Hung Lou Meng, by Cao Xueqin

CHAPTER XLVIII.

A sensual-minded man gets into such trouble through his sensuality that he entertains the idea of going abroad — An estimable and refined girl manages, after great exertion, to compose verses at a refined meeting.

But to resume our story. After hearing his mother’s arguments, Hsüeh P’an’s indignation gradually abated. But notwithstanding that his pains and aches completely disappeared, in three or five days’ time, the scars of his wounds were not yet healed and shamming illness, he remained at home; so ashamed was he to meet any of his relations or friends.

In a twinkle, the tenth moon drew near; and as several among the partners in the various shops, with which he was connected, wanted to go home, after the settlement of the annual accounts, he had to give them a farewell spread at home. In their number was one Chang Te-hui, who from his early years filled the post of manager in Hsüeh P’an’s pawnshop; and who enjoyed in his home a living of two or three thousand taels. His purpose too was to visit his native place this year, and to return the following spring.

“Stationery and perfumery have been so scarce this year,” he consequently represented, “that prices will next year inevitably be high; so when next year comes, what I’ll do will be to send up my elder and younger sons ahead of me to look after the pawnshop, and when I start on my way back, before the dragon festival, I’ll purchase a stock of paper, scents and fans and bring them for sale. And though we’ll have to reduce the duties, payable at the barriers, and other expenses, there will still remain for us a considerable percentage of profit.”

This proposal set Hsüeh P’an musing, “With the dressing I’ve recently had,” he pondered, “I cannot very well, at present, appear before any one. Were the fancy to take me to get out of the way for half a year or even a year, there isn’t a place where I can safely retire. And to sham illness, day after day, isn’t again quite the right thing! In addition to this, here I’ve reached this grown-up age, and yet I’m neither a civilian nor a soldier. It’s true I call myself a merchant; but I’ve never in point of fact handled the scales or the abacus. Nor do I know anything about our territories, customs and manners, distances and routes. So wouldn’t it be advisable that I should also get ready some of my capital, and go on a tour with Chang Te-hui for a year or so? Whether I earn any money or not, will be equally immaterial to me. More, I shall escape from all disgrace. It will, secondly, be a good thing for me to see a bit of country.”

This resolution once arrived at in his mind, he waited until they rose from the banquet, when he, with calmness and equanimity, brought his plans to Chang Te-hui’s cognizance, and asked him to postpone his departure for a day or two so that they should proceed on the journey together.

In the evening, he imparted the tidings to his mother. Mrs. Hsüeh, upon hearing his intention, was albeit delighted, tormented with fresh misgivings lest he should stir up trouble abroad — for as far as the expense was concerned she deemed it a mere bagatelle — and she consequently would not permit him to go. “You have,” she reasoned with him, “to take proper care of me, so that I may be able to live in peace. Another thing is, that you can well dispense with all this buying and selling, for you are in no need of the few hundreds of taels, you may make.”

Hsüeh P’an had long ago thoroughly resolved in his mind what to do and he did not therefore feel disposed to listen to her remonstrances. “You daily tax me,” he pleaded, “with being ignorant of the world, with not knowing this, and not learning that, and now that I stir up my good resolution, with the idea of putting an end to all trifling, and that I wish to become a man, to do something for myself, and learn how to carry on business, you won’t let me! But what would you have me do? Besides I’m not a girl that you should coop me up at home! And when is this likely to come to an end? Chang Te-hui is, moreover, a man well up in years; and he is an old friend of our family, so if I go with him, how ever will I be able to do anything that’s wrong? Should I at any time be guilty of any impropriety, he will be sure to speak to me, and to exhort me. He even knows the prices of things and customs of trade; and as I shall, as a matter of course, consult him in everything, what advantage won’t I enjoy? But if you refuse to let me go, I’ll wait for a couple of days, and, without breathing a word to any one at home, I’ll furtively make my preparations and start, and, when by next year I shall have made my fortune and come back, you’ll at length know what stuff I’m made off!”

When he had done speaking, he flew into a huff and went off to sleep.

