This Fu Shih had really risen from the vulgar herd, so seeing that Ch'iu-fang possessed several traits of beauty and exceptional intellectual talents, Fu Shih arrived at the resolution of making his sister the means of joining relationship with the influential family of some honourable clan. And so unwilling was he to promise her lightly to any suitor that things were delayed up to this time. Therefore Fu Ch'iu-fang, though at present past her twentieth birthday, was not as yet engaged. But the various well-to-do families, belonging to honourable clans, looked down, on the other hand, on her poor and mean extraction, holding her in such light esteem, as not to relish the idea of making any offer for her hand. So if Fu Shih cultivated intimate terms with the Chia household, he, needless to add, did so with an interested motive.
The two matrons, deputed on the present errand, completely lacked, as it happened, all knowledge of the world, and the moment they heard that Pao-y wished to see them, they wended their steps inside. But no sooner had they inquired how he was, and passed a few remarks than Y Ch'uan-erh, becoming conscious of the arrival of strangers, did not bandy words with Pao-y, but stood with the plate of soup in her hands, engrossed in listening to the conversation. Pao-y, again, was absorbed in speaking to the matrons; and, while eating some rice, he stretched out his arm to get at the soup; but both his and her (Y Ch'uan-erh's) eyes were rivetted on the women, and as he thoughtlessly jerked out his hand with some violence, he struck the bowl and turned it clean over. The soup fell over Pao-y's hand. But it did not hurt Y Ch'uan-erh. She sustained, however, such a fright that she gave a start.
"How did this happen!" she smilingly shouted with vehemence to the intense consternation of the waiting-maids, who rushed up and clasped the bowl. But notwithstanding that Pao-y had scalded his own hand, he was quite unconscious of the accident; so much so, that he assailed Y Ch'uan-erh with a heap of questions, as to where she had been burnt, and whether it was sore or not.
Y Ch'uan-erh and every one present were highly amused.
"You yourself," observed Y Ch'uan-erh, "have been scalded, and do you keep on asking about myself?"
At these words, Pao-y became at last aware of the injury he had received. The servants rushed with all promptitude and cleared the mess. But Pao-y was not inclined to touch any more food. He washed his hands, drank a cup of tea, and then exchanged a few further sentences with the two matrons. But subsequently, the two women said good-bye and quitted the room. Ch'ing Wen and some other girls saw them as far as the bridge, after which, they retraced their steps.
The two matrons perceived, that there was no one about, and while proceeding on their way, they started a conversation.
"It isn't strange," smiled the one, "if people say that this Pao-y of theirs is handsome in appearance, but stupid as far as brains go. Nice enough a thing to look at but not to put to one's lips; rather idiotic in fact; for he burns his own hand, and then he asks some one else whether she's sore or not. Now, isn't this being a regular fool?"
"The last time I came," the other remarked, also smiling, "I heard that many inmates of his family feel ill-will against him. In real truth he is a fool! For there he drips in the heavy downpour like a water fowl, and instead of running to shelter himself, he reminds other people of the rain, and urges them to get quick out of the wet. Now, tell me, isn't this ridiculous, eh? Time and again, when no one is present, he cries to himself, then laughs to himself. When he sees a swallow, he instantly talks to it; when he espies a fish, in the river, he forthwith speaks to it. At the sight of stars or the moon, if he doesn't groan and sigh, he mutters and mutters. Indeed, he hasn't the least bit of character; so much so, that he even puts up with the temper shown by those low-bred maids. If he takes a fancy to a thing, it's nice enough even though it be a bit of thread. But as for waste, what does he mind? A thing may be worth a thousand or ten thousand pieces of money, he doesn't worry his mind in the least about it."
While they talked, they reached the exterior of the garden, and they betook themselves back to their home; where we will leave them.
As soon as Hsi Jen, for we will return to her, saw the women leave the room, she took Ying Erh by the hand and led her in, and they asked Pao-y what kind of girdle he wanted made.
"I was just now so bent upon talking," Pao-y smiled to Ying Erh, "that I forgot all about you. I put you to the trouble of coming, not for anything else, but that you should also make me a few nets."
"Nets! To put what in?" Ying Erh inquired.
Pao-y, at this question, put on a smile. "Don't concern yourself about what they are for!" he replied. "Just make me a few of each kind!"
Ying Erh clapped her hand and laughed. "Could this ever be done!" she cried, "If you want all that lot, why, they couldn't be finished in ten years time."
"My dear girl," smiled Pao-y, "work at them for me then whenever you are at leisure, and have nothing better to do."
"How could you get through them all in a little time?" Hsi Jen interposed smilingly. "First choose now therefore such as are most urgently needed and make a couple of them."
"What about urgently needed?" Ying-Erh exclaimed, "They are merely used for fans, scented pendants and handkerchiefs."
"Nets for handkerchiefs will do all right." Pao-y answered.
"What's the colour of your handkerchief?" inquired Ying Erh.
"It's a deep red one." Pao-y rejoined.
"For a deep red one," continued Ying Erh, "a black net will do very nicely, or one of dark green. Both these agree with the colour."
"What goes well with brown?" Pao-y asked.
"Peach-red goes well with brown." Ying Erh added.
"That will make them look gaudy!" Pao-y observed. "Yet with all their plainness, they should be somewhat gaudy."
"Leek-green and willow-yellow are what are most to my taste," Ying Erh pursued.
"Yes, they'll also do!" Pao-y retorted. "But make one of peach-red too and then one of leek-green."
"Of what design?" Ying Erh remarked.
"How many kinds of designs are there?" Pao-y said.
"There are 'the stick of incense,' 'stools upset towards heaven,' 'part of elephant's eyes,' 'squares,' 'chains,' 'plum blossom,' and 'willow leaves." Ying Erh answered.
"What was the kind of design you made for Miss Tertia the other day?" Pao-y inquired.
"It was the 'plum blossom with piled cores,'" Ying Erh explained in reply.
"Yes, that's nice." Pao-y rejoined.
As he uttered this remark, Hsi Jen arrived with the cords. But no sooner were they brought than a matron cried, from outside the window: "Girls, your viands are ready!"
"Go and have your meal," urged Pao-y, "and come back quick after you've had it."
"There are visitors here," Hsi Jen smiled, "and how can I very well go?"
"What makes you say so?" Ying Erh laughed, while adjusting the cords. "It's only right and proper that you should go and have your food at once and then return."
Hearing this, Hsi Jen and her companions went off, leaving behind only two youthful servant-girls to answer the calls.
Pao-y watched Ying Erh make the nets. But, while keeping his eyes intent on her, he talked at the same time of one thing and then another, and next went on to ask her how far she was in her teens.
Ying Erh continued plaiting. "I'm sixteen," she simultaneously rejoined.
"What was your original surname?" Pao-y added.
"It was Huang;" answered Ying Erh.
"That's just the thing," Pao-y smiled; "for in real truth there's the 'Huang Ying-erh;' (oriole)."
"My name, at one time, consisted of two characters," continued Ying Erh. "I was called Chin Ying; but Miss Pao-ch'ai didn't like it, as it was difficult to pronounce, and only called me Ying Erh; so now I've come to be known under that name."
"One can very well say that cousin Pao-ch'ai is fond of you!" Pao-y pursued. "By and bye, when she gets married, she's sure to take you along with her."
Ying Erh puckered up her lips, and gave a significant smile.
"I've often told Hsi Jen," Pao-y smiled, "that I can't help wondering who'll shortly be the lucky ones to win your mistress and yourself."
"You aren't aware," laughed Ying Erh, "that our young mistress possesses several qualities not to be found in a single person in this world; her face is a second consideration."
Pao-y noticed how captivating Ying Erh's tone of voice was, how complaisant she was, and how simpleton-like unaffected in her language and smiles, and he soon felt the warmest affection for her; and particularly so, when she started the conversation about Pao-ch'ai. "Where do her qualities lie?" he readily inquired. "My dear girl, please tell me!"
"If I tell you," said Ying Erh, "you must, on no account, let her know anything about it again."
"This goes without saying," smiled Pao-y.
But this answer was still on his lips, when they overheard some one outside remark: "How is it that everything is so quiet?"
Both gazed round to see who possibly it could be. They discovered, strange enough, no one else than Pao-ch'ai herself.
Pao-y hastily offered her a seat. Pao-ch'ai seated herself, and then wanted to know what Ying Erh was busy plaiting. Inquiring the while, she approached her and scrutinised what she held in her hands, half of which had by this time been done. "What's the fun of a thing like this?" she said. "Wouldn't it be preferable to plait a net, and put the jade in it?"
This allusion suggested the idea to Pao-y. Speedily clapping his hands, he smiled and exclaimed: "Your idea is splendid, cousin. I'd forgotten all about it! The only thing is what colour will suit it best?"
"It will never do to use mixed colours," Pao-ch'ai rejoined. "Deep red will, on one hand, clash with the colour; while yellow is not pleasing to the eye; and black, on the other hand, is too sombre. But wait, I'll try and devise something. Bring that gold cord and use it with the black beaded cord; and if you twist one of each together, and make a net with them, it will look very pretty!"
