahead of me."
The maid thereupon took her leave; but shortly after they saw lady Feng arrive; she too with a wrapper over her shoulders.
"You're having," she smiled; "such dainties to eat, and don't you tell me?"
Saying this, she also drew near and began to eat.
"Where has this crowd of beggars turned up from?" Tai-y put in with a laugh. "But never mind, never mind! Here's the Lu Hseh pavilion come in for this calamity to-day, and, as it happens, it's that chit Yn by whom it has been polluted! But I'll have a good cry for the Lu Hseh pavilion."
Hsiang-yn gave an ironical smile. "What do you know?" she exclaimed. "A genuine man of letters is naturally refined. But as for the whole lot of you, your poor and lofty notions are all a sham! You are most loathsome! We may now be frowzy and smelly, as we munch away lustily with our voracious appetites, but by and bye we'll prove as refined as scholars, as if we had cultured minds and polished tongues."
"If by and bye," Pao-ch'ai laughingly interposed, "the verses you compose are not worth anything, I'll tug out that meat you've eaten, and take some of these snow-buried weeds and stuff you up with. I'll thus put an end to this evil fortune!"
While bandying words, they finished eating. For a time, they busied themselves with washing their hands. But when P'ing Erh came to put on her bracelets, she found one missing. She looked in a confused manner, at one time to the left, at another to the right; now in front of her, and then behind her for ever so long, but not a single vestige of it was visible. One and all were therefore filled with utter astonishment.
"I know where this bracelet has gone to;" lady Feng suggested smilingly. "But just you all go and attend to your poetry. We too can well dispense with searching for it, and repair to the front. Before three days are out, I'll wager that it turns up. What verses are you writing to-day?" continuing she went on to inquire. "Our worthy senior says that the end of the year is again nigh at hand, and that in the first moon some more conundrums will have to be devised to be affixed on lanterns, for the recreation of the whole family."
"Of course we'll have to write a few," they laughingly rejoined, upon hearing her remarks. "We forgot all about it. Let's hurry up now, and compose a few fine ones, so as to have them ready to enjoy some good fun in the first moon."
Speaking the while, they came in a body into the room with the earthen couches, where they found the cups, dishes and eatables already laid out in readiness. On the walls had been put up the themes, metre, and specimen verses. Pao-y and Hsiang-yn hastened to examine what was written. They saw that they had to take for a theme something on the present scenery and indite a stanza with antithetical pentameter lines; that the word 'hsiao,' second (in the book of metre), had been fixed upon as a rhyme; but that there was, below that, no mention, as yet, made of any precedence.
"I can't write verses very well," Li Wan pleaded, "so all I'll do will be to devise three lines, and the one, who'll finish the task first, we'll have afterwards to pair them."
"We should, after all," Pao-ch'ai urged, "make some distinction with regard to order."
But, reader, if you entertain any desire to know the sequel, peruse the particulars recorded in the chapter that follows.
In the Lu Hseh 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.
On a frost-covered stream, no tide can ever rise. Easy the snow hangs on the sparse-leaved willow twigs.
Hard 'tis for snow to pile on broken plantain leaves. The coal, musk-scented, burns in the precious tripod.
Th' embroidered sleeve enwraps the golden sable in its folds. The snow transcends the mirror by the window in lustre.
The fragrant pepper clings unto the wall. The side wind still in whistling gusts doth blow.
A quiet dream becomes a cheerless thing. Where is the fife with plum bloom painted on?
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-yn 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-yn 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-y 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-y a shove and urged him to go on. Pao-y was, at the moment, enjoying the intense pleasure of watching the three girls Pao-ch'ai, Pao-ch'in and Tai-y make a joint onslaught on Hsiang-yn, so that he had of course not given his mind to tagging any antithetical verses. But when he now felt Tai-y 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-yn 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-yn 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-yn 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-y 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-yn 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-yn once again eagerly quoted the line:
In the seaside market is lost a silk kerchief.
But Lin Tai-y would not let her continue, and taking up the thread, she forthwith said:
With quiet silence, it enshrouds the raisd kiosque.
Hsiang-yn 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-yn 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-y 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-yn 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.
Tai-y 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-yn added, with eager haste:
Within the city walls at eve was hid a purple flag.
Tai-y 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-yn eagerly paired it with:
Oft, it freezeth on the kingfisher shoes.
Tai-y 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-yn 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-y 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-yn 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-yn 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-yn 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-y last again!"
"I haven't, the fact is, the knack of pairing sentences," Pao-y 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 Y 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-y 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-yn and Tai-y simultaneously remarked, "so have a glass of warm wine before you go."
Hsiang-yn speedily took up the kettle, and Tai-y handed him a large cup, filled to the very brim.
"Now swallow the wine we give you," Hsiang-yn smiled. "And if you don't bring any plum blossom, we'll inflict a double penalty."
Pao-y 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-y, 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-yn.
"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-y; 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-y 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 Yn 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-y off," Li Wan interposed, "I won't have it!"
"I've got a capital theme," Hsiung-yn eagerly remarked, "so let's make him write some!"
"What theme is it?" one and all inquired.