Mrs. Hsüeh felt impelled, after the arguments she heard him propound, to deliberate with Pao-ch’ai.

“If brother,” Pao-ch’ai smilingly rejoined, “were in real earnest about gaining experience in some legitimate concerns, it would be well and good. But though he speaks, now that he is at home, in a plausible manner, the moment he gets abroad, his old mania will break out again, and it will be hard to exercise any check over him. Yet, it isn’t worth the while distressing yourself too much about him! If he does actually mend his ways, it will be the happiness of our whole lives. But if he doesn’t change, you won’t, mother, be able to do anything more; for though, in part, it depends on human exertion, it, in part, depends upon the will of heaven! If you keep on giving way to fears that, with his lack of worldly experience, he can’t be fit to go abroad and can’t be up to any business, and you lock him up at home this year, why next year he’ll be just the same! Such being the case, you’d better, ma — since his arguments are right and specious enough — make up your mind to sacrifice from eight hundred to a thousand taels and let him have them for a try. He’ll, at all events, have one of his partners to lend him a helping hand, one who won’t either think it a nice thing to play any of his tricks upon him. In the second place, there will be, when he’s gone, no one to the left of him or to the right of him, to stand by him, and no one upon whom to rely, for when one goes abroad, who cares for any one else? Those who have, eat; and those who haven’t starve. When he therefore casts his eyes about him and realises that there’s no one to depend upon, he may, upon seeing this, be up to less mischief than were he to stay at home; but of course, there’s no saying.”

Mrs. Hsüeh listened to her, and communed within herself for a moment. “What you say is, indeed, right and proper!” she remarked. “And could one, by spending a small sum, make him learn something profitable, it will be well worth!”

They then matured their plans; and nothing further of any note transpired during the rest of the night.

The next day, Mrs. Hsüeh sent a messenger to invite Chang Te-hui to come round. On his arrival, she charged Hsüeh P’an to regale him in the library. Then appearing, in person, outside the window of the covered back passage, she made thousand of appeals to Chang Te-hui to look after her son and take good care of him.

Chang Te-hui assented to her solicitations with profuse assurances, and took his leave after the collation.

“The fourteenth,” he went on to explain to Hsüeh P’an. “is a propitious day to start. So, worthy friend, you’d better be quick and pack up your baggage, and hire a mule, for us to begin our long journey as soon as the day dawns on the fourteenth.”

Hsüeh P’an was intensely gratified, and he communicated their plans to Mrs. Hsüeh. Mrs. Hsüeh then set to, and worked away, with the assistance of Pao-ch’ai, Hsiang Ling and two old nurses, for several consecutive days, before she got his luggage ready. She fixed upon the husband of Hsüeh P’an’s nurse an old man with hoary head, two old servants with ample experience and long services, and two young pages, who acted as Hsüeh P’an’s constant attendants, to go with him as his companions, so the party mustered, inclusive of master and followers, six persons in all. Three large carts were hired for the sole purpose of carrying the baggage and requisites; and four mules, suitable for long journeys, were likewise engaged. A tall, dark brown, home-bred mule was selected for Hsüeh P’an’s use; but a saddle horse, as well, was provided for him.

After the various preparations had been effected, Mrs. Hsüeh, Pao-ch’ai and the other inmates tendered him, night after night, words of advice. But we can well dispense with dilating on this topic. On the arrival of the thirteenth, Hsüeh P’an went and bade good-bye to his maternal uncles. After which, he came and paid his farewell visit to the members of the Chia household. Chia Chen and the other male relatives unavoidably prepared an entertainment to speed him off. But to these festivities, there is likewise little need to allude with any minuteness.

On the fourteenth, at break of day, Mrs. Hsüeh, Pao-ch’ai and the other members of the family accompanied Hsüeh P’an beyond the ceremonial gate. Here his mother and her daughter stood and watched him, their four eyes fixed intently on him, until he got out of sight, when they, at length, retraced their footsteps into the house.