Upon hearing this, Pao-y was immeasurably delighted, and time after time he shouted to the servants to fetch the gold cord. But just at that moment Hsi Jen stepped in, with two bowls of eatables. "How very strange this is to-day!" she said to Pao-y. "Why, a few minutes back, my mistress, your mother, sent some one to bring me two bowls of viands."
"The supply," replied Pao-y smiling, "must have been so plentiful to-day, that they've sent some to every one of you."
"It isn't that," continued Hsi Jen, "for they were distinctly given to me by name. What's more, I wasn't bidden go and knock my head; so this is indeed remarkable!"
"If they're given to you," Pao-y smiled, "why, you had better go and eat them. What's there in this to fill you with conjectures?"
"There's never been anything like this before," Hsi Jen added, "so, it makes me feel uneasy."
Pao-ch'ai compressed her lips. "If this," she laughed; "makes you fell uneasy, there will be by and bye other things to make you far more uneasy."
Hsi Jen realised that she implied something by her insinuations, as she knew from past experience that Pao-ch'ai was not one given to lightly and contemptuously poking fun at people; and, remembering the notions entertained by Madame Wang on the last occasion she had seen her, she dropped at once any further allusions to the subject and brought the eatables up to Pao-y for his inspection. "I shall come and hold the cords," she observed, "as soon as I've rinsed my hands."
This said, she immediately quitted the apartment. After her meal, she washed her hands and came inside to hold the gold cords for Ying Erh to plait the net with.
By this time, Pao-ch'ai had been called away by a servant, despatched by Hseh P'an. But while Pao-y was watching the net that was being made he caught sight, at a moment least expected, of two servant-girls, who came from the part of Madame Hsing of the other mansion, to bring him a few kinds of fruits, and to inquire whether he was able to walk. "If you can go about," they told him, "(our mistress) desires you, Mr. Pao-y, to cross over to-morrow and have a little distraction. Her ladyship really longs to see you."
"Were I able to walk," Pao-y answered with alacrity, "I would feel it my duty to go and pay my respects to your mistress! Anyhow, the pain is better than before, so request your lady to allay her solicitude."
As he bade them both sit down, he, at the same time, called Ch'iu Wen. "Take," he said to her, "half of the fruits, just received, to Miss Lin as a present."
Ch'iu Wen signified her obedience, and was about to start on her errand, when she heard Tai-y talking in the court, and Pao-y eagerly shout out: "Request her to walk in at once!"
But should there be any further particulars, which you, reader, might feel disposed to know, peruse the details given in the following chapter.
While Hsi Jen is busy embroidering mandarin ducks, Pao-y receives, in the Chiang Yn Pavilion, an omen from a dream. Pao-y apprehends that there is a destiny in affections, when his feelings are aroused to a sense of the situation in the Pear Fragrance court.
Ever since dowager lady Chia's return from Madame Wang's quarters, for we will now take up the string of our narrative, she naturally felt happier in her mind as she saw that Pao-y improved from day to day; but nervous lest Chia Cheng should again in the future send for him, she lost no time in bidding a servant summon a head-page, a constant attendant upon Chia Cheng, to come to her, and in impressing upon him various orders. "Should," she enjoined him, "anything turn up henceforward connected with meeting guests, entertaining visitors and other such matters, and your master mean to send for Pao-y, you can dispense with going to deliver the message. Just you tell him that I say that after the severe thrashing he has had, great care must be first taken of him during several months before he can be allowed to walk; and that, secondly, his constellation is unpropitious and that he could not see any outsider, while sacrifices are being offered to the stars; that I won't have him therefore put his foot beyond the second gate before the expiry of the eighth moon."
The head-page listened patiently to her instructions, and, assenting to all she had to say, he took his leave.
Old lady Chia thereupon also sent for nurse Li, Hsi Jen and the other waiting-maids and recommended them to tell Pao-y about her injunctions so that he might be able to quiet his mind.
Pao-y had always had a repugnance for entertaining high officials and men in general, and the greatest horror of going in official hat and ceremonial dress, to offer congratulations, or express condolences, to pay calls, return visits, or perform other similar conventionalities, but upon receipt on the present occasion of this message, he became so much the more confirmed in his dislikes that not only did he suspend all intercourse with every single relative and friend, but even went so far as to study more than he had ever done before, his own caprices in the fulfilment of those morning and evening salutations due to the senior members of his family. Day after day he spent in the garden, doing nothing else than loafing about, sitting down here, or reclining there. Of a morning, he would, as soon as it was day, stroll as far as the quarters of dowager lady Chia and Madame Wang, to repair back, however, in no time. Yet ever ready was he every day that went by to perform menial services for any of the waiting-maids. He, in fact, wasted away in the most complete dolce far niente days as well as months. If perchance Pao-ch'ai or any other girl of the same age as herself found at any time an opportunity to give him advice, he would, instead of taking it in good part, fly into a huff. "A pure and spotless maiden," he would say, "has likewise gone and deliberately imitated those persons, whose aim is to fish for reputation and to seek praise; that set of government thieves and salaried devils. This result entirely arises from the fact that there have been people in former times, who have uselessly stirred up trouble and purposely fabricated stories with the primary object of enticing the filthy male creatures, who would spring up in future ages, to follow in their steps! And who would have thought it, I have had the misfortune of being born a masculine being! But, even those beautiful girls, in the female apartments, have been so contaminated by this practice that verily they show themselves ungrateful for the virtue of Heaven and Earth, in endowing them with perception, and in rearing them with so much comeliness."
Seeing therefore what an insane mania possessed him, not one of his cousins came forward to tender him one proper word of counsel. Lin Tai-y was the only one of them, who, from his very infancy, had never once admonished him to strive and make a position and attain fame, so thus it was that he entertained for Tai-y profound consideration. But enough of minor details.
We will now turn our attention to lady Feng. Soon after the news of Chin Ch'uan-erh's death reached her, she saw that domestics from various branches of the family paid her frequent visits at most unexpected hours, and presented her a lot of things, and that they courted her presence at most unseasonable moments, to pay their compliments and adulate her, and she begun to harbour suspicions, in her own mind, as she little knew what their object could possibly be. On this date, she again noticed that some of them had brought their gifts, so, when evening arrived, and no one was present, she felt compelled to inquire jocosely of P'ing Erh what their aim could be.
"Can't your ladyship fathom even this?" P'ing Erh answered with a sardonic smile. "Why, their daughters must, I fancy, be servant-girls in Madame Wang's apartments! For her ladyship's rooms four elderly girls are at present allotted with a monthly allowance of one tael; the rest simply receiving several hundreds of cash each month; so now that Chin Ch'uan-erh is dead and gone, these people must, of course, be anxious to try their tricks and get this one-tael job!"
Hearing this, lady Feng smiled a significant smile. "That's it. Yes, that's it!" she exclaimed. "You've really suggested the idea to my mind! From all appearances, these people are a most insatiable lot; for they make quite enough in the way of money! And as for any business that requires a little exertion, why they are never ready to bear a share of it! They make use of their girls as so many tools to shove their own duties upon. Yet one overlooks that. But must they too have designs upon this job? Never mind! These people cannot easily afford to spend upon me the money they do. But they bring this upon their own selves, so I'll keep every bit of thing they send. I've, after all, resolved how to act in the matter!"
Having arrived at this decision, lady Feng purely and simply protracted the delay until all the women had sent her enough to satisfy her, when she at last suited her own convenience and spoke to Madame Wang (on the subject of the vacant post).
Mrs. Hseh and her daughter were sitting one day, at noon, in Madame Wang's quarters, together with Lin Tai-y and the other girls, when lady Feng found an opportunity and broached the topic with Madame Wang. "Ever since," she said, "sister Chin Ch'uan-erh's death, there has been one servant less in your ladyship's service. But you may possibly have set your choice upon some girl; if so, do let me know who it is, so that I may be able to pay her her monthly wages."
This reminder made Madame Wang commune with her own self. "I fancy," she remarked; "that the custom is that there should be four or five of them; but as long as there are enough to wait upon me, I don't mind, so we can really dispense with another."
"What you say is, properly speaking, perfectly correct," smiled lady Feng; "but it's an old established custom. There are still a couple to be found in other people's rooms and won't you, Madame, conform with the rule? Besides, the saving of a tael is a small matter."
After this argument, Madame Wang indulged in further thought. "Never mind," she then observed, "just you bring over this allowance and pay it to me. And there will be no need to supply another girl. I'll hand over this tael to her younger sister, Y Ch'uan-erh, and finish with it. Her elder sister came to an unpleasant end, after a long term of service with me; so if the younger sister, she leaves behind in my employ, receives a double share, it won't be any too excessive."
Lady Feng expressed her approval and turning round she said smilingly to Y Ch'uan-erh: "I congratulate you, I congratulate you!"