"If we made him," Hsiang-yn resumed, "versify on: 'In search of Miao Y 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-y 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-y 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-yn also communicated to Pao-y the subject for verses they had decided upon a short while back. But she likewise urged Pao-y to be quick and accomplish his task.
"Dear senior cousin, dear junior cousin," pleaded Pao-y, "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 Y 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 Hseh 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-y that Pao-ch'in, albeit the youngest in years, was, on the other hand, the quickest in wits.
Tai-y and Hsiang-yn 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-y.
"I'd got them," Pao-y 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-yn, 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-y rejoined, smilingly.
Tai-y then picked up a pencil. "Recite them," she smiled, "and I'll write them down."
Hsiang-yn beat one stroke (on the stove). "The first tattoo is over," she laughed.
"I'm ready," Pao-y smiled. "Go on writing."
At this, they heard him recite:
The wine bottle is not opened, the line is not put into shape.
Tai-y noted it down, and shaking her head, "They begin very smoothly," she said, as she smiled.
"Be quick!" Hsiang-yn again urged.
Pao-y laughingly continued:
To fairyland I speed to seek for spring, and the twelfth moon to find.
Tai-y and Hsiang-yn both nodded. "It's rather good," they smiled.
Pao-y 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-y jotted the lines down and wagged her head to and fro. "They're ingenious, that's all," she observed.
Hsiang-yn gave another rap with her hand.
Pao-y 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-y had done writing, Hsiang-yn 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. Yan 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 portire, 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-y."
"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-y and Pao-ch'in.
"I've just been again to the Lung Ts'ui monastery," Pao-y smiled to Pao-ch'ai, Tai-y and his other cousins, "and Miao Y 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. Hseh 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. Hseh 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-y 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. Hseh laughingly added, "my filial intentions may well be looked upon as having been accomplished."
"Mrs. Hseh," 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. Hseh 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. Hseh 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. Hseh. 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. Hseh 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. Hseh 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. Hseh) 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-yn 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-y 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-yn. "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-y 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-yn 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.
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-y chimed in, after considerable reflection. "I've got it! It must for a certainty be a performing monkey."
"That's really it!" Hsiang-yn laughed.
"The first part is all right," the party observed, "but how do you explain the last line?"
"What performing monkey," Hsiang-yn 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. Hseh 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-y 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-y 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.
The young maiden Hseh Pao-ch'in devises, in novel style, odes bearing on antiquities. A stupid doctor employs, in reckless manner, drugs of great strength.
When the party heard, the story goes, that Pao-ch'in had made the old places of interest she had, in days gone by, visited in the various provinces, the theme of her verses, and that she had composed ten stanzas with four lines in each, which though referring to relics of antiquity, bore covertly on ten common objects, they all opined that they must be novel and ingenious, and they vied with each other in examining the text. On perusal, they read:
On the relics of Ch'ih Pi:
Deep in Ch'ih Pi doth water lie concealed which does not onward flow. There but remains a name and surname contained in an empty boat. When with a clamorous din the fire breaks out, the sad wind waxes cold. An endless host of eminent spirits wander about inside.
On the ancient remains in Chiao Chih:
Posts of copper and walls of gold protect the capital. Its fame is spread beyond the seas, scattered in foreign lands. How true it is that Ma Yan's achievements have been great. The flute of iron need not trouble to sing of Tzu Fang.
On the vestiges of former times in Chung Shan:
Renown and gain do they, at any time, fall to a woman's share? For no reason have I been bidden come into the mortal world. How hard a task, in point of fact, it is to stop solicitude! Don't bear a grudge against such people as may oft times jeer at you!
On things of historic interest in Huai Yin:
The sturdy man must ever mind the insults of the vicious dog. Th' official's rank in San Ch'i was but fixed when his coffin was closed Tell all people that upon earth do dwell to look down upon none. The bounty of one single bowl of rice should be treasured till death.
On events of old in Kuang Lin:
Cicadas chirp; crows roost; but, in a twinkle, they are gone. How fares these latter days the scenery in Sui T'i? It's all because he has so long enjoyed so fine a fame, That he has given rise around to so many disputes.
On the ancient remains of the T'ao Yeh ferry:
Dry grass and parchd plants their reflex cast upon the shallow pond. The peach tree branches and peach leaves will bid farewell at last. What a large number of structures in Liu Ch'ao raise their heads. A small picture with a motto hangs on the hollow wall.
On the antique vestiges of Ch'ing Chung:
The black stream stretches far and wide, but hindered is its course. What time were no more thrummed the frozen cords, the songs waxed sad. The policy of the Han dynasty was in truth strange! A worthless officer must for a thousand years feel shame.
On things of historic renown in Ma Wei:
Quiet the spots of rouge with sweat pile up and shine. Gentleness in a moment vanishes and goes. It is because traces remain of his fine looks, That to this day his clothes a fragrance still emit.
On events of the past connected with the Pu Tung temple:
The small red lamp is wholly made of thin bone, and is light. Furtively was it brought along but by force was it stol'n. Oft was it, it is true, hung by the mistress' own hands, But long ere this has she allured it to speed off with her.