Mrs. Hsüeh had, in coming up to the capital, only brought four or five family domestics and two or three old matrons and waiting-maids with her, so, after the departure on the recent occasion, of those, who followed Hsüeh P’an, no more than one or two men-servants remained in the outer quarters. Mrs. Hsüeh repaired therefore on the very same day into the study, and had the various ornaments, bric-à-brac, curtains and other articles removed into the inner compound and put away. Then bidding the wives of the two male attendants, who had gone with Hsüeh P’an, likewise move their quarters inside, along with the other women, she went on to impress upon Hsiang Ling to put everything carefully away in her own room as well, and to lock the doors; “for,” (she said), “you must come at night and sleep with me.”

“Since you’ve got all these people to keep you company, ma,” Pao-ch’ai remarked, “wouldn’t it be as well to tell sister Ling to come and be my companion? Our garden is besides quite empty and the nights are so long! And as I work away every night, won’t it be better for me to have an extra person with me?”

“Quite so!” smiled Mrs. Hsüeh, “I forgot that! I should have told her to go with you; it’s but right. It was only the other day that I mentioned to your brother that: ‘Wen Hsing too was young, and not fit to attend to everything that turns up, that Ying Erh could not alone do all the waiting, and that it was necessary to purchase another girl for your service.’”

“If we buy one, we won’t know what she’s really like!” Pao-ch’ai demurred. “If she gives us the slip, the money we may have spent on her will be a mere trifle, so long as she hasn’t been up to any pranks! So let’s quietly make inquiries, and, when we find one with well-known antecedents, we can purchase her, and, we’ll be on the safe side then!”

While speaking, she told Hsiang Ling to collect her bedding and clothes; and desiring an old matron and Ch’in Erh to take them over to the Heng Wu Yüan, Pao-ch’ai returned at last into the garden in company with Hsiang Ling.

“I meant to have proposed to my lady,” Hsiang Ling said to Pao-ch’ai, “that, when master left, I should be your companion, miss; but I feared lest her ladyship should, with that suspicious mind of hers, have maintained that I was longing to come into the garden to romp. But who’d have thought it, it was you, after all, who spoke to her about it!”

“I am well aware,” Pao-ch’ai smiled, “that you’ve been inwardly yearning for this garden, and that not for a day or two, but with the little time you can call your own, you would find it no fun, were you even able to run over once in a day, so long as you have to do it in a hurry-scurry! Seize therefore this opportunity of staying, better still, for a year; as I, on my side, will then have an extra companion; and you, on yours, will be able to accomplish your wishes.”

“My dear miss!” laughingly observed Hsiang Ling, “do let’s make the best of this time, and teach me how to write verses!”

“I say,” Pao-ch’ai laughed, “‘you no sooner, get the Lung state than you long for the Shu’! I advise you to wait a bit. This is the first day that you spend in here, and you should, first and foremost, go out of the garden by the eastern side gate and look up and salute every one in her respective quarters commencing from our old lady. But you needn’t make it a point of telling them that you’ve moved into the garden. If anyone does allude to the reason why you’ve shifted your quarters, you can simply explain cursorily that I’ve brought you in as a companion, and then drop the subject. On your return by and bye into the garden, you can pay a visit to the apartments of each of the young ladies.”

Hsiang Ling signified her acquiescence, and was about to start when she saw P’ing Erh rush in with hurried step. Hsiang Ling hastened to ask after her health, and P’ing Erh felt compelled to return her smile, and reciprocate her inquiry.

“I’ve brought her in to-day,” Pao-ch’ai thereupon smilingly said to P’ing Erh, “to make a companion of her. She was just on the point of going to tell your lady about it!”

“What is this that you’re saying, Miss?” P’ing Erh rejoined, with a smile. “I really am at a loss what reply to make to you!”

“It’s the right thing!” Pao-ch’ai answered. “’ In a house, there’s the master, and in a temple there’s the chief priest.’ It’s true, it’s no important concern, but something must, in fact, be mentioned, so that those, who sit up on night duty in the garden, may be aware that these two have been added to my rooms, and know when to close the gates and when to wait. When you get back therefore do mention it, so that I mayn’t have to send some one to tell them.”

