The women rose to their feet in such high glee that their eyebrows dilated and their eyes smiled; but, though they waxed eloquent in the expression of their deep gratitude, they would not accept the money. It was only after they had perceived how obstinate Hsi Jen was in not taking it back that they at last volunteered to keep it.
"Are there," Hsi Jen then inquired, "any servant-boys on duty outside the back gate?"
"There are four of them every day," answered one of the matrons. "They're put there with the sole idea of attending to any orders that might be given them from inside. But, Miss, if you've anything to order them to do, we'll go and deliver your message."
"What orders can I have to give them?" Hsi Jen laughed. "Mr. Pao, our master Secundus, was purposing to send some one to-day to the young marquis' house to take something over to Miss Shih. But you come at an opportune moment so you might, on your way out, tell the servant-boys at the back gate to hire a carriage; and on its return you can come here and get the money. But don't let them rush recklessly against people in the front part of the compound!"
The matrons signified their obedience and took their leave. Hsi Jen retraced her steps into the house to fetch a tray in which to place the presents intended for Shih Hsiang-yn, but she discovered the shelf for trays empty. Upon turning round, however, she caught sight of Ch'ing Wen, Ch'iu Wen, She Yeh and the other girls, seated together, busy with their needlework. "Where is the white cornelian tray with twisted threads gone to?" Hsi Jen asked.
At this question, one looked at the one, and the other stared at the other, but none of them could remember anything about it. After a protracted lapse of time, Ch'ing Wen smiled. "It was taken to Miss Tertia's with a present of lichees," she rejoined, "and it hasn't as yet been returned."
"There are plenty of articles," Hsi Jen remarked, "for sending over things on ordinary occasions; and do you deliberately go and carry this off?"
"Didn't I maintain the same thing?" Ch'ing Wen retorted. "But so well did this tray match with the fresh lichees it contained, that when I took it over, Miss T'an Ch'un herself noticed the fact. 'How splendid,' she said, and lo, putting even the tray by, she never had it brought over. But, look! hasn't the pair of beaded vases, which stood on the very top of that shelf, been fetched as yet?"
"The mention of these vases," Ch'iu Wen laughed, "reminds me again of a funny incident. Whenever our Mr. Pao-y's filial piety is aroused, he shows himself filial over and above the highest degree! The other day, he espied the olea flowers in the park, and he plucked two twigs. His original idea was to place them in a vase for himself, but a sudden thought struck him. 'These are flowers,' he mused, 'which have newly opened in our garden, so how can I presume to be the first to enjoy them?' And actually taking down that pair of vases, he filled them with water with his own hands, put the flowers in, and, calling a servant to carry them, he in person took one of the vases into dowager lady Chia's, and then took the other to Madame Wang's. But, as it happens, even his attendants reap some benefit, when once his filial feelings are stirred up! As luck would have it, the one who carried the vases over on that day was myself. The sight of these flowers so enchanted our venerable lady that there was nothing that she wouldn't do. 'Pao-y,' she said to every one she met, 'is the one, after all, who shows me much attention. So much so, that he has even thought of bringing me a twig of flowers! And yet, the others bear me a grudge on account of the love that I lavish on him!' Our venerable mistress, you all know very well, has never had much to say to me. I have all along not been much of a favourite in the old lady's eyes. But on that occasion she verily directed some one to give me several hundreds of cash. 'I was to be pitied,' she observed, 'for being born with a weak physique!' This was, indeed, an unforeseen piece of good luck! The several hundreds of cash are a mere trifle; but what's not easy to get is this sort of honour! After that, we went over into Madame Wang's. Madame Wang was, at the time, with our lady Secunda, Mrs. Chao, and a whole lot of people; turning the boxes topsy-turvey, trying to find some coloured clothes her ladyship had worn long ago in her youth, so as to give them to some one or other. Who it was, I don't know. But the moment she saw us, she did not even think of searching for any clothes, but got lost in admiration for the flowers. Our lady Secunda was also standing by, and she made sport of the matter. She extolled our master Pao, for his filial piety and for his knowledge of right and wrong; and what with what was true and what wasn't, she came out with two cart-loads of compliments. These things spoken in the presence of the whole company so added to Madame Wang's lustre and sealed every one's mouth, that her ladyship was more and more filled with gratification, and she gave me two ready-made clothes as a present. These too are of no consequence; one way or another, we get some every year; but nothing can come up to this sort of lucky chance!"
"Psha!" Ch'ing Wen ejaculated with a significant smile, "you are indeed a mean thing, who has seen nothing of the world! She gave the good ones to others and the refuse to you; and do you still pat on all this side?"
"No matter whether what she gave me was refuse or not," Ch'iu Wen protested, "it's, after all, an act of bounty on the part of her ladyship."
"Had it been myself," Ch'ing Wen pursued, "I would at once have refused them! It wouldn't have mattered if she had given me what had been left by some one else; but we all stand on an equal footing in these rooms, and is there any one, forsooth, so much the more exalted or honorable than the other as to justify her taking what is good and bestowing it upon her and giving me what is left? I had rather not take them! I might have had to give offence to Madame Wang, but I wouldn't have put up with such a slight!"
"To whom did she give any in these rooms?" Ch'iu Wen vehemently inquired. "I was unwell and went home for several days, so that I am not aware to whom any were given. Dear sister, do tell me who it is so that I may know."
"Were I to tell you," Ch'ing Wen rejoined, "is it likely that you would return them at this hour to Madame Wang?"
"What nonsense," Ch'iu Wen laughed. "Ever since I've heard about it, I've been delighted and happy. No matter if she even bestowed upon me what remained from anything given to a dog in these rooms, I would have been thankful for her ladyship's kindness. I wouldn't have worried my mind with anything else!"
After listening to her, everybody laughed. "Doesn't she know how to jeer in fine style!" they ejaculated unanimously; "for weren't they given to that foreign spotted pug dog?"
"You lot of filthy-tongued creatures!" Hsi Jen laughed, "when you've got nothing to do, you make me the scapegoat to crack your jokes, and poke your fun at! But what kind of death will, I wonder, each of you have!"
"Was it verily you, sister, who got them?" Ch'iu Wen asked with a smile. "I assure you I had no idea about it! I tender you my apologies."
"You might be a little less domineering!" Hsi Jen remarked smilingly. "The thing now is, who of you will go and fetch the tray."
"The vases too," Shih Yeh suggested, "must be got back when there's any time to spare; for there's nothing to say about our venerable mistress' quarters, but Madame Wang's apartments teem with people and many hands. The rest are all right; but Mrs. Chao and all that company will, when they see that the vase hails from these rooms, surely again foster evil designs, and they won't feel happy until they've done all they can to spoil it! Besides, Madame Wang doesn't trouble herself about such things. So had we not as well bring it over a moment sooner?"
Hearing this, Ch'ing Wen threw down her needlework. "What you say is perfectly right," she assented, "so you'd better let me go and fetch it."
"I'll, after all, go for it." Ch'iu Wen cried. "You can go and get that tray of yours!"
"You should let me once go for something!" Ch'ing Wen pleaded. "Whenever any lucky chance has turned up, you've invariably grabbed it; and can it be that you won't let me have a single turn?"
"Altogether," She Yeh said laughingly, "that girl Ch'iu Wen got a few clothes just once; can such a lucky coincidence present itself again today that you too should find them engaged in searching for clothes?"
"Albeit I mayn't come across any clothes," Ch'ing Wen rejoined with a sardonic smile, "our Madame Wang may notice how diligent I am, and apportion me a couple of taels out of her public expenses; there's no saying." Continuing, "Don't you people," she laughed, "try and play your pranks with me; for is there anything that I don't twig?"
As she spoke, she ran outside. Ch'iu Wen too left the room in her company; but she repaired to T'an Ch'un's quarters and fetched the tray.
Hsi Jen then got everything ready. Calling an old nurse attached to the same place as herself, Sung by name, "Just go first and wash, comb your hair and put on your out-of-door clothes," she said to her, "and then come back as I want to send you at once with a present to Miss Shih."
"Miss," urged the nurse Sung, "just give me what you have; and, if you have any message, tell it me; so that when I've tidied myself I may go straightway."
Hsi Jen, at this proposal, brought two small twisted wire boxes; and, opening first the one in which were two kinds of fresh fruits, consisting of caltrops and "chicken head" fruit, and afterwards uncovering the other, containing a tray with new cakes, made of chestnut powder, and steamed in sugar, scented with the olea, "All these fresh fruits are newly plucked this year from our own garden," she observed; "our Mr. Secundus sends them to Miss Shih to taste. The other day, too, she was quite taken with this cornelian tray so let her keep it for her use. In this silk bag she'll find the work, which she asked me some time ago to do for her. (Tell her) that she mustn't despise it for its coarseness, but make the best of it and turn it to some account. Present respects to her from our part and inquire after her health on behalf of Mr. Pao-y; that will be all there's to say."
"Has Mr. Pao, I wonder, anything more for me to tell her?" the nurse Sung added, "Miss, do go and inquire, so that on my return, he mayn't again say that I forgot."
"He was just now," Hsi Jen consequently asked Ch'iu Wen, "over there in Miss Tertia's rooms, wasn't he?"
"They were all assembled there, deliberating about starting some poetical society or other," Ch'iu Wen explained, "and they all wrote verses too. But I fancy he's got no message to give you; so you might as well start."
After this assurance, nurse Sung forthwith took the things, and quitted the apartment. When she had changed her clothes and arranged her hair, Hsi Jen further enjoined them to go by the back door, where there was a servant-boy, waiting with a curricle. Nurse Sung thereupon set out on her errand. But we will leave her for the present.
In a little time Pao-y came back. After first cursorily glancing at the begonias for a time, he walked into his rooms, and explained to Hsi Jen all about the poetical society they had managed to establish, Hsi Jen then told him that she had sent the nurse Sung along with some things, to Shih Hsiang-yn. As soon as Pao-y heard this, he clapped his hands. "I forgot all about her!" he cried. "I knew very well that I had something to attend to; but I couldn't remember what it was! Luckily, you've alluded to her! I was just meaning to ask her to come, for what fun will there be in this poetical society without her?"