On the scenery about the Mei Hua (Plum Bloom) monastery.
If not by the plum trees, then by the willows it must be. Has any one picked up in there the likeness of a girl? Don't fret about meeting again; in spring its scent returns. Soon as it's gone, and west winds blow, another year has flown.
When the party had done reading the verses, they with perfect unanimity extolled their extraordinary excellence. Pao-ch'ai was, however, the first to raise any objections. "The first eight stanzas," she said, "are founded upon the testimony of the historical works. But as for the last two stanzas, there's no knowing where they come from. Besides, we don't quite fathom their meaning. Wouldn't it be better then if two other stanzas were written?"
Tai-y hastened to interrupt her. "The lines composed by cousin Pao ch'in are indeed devised in a too pigheaded and fast-and-loose sort of way," she observed. "The two stanzas are, I admit, not to be traced in the historical works, but though we've never read such outside traditions, and haven't any idea what lies at the bottom of them, have we not likely seen a couple of plays? What child of three years old hasn't some notion about them, and how much more such as we?"
"What she says is perfectly correct," T'an Ch'un chimed in.
"She has besides," Li Wan then remarked, "been to these places herself. But though there be no mention anywhere of these two references, falsehoods have from old till now been propagated, and busybodies have, in fact, intentionally invented such relics of ancient times with a view of bamboozling people. That year, for instance, in which we travelled up here to the capital, we came across graves raised to Kuan, the sage, in three or four distinct places. Now the circumstances of the whole existence of Kuan the sage are established by actual proof, so how could there again in his case exist a lot of graves? This must arise from the esteem in which he is held by posterity for the way he acquitted himself of his duties during his lifetime. And it is presumably to this esteem that this fiction owes its origin. This is quite possible enough. Even in the 'Kuang Y Chi', you will see that not only are numerous tombs of the sage Kuan spoken of, but that bygone persons of note are assigned tombs not few in number. But there are many more relics of antiquity, about which no testimony can be gathered. The matter treated in the two stanzas, now in point, is, of course, not borne out by any actual record; yet in every story, that is told, in every play, that is sung, and on the various slips as well used for fortune telling, it is invariably to be found. Old and young, men and women, do all understand it and speak of it, whether in proverbs or in their everyday talk. They don't resemble, besides, the ballads encountered in the 'Hsi Hsiang Chi,' and 'Mou Tan T'ing,' to justify us to fear that we might be setting eyes upon some corrupt text. They are quite harmless; so we'd better keep them!"
Pao-ch'ai, after these arguments, dropped at length all discussion. They thereupon tried for a time to guess the stanzas. None, however, of their solutions turned out to be correct. But as the days in winter are short, and they saw that it was time for their evening meal, they adjourned to the front part of the compound for their supper.
The servants at this stage announced to Madame Wang that Hsi Jen's elder brother, Hua Tzu-fang, was outside, and reported to her that he had entered the city to say that his mother was lying in bed dangerously ill, and that she was so longing to see her daughter that he had come to beg for the favour of taking Hsi Jen home on a visit. As soon as Madame Wang heard the news, she dilated for a while upon people's mothers and daughters, and of course she did not withhold her consent. Sending therefore at the same time for lady Feng, she communicated the tidings to her, and enjoined her to deliberate, and take suitable action.
Lady Feng signified her willingness to do what was necessary, and, returning to her quarters, she there and then commissioned Chou Jui's wife to go and break the news to Hsi Jen. "Send also," she went on to direct Mrs. Chou, "for one of the married-women, who are in attendance when we go out-of-doors, and let you two, together with a couple of young maids, follow Hsi Jen home. But despatch four cart attendants, well up in years, to look everywhere for a spacious curricle for you as well as her, and a small carriage for the maids."
"All right!" acquiesced Chou Jui's wife. But just as she was about to start, lady Feng continued her injunctions. "Hsi Jen," she added; "is a person not fond of any fuss, so tell her that it's I who have given the orders; and impress upon her that she must put on several nice, coloured clothes, and pack up a large valise full of wearing apparel. Her valise, must be a handsome one; and she must take a decent hand-stove. Bid her too first come and look me up here when she's about to start."
Mrs. Chou promised to execute her directions and went on her way.
After a long interval, (lady Feng) actually saw Hsi Jen arrive, got up in full costume and head-gear, and with her two waiting-maids and Chou Jui's wife, who carried the hand-stove and the valise packed up with clothes. Lady Feng's eye was attracted by several golden hairpins and pearl ornaments of great brilliancy and beauty, which Hsi Jen wore in her coiffure. Her gaze was further struck by the peach-red stiff silk jacket she had on, brocaded with all sorts of flowers and lined with ermine, by her leek-green wadded jupe, artistically ornamented with coils of gold thread, and by the bluish satin and grey squirrel pelisse she was wrapped in.
"These three articles of clothing, given to you by our dowager lady," lady Feng smiled, "are all very nice; but this pelisse is somewhat too plain. If you wear this, you'll besides feel cold, so put on one with long fur."