Y Ch'uan-erh thereupon crossed over and prostrated herself.
"I just want to ask you," Madame Wang went on to inquire, "how much Mrs. Chao and Mrs. Chou are allowed monthly?"
"They have a fixed allowance," answered lady Feng, "each of them draws two taels. But Mrs. Chao gets two taels for cousin Chia Huan, so hers amounts in all to four taels; besides these, four strings of cash."
"Are they paid in full month after month?" Madame Wang inquired.
Lady Feng thought the question so very strange that she hastened to exclaim by way of reply: "How are they not paid in full?"
"The other day," Madame Wang proceeded, "I heard a faint rumour that there was some one, who complained in an aggrieved way that she had got a string short. How and why is this?"
"The monthly allowances of the servant-girls, attached to the secondary wives," lady Feng hurriedly added with a smile, "amounted originally to a tiao each, but ever since last year, it was decided, by those people outside, that the shares of each of those ladies' girls should be reduced by half, that is, each to five hundred cash; and, as each lady has a couple of servant-girls, they receive therefore a tiao short. But for this, they can't bear me a grudge. As far as I'm concerned, I would only be too glad to let them have it; but our people outside will again disallow it; so is it likely that I can authorise any increase, pray? In this matter of payments I merely receive the money, and I've nothing to do with how it comes and how it goes. I nevertheless recommended, on two or three occasions, that it would be better if these two shares were again raised to the old amount; but they said that there's only that much money, so that I can't very well volunteer any further suggestions! Now that the funds are paid into my hands, I give them to them every month, without any irregularity of even so much as a day. When payments hitherto were effected outside, what month were they not short of money? And did they ever, on any single instance, obtain their pay at the proper time and date?"
Having heard this explanation, Madame Wang kept silent for a while. Next, she proceeded to ask, how many girls there were with dowager lady Chia drawing one tael.
"Eight of them," rejoined lady Feng, "but there are at present only seven; the other one is Hsi Jen."
"Quite right," assented Madame Wang. "But your cousin Pao-y hasn't any maid at one tael; for Hsi Jen is still a servant belonging to old lady Chia's household."
"Hsi Jen," lady Feng smiled, "is still our dear ancestor's servant; she's only lent to cousin Pao-y; so that she still receives this tael in her capacity of maid to our worthy senior. Any proposal, therefore, that might now be made, that this tael should, as Hsi Jen is Pao-y's servant, be curtailed, can, on no account, be entertained. Yet, were it suggested that another servant should be added to our senior's staff, then in this way one could reduce the tael she gets. But if this be not curtailed, it will be necessary to also add a servant in cousin Chia Huan's rooms, in order that there should be a fair apportionment. In fact, Ch'ing Wen, She Yeh and the others, numbering seven senior maids, receive each a tiao a month; and Chiao Hui and the rest of the junior maids, eight in all, get each five hundred cash per mensem; and this was recommended by our venerable ancestor herself; so how can any one be angry and feel displeasure?"
"Just listen," laughed Mrs. Hseh, "to that girl Feng's mouth! It rattles and rattles like a cart laden with walnuts, which has turned topsy-turvy! Yet, her accounts are, from what one can gather, clear enough, and her arguments full of reason."
"Aunt," rejoined lady Feng smiling, "was I likely, pray, wrong in what I said?"
"Who ever said you were wrong?" Mrs. Hseh smiled. "But were you to talk a little slower, wouldn't it be a saving of exertion for you?"
Lady Feng was about to laugh, but hastily checking herself, she lent an ear to what Madame Wang might have to tell her.
Madame Wang indulged in thought for a considerable time. Afterwards, facing lady Feng, "You'd better," she said, "select a waiting-maid tomorrow and send her over to our worthy senior to fill up Hsi Jen's place. Then, discontinue that allowance, which Hsi Jen draws, and keep out of the sum of twenty taels, allotted to me monthly, two taels and a tiao, and give them to Hsi Jen. So henceforward what Mrs. Chao and Mrs. Chou will get, Hsi Jen will likewise get, with the only difference that the share granted to Hsi Jen, will be entirely apportioned out of my own allowance. Mind, therefore, there will be no necessity to touch the public funds!"
Lady Feng acquiesced to each one of her recommendations, and, pushing Mrs. Hseh, "Aunt," she inquired, "have you heard her proposal? What have I all along maintained? Well, my words have actually come out true to-day!"
"This should have been accomplished long ago," Mrs. Hseh answered. "For without, of course, making any allusion to her looks, her way of doing business is liberal; her speech and her relations with people are always prompted by an even temper, while inwardly she has plenty of singleness of heart and eagerness to hold her own. Indeed, such a girl is not easy to come across!"
Madame Wang made every effort to conceal her tears. "How could you people ever rightly estimate Hsi Jen's qualities?" she observed. "Why, she's a hundred times better than my own Pao-y. How fortunate, in reality, Pao-y is! Well would it be if he could have her wait upon him for the whole length of his life!"
"In that case," lady Feng suggested, "why, have her face shaved at once, and openly place her in his room as a secondary wife. Won't this be a good plan?"
"This won't do!" Madame Wang retorted. "For first and foremost he's of tender years. In the second place, my husband won't countenance any such thing! In the third, so long as Pao-y sees that Hsi Jen is his waiting-maid, he may, in the event of anything occurring from his having been allowed to run wild, listen to any good counsel she might give him. But were she now to be made his secondary wife, Hsi Jen would not venture to tender him any extreme advice, even when it's necessary to do so. It's better, therefore, to let things stand as they are for the present, and talk about them again, after the lapse of another two or three years."
At the close of these arguments, lady Feng could not put in a word, by way of reply, to refute them, so turning round, she left the room. She had no sooner, however, got under the verandah, than she discerned the wives of a number of butlers, waiting for her to report various matters to her. Seeing her issue out of the room, they with one consent smiled. "What has your ladyship had to lay before Madame Wang," they remarked, "that you've been talking away this length of time? Didn't you find it hot work?"
Lady Feng tucked up her sleeves several times. Then resting her foot on the step of the side door, she laughed and rejoined: "The draft in this passage is so cool, that I'll stop, and let it play on me a bit before I go on. You people," she proceeded to tell them, "say that I've been talking to her all this while, but Madame Wang conjured up all that has occurred for the last two hundred years and questioned me about it; so could I very well not have anything to say in reply? But from this day forth," she added with a sarcastic smile, "I shall do several mean things, and should even (Mrs. Chao and Mrs. Chou) go, out of any ill-will, and tell Madame Wang, I won't know what fear is for such stupid, glib-tongued, foul-mouthed creatures as they, who are bound not to see a good end! It isn't for them to indulge in those fanciful dreams of becoming primary wives, for there, will come soon a day when the whole lump sum of their allowance will be cut off! They grumble against us for having now reduced the perquisites of the servant-maids, but they don't consider whether they deserve to have so many as three girls to dance attendance on them!"
While heaping abuse on their heads, she started homewards, and went all alone in search of some domestic to go and deliver a message to old lady Chia.
But without any further reference to her, we will take up the thread of our narrative with Mrs. Hseh, and the others along with her. During this interval they finished feasting on melons. After some more gossip, each went her own way; and Pao-ch'ai, Tai-y and the rest of the cousins returned into the garden. Pao-ch'ai then asked Tai-y to repair with her to the O Hsiang Arbour. But Tai-y said that she was just going to have her bath, so they parted company, and Pao-ch'ai walked back all by herself. On her way, she stepped into the I Hung Yan, to look up Pao-y and have a friendly hobnob with him, with the idea of dispelling her mid-day lassitude; but, contrary to her expectations, the moment she put her foot into the court, she did not so much as catch the caw of a crow. Even the two storks stood under the banana trees, plunged in sleep. Pao-ch'ai proceeded along the covered passage and entered the rooms. Here she discovered the servant-girls sleeping soundly on the bed of the outer apartment; some lying one way, some another; so turning round the decorated screen, she wended her steps into Pao-y's chamber. Pao-y was asleep in bed. Hsi Jen was seated by his side, busy plying her needle. Next to her, lay a yak tail. Pao-ch'ai advanced up to her. "You're really far too scrupulous," she said smilingly in an undertone. "Are there still flies or mosquitos in here? and why do yet use that fly-flap for, to drive what away?"
Hsi Jen was quite taken by surprise. But hastily raising her head, and realising that it was Pao-ch'ai, she hurriedly put down her needlework. "Miss," she whispered with a smile, "you came upon me so unawares that you gave me quite a start! You don't know, Miss, that though there be no flies or mosquitoes there is, no one would believe it, a kind of small insect, which penetrates through the holes of this gauze; it is scarcely to be detected, but when one is asleep, it bites just like ants do!"
"It isn't to be wondered at," Pao-ch'ai suggested, "for the back of these rooms adjoins the water; the whole place is also one mass of fragrant flowers, and the interior of this room is, too, full of their aroma. These insects grow mostly in the core of flowers, so no sooner do they scent the smell of any than they at once rush in."