"Is this of any serious import?" Hsi Jen reasoned with him. "It's all, for the mere sake of recreation! She's not however able to go about at her own free will as you people do. Nor can she at home have her own way. When you therefore let her know, it won't again rest with her, however willing she may be to avail herself of your invitation. And if she can't come, she will long and crave to be with you all, so isn't it better that you shouldn't be the means of making her unhappy?"
"Never mind!" responded Pao-y. "I'll tell our venerable senior to despatch some one to bring her over."
But in the middle of their conversation, nurse Sung returned already from her mission, and expressed to him, (Hsiang-yn's) acknowledgment; and to Hsi Jen her thanks for the trouble. "She also inquired," the nurse proceeded, "what you, master Secundus, were up to, and I told her that you had started some poetical club or other with the young ladies and that you were engaged in writing verses. Miss Shih wondered why it was, if you were writing verses, that you didn't even mention anything to her; and she was extremely distressed about it."
Pao-y, at these words, turned himself round and betook himself immediately into his grandmother's apartments, where he did all that lay in his power to urge her to depute servants to go and fetch her.
"It's too late to-day," dowager lady Chia answered; "they'll go tomorrow, as soon as it's daylight."
Pao-y had no other course but to accede to her wishes. He, however, retraced his steps back to his room with a heavy heart. On the morrow, at early dawn, he paid another visit to old lady Chia and brought pressure to bear on her until she sent some one for her. Soon after midday, Shih Hsiang-yn arrived. Pao-y felt at length much relieved in his mind. Upon meeting her, he recounted to her all that had taken place from beginning to end. His purpose was likewise to let her see the poetical composition, but Li Wan and the others remonstrated. "Don't," they said, "allow her to see them! First tell her the rhymes and number of feet; and, as she comes late, she should, as a first step, pay a penalty by conforming to the task we had to do. Should what she writes be good, then she can readily be admitted as a member of the society; but if not good, she should be further punished by being made to stand a treat; after which, we can decide what's to be done."
"You've forgotten to ask me round," Hsiang-yn laughed, "and I should, after all, fine you people! But produce the metre; for though I don't excel in versifying, I shall exert myself to do the best I can, so as to get rid of every slur. If you will admit me into the club, I shall be even willing to sweep the floors and burn the incense."
When they all saw how full of fun she was, they felt more than ever delighted with her and they reproached themselves, for having somehow or other managed to forget her on the previous day. But they lost no time in telling her the metre of the verses.
Shih Hsiang-yn was inwardly in ecstasies. So much so, that she could not wait to beat the tattoo and effect any alterations. But having succeeded, while conversing with her cousins, in devising a stanza in her mind, she promptly inscribed it on the first piece of paper that came to hand. "I have," she remarked, with a precursory smile, "stuck to the metre and written two stanzas. Whether they be good or bad, I cannot say; all I've kept in view was to simply comply with your wishes."
So speaking, she handed her paper to the company.
"We thought our four stanzas," they observed, "had so thoroughly exhausted everything that could be imagined on the subject that another stanza was out of the question, and there you've devised a couple more! How could there be so much to say? These must be mere repetitions of our own sentiments."
While bandying words, they perused her two stanzas. They found this to be their burden:
The fairies yesterday came down within the city gates, And like those gems, sown in the grassy field, planted one pot. How clear it is that the goddess of frost is fond of cold! It is no question of a pretty girl bent upon death! Where does the snow, which comes in gloomy weather, issue from? The drops of rain increase the prints, left from the previous night. How the flowers rejoice that bards are not weary of song! But are they ever left to spend in peace a day or night?
The "heng chih" covered steps lead to the creeper-laden door. How fit to plant by the corner of walls; how fit for pots? The flowers so relish purity that they can't find a mate. Easy in autumn snaps the soul of sorrow-wasted man. The tears, which from the jade-like candle drip, dry in the wind. The crystal-like portiere asunder rends Selene's rays. Their private feelings to the moon goddess they longed to tell, But gone, alas! is the lustre she shed on the empty court!
Every line filled them with wonder and admiration. What they read, they praised. "This," they exclaimed, with one consent, "is not writing verses on the begonia for no purpose! We must really start a Begonia Society!"
"To-morrow," Shih Hsiang-yn proposed, "first fine me by making me stand a treat, and letting me be the first to convene a meeting; may I?"
"This would be far better!" they all assented. So producing also the verses, composed the previous day, they submitted them to her for criticism.
In the evening, Hsiang-yn came at the invitation of Pao-ch'ai, to the Heng Wu Yan to put up with her for the night. By lamplight, Hsiang-yn consulted with her how she was to play the hostess and fix upon the themes; but, after lending a patient ear to all her proposals for a long time, Pao-ch'ai thought them so unsuitable for the occasion, that turning towards her, she raised objections. "If you want," she said, "to hold a meeting, you have to pay the piper. And albeit it's for mere fun, you have to make every possible provision; for while consulting your own interests, you must guard against giving umbrage to people. In that case every one will afterwards be happy and contented. You count for nothing too in your own home; and the whole lump sum of those few tiaos, you draw each month, are not sufficient for your own wants, and do you now also wish to burden yourself with this useless sort of thing? Why, if your aunt gets wind of it, won't she be more incensed with you than ever! What's more, even though you might fork out all the money you can call your own to bear the outlay of this entertainment with, it won't be anything like enough, and can it possibly be, pray, that you would go home for the express purpose of requisitioning the necessary funds? Or will you perchance ask for some from in here?"
This long tirade had the effect of bringing the true facts of the case to Hsiang-yn's notice, and she began to waver in a state of uncertainty.
"I have already fixed upon a plan in my mind," Pao-ch'ai resumed. "There's an assistant in our pawnshop from whose family farm come some splendid crabs. Some time back, he sent us a few as a present, and now, starting from our venerable senior and including the inmates of the upper quarters, most of them are quite in love with crabs. It was only the other day that my mother mentioned that she intended inviting our worthy ancestor into the garden to look at the olea flowers and partake of crabs, but she has had her hands so full that she hasn't as yet asked her round. So just you now drop the poetical meeting, and invite the whole crowd to a show; and if we wait until they go, won't we be able to indite as many poems as we like? But let me speak to my brother and ask him to let us have several baskets of the fattest and largest crabs he can get, and to also go to some shop and fetch several jars of luscious wine. And if we then lay out four or five tables with plates full of refreshments, won't we save trouble and all have a jolly time as well?"
As soon as Hsiang-yn heard (the alternative proposed by Pao-ch'ai,) she felt her heart throb with gratitude and in most profuse terms she praised her for her forethought.
"The proposal I've made." Pao-ch'ai pursued smilingly; "is prompted entirely by my sincere feelings for you; so whatever you do don't be touchy and imagine that I look down upon you; for in that case we two will have been good friends all in vain. But if you won't give way to suspicion, I'll be able to tell them at once to go and get things ready."
"My dear cousin," eagerly rejoined Hsiang-yn, a smile on her lips, "if you say these things it's you who treat me with suspicion; for no matter how foolish a person I may be, as not to even know what's good and bad, I'm still a human being! Did I not regard you, cousin, in the same light as my own very sister, I wouldn't last time have had any wish or inclination to disclose to you every bit of those troubles, which ordinarily fall to my share at home."
After listening to these assurances, Pao-ch'ai summoned a matron and bade her go out and tell her master, Hseh P'an, to procure a few hampers of crabs of the same kind as those which were sent on the previous occasion. "Our venerable senior," (she said,) "and aunt Wang are asked to come to-morrow after their meal and admire the olea flowers, so mind, impress upon your master to please not forget, as I've already to-day issued the invitations."
The matron walked out of the garden and distinctly delivered the message. But, on her return, she brought no reply.
During this while, Pao-ch'ai continued her conversation with Hsiang-yn. "The themes for the verses," she advised her, "mustn't also be too out-of-the-way. Just search the works of old writers, and where will you find any eccentric and peculiar subjects, or any extra difficult metre! If the subject be too much out-of-the-way and the metre too difficult, one cannot get good verses. In a word, we are a mean lot and our verses are certain, I fear, to consist of mere repetitions. Nor is it advisable for us to aim at excessive originality. The first thing for us to do is to have our ideas clear, as our language will then not be commonplace. In fact, this sort of thing is no vital matter; spinning and needlework are, in a word, the legitimate duties of you and me. Yet, if we can at any time afford the leisure, it's only right and proper that we should take some book, that will benefit both body and mind, and read a few chapters out of it."
Hsiang-yn simply signified her assent. "I'm now cogitating in my mind," she then laughingly remarked, "that as the verses we wrote yesterday treated of begonias, we should, I think, compose on this occasion some on chrysanthemums, eh? What do you say?"
"Chrysanthemums are in season," Pao-ch'ai replied. "The only objection to them is that too many writers of old have made them the subject of their poems."
"I also think so," Hsiang-yn added, "so that, I fear, we shall only be following in their footsteps."
After some reflection, Pao-ch'ai exclaimed, "I've hit upon something! If we take, for the present instance, the chrysanthemums as a secondary term, and man as the primary, we can, after all, select several themes. But they must all consist of two characters: the one, an empty word; the other, a full one. The full word might be chrysanthemums; while for the empty one, we might employ some word in general use. In this manner, we shall, on one hand, sing the chrysanthemum; and, on the other, compose verses on the theme. And as old writers have not written much in this style, it will be impossible for us to drift into the groove of their ideas. Thus in versifying on the scenery and in singing the objects, we will, in both respects, combine originality with liberality of thought."
"This is all very well," smiled Hsiang-yn. "The only thing is what kind of empty words will, I wonder, be best to use? Just you first think of one and let me see."
Pao-ch'ai plunged in thought for a time, after which she laughingly remarked: "Dream of chrysanthemums is good."
"It's positively good!" Hsiang-yn smiled. "I've also got one: 'the Chrysanthemum shadow,' will that do?"
"Well enough," Pao-ch'ai answered, "the only objection is that people have written on it; yet if the themes are to be many, we might throw this in. I've got another one too!"