"Our Madame Wang," Hsi Jen laughingly rejoined, "gave me this one with the grey squirrel. I've also got one with ermine. She says that when the end of the year draws nigh, she'll let me have one with long fur."
"I've got one with long fur," lady Feng proceeded with a smile. "I don't fancy it much as the fringe does not hang with grace. I was on the point of having it changed; but, never mind, I'll let you first use it; and, when at the close of the year, Madame Wang has one made for you, I can then have mine altered, and it will come to the same thing as if you were returning it like that to me."
One and all laughed. "That's the way of talking into which her ladyship has got!" they observed. "There she is the whole year round recklessly carelessly and secretly making good, on Madame Wang's account, ever so many things; how many there is no saying; for really the things for which compensation is made, cannot be so much as enumerated; and does she ever go, and settle scores with Madame Wang? and here she comes, on this occasion, and gives vent again to this mean language, in order to poke fun at people!"
"How could Madame Wang," lady Feng laughed, "ever give a thought to such trifles as these? They are, in fact, matters of no consequence. Yet were I not to look after them, it would be a disgrace to all of us, and needless to say, I would myself get into some scrape. It's far better that I should dress you all properly, and so get a fair name and finish; for were each of you to cut the figure of a burnt cake, people would first and foremost ridicule me, by saying that in looking after the household I have, instead of doing good, been the means of making beggars of you!"
After hearing her out, the whole party heaved a sigh. "Who could ever be," they exclaimed, "so intuitively wise as you, to show, above, such regard for Madame Wang, and below, such consideration for her subordinates?"
In the course of these remarks, they noticed lady Feng bid P'ing Erh find the dark green stiff silk cloak with white fox, she had worn the day before, and give it to Hsi Jen. But perceiving, also, that in the way of a valise, she only had a double one made of black spotted, figured sarcenet, with a lining of light red pongee silk, and that its contents consisted merely of two wadded jackets, the worse for wear, and a pelisse, lady Feng went on to tell P'ing Erh to fetch a woollen wrapper, lined with jade-green pongee. But she ordered her besides to pack up a snow-cloak for her.
P'ing Erh walked away and produced the articles. The one was made of deep-red felt, and was old. The other was of deep-red soft satin, neither old nor new.
"I don't deserve so much as a single one of these," Hsi Jen said.
"Keep this felt one for yourself," P'ing Erh smiled, "and take this one along with you and tell some one to send it to that elderly girl, who while every one, in that heavy fall of snow yesterday, was rolled up in soft satin, if not in felt, and while about ten dark red dresses were reflected in the deep snow and presented such a fine sight, was the only one attired in those shabby old clothes. She seems more than ever to raise her shoulders and double her back. She is really to be pitied; so take this now and give it to her!"
"She surreptitiously wishes to give my things away!" lady Feng laughed. "I haven't got enough to spend upon myself and here I have you, better still, to instigate me to be more open-handed!"
"This comes from the filial piety your ladyship has ever displayed towards Madame Wang," every one laughingly remarked, "and the fond love for those below you. For had you been mean and only thought of making much of things and not cared a rap for your subordinates, would that girl have presumed to behave in this manner?"
"If any one therefore has read my heart, it's she," lady Feng rejoined with a laugh, "but yet she only knows it in part."
At the close of this rejoinder, she again spoke to Hsi Jen. "If your mother gets well, all right," she said; "but if anything happens to her, just stay over, and send some one to let me know so that I may specially despatch a servant to bring you your bedding. But whatever you do, don't, use their bedding, nor any of their things to comb your hair with. As for you people," continuing, she observed to Mrs. Chou Jui, "you no doubt are aware of the customs, prevailing in this establishment, so that I can dispense with giving you any injunctions."
"Yes, we know them all," Mrs. Chou Jui assented. "As soon as we get there, we'll, of course, request their male inmates to retire out of the way. And in the event of our having to stay over, we'll naturally apply for one or two extra inner rooms."
With these words still on her lips, she followed Hsi Jen out of the apartment. Then directing the servant-boys to prepare the lanterns, they, in due course, got into their curricle, and came to Hua Tzu-fang's quarters, where we will leave them without any further comment.
Lady Feng, meanwhile, sent also for two nurses from the I Hung court. "I am afraid," she said to them, "that Hsi Jen won't come back, so if there be any elderly girl, who has to your knowledge, so far, had her wits about her, depute her to come and keep night watch in Pao-y's rooms. But you nurses must likewise take care and exercise some control, for you mustn't let Pao-y recklessly kick up any trouble!"
"Quite so," answered the two nurses, agreeing to her directions, after which, they quitted her presence. But not a long interval expired before they came to report the result of their search. "We've set our choice upon Ch'ing Wen and She Yeh to put up in his rooms," they reported. "We four will take our turn and look after things during the night."
When lady Feng heard these arrangements, she nodded her head. "At night," she observed, "urge him to retire to bed soon; and in the morning press him to get up at an early hour."
The nurses replied that they would readily carry out her orders and returned alone into the garden.
In a little time Chou Jui's wife actually brought the news, which she imparted to lady Feng, that: "as her mother was already beyond hope, Hsi Jen could not come back."