Saying this, she cast a look on the needlework she (Hsi Jen) held in her hands. It consisted, in fact, of a belt of white silk, lined with red, and embroidered on the upper part with designs representing mandarin ducks, disporting themselves among some lotus. The lotus flowers were red, the leaves green, the ducks of variegated colours.
"Ai-yah!" ejaculated Pao-ch'ai, "what very beautiful work! For whom is this, that it's worth your while wasting so much labour on it?"
Hsi Jen pouted her lips towards the bed.
"Does a big strapping fellow like this," Pao-ch'ai laughed, "still wear such things?"
"He would never wear any before," Hsi Jen smiled, "that's why such a nice one was specially worked for him, in order that when he was allowed to see it, he should not be able to do otherwise than use it. With the present hot weather, he goes to sleep anyhow, but as he has been coaxed to wear it, it doesn't matter if even he doesn't cover himself well at night. You say that I bestow much labour upon this, but you haven't yet seen the one he has on!"
"It is a lucky thing," Pao-ch'ai observed, smiling, "that you're gifted with such patience."
"I've done so much of it to-day," remarked Hsi Jen, "that my neck is quite sore from bending over it. My dear Miss," she then urged with a beaming countenance, "do sit here a little. I'll go out for a turn. I'll be back shortly."
With these words, she sallied out of the room.
Pao-ch'ai was intent upon examining the embroidery, so in her absentmindedness, she, with one bend of her body, settled herself on the very same spot, which Hsi Jen had recently occupied. But she found, on second scrutiny, the work so really admirable, that impulsively picking up the needle, she continued it for her. At quite an unforeseen moment—for Lin Tai-y had met Shih Hsiang-yn and asked her to come along with her and present her congratulations to Hsi Jen—these two girls made their appearance in the court. Finding the whole place plunged in silence, Hsiang-yn turned round and betook herself first into the side-rooms in search of Hsi Jen. Lin Tai-y, meanwhile, walked up to the window from outside, and peeped in through the gauze frame. At a glance, she espied Pao-y, clad in a silvery-red coat, lying carelessly on the bed, and Pao-ch'ai, seated by his side, busy at some needlework, with a fly-brush resting by her side.
As soon as Lin Tai-y became conscious of the situation, she immediately slipped out of sight, and stopping her mouth with one hand, as she did not venture to laugh aloud, she waved her other hand and beckoned to Hsiang-yn. The moment Hsiang-yn saw the way she went on, she concluded that she must have something new to impart to her, and she approached her with all promptitude. At the sight, which opened itself before her eyes, she also felt inclined to laugh. Yet the sudden recollection of the kindness, with which Pao-ch'ai had always dealt towards her, induced her to quickly seal her lips. And knowing well enough that Tai-y never spared any one with her mouth, she was seized with such fear lest she should jeer at them, that she immediately dragged her past the window. "Come along!" she observed. "Hsi Jen, I remember, said that she would be going at noon to wash some clothes at the pond. I presume she's there already so let's go and join her."
Tai-y inwardly grasped her meaning, but, after indulging in a couple of sardonic smiles, she had no alternative but to follow in her footsteps.
Pao-ch'ai had, during this while, managed to embroider two or three petals, when she heard Pao-y begin to shout abusingly in his dreams. "How can," he cried, "one ever believe what bonzes and Taoist priests say? What about a match between gold and jade? My impression is that it's to be a union between a shrub and a stone!"
Hseh Pao-ch'ai caught every single word uttered by him and fell unconsciously in a state of excitement. Of a sudden, however, Hsi Jen appeared on the scene. "Hasn't he yet woke up?" she inquired.
Pao-ch'ai nodded her head by way of reply.
"I just came across," Hsi Jen smiled, "Miss Lin and Miss Shih. Did they happen to come in?"
"I didn't see them come in," Pao-ch'ai answered. "Did they tell you anything?" she next smilingly asked of Hsi Jen.
Hsi Jen blushed and laughed significantly. "They simply came out with some of those jokes of theirs," she explained. "What decent things could such as they have had to tell me?"
"They made insinuations to-day," Pao-ch'ai laughed, "which are anything but a joke! I was on the point of telling you them, when you rushed away in an awful hurry."
But no sooner had she concluded, than she perceived a servant, come over from lady Feng's part to fetch Hsi Jen. "It must be on account of what they hinted," Pao-ch'ai smilingly added.
Hsi Jen could not therefore do otherwise than arouse two servant-maids and go. She proceeded, with Pao-ch'ai, out of the I Hung court, and then repaired all alone to lady Feng's on this side. It was indeed to communicate to her what had been decided about her, and to explain to her, as well, that though she could go and prostrate herself before Madame Wang, she could dispense with seeing dowager lady Chia. This news made Hsi Jen feel very awkward; to such an extent, that no sooner had she got through her visit to Madame Wang, than she returned in a hurry to her rooms.
Pao-y had already awoke. He asked the reason why she had been called away, but Hsi Jen temporised by giving him an evasive answer. And only at night, when every one was quiet, did Hsi Jen at length give him a full account of the whole matter. Pao-y was delighted beyond measure. "I'll see now," he said, with a face beaming with smiles, "whether you'll go back home or not. On your return, after your last visit to your people, you stated that your brother wished to redeem you, adding that this place was no home for you, and that you didn't know what would become of you in the long run. You freely uttered all that language devoid of feeling and reason, and enough too to produce an estrangement between us, in order to frighten me; but I'd like to see who'll henceforward have the audacity to come and ask you to leave!"
Hsi Jen, upon hearing this, smiled a smile full of irony. "You shouldn't say such things!" she replied. "From henceforward I shall be our Madame Wang's servant, so that, if I choose to go I needn't even breathe a word to you. All I'll have to do will be to tell her, and then I shall be free to do as I like."
"But supposing that I behaved improperly," demurred Pao-y laughingly, "and that you took your leave after letting mother know, you yourself will be placed in no nice fix, when people get wind that you left on account of my having been improper."
"What no nice fix!" smiled Hsi Jen. "Is it likely that I am bound to serve even highway robbers? Well, failing anything else, I can die; for human beings may live a hundred years, but they're bound, in the long run, to fall a victim to death! And when this breath shall have departed, and I shall have lost the sense of hearing and of seeing, all will then be well!"
When her rejoinder fell on his ear, Pao-y promptly stopped her mouth with both his hands. "Enough! enough! that will do," he shouted. "There's no necessity for you to utter language of this kind."
Hsi Jen was well aware that Pao-y was gifted with such a peculiar temperament, that he even looked upon flattering or auspicious phrases with utter aversion, treating them as meaningless and consequently insincere, so when, after listening to those truths, she had spoken with such pathos, he, lapsed into another of his melancholy moods, she blamed herself for the want of consideration she had betrayed. Hastily therefore putting on a smile, she tried to hit upon some suitable remarks, with which to interrupt the conversation. Her choice fell upon those licentious and immodest topics, which had ever been a relish to the taste of Pao-y; and from these the conversation drifted to the subject of womankind. But when, subsequently, reference was made to the excellency of the weak sex, they somehow or other also came to touch upon the mortal nature of women, and Hsi Jen promptly closed her lips in silence.
Noticing however that now that the conversation had reached a point so full of zest for him, she had nothing to say for herself, Pao-y smilingly remarked: "What human being is there that can escape death? But the main thing is to come to a proper end! All that those abject male creatures excel in is, the civil officers, to sacrifice their lives by remonstrating with the Emperor; and, the military, to leave their bones on the battlefield. Both these deaths do confer, after life is extinct, the fame of great men upon them; but isn't it, in fact, better for them not to die? For as it is absolutely necessary that there should be a disorderly Emperor before they can afford any admonition, to what future fate do they thus expose their sovereign, if they rashly throw away their lives, with the sole aim of reaping a fair name for themselves? War too must supervene before they can fight; but if they go and recklessly lay down their lives, with the exclusive idea of gaining the reputation of intrepid warriors, to what destiny will they abandon their country by and bye? Hence it is that neither of these deaths can be looked upon as a legitimate death."
"Loyal ministers," Hsi Jen argued, "and excellent generals simply die because it isn't in their power to do otherwise."
"Military officers," Pao-y explained, "place such entire reliance upon brute force that they become lax in their stratagems and faulty in their plans. It's because they don't possess any inherent abilities that they lose their lives. Could one therefore, pray, say that they had no other alternative? Civil officials, on the other hand, can still less compare with military officers. They read a few passages from books, and commit them to memory; and, on the slightest mistake made by the Emperor, they're at once rash enough to remonstrate with him, prompted by the sole idea of attaining the fame of loyalty and devotion. But, as soon as their stupid notions have bubbled over, they forfeit their lives, and is it likely that it doesn't lie within their power to do otherwise? Why, they should also bear in mind that the Emperor receives his decrees from Heaven; and, that were he not a perfect man, Heaven itself would, on no account whatever, confer upon him a charge so extremely onerous. This makes it evident therefore that the whole pack and parcel of those officers, who are dead and gone, have invariably fallen victims to their endeavours to attain a high reputation, and that they had no knowledge whatever of the import of the great principle of right! Take me as an instance now. Were really mine the good fortune of departing life at a fit time, I'd avail myself of the present when all you girls are alive, to pass away. And could I get you to shed such profuse tears for me as to swell out into a stream large enough to raise my corpse and carry it to some secluded place, whither no bird even has ever wended its flight, and could I become invisible like the wind, and nevermore from this time, come into existence as a human being, I shall then have died at a proper season."