"Be quick, and tell it!" Hsiang-yn urged.
"What do you say to 'ask the Chrysanthemums?'" Pao-ch'ai observed.
Hsiang-yn clapped her hand on the table. "Capital," she cried. "I've thought of one also." She then quickly continued, "It is, search for chrysanthemums; what's your idea about it?"
Pao-ch'ai thought that too would do very well. "Let's choose ten of them first," she next proposed; "and afterwards note them down!"
While talking, they rubbed the ink and moistened the pens. These preparations over, Hsiang-yn began to write, while Pao-ch'ai enumerated the themes. In a short time, they got ten of them.
"Ten don't form a set," Hsiang-yn went on to smilingly suggest, after reading them over. "We'd better complete them by raising their number to twelve; they'll then also be on the same footing as people's pictures and books."
Hearing this proposal, Pao-ch'ai devised another couple of themes, thus bringing them to a dozen. "Well, since we've got so far," she pursued, "let's go one step further and copy them out in their proper order, putting those that are first, first; and those that come last, last."
"It would be still better like that," Hsiang-yn acquiesced, "as we'll be able to make up a 'chrysanthemum book.'"
"The first stanza should be: 'Longing for chrysanthemums,'" Pao-chai said, "and as one cannot get them by wishing, and has, in consequence, to search for them, the second should be 'searching for chrysanthemums.' After due search, one finds them, and plants them, so the third must be: 'planting chrysanthemums.' After they've been planted, they, blossom, and one faces them and enjoys them, so the fourth should be 'facing the chrysanthemums.' By facing them, one derives such excessive delight that one plucks them and brings them in and puts them in vases for one's own delectation, so the fifth must be 'placing chrysanthemums in vases.' If no verses are sung in their praise, after they've been placed in vases, it's tantamount to seeing no point of beauty in chrysanthemums, so the sixth must be 'sing about chrysanthemums.' After making them the burden of one's song, one can't help representing them in pictures. The seventh place should therefore be conceded to 'drawing chrysanthemums.' Seeing that in spite of all the labour bestowed on the drawing of chrysanthemums, the fine traits there may be about them are not yet, in fact, apparent, one impulsively tries to find them out by inquiries, so the eighth should be 'asking the chrysanthemums.' As any perception, which the chrysanthemums might display in fathoming the questions set would help to make the inquirer immoderately happy, the ninth must be 'pinning the chrysanthemums in the hair.' And as after everything has been accomplished, that comes within the sphere of man, there will remain still some chrysanthemums about which something could be written, two stanzas on the 'shadow of the chrysanthemums,' and the 'dream about chrysanthemums' must be tagged on as numbers ten and eleven. While the last section should be 'the withering of the chrysanthemums' so as to bring to a close the sentiments expressed in the foregoing subjects. In this wise the fine scenery and fine doings of the third part of autumn, will both alike be included in our themes."
Hsiang-yn signified her approval, and taking the list she copied it out clean. But after once more passing her eye over it, she went on to inquire what rhymes should be determined upon.
"I do not, as a rule, like hard-and-fast rhymes," Pao-ch'ai retorted. "It's evident enough that we can have good verses without them, so what's the use of any rhymes to shackle us? Don't let us imitate that mean lot of people. Let's simply choose our subject and pay no notice to rhymes. Our main object is to see whether we cannot by chance hit upon some well-written lines for the sake of fun. It isn't to make this the means of subjecting people to perplexities."
"What you say is perfectly right," Hsiang-yn observed. "In this manner our poetical composition will improve one step higher. But we only muster five members, and there are here twelve themes. Is it likely that each one of us will have to indite verses on all twelve?"
"That would be far too hard on the members!" Pao-ch'ai rejoined. "But let's copy out the themes clean, for lines with seven words will have to be written on every one, and stick them to-morrow on the wall for general perusal. Each member can write on the subject which may be most in his or her line. Those, with any ability, may choose all twelve. While those, with none, may only limit themselves to one stanza. Both will do. Those, however, who will show high mental capacity, combined with quickness, will be held the best. But any one, who shall have completed all twelve themes, won't be permitted to hasten and begin over again; we'll have to fine such a one, and finish."
"Yes, that will do," assented Hsiang-yn. But after settling everything satisfactorily, they extinguished the lamp and went to bed.
Reader, do you want to know what subsequently took place? If you do, then listen to what is contained in the way of explanation in the following chapter.
Lin Hsiao-Hsiang carries the first prize in the poems on chrysanthemums. Hsueh Heng-wu chaffs Pao-y by composing verses in the same style as his on the crabs.
After Pao-ch'ai and Hsiang-yn, we will now explain, settled everything in their deliberations, nothing memorable occurred, the whole night, which deserves to be put on record.
The next day, Hsiang-yn invited dowager lady Chia and her other relatives to come and look at the olea flowers. Old lady Chia and every one else answered that as she had had the kind attention to ask them, they felt it their duty to avail themselves of her gracious invitation, much though they would be putting her to trouble and inconvenience. At twelve o'clock, therefore, old lady Chia actually took with her Madame Wang and lady Feng, as well as Mrs. Hseh and other members of her family whom she had asked to join them, and repaired into the garden.
"Which is the best spot?" old lady Chia inquired.
"We are ready to go wherever you may like, dear senior," Madame Wang ventured in response.
"A collation has already been spread in the Lotus Fragrance Arbour," lady Feng interposed. "Besides, the two olea plants, on that hill, yonder, are now lovely in their full blossom, and the water of that stream is jade-like and pellucid, so if we sit in the pavilion in the middle of it, won't we enjoy an open and bright view? It will be refreshing too to our eyes to watch the pool."
"Quite right!" assented dowager lady Chia at this suggestion; and while expressing her approbation, she ushered her train of followers into the Arbour of Lotus Fragrance.
This Arbour of Lotus Fragrance had, in fact, been erected in the centre of the pool. It had windows on all four sides. On the left and on the right, stood covered passages, which spanned the stream and connected with the hills. At the back, figured a winding bridge.
As the party ascended the bamboo bridge, lady Feng promptly advanced and supported dowager lady Chia. "Venerable ancestor," she said, "just walk boldly and with confident step; there's nothing to fear; it's the way of these bamboo bridges to go on creaking like this."
Presently, they entered the arbour. Here they saw two additional bamboo tables, placed beyond the balustrade. On the one, were arranged cups, chopsticks and every article necessary for drinking wine. On the other, were laid bamboo utensils for tea, a tea-service and various cups and saucers. On the off side, two or three waiting-maids were engaged in fanning the stove to boil the water for tea. On the near side were visible several other girls, who were trying with their fans to get a fire to light in the stove so as to warm the wines.
"It was a capital idea," dowager lady Chia hastily exclaimed laughingly with vehemence, "to bring tea here. What's more, the spot and the appurtenances are alike so spick and span!"
"These things were brought by cousin Pao-ch'ai," Hsiang-yn smilingly explained, "so I got them ready."
"This child is, I say, so scrupulously particular," old lady Chia observed, "that everything she does is thoroughly devised."
As she gave utterance to her feelings, her attention was attracted by a pair of scrolls of black lacquer, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, suspended on the pillars, and she asked Hsiang-yn to tell her what the mottoes were.
The text she read was:
Snapped is the shade of the hibiscus by the fragrant oar of a boat homeward bound. Deep flows the perfume of the lily and the lotus underneath the bamboo bridge.
After listening to the motto, old lady Chia raised her head and cast a glance upon the tablet; then turning round: "Long ago, when I was young," she observed, addressing herself to Mrs. Hseh, "we likewise had at home a pavilion like this called 'the Hall reclining on the russet clouds,' or some other such name. At that time, I was of the same age as the girls, and my wont was to go day after day and play with my sisters there. One day, I, unexpectedly, slipped and fell into the water, and I had a narrow escape from being drowned; for it was after great difficulty, that they managed to drag me out safe and sound. But my head was, after all, bumped about against the wooden nails; so much so, that this hole of the length of a finger, which you can see up to this day on my temple, comes from the bruises I sustained. All my people were in a funk that I'd be the worse for this ducking and continued in fear and trembling lest I should catch a chill. 'It was dreadful, dreadful!' they opined, but I managed, little though every one thought it, to keep in splendid health."
Lady Feng allowed no time to any one else to put in a word; but anticipating them: "Had you then not survived, who would now be enjoying these immense blessings!" she smiled. "This makes it evident that no small amount of happiness and long life were in store for you, venerable ancestor, from your very youth up! It was by the agency of the spirits that this hole was knocked open so that they might fill it up with happiness and longevity! The old man Shou Hsing had, in fact, a hole in his head, which was so full of every kind of blessing conducive to happiness and long life that it bulged up ever so high!"
Before, however, she could conclude, dowager lady Chia and the rest were convulsed with such laughter that their bodies doubled in two.
"This monkey is given to dreadful tricks!" laughed old lady Chia. "She's always ready to make a scapegoat of me to evoke amusement. But would that I could take that glib mouth of yours and rend it in pieces."
"It's because I feared that the cold might, when you by and bye have some crabs to eat, accumulate in your intestines," lady Feng pleaded, "that I tried to induce you, dear senior, to have a laugh, so as to make you gay and merry. For one can, when in high spirits, indulge in a couple of them more with impunity."
"By and bye," smiled old lady Chia, "I'll make you follow me day and night, so that I may constantly be amused and feel my mind diverted; I won't let you go back to your home."
"It's that weakness of yours for her, venerable senior," Madame Wang observed with a smile, "that has got her into the way of behaving in this manner, and, if you go on speaking to her as you do, she'll soon become ever so much the more unreasonable."
"I like her such as she is," dowager lady Chia laughed. "Besides, she's truly no child, ignorant of the distinction between high and low. When we are at home, with no strangers present, we ladies should be on terms like these, and as long, in fact, as we don't overstep propriety, it's all right. If not, what would he the earthly use of making them behave like so many saints?"