Lady Feng then explained things to Madame Wang, and sent, at the same time, servants to the garden of Broad Vista to fetch (Hsi Jen's) bedding and toilet effects.
Pao-y watched Ch'ing Wen and She Yeh get all her belongings in proper order. After the things had been despatched, Ch'ing Wen and She Yeh divested themselves of their remaining fineries and changed their jupes and jackets. Ch'ing Wen seated herself round a warming-frame.
"Now," She Yeh smiled, "you're not to put on the airs of a young lady! I advise you to also move about a bit."
"When you're all clean gone," Ch'ing Wen returned for answer, "I shall have ample time to budge. But every day that you people are here, I shall try and enjoy peace and quiet."
"My dear girl," She Yeh laughed, "I'll make the bed, but drop the cover over that cheval-glass and put the catches right; you are so much taller than I."
So saying, she at once set to work to arrange the bed for Pao-y.
"Hai!" ejaculated Ch'ing Wen smiling, "one just sits down to warm one's self, and here you come and disturb one!"
Pao-y had at this time been sitting, plunged in a despondent mood. The thought of Hsi Jen's mother had crossed through his mind and he was wondering whether she could be dead or alive, when unexpectedly overhearing Ch'ing Wen pass the remarks she did, he speedily sprung up, and came out himself and dropped the cover of the glass, and fastened the contrivance, after which he walked into the room. "Warm yourselves," he smiled, "I've done all there was to be done."
"I can't manage," Ch'ing Wen rejoined smiling, "to get warm at all. It just also strikes me that the warming-pan hasn't yet been brought."
"You've had the trouble to think of it!" She Yeh observed. "But you've never wanted a chafing-dish before. It's so warm besides on that warming-frame of ours; not like the stove-couch in that room, which is so cold; so we can very well do without it to-day."
"If both of you are to sleep on that," Pao-y smiled, "there won't be a soul with me outside, and I shall be in an awful funk. Even you won't be able to have a wink of sleep during the whole night!"
"As far as I'm concerned," Ch'ing Wen put in, "I'm going to sleep in here. There's She Yeh, so you'd better induce her to come and sleep outside."
But while they kept up this conversation, the first watch drew near, and She Yeh at once lowered the mosquito-curtain, removed the lamp, burnt the joss-sticks, and waited upon Pao-y until he got into bed. The two maids then retired to rest. Ch'ing Wen reclined all alone on the warming-frame, while She Yeh lay down outside the winter apartments.
The third watch had come and gone, when Pao-y, in the midst of a dream, started calling Hsi Jen. He uttered her name twice, but no one was about to answer him. And it was after he had stirred himself out of sleep that he eventually recalled to mind that Hsi Jen was not at home, and he had a hearty fit laughter to himself.
Ch'ing Wen however had been roused out of her sleep, and she called She Yeh. "Even I," she said, "have been disturbed, fast asleep though I was; and, lo, she keeps a look-out by his very side and doesn't as yet know anything about his cries! In very deed she is like a stiff corpse!"
She Yeh twisted herself round and yawned. "He calls Hsi Jen," she smilingly rejoined, "so what's that to do with me? What do you want?" proceeding, she then inquired of him.
"I want some tea," Pao-y replied.
She Yeh hastily jumped out of bed, with nothing on but a short wadded coat of red silk.
"Throw my pelisse over you;" Pao-y cried; "for mind it's cold!"
She Yeh at these words put back her hands, and, taking the warm pelisse, lined even up to the lapel, with fur from the neck of the sable, which Pao-y had put on on getting up, she threw it over her shoulders and went below and washed her hands in the basin. Then filling first a cup with tepid water, she brought a large cuspidor for Pao-y to wash his mouth. Afterwards, she drew near the tea-case, and getting a cup, she first rinsed it with lukewarm water, and pouring half a cup of tea from the warm teapot, she handed it to Pao-y. After he had done, she herself rinsed her mouth, and swallowed half a cupful of tea.
"My dear girl," Ch'ing Wen interposed smiling, "do give me also a sip."
"You put on more airs than ever," She Yeh laughed.
"My dear girl;" Ch'ing Wen added, "to-morrow night, you needn't budge; I'll wait on you the whole night long. What do you say to that?"
Hearing this, She Yeh had no help but to attend to her as well, while she washed her mouth, and to pour a cup of tea and give it to her to drink.
"Won't you two go to sleep," She Yeh laughed, "but keep on chatting? I'll go out for a time; I'll be back soon."
"Are there any evil spirits waiting for you outside?" Ch'ing Wen smiled.
"It's sure to be bright moonlight out of doors," Pao-y observed, "so go, while we continue our chat."
So speaking, he coughed twice.
She Yeh opened the back-door, and raising the woollen portire and looking out, she saw what a beautiful moonlight there really was.
Ch'ing Wen allowed her just time enough to leave the room, when she felt a wish to frighten her for the sake of fun. But such reliance did she have in her physique, which had so far proved better than that of others, that little worrying her mind about the cold, she did not even throw a cloak over her, but putting on a short jacket, she descended, with gentle tread and light step, from the warming-frame and was making her way out to follow in her wake, when "Hallo!" cried Pao-y warning her. "It's freezing; it's no joke!"