P’ing Erh promised to carry out her wishes. “As you’re moved in here,” she said to Hsiang Ling, “won’t you go and pay your respects to your neighbours?”

“I had just this very moment,” Pao-ch’ai smiled, “told her to go and do so.”

“You needn’t however go to our house,” P’ing Erh remarked, “our Mr. Secundus is laid up at home.”

Hsiang Ling assented and went off, passing first and foremost by dowager lady Chia’s apartments. But without devoting any of our attention to her, we will revert to P’ing Erh.

Seeing Hsiang Ling walk out of the room, she drew Pao-ch’ai near her. “Miss! have you heard our news?” she inquired in a low tone of voice.

“I haven’t heard any news,” Pao-ch’ai responded. “We’ve been daily so busy in getting my brother’s things ready for his voyage abroad, that we know nothing whatever of any of your affairs in here. I haven’t even seen anything of my female cousins these last two days.”

“Our master, Mr. Chia She, has beaten our Mr. Secundus to such a degree that he can’t budge,” P’ing Erh smiled. “But is it likely, miss, that you’ve heard nothing about it?”

“This morning,” Pao-ch’ai said by way of reply, “I heard a vague report on the subject, but I didn’t believe it could be true. I was just about to go and look up your mistress, when you unexpectedly arrived. But why did he beat him again?”

P’ing Erh set her teeth to and gave way to abuse. “It’s all on account of some Chia Yü-ts’un or other; a starved and half-dead boorish bastard, who went yonder quite unexpectedly. It isn’t yet ten years, since we’ve known him, and he has been the cause of ever so much trouble! In the spring of this year, Mr. Chia She saw somewhere or other, I can’t tell where, a lot of antique fans; so, when on his return home, he noticed that the fine fans stored away in the house, were all of no use, he at once directed servants to go everywhere and hunt up some like those he had seen. Who’d have anticipated it, they came across a reckless creature of retribution, dubbed by common consent the ‘stone fool,’ who though so poor as to not even have any rice to put to his mouth, happened to have at home twenty antique fans. But these he utterly refused to take out of his main door. Our Mr. Secundus had thus a precious lot of bother to ask ever so many favours of people. But when he got to see the man, he made endless appeals to him before he could get him to invite him to go and sit in his house; when producing the fans, he allowed him to have a short inspection of them. From what our Mr. Secundus says, it would be really difficult to get any the like of them. They’re made entirely of spotted black bamboo, and the stags and jadelike clusters of bamboo on them are the genuine pictures, drawn by men of olden times. When he got back, he explained these things to Mr. Chia She, who readily asked him to buy them, and give the man his own price for them. The ‘stone fool,’ however, refused. ‘Were I even to be dying from hunger,’ he said, ‘or perishing from frostbites, and so much as a thousand taels were offered me for each single fan, I wouldn’t part with them.’ Mr. Chia She could do nothing, but day after day he abused our Mr. Secundus as a good-for-nothing. Yet he had long ago promised the man five hundred taels, payable cash down in advance, before delivery of the fans, but he would not sell them. ‘If you want the fans,’ he had answered, ‘you must first of all take my life.’ Now, miss, do consider what was to be done? But, Yü-ts’un is, as it happens, a man with no regard for divine justice. Well, when he came to hear of it, he at once devised a plan to lay hold of these fans, so fabricating the charge against him of letting a government debt drag on without payment, he had him arrested and brought before him in the Yamên; when he adjudicated that his family property should be converted into money to make up the amount due to the public chest; and, confiscating the fans in question, he set an official value on them and sent them over here. And as for that ‘stone fool,’ no one now has the faintest idea whether he be dead or alive. Mr. Chia She, however, taunted Mr. Secundus. ‘How is it,’ he said, ‘that other people can manage to get them?’ Our master simply rejoined ‘that to bring ruin upon a person in such a trivial matter could not be accounted ability.’ But, at these words, his father suddenly rushed into a fury, and averred that Mr. Secundus had said things to gag his mouth. This was the main cause. But several minor matters, which I can’t even recollect, also occurred during these last few days. So, when all these things accumulated, he set to work and gave him a sound thrashing. He didn’t, however, drag him down and strike him with a rattan or cane, but recklessly assaulted him, while he stood before him, with something or other, which he laid hold of, and broke his face open in two places. We understand that Mrs. Hsüeh has in here some medicine or other for applying on wounds, so do try, miss, and find a ball of it and let me have it!”