While bandying words, they entered the pavilion in a body. After tea, lady Feng hastened to lay out the cups and chopsticks. At the upper table then seated herself old lady Chia, Mrs. Hseh, Pao-ch'ai, Tai-y and Pao-y. Round the table, on the east, sat Shih Hsiang-yn, Madame Wang, Ying Ch'un, T'an Ch'un and Hsi Ch'un. At the small table, leaning against the door on the west side, Li Wan and lady Feng assigned themselves places. But it was for the mere sake of appearances, as neither of them ventured to sit down, but remained in attendance at the two tables, occupied by old lady Chia and Madame Wang.
"You'd better," lady Feng said, "not bring in too many crabs at a time. Throw these again into the steaming-basket! Only serve ten; and when they're eaten, a fresh supply can be fetched!"
Asking, at the same time, for water, she washed her hands, and, taking her position near dowager lady Chia, she scooped out the meat from a crab, and offered the first help to Mrs. Hseh.
"They'll be sweeter were I to open them with my own hands," Mrs. Hseh remarked, "there's no need for any one to serve me."
Lady Feng, therefore, presented it to old lady Chia and handed a second portion to Pao-y.
"Make the wine as warm as possible and bring it in!" she then went on to cry. "Go," she added, directing the servant-girls, "and fetch the powder, made of green beans, and scented with the leaves of chrysanthemums and the stamens of the olea fragrans; and keep it ready to rinse our hands with."
Shih Hsiang-yn had a crab to bear the others company, but no sooner had she done than she retired to a lower seat, from where she helped her guests. When she, however, walked out a second time to give orders to fill two dishes and send them over to Mrs. Chao, she perceived lady Feng come up to her again. "You're not accustomed to entertaining," she said, "so go and have your share to eat. I'll attend to the people for you first, and, when they've gone, I'll have all I want."
Hsiang-yn would not agree to her proposal. But giving further directions to the servants to spread two tables under the verandah on the off-side, she pressed Yan Yang, Hu Po, Ts'ai Hsia, Ts'ai Yn and P'ing Erh to go and seat themselves.
"Lady Secunda," consequently ventured Yan Yang, "you're in here doing the honours, so may I go and have something to eat?"
"You can all go," replied lady Feng; "leave everything in my charge, and it will be all right."
While these words were being spoken, Shih Hsiang-yn resumed her place at the banquet. Lady Feng and Li Wan then took hurry-scurry something to eat as a matter of form; but lady Feng came down once more to look after things. After a time, she stepped out on the verandah where Yan Yang and the other girls were having their refreshments in high glee. As soon as they caught sight of her, Yuan Yang and her companions stood up. "What has your ladyship come out again for?" they inquired. "Do let us also enjoy a little peace and quiet!"
"This chit Yan Yang is worse than ever!" lady Feng laughed. "Here I'm slaving away for you, and, instead of feeling grateful to me, you bear me a grudge! But don't you yet quick pour me a cup of wine?"
Yan Yang immediately smiled, and filling a cup, she applied it to lady Feng's lips. Lady Feng stretched out her neck and emptied it. But Hu Po and Ts'ai Hsia thereupon likewise replenished a cup and put it to lady Feng's mouth. Lady Feng swallowed the contents of that as well. P'ing Erh had, by this time, brought her some yellow meat which she had picked out from the shell. "Pour plenty of ginger and vinegar!" shouted lady Feng, and, in a moment, she made short work of that too. "You people," she smiled, "had better sit down and have something to eat, for I'm off now."
"You brazen-faced thing," exclaimed Yan Yang laughingly, "to eat what was intended for us!"
"Don't be so captious with me!" smiled lady Feng. "Are you aware that your master Secundus, Mr. Lien, has taken such a violent fancy to you that he means to speak to our old lady to let you be his secondary wife!"
Yan Yang blushed crimson. "Ts'ui!" she shouted. "Are these really words to issue from the mouth of a lady! But if I don't daub your face all over with my filthy hands, I won't feel happy!"
Saying this, she rushed up to her. She was about to besmear her face, when lady Feng pleaded: "My dear child, do let me off this time!"
"Lo, that girl Yan," laughed Hu Po, "wishes to smear her, and that hussey P'ing still spares her! Look here, she has scarcely had two crabs, and she has drunk a whole saucerful of vinegar!"
P'ing Erh was holding a crab full of yellow meat, which she was in the act of cleaning. As soon therefore as she heard this taunt, she came, crab in hand, to spatter Hu Po's face, as she laughingly reviled her. "I'll take you minx with that cajoling tongue of yours" she cried, "and...."
But, Hu Po, while also indulging in laughter, drew aside; so P'ing Erh beat the air, and fell forward, daubing, by a strange coincidence, the cheek of lady Feng. Lady Feng was at the moment having a little good-humoured raillery with Yan Yang, and was taken so much off her guard, that she was quite startled out of her senses. "Ai-yah!" she ejaculated. The bystanders found it difficult to keep their countenance, and, with one voice, they exploded into a boisterous fit of laughter. Lady Feng as well could not help feeling amused, and smilingly she upbraided her. "You stupid wench!" she said; "Have you by gorging lost your eyesight that you recklessly smudge your mistress' face?"
P'ing Erh hastily crossed over and wiped her face for her, and then went in person to fetch some water.
"O-mi-to-fu," ejaculated Yan Yang, "this is a distinct retribution!"
Dowager lady Chia, though seated on the other side, overheard their shouts, and she consecutively made inquiries as to what they had seen to tickled their fancy so. "Tell us," (she urged), "what it is so that we too should have a laugh."
"Our lady Secunda," Yan Yang and the other maids forthwith laughingly cried, "came to steal our crabs and eat them, and P'ing Erh got angry and daubed her mistress' face all over with yellow meat. So our mistress and that slave-girl are now having a scuffle over it."
This report filled dowager lady Chia, Madame Wang and the other inmates with them with much merriment. "Do have pity on her," dowager lady Chia laughed, "and let her have some of those small legs and entrails to eat, and have done!"
Yuan Yang and her companions assented, much amused. "Mistress Secunda," they shouted in a loud tone of voice, "you're at liberty to eat this whole tableful of legs!"
But having washed her face clean, lady Feng approached old lady Chia and the other guests and waited upon them for a time, while they partook of refreshments.
Tai-y did not, with her weak physique, venture to overload her stomach, so partaking of a little meat from the claws, she left the table. Presently, however, dowager lady Chia too abandoned all idea of having anything more to eat. The company therefore quitted the banquet; and, when they had rinsed their hands, some admired the flowers, some played with the water, others looked at the fish.
After a short stroll, Madame Wang turned round and remarked to old lady Chia: "There's plenty of wind here. Besides, you've just had crabs; so it would be prudent for you, venerable senior, to return home and rest. And if you feel in the humour, we can come again for a turn to-morrow."
"Quite true!" acquiesced dowager lady Chia, in reply to this suggestion. "I was afraid that if I left, now that you're all in exuberant spirits, I mightn't again be spoiling your fun, (so I didn't budge). But as the idea originates from yourselves do go as you please, (while I retire). But," she said to Hsiang-yn, "don't allow your cousin Secundus, Pao-y, and your cousin Lin to have too much to eat." Then when Hsiang-yn had signified her obedience, "You two girls," continuing, she recommended Hsiang-yn and Pao-ch'ai, "must not also have more than is good for you. Those things are, it's true, luscious, but they're not very wholesome; and if you eat immoderately of them, why, you'll get stomachaches."
Both girls promised with alacrity to be careful; and, having escorted her beyond the confines of the garden, they retraced their steps and ordered the servants to clear the remnants of the banquet and to lay out a new supply of refreshments.
"There's no use of any regular spread out!" Pao-y interposed. "When you are about to write verses, that big round table can be put in the centre and the wines and eatables laid on it. Neither will there be any need to ceremoniously have any fixed seats. Let those who may want anything to eat, go up to it and take what they like; and if we seat ourselves, scattered all over the place, won't it be far more convenient for us?"
"Your idea is excellent!" Pao-ch'ai answered.
"This is all very well," Hsiang-yn observed, "but there are others to be studied besides ourselves!"
Issuing consequently further directions for another table to be laid, and picking out some hot crabs, she asked Hsi Jen, Tzu Chan, Ssu Ch'i, Shih Shu, Ju Hua, Ying Erh, Ts'ui Mo and the other girls to sit together and form a party. Then having a couple of flowered rugs spread under the olea trees on the hills, she bade the matrons on duty, the waiting-maids and other servants to likewise make themselves comfortable and to eat and drink at their pleasure until they were wanted, when they could come and answer the calls.
Hsiang-yn next fetched the themes for the verses and pinned them with a needle on the wall. "They're full of originality," one and all exclaimed after perusal, "we fear we couldn't write anything on them."
Hsiang-yn then went onto explain to them the reasons that had prompted her not to determine upon any particular rhymes.
"Yes, quite right!" put in Pao-y. "I myself don't fancy hard and fast rhymes!"
But Lin Tai-y, being unable to stand much wine and to take any crabs, told, on her own account, a servant to fetch an embroidered cushion; and, seating herself in such a way as to lean against the railing, she took up a fishing-rod and began to fish. Pao-ch'ai played for a time with a twig of olea she held in her hand, then resting on the window-sill, she plucked the petals, and threw them into the water, attracting the fish, which went by, to rise to the surface and nibble at them. Hsiang-yn, after a few moments of abstraction, urged Hsi Jen and the other girls to help themselves to anything they wanted, and beckoned to the servants, seated at the foot of the hill, to eat to their heart's content. Tan Ch'un, in company with Li Wan and Hsi Ch'un, stood meanwhile under the shade of the weeping willows, and looked at the widgeons and egrets. Ying Ch'un, on the other hand, was all alone under the shade of some trees, threading double jasmine flowers, with a needle specially adapted for the purpose. Pao-y too watched Tai-y fishing for a while. At one time he leant next to Pao-ch'ai and cracked a few jokes with her. And at another, he drank, when he noticed Hsi Jen feasting on crabs with her companions, a few mouthfuls of wine to keep her company. At this, Hsi Jen cleaned the meat out of a shell, and gave it to him to eat.