Hsi Jen suddenly awoke to the fact that he was beginning to give vent to a lot of twaddle, and speedily, pleading fatigue, she paid no further notice to him. This compelled Pao-y to at last be quiet and go to sleep. By the morrow, all recollection of the discussion had vanished from his mind.
One day, Pao-y was feeling weary at heart, after strolling all over the place, when remembering the song of the "Peony Pavilion," he read it over twice to himself; but still his spirits continued anything but joyous. Having heard, however, that among the twelve girls in the Pear Fragrance Court there was one called Ling Kuan, who excelled in singing, he purposely issued forth by a side gate and came in search of her. But the moment he got there, he discovered Pao Kuan, and Y Kuan in the court. As soon as they caught sight of Pao-y, they, with one consent, smiled and urged him to take a seat. Pao-y then inquired where Ling Kuan was. Both girls explained that she was in her room, so Pao-y hastened in. Here he found Ling Kuan alone, reclining against a pillow. Though perfectly conscious of his arrival, she did not move a muscle. Pao-y ensconced himself next to her. He had always been in the habit of playing with the rest of the girls, so thinking that Ling Kuan was like the others, he felt impelled to draw near her and to entreat her, with a forced smile, to get up and sing part of the "Niao Ch'ing Ssu." But his hopes were baffled; for as soon as Ling Kuan perceived him sit down, she impetuously raised herself and withdrew from his side. "I'm hoarse," she rejoined with a stern expression on her face. "The Empress the other day called us into the palace; but I couldn't sing even then."
Seeing her sit bolt upright, Pao-y went on to pass her under a minute survey. He discovered that it was the girl, whom he had, some time ago beheld under the cinnamon roses, drawing the character "Ch'iang." But seeing the reception she accorded him, who had never so far known what it was to be treated contemptuously by any one, he blushed crimson, while muttering some abuse to himself, and felt constrained to quit the room.
Pao Kuan and her companion could not fathom why he was so red and inquired of him the reason. Pao-y told them. "Wait a while," Pao Kuan said, "until Mr. Ch'iang Secundus comes; and when he asks her to sing, she is bound to sing."
Pao-y at these words felt very sad within himself. "Where's brother Ch'iang gone to?" he asked.
"He's just gone out," Pao Kuan answered. "Of course, Ling Kuan must have wanted something or other, and he's gone to devise ways and means to bring it to her."
Pao-y thought this remark very extraordinary. But after standing about for a while, he actually saw Chia Ch'iang arrive from outside, carrying a cage, with a tiny stage inserted at the top, and a bird as well; and wend his steps, in a gleeful mood, towards the interior to join Ling Kuan. The moment, however, he noticed Pao-y, he felt under the necessity of halting.
"What kind of bird is that?" Pao-y asked. "Can it hold a flag in its beak, or do any tricks?"
"It's the 'jade-crested and gold-headed bird,'" smiled Chia Ch'iang.
"How much did you give for it?" Pao-y continued.
"A tael and eight mace," replied Chia Ch'iang.
But while replying to his inquiries, he motioned to Pao-y to take a seat, and then went himself into Ling Kuan's apartment.
Pao-y had, by this time, lost every wish of hearing a song. His sole desire was to find what relations existed between his cousin and Ling Kuan, when he perceived Chia Ch'iang walk in and laughingly say to her, "Come and see this thing."
"What's it?" Ling Kuan asked, rising.
"I've bought a bird for you to amuse yourself with," Chia Ch'iang added, "so that you mayn't daily feel dull and have nothing to distract yourself with. But I'll first play with it and let you see."
With this prelude, he took a few seeds and began to coax the bird, until it, in point of fact, performed various tricks, on the stage, clasping in its beak a mask and a flag.
All the girls shouted out: "How nice;" with the sole exception of Ling Kuan, who gave a couple of apathetic smirks, and went in a huff to lie down. Again Chia Ch'iang, however, kept on forcing smiles, and inquiring of her whether she liked it or not.
"Isn't it enough," Ling Kuan observed, "that your family entraps a fine lot of human beings like us and coops us up in this hole to study this stuff and nonsense, but do you also now go and get a bird, which likewise is, as it happens, up to this sort of thing? You distinctly fetch it to make fun of us, and mimick us, and do you still ask me whether I like it or not?"
Hearing this reproach, Chia Ch'iang of a sudden sprang to his feet with alacrity and vehemently endeavoured by vowing and swearing to establish his innocence. "How ever could I have been such a fool to-day," he proceeded, "as to go and throw away a tael or two to purchase this bird? I really did it in the hope that it would afford you amusement. I never for a moment entertained such thoughts as those you credit me with. But never mind; I'll let it go, and save you all this misery!"
So saying, he verily gave the bird its liberty; and, with one blow, he smashed the cage to atoms.
"This bird," still argued Ling Kuan, "differs, it's true, from a human being; but it too has a mother and father in its nest, and could you have had the heart to bring it here to perform these silly pranks? In coughing to-day, I expectorated two mouthfuls of blood, and Madame Wang sent some one here to find you so as to tell you to ask the doctor round to minutely diagnose my complaint, and have you instead brought this to mock me with? But it so happens that I, who have not a soul to look after me, or to care for me, also have the fate to fall ill!"
Chia Ch'iang listened to her. "Yesterday evening," he eagerly explained, "I asked the doctor about it. He said that it was nothing at all, that you should take a few doses of medicine, and that he would be coming again in a day or two to see how you were getting on. But who'd have thought it, you have again to-day expectorated blood. I'll go at once and invite him to come round."
Speaking the while, he was about to go immediately when Ling Kuan cried out and stopped him. "Do you go off in a tantrum in this hot broiling sun?" she said. "You may ask him to come, but I won't see him."
When he heard her resolution, Chia Ch'iang had perforce to stand still.
Pao-y, perceiving what transpired between them, fell unwittingly in a dull reverie. He then at length got an insight into the deep import of the tracing of the character "Ch'iang." But unable to bear the ordeal any longer, he forthwith took himself out of the way. So absorbed, however, was Chia Ch'iang's whole mind with Ling Kuan that he could not even give a thought to escorting any one; and it was, in fact, the rest of the singing-girls who saw (Pao-y) out.
Pao-y's heart was gnawed with doubts and conjectures. In an imbecile frame of mind, he came to the I Hung court. Lin Tai-y was, at the moment, sitting with Hsi Jen, and chatting with her. As soon as Pao-y entered his quarters, he addressed himself to Hsi Jen, with a long sigh. "I was very wrong in what I said yesterday evening," he remarked. "It's no matter of surprise that father says that I am so narrow-minded that I look at things through a tube and measure them with a clam-shell. I mentioned something last night about having nothing but tears, shed by all of you girls, to be buried in. But this was a mere delusion! So as I can't get the tears of the whole lot of you, each one of you can henceforward keep her own for herself, and have done."
Hsi Jen had flattered herself that the words he had uttered the previous evening amounted to idle talk, and she had long ago dispelled all thought of them from her mind, but when Pao-y unawares made further allusion to them, she smilingly rejoined: "You are verily somewhat cracked!"
Pao-y kept silent, and attempted to make no reply. Yet from this time he fully apprehended that the lot of human affections is, in every instance, subject to predestination, and time and again he was wont to secretly muse, with much anguish: "Who, I wonder, will shed tears for me, at my burial?"
Lin Tai-y, for we will now allude to her, noticed Pao-y's behaviour, but readily concluding that he must have been, somewhere or other, once more possessed by some malignant spirit, she did not feel it advisable to ask many questions. "I just saw," she consequently observed, "my maternal aunt, who hearing that to-morrow is Miss Hseh's birthday, bade me come at my convenience to ask you whether you'll go or not, (and to tell you) to send some one ahead to let them know what you mean to do."
"I didn't go the other day, when it was Mr. Chia She's birthday, so I won't go now." Pao-y answered. "If it is a matter of meeting any one, I won't go anywhere. On a hot day like this to again don my ceremonial dress! No, I won't go. Aunt is not likely to feel displeased with me!"
"What are you driving at?" Hsi Jen speedily ventured. "She couldn't be put on the same footing as our senior master! She lives close by here. Besides she's a relative. Why, if you don't go, won't you make her imagine things? Well, if you dread the heat, just get up at an early hour and go over and prostrate yourself before her, and come back again, after you've had a cup of tea. Won't this look well?"