Hearing this, Pao-ch’ai speedily directed Ying Erh to go and look for some, and, on discovering two balls of it, she brought them over and handed them to P’ing Erh.

“Such being the case,” Pao-ch’ai said, “do make, on your return, the usual inquiries for me, and I won’t then need to go.”

P’ing Erh turned towards Pao-ch’ai, and expressed her readiness to execute her commission, after which she betook herself home, where we will leave her without further notice.

After Hsiang Ling, for we will take up the thread of our narrative with her, completed her visits to the various inmates, she had her evening meal. Then when Pao-ch’ai and every one else went to dowager lady Chia’s quarters, she came into the Hsiao Hsiang lodge. By this time Tai-yü had got considerably better. Upon hearing that Hsiang Ling had also moved into the garden, she, needless to say, was filled with delight.

“Now, that I’ve come in here,” Hsiang Ling then smiled and said, “do please teach me, at your leisure, how to write verses. It will be a bit of good luck for me if you do.”

“Since you’re anxious to learn how to versify,” Tai-yü answered with a smile, “you’d better acknowledge me as your tutor; for though I’m not a good hand at poetry, yet I know, after all, enough to be able to teach you.”

“Of course you do!” Hsiang Ling laughingly remarked. “I’ll readily treat you as my tutor. But you mustn’t put yourself to any trouble!”

“Is there anything so difficult about this,” Tai-yü pursued, “as to make it necessary to go in for any study? Why, it’s purely and simply a matter of openings, elucidations, embellishments and conclusions. The elucidations and embellishments, which come in the centre, should form two antithetical sentences, the even tones must pair with the uneven. Empty words must correspond with full words; and full words with empty words. In the event of any out-of-the-way lines, it won’t matter if the even and uneven tones, and the empty and full words do not pair.”

“Strange though it may appear,” smiled Hsiang Ling, “I often handle books with old poems, and read one or two stanzas, whenever I can steal the time; and some among these I find pair most skilfully, while others don’t. I have also heard that the first, third and fifth lines are of no consequence; and that the second, fourth and sixth must be clearly distinguished. But I notice that there are in the poetical works of ancient writers both those which accord with the rules, as well as those whose second, fourth and sixth lines are not in compliance with any rule. Hence it is that my mind has daily been full of doubts. But after the hints you’ve given me, I really see that all these formulas are of no account, and that the main requirement is originality of diction.”

“Yes, that’s just the principle that holds good,” Tai-yü answered. “But diction is, after all, a last consideration. The first and foremost thing is the choice of proper sentiments; for when the sentiments are correct, there’ll even be no need to polish the diction; it’s certain to be elegant. This is called versifying without letting the diction affect the sentiments.”

“What I admire,” Hsiang Ling proceeded with a smile; “are the lines by old Lu Fang;

“The double portière, when not raised, retains the fragrance long.

An old inkslab, with a slight hole, collects plenty of ink.

“Their language is so clear that it’s charming.”

“You must on no account,” Tai-yü observed, “read poetry of the kind. It’s because you people don’t know what verses mean that you, no sooner read any shallow lines like these, than they take your fancy. But when once you get into this sort of style, it’s impossible to get out of it. Mark my words! If you are in earnest about learning, I’ve got here Wang Mo-chieh’s complete collection; so you’d better take his one hundred stanzas, written in the pentameter rule of versification, and carefully study them, until you apprehend them thoroughly. Afterwards, look over the one hundred and twenty stanzas of Lao T’u, in the heptameter rule; and next read a hundred or two hundred of the heptameter four-lined stanzas by Li Ch’ing-lieu. When you have, as a first step, digested these three authors, and made them your foundation, you can take T’ao Yuan-ming, Ying, Liu, Hsieh, Yüan, Yü, Pao and other writers and go through them once. And with those sharp and quick wits of yours, I’ve no doubt but that you will become a regular poet before a year’s time.”