Tai-y then put down the fishing-rod, and, approaching the seats, she laid hold of a small black tankard, ornamented with silver plum flowers, and selected a tiny cup, made of transparent stone, red like a begonia, and in the shape of a banana leaf. A servant-girl observed her movements, and, concluding that she felt inclined to have a drink, she drew near with hurried step to pour some wine for her.
"You girls had better go on eating," Tai-y remonstrated, "and let me help myself; there'll be some fun in it then!"
So speaking, she filled for herself a cup half full; but discovering that it was yellow wine, "I've eaten only a little bit of crab," she said, "and yet I feel my mouth slightly sore; so what would do for me now is a mouthful of very hot distilled spirit."
Pao-y hastened to take up her remark. "There's some distilled spirit," he chimed in. "Take some of that wine," he there and then shouted out to a servant, "scented with acacia flowers, and warm a tankard of it."
When however it was brought Tai-y simply took a sip and put it down again.
Pao-ch'ai too then came forward, and picked up a double cup; but, after drinking a mouthful of it, she lay it aside, and, moistening her pen, she walked up to the wall, and marked off the first theme: "longing for chrysanthemums," below which she appended a character "Heng."
"My dear cousin," promptly remarked Pao-y. "I've already got four lines of the second theme so let me write on it!"
"I managed, after ever so much difficulty, to put a stanza together," Pao-ch'ai smiled, "and are you now in such a hurry to deprive me of it?"
Without so much as a word, Tai-y took a pen and put a distinctive sign opposite the eighth, consisting of: "ask the chrysanthemums;" and, singling out, in quick succession, the eleventh: "dream of chrysanthemums," as well, she too affixed for herself the word "Hsiao" below. But Pao-y likewise got a pen, and marked his choice, the twelfth on the list: "seek for chrysanthemums," by the side of which he wrote the character "Chiang."
T'an Ch'un thereupon rose to her feet. "If there's no one to write on 'Pinning the chrysanthemums'" she observed, while scrutinising the themes, "do let me have it! It has just been ruled," she continued, pointing at Pao-y with a significant smile, "that it is on no account permissible to introduce any expressions, bearing reference to the inner chambers, so you'd better be on your guard!"
But as she spoke, she perceived Hsiang-yn come forward, and jointly mark the fourth and fifth, that is: "facing the chrysanthemums," and "putting chrysanthemums in vases," to which she, like the others, appended a word, Hsiang."
"You too should get a style or other!" T'an Ch'un suggested.
"In our home," smiled Hsiang-yn, "there exist, it is true, at present several halls and structures, but as I don't live in either, there'll be no fun in it were I to borrow the name of any one of them!"
"Our venerable senior just said," Pao-ch'ai observed laughingly, "that there was also in your home a water-pavilion called 'leaning on russet clouds hall,' and is it likely that it wasn't yours? But albeit it doesn't exist now-a-days, you were anyhow its mistress of old."
"She's right!" one and all exclaimed.
Pao-y therefore allowed Hsiang-yn no time to make a move, but forthwith rubbed off the character "Hsiang," for her and substituted that of "Hsia" (russet).
A short time only elapsed before the compositions on the twelve themes had all been completed. After they had each copied out their respective verses, they handed them to Ying Ch'un, who took a separate sheet of snow-white fancy paper, and transcribed them together, affixing distinctly under each stanza the style of the composer. Li Wan and her assistants then began to read, starting from the first on the list, the verses which follow:
"Longing for chrysanthemums," by the "Princess of Heng Wu."
With anguish sore I face the western breeze, and wrapt in grief, I pine for you! What time the smart weed russet turns, and the reeds white, my heart is rent in two. When in autumn the hedges thin, and gardens waste, all trace of you is gone. When the moon waxeth cold, and the dew pure, my dreams then know something of you. With constant yearnings my heart follows you as far as wild geese homeward fly. Lonesome I sit and lend an ear, till a late hour to the sound of the block! For you, ye yellow flowers, I've grown haggard and worn, but who doth pity me, And breathe one word of cheer that in the ninth moon I will soon meet you again?
"Search for chrysanthemums," by the "Gentleman of I Hung:"
When I have naught to do, I'll seize the first fine day to try and stroll about. Neither wine-cups nor cups of medicine will then deter me from my wish. Who plants the flowers in all those spots, facing the dew and under the moon's rays? Outside the rails they grow and by the hedge; but in autumn where do they go? With sandals waxed I come from distant shores; my feelings all exuberant; But as on this cold day I can't exhaust my song, my spirits get depressed. The yellow flowers, if they but knew how comfort to a poet to afford, Would not let me this early morn trudge out in vain with my cash-laden staff.
"Planting chrysanthemums," by the Gentleman of "I Hung:"
When autumn breaks, I take my hoe, and moving them myself out of the park, I plant them everywhere near the hedges and in the foreground of the halls. Last night, when least expected, they got a good shower, which made them all revive. This morn my spirits still rise high, as the buds burst in bloom bedecked with frost. Now that it's cool, a thousand stanzas on the autumn scenery I sing. In ecstasies from drink, I toast their blossom in a cup of cold, and fragrant wine. With spring water. I sprinkle them, cover the roots with mould and well tend them, So that they may, like the path near the well, be free of every grain of dirt.
"Facing the chrysanthemums," by the "Old friend of the Hall reclining on the russet clouds."
From other gardens I transplant them, and I treasure them like gold. One cluster bears light-coloured bloom; another bears dark shades. I sit with head uncovered by the sparse-leaved artemesia hedge, And in their pure and cool fragrance, clasping my knees, I hum my lays. In the whole world, methinks, none see the light as peerless as these flowers. From all I see you have no other friend more intimate than me. Such autumn splendour, I must not misuse, as steadily it fleets. My gaze I fix on you as I am fain each moment to enjoy!
"Putting chrysanthemums in vases," by the "Old Friend of the hall reclining on the russet clouds."
The lute I thrum, and quaff my wine, joyful at heart that ye are meet to be my mates. The various tables, on which ye are laid, adorn with beauteous grace this quiet nook. The fragrant dew, next to the spot I sit, is far apart from that by the three paths. I fling my book aside and turn my gaze upon a twig full of your autumn (bloom). What time the frost is pure, a new dream steals o'er me, as by the paper screen I rest. When cold holdeth the park, and the sun's rays do slant, I long and yearn for you, old friends. I too differ from others in this world, for my own tastes resemble those of yours. The vernal winds do not hinder the peach tree and the pear from bursting forth in bloom.
"Singing chrysanthemums," by the "Hsiao Hsiang consort."
Eating the bread of idleness, the frenzy of poetry creeps over me both night and day. Round past the hedge I wend, and, leaning on the rock, I intone verses gently to myself. From the point of my pencil emanate lines of recondite grace, so near the frost I write. Some scent I hold by the side of my mouth, and, turning to the moon, I sing my sentiments. With self-pitying lines pages I fill, so as utterance to give to all my cares and woes. From these few scanty words, who could fathom the secrets of my heart about the autumntide? Beginning from the time when T'ao, the magistrate, did criticise the beauty of your bloom, Yea, from that date remote up to this very day, your high renown has ever been extolled.
"Drawing chrysanthemums," by the "Princess of Heng Wu."
Verses I've had enough, so with my pens I play; with no idea that I am mad. Do I make use of pigments red or green as to involve a task of toilsome work? To form clusters of leaves, I sprinkle simply here and there a thousand specks of ink. And when I've drawn the semblance of the flowers, some spots I make to represent the frost. The light and dark so life-like harmonise with the figure of those there in the wind, That when I've done tracing their autumn growth, a fragrant smell issues under my wrist. Do you not mark how they resemble those, by the east hedge, which you leisurely pluck? Upon the screens their image I affix to solace me for those of the ninth moon.
"Asking the chrysanthemums," by the "Hsiao Hsiang consort."
Your heart, in autumn, I would like to read, but know it no one could! While humming with my arms behind my back, on the east hedge I rap. So peerless and unique are ye that who is meet with you to stay? Why are you of all flowers the only ones to burst the last in bloom? Why in such silence plunge the garden dew and the frost in the hall? When wild geese homeward fly and crickets sicken, do you think of me? Do not tell me that in the world none of you grow with power of speech? But if ye fathom what I say, why not converse with me a while?
"Pinning the chrysanthemums in the hair," by the "Visitor under the banana trees."
I put some in a vase, and plant some by the hedge, so day by day I have ample to do. I pluck them, yet don't fancy they are meant for girls to pin before the glass in their coiffure. My mania for these flowers is just as keen as was that of the squire, who once lived in Ch'ang An. I rave as much for them as raved Mr. P'eng Ts, when he was under the effects of wine. Cold is the short hair on his temples and moistened with dew, which on it dripped from the three paths. His flaxen turban is suffused with the sweet fragrance of the autumn frost in the ninth moon. That strong weakness of mine to pin them in my hair is viewed with sneers by my contemporaries. They clap their hands, but they are free to laugh at me by the roadside as much us e'er they list.
"The shadow of the chrysanthemums," by the "Old Friend of the hall reclining on the russet clouds."
In layers upon layers their autumn splendour grows and e'er thick and thicker. I make off furtively, and stealthily transplant them from the three crossways. The distant lamp, inside the window-frame, depicts their shade both far and near. The hedge riddles the moon's rays, like unto a sieve, but the flowers stop the holes. As their reflection cold and fragrant tarries here, their soul must too abide. The dew-dry spot beneath the flowers is so like them that what is said of dreams is trash. Their precious shadows, full of subtle scent, are trodden down to pieces here and there. Could any one with eyes half closed from drinking, not mistake the shadow for the flowers.
"Dreaming of chrysanthemums," by the "Hsiao Hsiang consort."
What vivid dreams arise as I dose by the hedge amidst those autumn scenes! Whether clouds bear me company or the moon be my mate, I can't discern. In fairyland I soar, not that I would become a butterfly like Chang. So long I for my old friend T'ao, the magistrate, that I again seek him. In a sound sleep I fell; but so soon as the wild geese cried, they broke my rest. The chirp of the cicadas gave me such a start that I bear them a grudge. My secret wrongs to whom can I go and divulge, when I wake up from sleep? The faded flowers and the cold mist make my feelings of anguish know no bounds.