Ch'ing Wen merely responded with a wave of the hand and sallied out of the door to go in pursuit of her companion. The brilliancy of the moon, which met her eye, was as limpid as water. But suddenly came a slight gust of wind. She felt it penetrate her very flesh and bore through her bones. So much so, that she could not help shuddering all over. "Little wonder is it," she argued within herself, "if people say 'that one mustn't, when one's body is warm, expose one's self to the wind.' This cold is really dreadful!" She was at the same time just on the point of giving (She Yeh) a start, when she heard Pao-y shout from inside, "Ch'ing Wen has come out."
Ch'ing Wen promptly turned back and entered the room. "How could I ever frighten her to death?" she laughed. "It's just your way; you're as great a coward as an old woman!"
"It isn't at all that you might do her harm by frightening her," Pao-y smiled, "but, in the first place, it wouldn't be good for you to get frost-bitten; and, in the second, you would take her so much off her guard that she won't be able to prevent herself from uttering a shout. So, in the event of rousing any of the others out of their sleep, they won't say that we are up to jokes, but maintain instead that just as Hsi Jen is gone, you two behave as if you'd come across ghosts or seen evil spirits. Come and tuck in the coverlets on this side!"
When Ch'ing Wen heard what he wanted done she came accordingly and tucked in the covers, and, putting out her hands, she inserted them under them, and set to work to warm the bedding.
"How cold your hand is!" Pao-y laughingly exclaimed. "I told you to look out or you'd freeze!"
Noticing at the same time that Ch'ing Wen's cheeks were as red as rouge, he rubbed them with his hands. But as they felt icy cold to his touch, "Come at once under the cover and warm yourself!" Pao-y urged.
Hardly, however, had he concluded these words, than a sound of 'lo teng' reached their ears from the door, and She Yeh rushed in all in a tremor, laughing the while.
"I've had such a fright," she smiled, as she went on speaking. "Goodness me! I saw in the black shade, at the back of the boulders on that hill, some one squatting, and was about to scream, when it turned out to be nothing else than that big golden pheasant. As soon as it caught sight of a human being, it flew away. But it was only when it reached a moonlit place that I at last found out what it was. Had I been so heedless as to scream, I would have been the means of getting people out of their beds!"
Recounting her experiences, she washed her hands.
"Ch'ing Wen, you say, has gone out," she proceeded laughing, "but how is it I never caught a glimpse of her? She must certainly have gone to frighten me!"
"Isn't this she?" Pao-y inquired with a smile. "Is she not here warming herself? Had I not been quick in shouting, she would verily have given you a fright."
"There was no need for me to go and frighten her," Ch'ing Wen laughingly observed. "This hussy has frightened her own self."
With these words she ensconced herself again under her own coverlet. "Did you forsooth go out," She Yeh remarked, "in this smart dress of a circus-performer?"
"Why, of course, she went out like this!" Pao-y smiled.
"You wouldn't know, for the life of you, how to choose a felicitous day!" She Yeh added. "There you go and stand about on a fruitless errand. Won't your skin get chapped from the frost?"
Saying this, she again raised the copper cover from the brasier, and, picking up the shovel, she buried the live charcoal deep with ashes, and taking two bits of incense of Cambodia fragrant wood, she threw them over them. She then re-covered the brasier, and repairing to the back of the screen, she gave the lamp a thorough trimming to make it throw out more light; after which, she once more laid herself down.
As Ch'ing Wen had some time before felt cold, and now began to get warm again, she unexpectedly sneezed a couple of times.
"How about that?" sighed Pao-y. "There you are; you've after all caught a chill!"
"Early this morning," She Yeh smiled, "she shouted that she wasn't feeling quite herself. Neither did she have the whole day a proper bowl of food. And now, not to speak of her taking so little care of herself, she is still bent upon playing larks upon people! But if she falls ill by and bye, we'll let her suffer what she will have brought upon herself."
"Is your head hot?" Pao-y asked.
"It's nothing at all!" Ch'ing Wen rejoined, after coughing twice. "When did I get so delicate?"
But while she spoke, they heard the striking clock, suspended on the partition wall in the outer rooms, give two sounds of 'tang, tang,' and the matron, on the night watch outside, say: "Now, young girls, go to sleep. To-morrow will be time enough for you to chat and laugh!"
"Don't let's talk!" Pao-y then whispered, "for, mind, we'll also induce them to start chattering." After this, they at last went to sleep.
The next day, they got up at an early hour. Ch'ing Wen's nose was indeed considerably stopped. Her voice was hoarse; and she felt no inclination to move.
"Be quick," urged Pao-y, "and don't make a fuss, for your mistress, my mother, may come to know of it, and bid you also shift to your house and nurse yourself. Your home might, of course, be all very nice, but it's in fact somewhat cold. So isn't it better here? Go and lie down in the inner rooms, and I'll give orders to some one to send for the doctor to come quietly by the back door and have a look at you. You'll then get all right again."