“Well, in that case,” Hsiang Ling smiled, after listening to her, “bring me the book, my dear miss, so that I may take it along. It will be a good thing if I can manage to read several stanzas at night.”

At these words, Tai-yü bade Tzu Chüan fetch Wang Tso-ch’eng’s pentameter stanzas. When brought, she handed them to Hsiang Ling. “Only peruse those marked with red circles” she said. “They’ve all been selected by me. Read each one of them; and should there be any you can’t fathom, ask your miss about them. Or when you come across me, I can explain them to you.”

Hsiang Ling took the poems and repaired back to the Heng Wu-yüan. And without worrying her mind about anything she approached the lamp and began to con stanza after stanza. Pao-ch’ai pressed her, several consecutive times, to go to bed; but as even rest was far from her thoughts, Pao-ch’ai let her, when she perceived what trouble she was taking over her task, have her own way in the matter.

Tai-yü had one day just finished combing her hair and performing her ablutions, when she espied Hsiang Ling come with smiles playing about her lips, to return her the book and to ask her to let her have T’u’s poetical compositions in exchange.

“Of all these, how many stanzas can you recollect?” Tai-yü asked, smiling.

“I’ve read every one of those marked with a red circle,” Hsiang Ling laughingly rejoined.

“Have you caught the ideas of any of them, yes or no?” Tai-yü inquired.

“Yes, I’ve caught some!” Hsiang Ling smiled. “But whether rightly or not I don’t know. Let me tell you.”

“You must really,” Tai-yü laughingly remarked, “minutely solicit people’s opinions if you want to make any progress. But go on and let me hear you.”

“From all I can see,” Hsiang Ling smiled, “the beauty of poetry lies in certain ideas, which though not quite expressible in words are, nevertheless, found, on reflection, to be absolutely correct. Some may have the semblance of being totally devoid of sense, but, on second thought, they’ll truly be seen to be full of sense and feeling.”

“There’s a good deal of right in what you say,” Tai-yü observed. “But I wonder how you arrived at this conclusion?”

“I notice in that stanza on ‘the borderland,’ the antithetical couplet:

“In the vast desert reigns but upright mist.

In the long river setteth the round sun.

“Consider now how ever can mist be upright? The sun is, of course, round. But the word ‘upright’ would seem to be devoid of common sense; and ‘round’ appears far too commonplace a word. But upon throwing the whole passage together, and pondering over it, one fancies having seen the scenery alluded to. Now were any one to suggest that two other characters should be substituted for these two, one would verily be hard pressed to find any other two as suitable. Besides this, there’s also the couplet:

“When the sun sets, rivers and lakes are white;

When the mist falls, the heavens and earth azure.

“Both ‘white’ and ‘azure’, apparently too lack any sense; but reflection will show that these two words are absolutely necessary to bring out thoroughly the aspect of the scenery. And in conning them over, one feels just as if one had an olive, weighing several thousands of catties, in one’s mouth, so much relish does one derive from them. But there’s this too:

“At the ferry stays the setting sun,

O’er the mart hangs the lonesome mist.

“And how much trouble must these words ‘stay,’ and ‘over, have caused the author in their conception! When the boats made fast, in the evening of a certain day of that year in which we came up to the capital, the banks were without a trace of human beings; and there were only just a few trees about; in the distance loomed the houses of several families engaged in preparing their evening meal, and the mist was, in fact, azure like jade, and connected like clouds. So, when I, as it happened, read this couplet last night, it actually seemed to me as if I had come again to that spot!”

But in the course of their colloquy, Pao-yü and T’an Ch’un arrived; and entering the room, they seated themselves, and lent an ear to her arguments on the verses.

“Seeing that you know so much,” Pao-yü remarked with a smiling face, “you can dispense with reading poetical works, for you’re not far off from proficiency. To hear you expatiate on these two lines, makes it evident to my mind that you’ve even got at their secret meaning.”