"Fading of the chrysanthemums," by the "Visitor under the banana trees."
The dew congeals; the frost waxes in weight; and gradually dwindles their bloom. After the feast, with the flower show, follows the season of the 'little snow.' The stalks retain still some redundant smell, but the flowers' golden tinge is faint. The stems do not bear sign of even one whole leaf; their verdure is all past. Naught but the chirp of crickets strikes my ear, while the moon shines on half my bed. Near the cold clouds, distant a thousand li, a flock of wild geese slowly fly. When autumn breaks again next year, I feel certain that we will meet once more. We part, but only for a time, so don't let us indulge in anxious thoughts.
Each stanza they read they praised; and they heaped upon each other incessant eulogiums.
"Let me now criticise them; I'll do so with all fairness!" Li Wan smiled. "As I glance over the page," she said, "I find that each of you has some distinct admirable sentiments; but in order to be impartial in my criticism to-day, I must concede the first place to: 'Singing the chrysanthemums;' the second to: 'Asking the chrysanthemums;' and the third to: 'Dreaming of chrysanthemums.' The original nature of the themes makes the verses full of originality, and their conception still more original. But we must allow to the 'Hsiao Hsiang consort' the credit of being the best; next in order following: 'Pinning chrysanthemums in the hair,' 'Facing the chrysanthemums,' 'Putting the chrysanthemums, in vases,' 'Drawing the chrysanthemums,' and 'Longing for chrysanthemums,' as second best."
This decision filled Pao-y with intense gratification. Clapping his hands, "Quite right! it's most just," he shouted.
"My verses are worth nothing!" Tai-y remarked. "Their fault, after all, is that they are a little too minutely subtile."
"They are subtile but good," Li Wan rejoined; "for there's no artificialness or stiffness about them."
"According to my views," Tai-y observed, "the best line is:
"'When cold holdeth the park and the sun's rays do slant, I long and yearn for you, old friends.'
"'I fling my book aside and turn my gaze upon a twig of autumn.'
is already admirable! She has dealt so exhaustively with 'putting chrysanthemums in a vase' that she has left nothing unsaid that could be said, and has had in consequence to turn her thought back and consider the time anterior to their being plucked and placed in vases. Her sentiments are profound!"
"What you say is certainly so," explained Li Wan smiling; "but that line of yours:
"'Some scent I hold by the side of my mouth,....'
"After all," said T'an Ch'un, "we must admit that there's depth of thought in those of the 'Princess of Heng Wu' with:
"'...in autumn all trace of you is gone;'
"'...my dreams then know something of you!'
"They really make the meaning implied by the words 'long for' stand out clearly."
"Those passages of yours:
"'Cold is the short hair on his temples and moistened....'
"'His flaxen turban is suffused with the sweet fragrance....;'"
laughingly observed Puo-ch'ai, "likewise bring out the idea of 'pinning the chrysanthemums in the hair' so thoroughly that one couldn't get a loop hole for fault-finding."
Hsiang-yn then smiled.
"'...who is meet with you to stay'"
she said, "and
"'...burst the last in bloom.'
"are questions so straight to the point set to the chrysanthemums, that they are quite at a loss what answer to give."
"Were what you say:
"'I sit with head uncovered....'
"'...clasping my knees, I hum my lays....'
"as if you couldn't, in fact, tear yourself away for even a moment from them," Li Wan laughed, "to come to the knowledge of the chrysanthemums, why, they would certainly be sick and tired of you."
This joke made every one laugh.
"I'm last again!" smiled Pao-y. "Is it likely that:
"'Who plants the flowers?.... ...in autumn where do they go? With sandals waxed I come from distant shores;.... ...and as on this cold day I can't exhaust my song;....'
"do not all forsooth amount to searching for chrysanthemums? And that
"'Last night they got a shower.... And this morn ... bedecked with frost,'
"don't both bear on planting them? But unfortunately they can't come up to these lines:
"'Some scent I hold by the side of my mouth and turning to the moon I sing my sentiments.' 'In their pure and cool fragrance, clasping my knees I hum my lays.' '...short hair on his temples....' 'His flaxen turban.... ...golden tinge is faint. ...verdure is all past. ...in autumn ... all trace of you is gone. ...my dreams then know something of you.'
"But to-morrow," he proceeded, "if I have got nothing to do, I'll write twelve stanzas my self."
"Yours are also good," Li Wan pursued, "the only thing is that they aren't as full of original conception as those other lines, that's all."
But after a few further criticisms, they asked for some more warm crabs; and, helping themselves, as soon as they were brought, from the large circular table, they regaled themselves for a time.
"With the crabs to-day in one's hand and the olea before one's eyes, one cannot help inditing verses," Pao-y smiled. "I've already thought of a few; but will any of you again have the pluck to devise any?"
With this challenge, he there and then hastily washed his hands and picking up a pen he wrote out what, his companions found on perusal, to run in this strain:
When in my hands I clasp a crab what most enchants my heart is the cassia's cool shade. While I pour vinegar and ground ginger, I feel from joy as if I would go mad. With so much gluttony the prince's grandson eats his crabs that he should have some wine. The side-walking young gentleman has no intestines in his frame at all. I lose sight in my greediness that in my stomach cold accumulates. To my fingers a strong smell doth adhere and though I wash them yet the smell clings fast. The main secret of this is that men in this world make much of food. The P'o Spirit has laughed at them that all their lives they only seek to eat.
"I could readily compose a hundred stanzas with such verses in no time," Tai-y observed with a sarcastic smile.
"Your mental energies are now long ago exhausted," Pao-y rejoined laughingly, "and instead of confessing your inability to devise any, you still go on heaping invective upon people!"
Tai-y, upon catching this insinuation, made no reply of any kind; but slightly raising her head she hummed something to herself for a while, and then taking up a pen she completed a whole stanza with a few dashes.
The company then read her lines. They consisted of—
E'en after death, their armour and their lengthy spears are never cast away. So nice they look, piled in the plate, that first to taste them I'd fain be. In every pair of legs they have, the crabs are full of tender jade-like meat. Each piece of ruddy fat, which in their shell bumps up, emits a fragrant smell. Besides much meat, they have a greater relish for me still, eight feet as well. Who bids me drink a thousand cups of wine in order to enhance my joy? What time I can behold their luscious food, with the fine season doth accord When cassias wave with fragrance pure, and the chrysanthemums are decked with frost.
Pao-y had just finished conning it over and was beginning to sing its praise, when Tai-y, with one snatch, tore it to pieces and bade a servant go and burn it.
"As my compositions can't come up to yours," she then observed, "I'll burn it. Yours is capital, much better than the lines you wrote a little time back on the chrysanthemums, so keep it for the benefit of others."
"I've likewise succeeded, after much effort, in putting together a stanza," Pao-ch'ai laughingly remarked. "It cannot, of course, be worth much, but I'll put it down for fun's sake."
As she spoke, she too wrote down her lines. When they came to look at them, they read—
On this bright beauteous day, I bask in the dryandra shade, with a cup in my hand. When I was at Ch'ang An, with drivelling mouth, I longed for the ninth day of the ninth moon. The road stretches before their very eyes, but they can't tell between straight and transverse. Under their shells in spring and autumn only reigns a vacuum, yellow and black.
At this point, they felt unable to refrain from shouting: "Excellent!" "She abuses in fine style!" Pao-y shouted. "But my lines should also be committed to the flames."
The company thereupon scanned the remainder of the stanza, which was couched in this wise:
When all the stock of wine is gone, chrysanthemums then use to scour away the smell. So as to counteract their properties of gath'ring cold, fresh ginger you should take. Alas! now that they have been dropped into the boiling pot, what good do they derive? About the moonlit river banks there but remains the fragrant aroma of corn.
At the close of their perusal, they with one voice, explained that this was a first-rate song on crab-eating; that minor themes of this kind should really conceal lofty thoughts, before they could be held to be of any great merit, and that the only thing was that it chaffed people rather too virulently.
But while they were engaged in conversation, P'ing Erh was again seen coming into the garden. What she wanted is not, however, yet known; so, reader, peruse the details given in the subsequent chapter.
The tongue of the village old dame finds as free vent as a river that has broken its banks. The affectionate cousin makes up his mind to sift to the very bottom the story told by old goody Liu.
Upon seeing, the story explains, P'ing Erh arrive, they unanimously inquired, "What is your mistress up to? How is it she hasn't come?"
"How ever could she spare the time to get as far as here?" P'ing Erh smiled and replied. "But, she said, she hasn't anything good to eat, so she bade me, as she couldn't possibly run over, come and find out whether there be any more crabs or not; (if there be), she enjoined me to ask for a few to take to her to eat at home."
"There are plenty!" Hsiang-yn rejoined; and directing, with alacrity, a servant to fetch a present box, she put in it ten of the largest crabs.
"I'll take a few more of the female ones," P'ing Erh remarked.
One and all then laid hands upon P'ing Erh and tried to drag her into a seat, but P'ing Erh would not accede to their importunities.
"I insist upon your sitting down," Li Wan laughingly exclaimed, and as she kept pulling her about, and forcing her to sit next to her, she filled a cup of wine and put it to her lips. P'ing Erh hastily swallowed a sip and endeavoured immediately to beat a retreat.
"I won't let you go," shouted Li Wan. "It's so evident that you're only got that woman Feng in your thoughts as you don't listen to any of my words!"
Saying this, she went on to bid the nurses go ahead, and take the box over. "Tell her," she added, "that I've kept P'ing Erh here."
A matron presently returned with a box. "Lady Secunda," she reported, "says that you, lady Chu, and our young mistresses must not make fun of her for having asked for something to eat; and that in this box you'll find cakes made of water-lily powder, and rolls prepared with chicken fat, which your maternal aunt, on the other side, just sent for your ladyship and for you, young ladies, to taste. That she bids you," (the matron) continued, turning towards P'ing Erh, "come over on duty, but your mind is so set upon pleasure that you loiter behind and don't go back. She advises you, however, not to have too many cups of wine."
"Were I even to have too much," P'ing Erh smiled, "what could she do to me?"