"In spite of what you say," Ch'ing Wen demurred, "you must really say something about it to our senior lady, Mrs. Chia Chu; otherwise the doctor will be coming unawares, and people will begin to ask questions; and what answer could one give them?"
Pao-y found what she said so full of reason that he called an old nurse. "Go and deliver this message to your senior mistress," he enjoined her. "Tell her that Ch'ing Wen got a slight chill yesterday. That as it's nothing to speak of, and Hsi Jen is besides away, there would be, more than ever, no one here to look after things, were she to go home and attend to herself, so let her send for a doctor to come quietly by the back entrance and see what's the matter with her; but don't let her breathe a word about it to Madame Wang, my mother."
The old nurse was away a considerable time on the errand. On her return, "Our senior mistress," she reported, "has been told everything. She says that: 'if she gets all right, after taking a couple of doses of medicine, it will be well and good. But that in the event of not recovering, it would, really, be the right thing for her to go to her own home. That the season isn't healthy at present, and that if the other girls caught her complaint it would be a small thing; but that the good health of the young ladies is a vital matter.'"
Ch'ing Wen was lying in the winter apartment, coughing and coughing, when overhearing (Li Wan's) answer, she lost control over her temper. "Have I got such a dreadful epidemic," she said, "that she fears that I shall bring it upon others? I'll clear off at once from this place; for mind you don't get any headaches and hot heads during the course of your lives."
"While uttering her grievances, she was bent upon getting up immediately, when Pao-y hastened to smile and to press her down.
"Don't lose your temper," he advised her. "This is a responsibility which falls upon her shoulders, so she is afraid lest Madame Wang might come to hear of it, and call her to task. She only made a harmless remark. But you've always been prone to anger, and now, as a matter of course your spleen is larger than ever."
But in the middle of his advice to her, a servant came and told him that the doctor had arrived. Pao-y accordingly crossed over to the off side, and retired behind the bookcase; from whence he perceived two or three matrons, whose duty it was to keep watch at the back door, usher the doctor in.
The waiting-maids, meanwhile, withdrew out of the way. Three or four old nurses dropped the deep-red embroidered curtain, suspended in the winter apartment. Ch'ing Wen then simply stretched out her hand from among the folds of the curtain. But the doctor noticed that on two of the fingers of her hand, the nails, which measured fully two or three inches in length, still bore marks of the pure red dye from the China balsam, and forthwith he turned his head away. An old nurse speedily fetched a towel and wiped them for her, when the doctor set to work and felt her pulse for a while, after which he rose and walked into the outer chamber.
"Your young lady's illness," he said to the old nurses, "arises from external sources, and internal obstructive influences, caused by the unhealthiness of the season of late. Yet it's only a slight chill, after all. Fortunately, the young lady has ever been moderate in her drinking and eating. The cold she has is nothing much. It's mainly because she has a weak constitution that she has unawares got a bit of a chill. But if she takes a couple of doses of medicine to dispel it with, she'll be quite right."
So saying, he followed once more the matron out of the house.
Li Wan had, by this time, sent word to the various female domestics at the back entrance, as well as to the young maids in the different parts of the establishment to keep in retirement. All therefore that the doctor perceived as he went along was the scenery in the garden. But not a single girl did he see.
Shortly, he made his exit out of the garden gate, and taking a seat in the duty-lodge of the servant-lads, who looked after the garden-entrance, he wrote a prescription.
"Sir," urged an old nurse, "don't go yet. Our young master is fretful and there may be, I fancy, something more to ask you."
"Wasn't the one I saw just now a young lady," the doctor exclaimed with eagerness, "but a young man, eh? Yet the rooms were such as are occupied by ladies. The curtains were besides let down. So how could the patient I saw have ever been a young man?"
"My dear sir," laughed the old nurse, "it isn't strange that a servant-girl said just now that a new doctor had been sent for on this occasion, for you really know nothing about our family matters. That room is that of our young master, and that is a girl attached to the apartments; but she's really a servant-maid. How ever were those a young lady's rooms? Had a young lady fallen ill, would you ever have penetrated inside with such ease?"
With these words, she took the prescription and wended her way into the garden.
When Pao-y came to peruse it, he found, above, such medicines mentioned as sweet basil, platycodon, carraway seeds, mosla dianthera, and the like; and, below, citrus fusca and sida as well.
"He deserves to be hanged! He deserves death!" Pao-y shouted. "Here he treats girls in the very same way as he would us men! How could this ever do? No matter what internal obstruction there may be, how could she ever stand citrus and sida? Who asked him to come? Bundle him off at once; and send for another, who knows what he's about."
"Whether he uses the right medicines or not," the old nurse pleaded, "we are not in a position to know. But we'll now tell a servant-lad to go and ask Dr. Wang round. It's easy enough! The only thing is that as this doctor wasn't sent for through the head manager's office his fee must be paid to him."
"How much must one give him?" Pao-y inquired.
"Were one to give him too little, it wouldn't look nice," a matron ventured. "He should be given a tael. This would be quite the thing with such a household as ours."
"When Dr. Wang comes," Pao-y asked, "how much is he given?"