Before Pao-y had time to say anything by way of response, Tai-y anticipated him. "You should," she smiled, "go as far as there for the sake of her, who drives the mosquitoes away from you."
Pao-y could not make out the drift of her insinuation. "What about driving mosquitoes away?" he vehemently inquired.
Hsi Jen then explained to him how while he was fast asleep the previous day and no one was about to keep him company, Miss Pao-ch'ai had sat with him for a while.
"It shouldn't have been done!" Pao-y promptly exclaimed, after hearing her explanations. "But how did I manage to go to sleep and show such utter discourtesy to her? I must go to-morrow!" he then went on to add. But while these words were still on his lips, he unexpectedly caught sight of Shih Hsian-yn walk in in full dress, to bid them adieu, as she said that some one had been sent from her home to fetch her away.
The moment Pao-y and Tai-y heard what was the object of her visit, they quickly rose to their feet and pressed her to take a seat. But Shih Hsiang-yn would not sit down, so Pao-y and Tai-y were compelled to escort her as far as the front part of the mansion.
Shih Hsiang-yn's eyes were brimming with tears; but realising that several people from her home were present, she did not have the courage to give full vent to her feelings. But when shortly Pao-ch'ai ran over to find her, she felt so much the more drawn towards them, that she could not brook to part from them. Pao-ch'ai, however, inwardly understood that if her people told her aunt anything on their return, there would again be every fear of her being blown up, as soon as she got back home, and she therefore urged her to start on her way. One and all then walked with her up to the second gate, and Pao-y wished to accompany her still further outside, but Shih Hsiang-yn deterred him. Presently, they turned to go back. But once more, she called Pao-y to her, and whispered to him in a soft tone of voice: "Should our venerable senior not think of me do often allude to me, so that she should depute some one to fetch me."
Pao-y time after time assured her that he would comply with her wishes. And having followed her with their eyes, while she got into her curricle and started, they eventually retraced their steps towards the inner compound. But, reader, if you like to follow up the story, peruse the details contained in the chapter below.
In the Study of Autumnal Cheerfulness is accidentally formed the Cydonia Japonica Society. In the Heng Wu Court, the chrysanthemum is, on a certain night, proposed as a subject for verses.
But to continue. After Shih Hsiang-yn's return home, Pao-y and the other inmates spent their time, as of old, in rambling about in the garden in search of pleasure, and in humming poetical compositions. But without further reference to their doings, let us take up our narrative with Chia Cheng.
Ever since the visit paid to her home by the imperial consort, he fulfilled his official duties with additional zeal, for the purpose of reverently making requital for the grace shown him by the Emperor. His correct bearing and his spotless reputation did not escape His Majesty's notice, and he conferred upon him the special appointment of Literary Chancellor, with the sole object of singling out his true merit; for though he had not commenced his career through the arena of public examinations, he belonged nevertheless to a family addicted to letters during successive generations. Chia Cheng had, therefore, on the receipt of the imperial decree, to select the twentieth day of the eighth moon to set out on his journey. When the appointed day came, he worshipped at the shrines of his ancestors, took leave of them and of dowager lady Chia, and started for his post. It would be a needless task, however, to recount with any full particulars how Pao-y and all the inmates saw him off, how Chia Cheng went to take up his official duties, and what occurred abroad, suffice it for us to notice that Pao-y, ever since Chia Cheng's departure, indulged his caprices, allowed his feelings to run riot, and gadded wildly about. In fact, he wasted his time, and added fruitless days and months to his age.
On this special occasion, he experienced more than ever a sense of his lack of resources, and came to look up his grandmother Chia and Madame Wang. With them, he whiled away some of his time, after which he returned into the garden. As soon as he changed his costume, he perceived Ts'ui Mo enter, with a couple of sheets of fancy notepaper, in her hand, which she delivered to him.
"It quite slipped from my mind," Pao-y remarked. "I meant to have gone and seen my cousin Tertia; is she better that you come?"
"Miss is all right," Ts'ui Mo answered. "She hasn't even had any medicine to-day. It's only a slight chill."
When Pao-y heard this reply, he unfolded the fancy notepaper. On perusal, he found the contents to be: "Your cousin, T'an Ch'un, respectfully lays this on her cousin Secundus' study-table. When the other night the blue sky newly opened out to view, the moon shone as if it had been washed clean! Such admiration did this pure and rare panorama evoke in me that I could not reconcile myself to the idea of going to bed. The clepsydra had already accomplished three turns, and yet I roamed by the railing under the dryandra trees. But such poor treatment did I receive from wind and dew (that I caught a chill), which brought about an ailment as severe (as that which prevented the man of old from) picking up sticks. You took the trouble yesterday to come in person and cheer me up. Time after time also did you send your attendants round to make affectionate inquiries about me. You likewise presented me with fresh lichees and relics of writings of Chen Ch'ing. How deep is really your gracious love! As I leant to-day on my table plunged in silence, I suddenly remembered that the ancients of successive ages were placed in circumstances, in which they had to struggle for reputation and to fight for gain, but that they nevertheless acquired spots with hills and dripping streams, and, inviting people to come from far and near, they did all they could to detain them, by throwing the linch-pins of their chariots into wells or by holding on to their shafts; and that they invariably joined friendship with two or three of the same mind as themselves, with whom they strolled about in these grounds, either erecting altars for song, or establishing societies for scanning poetical works. Their meetings were, it is true, prompted, on the spur of the moment, by a sudden fit of good cheer, but these have again and again proved, during many years, a pleasant topic of conversation. I, your cousin, may, I admit, be devoid of talent, yet I have been fortunate enough to enjoy your company amidst streams and rockeries, and to furthermore admire the elegant verses composed by Hseh Pao-ch'ai and Lin Tai-y. When we were in the breezy hall and the moonlit pavilion, what a pity we never talked about poets! But near the almond tree with the sign and the peach tree by the stream, we may perhaps, when under the fumes of wine, be able to fling round the cups, used for humming verses! Who is it who opines that societies with any claim to excellent abilities can only be formed by men? May it not be that the pleasant meetings on the Tung Shan might yield in merit to those, such as ourselves, of the weaker sex? Should you not think it too much to walk on the snow, I shall make bold to ask you round, and sweep the way clean of flowers and wait for you. Respectfully written."
The perusal of this note filled Pao-y unawares with exultation. Clapping his hands; "My third cousin," he laughed, "is the one eminently polished; I'll go at once to-day and talk matters over with her."
As he spoke, he started immediately, followed by Ts'ui Mo. As soon as they reached the Hsin Fang pavilion, they espied the matron, on duty that day at the back door of the garden, advancing towards them with a note in her hand. The moment she perceived Pao-y she forthwith came up to meet him. "Mr. Yn," she said, "presents his compliments to you. He is waiting for you at the back gate. This is a note he bade me bring you."
Upon opening the note, Pao-y found it to read as follows: "An unfilial son, Yn, reverently inquires about his worthy father's boundless happiness and precious health. Remembering the honour conferred upon me by your recognising me, in your heavenly bounty, as your son, I tried both day as well as night to do something in evidence of my pious obedience, but no opportunity could I find to perform anything filial. When I had, some time back, to purchase flowers and plants, I succeeded, thanks to your vast influence, venerable senior, in finally making friends with several gardeners and in seeing a good number of gardens. As the other day I unexpectedly came across a white begonia, of a rare species, I exhausted every possible means to get some and managed to obtain just two pots. If you, worthy senior, regard your son as your own very son, do keep them to feast your eyes upon! But with this hot weather to-day, the young ladies in the garden will, I fear, not be at their ease. I do not consequently presume to come and see you in person, so I present you this letter, written with due respect, while knocking my head before your table. Your son, Yn, on his knees, lays this epistle at your feet. A joke!"
After reading this note, Pao-y laughed. "Has he come alone?" he asked. "Or has he any one else with him?"
"He's got two flower pots as well," rejoined the matron.
"You go and tell him," Pao-y urged, "that I've informed myself of the contents of his note, and that there are few who think of me as he does! If you also take the flowers and, put them in my room, it will be all right."
So saying, he came with Ts'ui Mo into the Ch'iu Shuang study, where he discovered Pao-ch'ai, Tai-y, Ying Ch'un and Hsi Ch'un already assembled. When they saw him drop in upon them, they all burst out laughing. "Here comes still another!" they exclaimed.
"I'm not a boor," smiled T'an Ch'un, "so when the idea casually crossed my mind, I wrote a few notes to try and see who would come. But who'd have thought that, as soon as I asked you, you would all come."
"It's unfortunately late," Pao-y smilingly observed. "We should have started this society long ago."
"You can't call this late!" Tai-y interposed, "so why give way to regret! The only thing is, you must form your society, without including me in the number; for I daren't be one of you."
"If you daren't," Ying Ch'un smiled, "who can presume to do so?"