Uttering these words, she went on with her drink; after which she partook of some more crab.
"What a pity it is," interposed Li Wan, caressing her, "that a girl with such good looks as you should have so ordinary a fortune as to simply fall into that room as a menial! But wouldn't any one, who is not acquainted with actual facts, take you for a lady and a mistress?"
While she went on eating and drinking with Pao-ch'ai, Hsiang-yn and the other girls, P'ing Erh turned her head round. "Don't rub me like that!" she laughed, "It makes me feel quite ticklish."
"Ai-yo!" shouted Li Wan. "What's this hard thing?"
"It's a key," P'ing Erh answered.
"What fine things have you got that the fear lest people should take it away, prompts you to carry this about you? I keep on, just for a laugh, telling people the whole day long that when the bonze T'ang was fetching the canons, a white horse came and carried him! That when Liu Chih-yan was attacking the empire, a melon-spirit appeared and brought him a coat of mail, and that in the same way, where our vixen Feng is, there you are to be found! You are your mistress' general key; and what do you want this other key for?"
"You've primed yourself with wine, my lady," P'ing Erh smiled, "and here you once more chaff me and make a laughing-stock of me."
"This is really quite true," Pao-ch'ai laughed. "Whenever we've got nothing to do, and we talk matters over, (we're quite unanimous) that not one in a hundred could be picked out to equal you girls in here. The beauty is that each one of you possesses her own good qualities!"
"In every thing, whether large or small, a heavenly principle rules alike," Li Wan explained. "Were there, for instance, no Yan Yang in our venerable senior's apartments, how would it ever do? Commencing with Madame Wang herself, who is it who could muster sufficient courage to expostulate with the old lady? Yet she plainly has the pluck to put in her remonstrances with her; and, as it happens, our worthy ancestor lends a patient ear to only what she says and no one else. None of the others can remember what our old senior has in the way of clothes and head-ornaments, but she can remember everything; and, were she not there to look after things, there is no knowing how many would not be swindled away. That child besides is so straightforward at heart, that, despite all this, she often puts in a good word for others, and doesn't rely upon her influence to look down disdainfully upon any one!"
"It was only yesterday," Hsi Ch'un observed with a smile, "that our dear ancestor said that she was ever so much better than the whole lot of us!"
"She's certainly splendid!" P'ing Erh ventured. "How could we rise up to her standard?"
"Ts'ai Hsia," Pao-y put in, "who is in mother's rooms, is a good sort of girl!"
"Of course she is!" T'an Ch'un assented. "But she's good enough as far as external appearances go, but inwardly she's a sly one! Madame Wang is just like a joss; she does not give her mind to any sort of business; but this girl is up to everything; and it is she who in all manner of things reminds her mistress what there is to be done. She even knows everything, whether large or small, connected with Mr. Chia Cheng's staying at home or going out of doors; and when at any time Madame Wang forgets, she, from behind the scenes, prompts her how to act."
"Well, never mind about her!" Li Wan suggested. "But were," she pursued, pointing at Pao-y, "no Hsi Jen in this young gentleman's quarters, just you imagine what a pitch things would reach! That vixen Feng may truly resemble the prince Pa of the Ch'u kingdom; and she may have two arms strong enough to raise a tripod weighing a thousand catties, but had she not this maid (P'ing Erh), would she be able to accomplish everything so thoroughly?"
"In days gone by," P'ing Erh interposed, "four servant-girls came along with her, but what with those who've died and those who've gone, only I remain like a solitary spirit."
"You're, after all, the fortunate one!" Li Wan retorted, "but our hussey Feng too is lucky in having you! Had I not also once, just remember, two girls, when your senior master Chu was alive? Am I not, you've seen for yourselves, a person to bear with people? But in such a surly frame of mind did I find them both day after day that, as soon as your senior master departed this life, I availed myself of their youth (to give them in marriage) and to pack both of them out of my place. But had either of them been good for anything and worthy to be kept, I would, in fact, have now had some one to give me a helping hand!"
As she spoke, the very balls of her eyes suddenly became quite red.
"Why need you again distress your mind?" they with one voice, exclaimed. "Isn't it better that we should break up?"
While conversing, they rinsed their hands; and, when they had agreed to go in a company to dowager lady Chia's and Madame Wang's and inquire after their health, the matrons and servant-maids swept the pavilion and collected and washed the cups and saucers.
Hsi Jen proceeded on her way along with P'ing Erh. "Come into my room," said Hsi Jen to P'ing Erh, "and sit down and have another cup of tea."
"I won't have any tea just now," P'ing Erh answered. "I'll come some other time."
So saying, she was about to go off when Hsi Jen called out to her and stopped her.
"This month's allowances," she asked, "haven't yet been issued, not even to our old mistress and Madame Wang; why is it?"
Upon catching this inquiry, P'ing Erh hastily retraced her steps and drew near Hsi Jen. After looking about to see that no one was in the neighbourhood, she rejoined in a low tone of voice, "Drop these questions at once! They're sure, anyhow, to be issued in a couple of days."
"Why is it," smiled Hsi Jen, "that this gives you such a start?"
"This month's allowances," P'ing Erh explained to her in a whisper, "have long ago been obtained in advance by our mistress Secunda and given to people for their own purposes; and it's when the interest has been brought from here and there that the various sums will be lumped together and payment be effected. I confide this to you, but, mind, you mustn't go and tell any other person about it."
"Is it likely that she hasn't yet enough money for her own requirements?" Hsi Jen smiled. "Or is it that she's still not satisfied? And what's the use of her still going on bothering herself in this way?"
"Isn't it so!" laughed P'ing Erh. "From just handling the funds for this particular item, she has, during these few years, so manipulated them as to turn up several hundreds of taels profit out of them. Nor does she spend that monthly allowance of hers for public expenses. But the moment she accumulates anything like eight or ten taels odd, she gives them out too. Thus the interest on her own money alone comes up to nearly a thousand taels a year."
"You and your mistress take our money," Hsi Jen observed laughingly, "and get interest on it; fooling us as if we were no better than idiots."
"Here you are again with your uncharitable words!" P'ing Erh remonstrated. "Can it be that you haven't yet enough to meet your own expenses with?"
"I am, it's true, not short of money," Hsi Jen replied, "as I have nowhere to go and spend it; but the thing is that I'm making provision for that fellow of ours, (Pao-y)."
"If you ever find yourself in any great straits and need money," P'ing Erh resumed, "you're at liberty to take first those few taels I've got over there to suit your own convenience with, and by and bye I can reduce them from what is due to you and we'll be square."
"I'm not in need of any just now," retorted Hsi Jen. "But should I not have enough, when I want some, I'll send some one to fetch them, and finish."
P'ing Erh promised that she would let her have the money at any time she sent for it, and, and taking the shortest cut, she issued out of the garden gate. Here she encountered a servant despatched from the other side by lady Feng. She came in search of P'ing Erh. "Our lady," she said, "has something for you to do, and is waiting for you."
"What's up that it's so pressing?" P'ing Erh inquired. "Our senior mistress detained me by force to have a chat, so I couldn't manage to get away. But here she time after time sends people after me in this manner!"
"Whether you go or not is your own look out," the maid replied. "It isn't worth your while getting angry with me! If you dare, go and tell these things to our mistress!"
P'ing Erh spat at her contemptuously, and rushed back in anxious haste. She discovered, however, that lady Feng was not at home. But unexpectedly she perceived that the old goody Liu, who had paid them a visit on a previous occasion for the purpose of obtaining pecuniary assistance, had come again with Pan Erh, and was seated in the opposite room, along with Chang Ts'ai's wife and Chou Jui's wife, who kept her company. But two or three servant-maids were inside as well emptying on the floor bags containing dates, squash and various wild greens.
As soon as they saw her appear in the room, they promptly stood up in a body. Old goody Liu had, on her last visit, learnt what P'ing Erh's status in the establishment was, so vehemently jumping down, she enquired, "Miss, how do you do? All at home," she pursued, "send you their compliments. I meant to have come earlier and paid my respects to my lady and to look you up, miss; but we've been very busy on the farm. We managed this year to reap, after great labour, a few more piculs of grain than usual. But melons, fruits and vegetables have also been plentiful. These things, you see here, are what we picked during the first crop; and as we didn't presume to sell them, we kept the best to present to our lady and the young ladies to taste. The young ladies must, of course, be surfeited with all the delicacies and fine things they daily get, but by having some of our wild greens to eat, they will show some regard for our poor attention."
"Many thanks for all the trouble you have taken!" Ping Erh eagerly rejoined. Then pressing her to resume her place, she sat down herself; and, urging Mrs. Chang and Mrs. Chou to take their seats, she bade a young waiting-maid go and serve the tea.
"There's a joyous air about your face to-day, Miss, and your eye-balls are all red," the wife of Chou Jui and the wife of Chang Ts'ai thereupon smilingly ventured.
"Naturally!" P'ing Erh laughed. "I generally don't take any wine, but our senior mistress, and our young ladies caught hold of me and insisted upon pouring it down my throat. I had no alternative therefore but to swallow two cups full; so my face at once flushed crimson."
"I have a longing for wine," Chang Ts'ai's wife smiled; "but there's no one to offer me any. But when any one by and by invites you, Miss, do take me along with you!"
At these words, one and all burst out laughing.
"Early this morning," Chou Jui's wife interposed, "I caught a glimpse of those crabs. Only two or three of them would weigh a catty; so in those two or three huge hampers, there must have been, I presume, seventy to eighty catties!"
"If some were intended for those above as well as for those below;" Chou Jui's wife added, "they couldn't, nevertheless, I fear, have been enough."
"How could every one have had any?" P'ing Erh observed. "Those simply with any name may have tasted a couple of them; but, as for the rest, some may have touched them with the tips of their hands, but many may even not have done as much."
"Crabs of this kind!" put in old goody Liu, "cost this year five candareens a catty; ten catties for five mace; five times five make two taels five, and three times five make fifteen; and adding what was wanted for wines and eatables, the total must have come to something over twenty taels. O-mi-to-fu! why, this heap of money is ample for us country-people to live on through a whole year!"