"Whenever Dr. Wang and Dr. Chang come," a matron smilingly explained, "no money is ever given them. At the four seasons of each year however presents are simply sent to them in a lump. This is a fixed annual custom. But this new doctor has come only this once so he should be given a tael."
After this explanation, Pao-y readily bade She Yeh go and fetch the money.
"I can't make out where sister Hua put it;" She Yeh rejoined.
"I've often seen her take money out of that lacquered press, ornamented with designs made with shells;" Pao-y added; "so come along with me, and let's go and search."
As he spoke, he and She Yeh came together into what was used as a store-room by Hsi Jen. Upon opening the shell-covered press, they found the top shelf full of pens, pieces of ink, fans, scented cakes, various kinds of purses, handkerchiefs and other like articles, while on the lower shelf were piled several strings of cash. But, presently they pulled out the drawer, when they saw, in a small wicker basket, several pieces of silver, and a steelyard.
She Yeh quickly snatched a piece of silver. Then raising the steelyard, "Which is the one tael mark?" she asked.
Pao-y laughed. "It's amusing that you should appeal to me!" he said. "You really behave as if you had only just come!"
She Yeh also laughed, and was about to go and make inquiries of some one else, when Pao-y interfered. "Choose a piece out of those big ones and give it to him, and have done," he said. "We don't go in for buying and selling, so what's the use of minding such trifles!"
She Yeh, upon hearing this, dropped the steelyard, and selected a piece, which she weighed in her hand. "This piece," she smiled, "must, I fancy, be a tael. But it would be better to let him have a little more. Don't let's give too little as those poor brats will have a laugh at our expense. They won't say that we know nothing about the steelyard; but that we are designedly mean."
A matron who stood at the threshold of the door, smilingly chimed in. "This ingot," she said, "weighs five taels. Even if you cut half of it off, it will weigh a couple of taels, at least. But there are no sycee shears at hand, so, miss, put this piece aside and choose a smaller one."
She Yeh had already closed the press and walked out. "Who'll go and fumble about again?" she laughed. "If there's a little more, well, you take it and finish."
"Be quick," Pao-y remarked, "and tell Pei Ming to go for another doctor. It will be all right."
The matron received the money and marched off to go and settle matters.
Presently, Dr. Wang actually arrived, at the invitation of Pei Ming. First and foremost he felt the pulse and then gave the same diagnosis of the complaint (as the other doctor did) in the first instance. The only difference being that there was, in fact, no citrus or sida or other similar drugs, included in the prescription. It contained, however, false sarsaparilla roots, dried orange peel, peonia albifora, and other similar medicines. But the quantities were, on the other hand, considerably smaller, as compared with those of the drugs mentioned in the former prescription.
"These are the medicines," Pao-y ejaculated exultingly, "suitable for girls! They should, it's true, be of a laxative nature, but never over and above what's needful. When I fell ill last year, I suffered from a chill, but I got such an obstruction in the viscera that I could neither take anything liquid or substantial, yet though he saw the state I was in, he said that I couldn't stand sida, ground gypsum, citrus and other such violent drugs. You and I resemble the newly-opened white begonia, Yn Erh sent me in autumn. And how could you resist medicines which are too much for me? We're like the lofty aspen trees, which grow in people's burial grounds. To look at, the branches and leaves are of luxuriant growth, but they are hollow at the core."
"Do only aspen trees grow in waste burial grounds?" She Yeh smiled. "Is it likely, pray, that there are no fir and cypress trees? What's more loathsome than any other is the aspen. For though a lofty tree, it only has a few leaves; and it makes quite a confused noise with the slightest puff of wind! If you therefore deliberately compare yourself to it, you'll also be ranging yourself too much among the common herd!"
"I daren't liken myself to fir or cypress;" Pao-y laughingly retorted. "Even Confucius says: 'after the season waxes cold, one finds that the fir and cypress are the last to lose their foliage,' which makes it evident that these two things are of high excellence. Thus it's those only, who are devoid of every sense of shame, who foolishly liken themselves to trees of the kind!"
While engaged in this colloquy, they perceived the old matron bring the drugs, so Pao-y bade her fetch the silver pot, used for boiling medicines in, and then he directed her to prepare the decoction on the brasier.
"The right thing would be," Ch'ing Wen suggested, "that you should let them go and get it ready in the tea-room; for will it ever do to fill this room with the smell of medicines?"
"The smell of medicines," Pao-y rejoined, "is far nicer than that emitted by the whole lot of flowers. Fairies pick medicines and prepare medicines. Besides this, eminent men and cultured scholars gather medicines and concoct medicines; so that it constitutes a most excellent thing. I was just thinking that there's everything and anything in these rooms and that the only thing that we lack is the smell of medicines; but as luck would have it, everything is now complete."
Speaking, he lost no time in giving orders to a servant to put the medicines on the fire. Next, he advised She Yeh to get ready a few presents and bid a nurse take them and go and look up Hsi Jen, and exhort her not to give way to excessive grief. And when he had settled everything that had to be seen to, he repaired to the front to dowager lady Chia's and Madame Wang's quarters, and paid his respects and had his meal.