"This is," suggested Pao-y, "a legitimate and great purpose; and we should all exert our energies. You shouldn't be modest, and I yielding; but every one of us, who thinks of anything, should freely express it for general discussion. So senior cousin Pao-ch'ai do make some suggestion; and you junior cousin Lin Tai-y say something."
"What are you in this hurry for?" Pao-ch'ai exclaimed. "We are not all here yet."
This remark was barely concluded, when Li Wan also arrived. As soon as she crossed the threshold, "It's an excellent proposal," she laughingly cried, "this of starting a poetical society. I recommend myself as controller. Some time ago in spring, I thought of this, 'but,' I mused, 'I am unable to compose verses, so what's the use of making a mess of things?' This is why I dispelled the idea from my mind, and made no mention about it. But since it's your good pleasure, cousin Tertia, to start it, I'll help you to set it on foot."
"As you've made up your minds," Tai-y put in, "to initiate a poetical society, every one of us will be poets, so we should, as a first step, do away with those various appellations of cousin and uncle and aunt, and thus avoid everything that bears a semblance of vulgarity."
"First rate," exclaimed Li Wan, "and why should we not fix upon some new designations by which to address ourselves? This will be a far more refined way! As for my own, I've selected that of the 'Old farmer of Tao Hsiang;' so let none of you encroach on it."
"I'll then call myself the 'resident-scholar of the Ch'iu Shuang,' and have done," T'an Ch'un observed with a smile.
"'Resident-scholar or master' is, in fact, not to the point. It's clumsy, besides," Pao-y interposed. "The place here is full of dryandra and banana trees, and if one could possibly hit upon some name bearing upon the dryandra and banana, it would be preferable."
"I've got one," shouted T'an Ch'un smilingly. "I'll style myself 'the guest under the banana trees.'"
"How uncommon!" they unanimously cried. "It's a nice one!"
"You had better," laughed Tai-y, "be quick and drag her away and stew some slices of her flesh, for people to eat with their wine."
No one grasped her meaning, "Ch'uang-tzu," Tai-y proceeded to explain, smiling, "says: 'The banana leaves shelter the deer,' and as she styles herself the guest under the banana tree, is she not a deer? So be quick and make pieces of dried venison of her."
At these words, the whole company laughed.
"Don't be in a hurry!" T'an Ch'un remarked, as she laughed. "You make use of specious language to abuse people; but I've thought of a fine and most apposite name for you!" Whereupon addressing herself to the party, "In days gone by," she added, "an imperial concubine, N Ying, sprinkled her tears on the bamboo, and they became spots, so from olden times to the present spotted bamboos have been known as the 'Hsiang imperial concubine bamboo.' Now she lives in the Hsiao Hsiang lodge, and has a weakness too for tears, so the bamboos over there will by and bye, I presume, likewise become transformed into speckled bamboos; every one therefore must henceforward call her the 'Hsiao Hsiang imperial concubine' and finish with it."
After listening to her, they one and all clapped their hands, and cried out: "Capital!" Lin Tai-y however drooped her head and did not so much as utter a single word.
"I've also," Li Wan smiled, "devised a suitable name for senior cousin, Hseh Pao-chai. It too is one of three characters."
"What's it?" eagerly inquired the party.
"I'll raise her to the rank of 'Princess of Heng Wu,'" Li Wan rejoined. "I wonder what you all think about this."
"This title of honour," T'an Ch'un observed, "is most apposite."
"What about mine?" Pao-y asked. "You should try and think of one for me also!"
"Your style has long ago been decided upon," Pao-ch'ai smiled. "It consists of three words: 'fussing for nothing!' It's most pat!"
"You should, after all, retain your old name of 'master of the flowers in the purple cave,'" Li Wan suggested. "That will do very well."
"Those were some of the doings of my youth; why rake them up again?" Pao-y laughed.
"Your styles are very many," T'an Ch'un observed, "and what do you want to choose another for? All you've got to do is to make suitable reply when we call you whatever takes our fancy."
"I must however give you a name," Pao-ch'ai remarked. "There's a very vulgar name, but it's just the very thing for you. What is difficult to obtain in the world are riches and honours; what is not easy to combine with them is leisure. These two blessings cannot be enjoyed together, but, as it happens, you hold one along with the other, so that we might as well dub you the 'rich and honourable idler.'"
"It won't do; it isn't suitable," Pao-y laughed. "It's better that you should call me, at random, whatever you like."
"What names are to be chosen for Miss Secunda and Miss Quarta?" Li Wan inquired.
"We also don't excel in versifying; what's the use consequently of giving us names, all for no avail?" Ying Ch'un said.
"In spite of this," argued T'an Ch'un, "it would be well to likewise find something for you!"
"She lives in the Tzu Ling Chou, (purple caltrop Isle), so let us call her 'Ling Chou,'" Pao-ch'ai suggested. "As for that girl Quarta, she lives in the On Hsiang Hsieh, (lotus fragrance pavilion); she should thus be called On Hsieh and have done!"
"These will do very well!" Li Wan cried. "But as far as age goes, I am the senior, and you should all defer to my wishes; but I feel certain that when I've told you what they are, you will unanimously agree to them. We are seven here to form the society, but neither I, nor Miss Secunda, nor Miss Quarta can write verses; so if you will exclude us three, we'll each share some special duties."
"Their names have already been chosen," T'an Ch'un smilingly demurred; "and do you still keep on addressing them like this? Well, in that case, won't it be as well for them to have no names? But we must also decide upon some scale of fines, for future guidance, in the event of any mistakes."
"There will be ample time to fix upon a scale of fines after the society has been definitely established." Li Wan replied. "There's plenty of room over in my place so let's hold our meetings there. I'm not, it is true, a good hand at verses, but if you poets won't treat me disdainfully as a rustic boor, and if you will allow me to play the hostess, I may certainly also gradually become more and more refined. As for conceding to me the presidentship of the society, it won't be enough, of course, for me alone to preside; it will be necessary to invite two others to serve as vice-presidents; you might then enlist Ling Chou and Ou Hsieh, both of whom are cultured persons. The one to choose the themes and assign the metre, the other to act as copyist and supervisor. We three cannot, however, definitely say that we won't write verses, for, if we come across any comparatively easy subject and metre, we too will indite a stanza if we feel so disposed. But you four will positively have to do so. If you agree to this, well, we can proceed with the society; but, if you don't fall in with my wishes, I can't presume to join you."
Ying Ch'un and Hsi Ch'un had a natural aversion for verses. What is more, Hseh Pao-ch'ai and Lin Tai-y were present. As soon therefore as they heard these proposals, which harmonised so thoroughly with their own views, they both, with one voice, approved them as excellent. T'an Ch'un and the others were likewise well aware of their object, but they could not, when they saw with what willingness they accepted the charge insist, with any propriety, upon their writing verses, and they felt obliged to say yes.
"Your proposals," she consequently said, "may be right enough; but in my views they are ridiculous. For here I've had the trouble of initiating this idea of a society, and, instead of my having anything to say in the matter, I've been the means of making you three come and exercise control over me."
"Well then," Pao-y suggested, "let's go to the Tao Hsiang village."
"You're always in a hurry!" Li Wan remarked. "We're here to-day to simply deliberate. So wait until I've sent for you again."
"It would be well," Pao-ch'ai interposed, "that we should also decide every how many days we are to meet."
"If we meet too often," argued T'an Ch'un, "there won't be fun in it. We should simply come together two or three times in a month."
"It will be ample if we meet twice or thrice a month," Pao-ch'ai added. "But when the dates have been settled neither wind nor rain should prevent us. Exclusive, however, of these two days, any one in high spirits and disposed to have an extra meeting can either ask us to go over to her place, or you can all come to us; either will do well enough! But won't it be more pleasant if no hard-and-fast dates were laid down?"
"This suggestion is excellent," they all exclaimed.
"This idea was primarily originated by me," T'an Ch'un observed, "and I should be the first to play the hostess, so that these good spirits of mine shouldn't all go for nothing."
"Well, after this remark," Li Wan proceeded, "what do you say to your being the first to convene a meeting to-morrow?"
"To-morrow," T'an Ch'un demurred, "is not as good as to-day; the best thing is to have it at once! You'd better therefore choose the subjects, while Ling Chou can fix the metre, and Ou Hsieh act as supervisor."
"According to my ideas," Ying Ch'un chimed in, "we shouldn't yield to the wishes of any single person in the choice of themes and the settlement of the rhythm. What would really be fair and right would be to draw lots."
"When I came just now," Li Wan pursued, "I noticed them bring in two pots of white begonias, which were simply beautiful; and why should you not write some verses on them?"
"Can we write verses," Ying Ch'un retorted, "before we have as yet seen anything of the flowers?"
"They're purely and simply white begonias," Pao-chai answered, "and is there again any need to see them before you put together your verses? Men of old merely indited poetical compositions to express their good cheer and conceal their sentiments; had they waited to write on things they had seen, why, the whole number of their works would not be in existence at present!"
"In that case," Ying Ch'un said, "let me fix the metre."