"I expect you have seen our lady?" P'ing Erh then asked.
"Yes, I have seen her," assented old goody Liu. "She bade us wait." As she spoke, she again looked out of the window to see what the time of the day could be. "It's getting quite late," she afterwards proceeded. "We must be going, or else we mayn't be in time to get out of the city gates; and then we'll be in a nice fix."
"Quite right," Chou Jui's wife observed. "I'll go and see what she's up to for you."
With these words, she straightway left the room. After a long absence, she returned. "Good fortune has, indeed, descended upon you, old dame!" she smiled. "Why, you've won the consideration of those two ladies!"
"What about it?" laughingly inquired P'ing Erh and the others.
"Lady Secunda," Chou Jui's wife explained with a smile, "was with our venerable lady, so I gently whispered to her: 'old goody Liu wishes to go home; it's getting late and she fears she mightn't be in time to go out of the gates!' 'It's such a long way off!' Our lady Secunda rejoined, 'and she had all the trouble and fatigue of carrying that load of things; so if it's too late, why, let her spend the night here and start on the morrow!' Now isn't this having enlisted our mistress' sympathies? But not to speak of this! Our old lady also happened to overhear what we said, and she inquired: 'who is old goody Liu?' Our lady Secunda forthwith told her all. 'I was just longing,' her venerable ladyship pursued, 'for some one well up in years to have a chat with; ask her in, and let me see her!' So isn't this coming in for consideration, when least unexpected?"
So speaking, she went on to urge old goody Liu to get down and betake herself to the front.
"With a figure like this of mine," old goody Liu demurred, "how could I very well appear before her? My dear sister-in-law, do tell her that I've gone!"
"Get on! Be quick!" P'ing Erh speedily cried. "What does it matter? Our old lady has the highest regard for old people and the greatest pity for the needy! She's not one you could compare with those haughty and overbearing people! But I fancy you're a little too timid, so I'll accompany you as far as there, along with Mrs. Chou."
While tendering her services, she and Chou Jui's wife led off old goody Liu and crossed over to dowager lady Chia's apartments on this side of the mansion. The boy-servants on duty at the second gate stood up when they saw P'ing Erh approach. But two of them also ran up to her, and, keeping close to her heels: "Miss!" they shouted out. "Miss!"
"What have you again got to say?" P'ing Erh asked.
"It's pretty late just now," one of the boys smilingly remarked; "and mother is ill and wants me to go and call the doctor, so I would, dear Miss, like to have half a day's leave; may I?"
"Your doings are really fine!" P'ing Erh exclaimed. "You've agreed among yourselves that each day one of you should apply for furlough; but instead of speaking to your lady, you come and bother me! The other day that Chu Erh went, Mr. Secundus happened not to want him, so I assented, though I also added that I was doing it as a favour; but here you too come to-day!"
"It's quite true that his mother is sick," Chou Jui's wife interceded; "so, Miss, do say yes to him also, and let him go!"
"Be back as soon as it dawns to-morrow!" P'ing Erh enjoined. "Wait, I've got something for you to do, for you'll again sleep away, and only turn up after the sun has blazed away on your buttocks. As you go now, give a message to Wang Erh! Tell him that our lady bade you warn him that if he does not hand over the balance of the interest due by to-morrow, she won't have anything to do with him. So he'd better let her have it to meet her requirements and finish."
The servant-lad felt in high glee and exuberant spirits. Expressing his obedience, he walked off.
P'ing Erh and her companions repaired then to old lady Chia's apartments. Here the various young ladies from the Garden of Broad Vista were at the time assembled paying their respects to their grandmother. As soon as old goody Liu put her foot inside, she saw the room thronged with girls (as seductive) as twigs of flowers waving to and fro, and so richly dressed, as to look enveloped in pearls, and encircled with king-fisher ornaments. But she could not make out who they all were. Her gaze was, however, attracted by an old dame, reclining alone on a divan. Behind her sat a girl, a regular beauty, clothed in gauze, engaged in patting her legs. Lady Feng was on her feet in the act of cracking some joke.
Old goody Liu readily concluded that it must be dowager lady Chia, so promptly pressing forward, she put on a forced smile and made several curtseys. "My obeisance to you, star of longevity!" she said.
Old lady Chia hastened, on her part, to bow and to inquire after her health. Then she asked Chou Jui's wife to bring a chair over for her to take a seat. But Pan Erh was still so very shy that he did not know how to make his obeisance.
"Venerable relative," dowager lady Chia asked, "how old are you this year?"
Old goody Liu immediately rose to her feet. "I'm seventy-five this year," she rejoined.
"So old and yet so hardy!" Old lady Chia remarked, addressing herself to the party. "Why she's older than myself by several years! When I reach that age, I wonder whether I shall be able to move!"
"We people have," old goody Liu smilingly resumed, "to put up, from the moment we come into the world, with ever so many hardships; while your venerable ladyship enjoys, from your birth, every kind of blessing! Were we also like this, there'd be no one to carry on that farming work."
"Are your eyes and teeth still good?" Dowager lady Chia went on to inquire.
"They're both still all right," old goody Liu replied. "The left molars, however, have got rather shaky this year."
"As for me, I'm quite an old fossil," dowager lady Chia observed. "I'm no good whatever. My eyesight is dim; my ears are deaf, my memory is gone. I can't even recollect any of you, old family connections. When therefore any of our relations come on a visit, I don't see them for fear lest I should be ridiculed. All I can manage to eat are a few mouthfuls of anything tender enough for my teeth; and I can just dose a bit or, when I feel in low spirits, I distract myself a little with these grandsons and grand-daughters of mine; that's all I'm good for."
"This is indeed your venerable ladyship's good fortune!" old goody Liu smiled. "We couldn't enjoy anything of the kind, much though we may long for it."
"What good fortune!" dowager lady Chia exclaimed. "I'm a useless old thing, no more."
This remark made every one explode into laughter.
Dowager lady Chia also laughed. "I heard our lady Feng say a little while back," she added, "that you had brought a lot of squash and vegetables, and I told her to put them by at once. I had just been craving to have newly-grown melons and vegetables; but those one buys outside are not as luscious as those produced in your farms."
"This is the rustic notion," old goody Liu laughed, "to entirely subsist on fresh things! Yet, we long to have fish and meat for our fare, but we can't afford it."
"I've found a relative in you to-day," dowager lady Chia said, "so you shouldn't go empty-handed! If you don't despise this place as too mean, do stay a day or two before you start! We've also got a garden here; and this garden produces fruits too; you can taste some of them to-morrow and take a few along with you home, in order to make it look like a visit to relatives."
When lady Feng saw how delighted old lady Chia was with the prospects of the old dame's stay, she too lost no time in doing all she could to induce her to remain. "Our place here," she urged, "isn't, it's true, as spacious as your threshing-floor; but as we've got two vacant rooms, you'd better put up in them for a couple of days, and choose some of your village news and old stories and recount them to our worthy senior."
"Now you, vixen Feng," smiled dowager lady Chia, "don't raise a laugh at her expense! She's only a country woman; and will an old dame like her stand any chaff from you?"
While remonstrating with her, she bade a servant go, before attending to anything else, and pluck a few fruits. These she handed to Pan Erh to eat. But Pan Erh did not venture to touch them, conscious as he was of the presence of such a number of bystanders. So old lady Chia gave orders that a few cash should be given him, and then directed the pages to take him outside to play.
After sipping a cup of tea, old goody Liu began to relate, for the benefit of dowager lady Chia, a few of the occurrences she had seen or heard of in the country. These had the effect of putting old lady Chia in a more exuberant frame of mind. But in the midst of her narration, a servant, at lady Feng's instance, asked goody Liu to go and have her evening meal. Dowager lady Chia then picked out, as well, several kinds of eatables from her own repast, and charged some one to take them to goody Liu to feast on.
But the consciousness that the old dame had taken her senior's fancy induced lady Feng to send her back again as soon as she had taken some refreshments. On her arrival, Yan Yang hastily deputed a matron to take goody Liu to have a bath. She herself then went and selected two pieces of ordinary clothes, and these she entrusted to a servant to hand to the old dame to change. Goody Liu had hitherto not set eyes upon any such grand things, so with eagerness she effected the necessary alterations in her costume. This over, she made her appearance outside, and, sitting in front of the divan occupied by dowager lady Chia, she went on to narrate as many stories as she could recall to mind. Pao-y and his cousins too were, at the time, assembled in the room, and as they had never before heard anything the like of what she said, they, of course, thought her tales more full of zest than those related by itinerant blind story-tellers.
Old goody Liu was, albeit a rustic person, gifted by nature with a good deal of discrimination. She was besides advanced in years; and had gone through many experiences in her lifetime, so when she, in the first place, saw how extremely delighted old lady Chia was with her, and, in the second, how eager the whole crowd of young lads and lasses were to listen to what fell from her mouth, she even invented, when she found her own stock exhausted, a good many yarns to recount to them.
"What with all the sowing we have to do in our fields and the vegetables we have to plant," she consequently proceeded, "have we ever in our village any leisure to sit with lazy hands from year to year and day to day; no matter whether it's spring, summer, autumn or winter, whether it blows or whether it rains? Yea, day after day all that we can do is to turn the bare road into a kind of pavilion to rest and cool ourselves on! But what strange things don't we see! Last winter, for instance, snow fell for several consecutive days, and it piled up on the ground three or four feet deep. One day, I got up early, but I hadn't as yet gone out of the door of our house when I heard outside the noise of firewood (being moved). I fancied that some one must have come to steal it, so I crept up to a hole in the window; but, lo, I discovered that it was no one from our own village."
"It must have been," interposed dowager lady Chia, "some wayfarers, who being smitten with the cold, took some of the firewood, they saw ready at hand, to go and make a fire and warm themselves with! That's highly probable!"
"It was no wayfarers at all," old goody Liu retorted smiling, "and that's what makes the story so strange. Who do you think it was, venerable star of longevity? It was really a most handsome girl of seventeen or eighteen, whose hair was combed as smooth as if oil had been poured over it. She was dressed in a deep red jacket, a white silk petticoat...."