With these words, she walked up to the book-case, and, extracting a volume, she opened it, at random, at some verses which turned out to be a heptameter stanza. Then handing it round for general perusal, everybody had to compose lines with seven words in each. Ying Ch'un next closed the book of verses and addressed herself to a young waiting-maid. "Just utter," she bade her, "the first character that comes to your mouth."
The waiting-maid was standing, leaning against the door, so readily she suggested the word "door."
"The rhyme then will be the word 'door,'" Ying Ch'un smiled, "under the thirteenth character 'Yuan.' The final word of the first line is therefore 'door'."
Saying this, she asked for the box with the rhyme slips, and, pulling out the thirteenth drawer with the character "Yuan," she directed a young waiting-maid to take four words as they came under her hand. The waiting-maid complied with her directions, and picked out four slips, on which were written "p'en, hun, hen and hun," pot, spirit, traces and dusk.
"The two characters pot and door," observed Pao-y, "are not very easy to rhyme with."
But Shih Shu then got ready four lots of paper and pens, share and share alike, and one and all quietly set to work, racking their brains to perform their task, with the exception of Tai-y, who either kept on rubbing the dryandra flowers, or looking at the autumnal weather, or bandying jokes as well with the servant-girls; while Ying Ch'un ordered a waiting-maid to light a "dream-sweet" incense stick.
This "dream-sweet" stick was, it must be explained, made only about three inches long and about the thickness of a lamp-wick, in order to easily burn down. Setting therefore her choice upon one of these as a limit of time, any one who failed to accomplish the allotted task, by the time the stick was consumed, had to pay a penalty.
Presently, T'an Ch'un was the first to think of some verses, and, taking up her pen, she wrote them down; and, after submitting them to several alterations, she handed them up to Ying Ch'un.
"Princess of Heng Wu," she then inquired of Pao-ch'ai, "have you finished?"
"As for finishing, I have finished," Pao-ch'ai rejoined; "but they're worth nothing."
Pao-y paced up and down the verandah with his hands behind his back. "Have you heard?" he thereupon said to Tai-y, "they've all done!"
"Don't concern yourself about me!" Tai-y returned for answer.
Pao-y also perceived that Pao-ch'ai had already copied hers out. "Dreadful!" he exclaimed. "There only remains an inch of the stick and I've only just composed four lines. The incense stick is nearly burnt out," he continued, speaking to Tai-y, "and what do you keep squatting on that damp ground like that for?"
But Tai-y did not again worry her mind about what he said.
"Well," Pao-y added, "I can't be looking after you! Whether good or bad, I'll write mine out too and have done."
As he spoke, he likewise drew up to the table and began putting his lines down.
"We'll now peruse the verses," Li Wan interposed, "and if by the time we've done, you haven't as yet handed up your papers, you'll have to be fined."
"Old farmer of Tao Hsiang," Pao-y remarked, "you're not, it is true, a good hand at writing verses, but you can read well, and, what's more, you're the fairest of the lot; so you'd better adjudge the good and bad, and we'll submit to your judgment."
"Of course!" responded the party with one voice.
In due course, therefore, she first read T'an Ch'un's draft. It ran as follows:—
Verses on the Begonia.
What time the sun's rays slant, and the grass waxeth cold, close the double doors. After a shower of rain, green moss plenteously covers the whole pot. Beauteous is jade, but yet with thee in purity it cannot ever vie. Thy frame, spotless as snow, from admiration easy robs me of my wits Thy fragrant core is like unto a dot, so full of grace, so delicate! When the moon reacheth the third watch, thy comely shade begins to show itself. Do not tell me that a chaste fairy like thee can take wings and pass away. How lovely are thy charms, when in thy company at dusk I sing my lay!
After she had read them aloud, one and all sang their praise for a time. She then took up Pao-ch'ai's, which consisted of:
If thou would'st careful tend those fragrant lovely flowers, close of a day the doors, And with thine own hands take the can and sprinkle water o'er the mossy pots. Red, as if with cosmetic washed, are the shadows in autumn on the steps. Their crystal snowy bloom invites the dew on their spirits to heap itself. Their extreme whiteness mostly shows that they're more comely than all other flowers. When much they grieve, how can their jade-like form lack the traces of tears? Would'st thou the god of those white flowers repay? then purity need'st thou observe. In silence plunges their fine bloom, now that once more day yields to dusk.
"After all," observed Li Wan, "it's the Princess of Heng Wu, who expresses herself to the point."
Next they bestowed their attention on the following lines, composed by Pao-y:—
Thy form in autumn faint reflects against the double doors. So heaps the snow in the seventh feast that it filleth thy pots. Thy shade is spotless as Tai Chen, when from her bath she hails. Like Hsi Tzu's, whose hand ever pressed her heart, jade-like thy soul. When the morn-ushering breeze falls not, thy thousand blossoms grieve. To all thy tears the evening shower addeth another trace. Alone thou lean'st against the coloured rails as if with sense imbued. As heavy-hearted as the fond wife, beating clothes, or her that sadly listens to the flute, thou mark'st the fall of dusk.
When they had perused his verses, Pao-y opined that T'an Ch'un's carried the palm. Li Wan was, however, inclined to concede to the stanza, indited by Pao-ch'ai, the credit of possessing much merit. But she then went on to tell Tai-y to look sharp.
"Have you all done?" Tai-y asked.
So saying, she picked up a pen and completing her task, with a few dashes, she threw it to them to look over. On perusal, Li Wan and her companions found her verses to run in this strain:—
Half rolled the speckled portiere hangs, half closed the door. Thy mould like broken ice it looks, jade-like thy pot.
This couplet over, Pao-y took the initiative and shouted: "Capital." But he had just had time to inquire where she had recalled them to mind from, when they turned their mind to the succeeding lines:
Three points of whiteness from the pear petals thou steal'st; And from the plum bloom its spirit thou borrowest.
"Splendid!" every one (who heard) them conned over, felt impelled to cry. "It is a positive fact," they said, "that her imagination is, compared with that of others, quite unique."
But the rest of the composition was next considered. Its text was:
The fairy in Selene's cavity donneth a plain attire. The maiden, plunged in autumn grief, dries in her room the prints of tears. Winsome she blushes, in silence she's plunged, with none a word she breathes; But wearily she leans against the eastern breeze, though dusk has long since fall'n.
"This stanza ranks above all!" they unanimously remarked, after it had been read for their benefit.
"As regards beauty of thought and originality, this stanza certainly deserves credit," Li Wan asserted; "but as regards pregnancy and simplicity of language, it, after all, yields to that of Heng Wu."
"This criticism is right." T'an Ch'un put in. "That of the Hsiao Hsiang consort must take second place."
"Yours, gentleman of I Hung," Li Wan pursued, "is the last of the lot. Do you agreeably submit to this verdict?"
"My stanza," Pao-y ventured, "isn't really worth a straw. Your criticism is exceedingly fair. But," he smilingly added, "the two poems, written by Heng Wu and Hsiao Hsiang, have still to be discussed."
"You should," argued Li Wan, "fall in with my judgment; this is no business of any of you, so whoever says anything more will have to pay a penalty."
Pao-y at this reply found that he had no alternative but to drop the subject.
"I decide that from henceforward," Li Wan proceeded, "we should hold meetings twice every month, on the second and sixteenth. In the selection of themes and the settlement of the rhymes, you'll all have then to do as I wish. But any person who may, during the intervals, feel so disposed, will be at perfect liberty to choose another day for an extra meeting. What will I care if there's a meeting every day of the moon? It will be no concern of mine, so long as when the second and sixteenth arrive, you do, as you're bound to, and come over to my place."
"We should, as is but right," Pao-y suggested, "choose some name or other for our society."
"Were an ordinary one chosen, it wouldn't be nice," T'an Ch'un explained, "and anything too new-fangled, eccentric or strange won't also be quite the thing! As luck would have it, we've just started with the poems on the begonia, so let us call it the 'Begonia Poetical Society.' This title is, it's true, somewhat commonplace; but as it's positively based on fact, it shouldn't matter."
After this proposal of hers, they held further consultation; and partaking of some slight refreshments, each of them eventually retired. Some repaired to their quarters. Others went to dowager lady Chia's or Madame Wang's apartments. But we will leave them without further comment.
When Hsi Jen, for we will now come to her, perceived Pao-y peruse the note and walk off in a great flurry, along with Ts'ui Mo, she was quite at a loss what to make of it. Subsequently, she also saw the matrons, on duty at the back gate, bring two pots of begonias. Hsi Jen inquired of them where they came from. The women explained to her all about them. As soon as Hsi Jen heard their reply, she at once desired them to put the flowers in their proper places, and asked them to sit down in the lower rooms. She then entered the house, and, weighing six mace of silver, she wrapped it up properly, and fetching besides three hundred cash, she came over and handed both the amounts to the two matrons. "This silver," she said, "is a present for the boys, who carried the flowers; and these cash are for you to buy yourselves a cup of tea with."