“You say,” argued Tai-yü with a significant smile, “that the line:

“‘O’er (the mart) hangs the lonesome mist,’

“is good; but aren’t you yet aware that this is only plagiarised from an ancient writer? But I’ll show you the line I’m telling you of. You’ll find it far plainer and clearer than this.”

While uttering these words, she turned up T’ao Yüan-ming’s,

Dim in the distance lies a country place;

Faint in the hamlet-market hangs the mist;

and handed it to Hsiang Ling.

Hsiang Ling perused it, and, nodding her head, she eulogised it. “Really,” she smiled, the word ‘over’ is educed from the two characters implying ‘faint.’

Pao-yü burst out into a loud fit of exultant laughter. “You’ve already got it!” he cried. “There’s no need of explaining anything more to you! Any further explanations will, in lieu of benefiting you, make you unlearn what you’ve learnt. Were you therefore to, at once, set to work, and versify, your lines are bound to be good.”

“To-morrow,” observed T’an ch’un with a smile; “I’ll stand an extra treat and invite you to join the society.”

“Why make a fool of me, miss?” Hsiang Ling laughingly ejaculated. “It’s merely that mania of mine that made me apply my mind to this subject at all; just for fun and no other reason.”

T’an Ch’un and Tai-yü both smiled. “Who doesn’t go in for these things for fun?” they asked. “Is it likely that we improvise verses in real earnest? Why, if any one treated our verses as genuine verses, and took them outside this garden, people would have such a hearty laugh at our expense that their very teeth would drop.”

“This is again self-violence and self-abasement!” Pao-yü interposed. The other day, I was outside the garden, consulting with the gentlemen about paintings, and, when they came to hear that we had started a poetical society, they begged of me to let them have the rough copies to read. So I wrote out several stanzas, and gave them to them to look over, and who did not praise them with all sincerity? They even copied them and took them to have the blocks cut.”

“Are you speaking the truth?” T’an Ch’un and Tai-yü eagerly inquired.

“If I’m telling a lie,” Pao-yü laughed, “I’m like that cockatoo on that frame!”

“You verily do foolish things!” Tai-yü and T’an Ch’un exclaimed with one voice, at these words. “But not to mention that they were doggerel lines, had they even been anything like what verses should be, our writings shouldn’t have been hawked about outside.”

“What’s there to fear?” Pao-yü smiled. “Hadn’t the writings of women of old been handed outside the limits of the inner chambers, why, there would, at present, be no one with any idea of their very existence.”

While he passed this remark, they saw Ju Hua arrive from Hsi Ch’un’s quarters to ask Pao-yü to go over; and Pao-yü eventually took his departure.

Hsiang Ling then pressed (Tai-yü) to give her T’u’s poems. “Do choose some theme,” she also asked Tai-yü and T’an Ch’un, “and let me go and write on it. When I’ve done, I’ll bring it for you to correct.”

“Last night,” Tai-yü observed, “the moon was so magnificent, that I meant to improvise a stanza on it; but as I haven’t done yet, go at once and write one using the fourteenth rhyme, ‘han,’ (cool). You’re at liberty to make use of whatever words you fancy.”

Hearing this, Hsiang Ling was simply delighted, and taking the poems, she went back. After considerable exertion, she succeeded in devising a couplet, but so little able was she to tear herself away from the ‘T’u’ poems, that she perused another couple of stanzas, until she had no inclination for either tea or food, and she felt in an unsettled mood, try though she did to sit or recline.

“Why,” Pao-ch’ai remonstrated, “do you bring such trouble upon yourself? It’s that P’in Erh, who has led you on to it! But I’ll settle accounts with her! You’ve all along been a thick-headed fool; but now that you’ve burdened yourself with all this, you’ve become a greater fool.”

“Miss,” smiled Hsiang Ling, “don’t confuse me.”

So saying, she set to work and put together a stanza, which she first and foremost handed to Pao-ch’ai to look over.

“This isn’t good!” Pao-ch’ai smilingly said. “This isn’t the way to do it! Don’t fear of losing face, but take it and give it to her to peruse. We’ll see what she says.”

At this suggestion, Hsiang Ling forthwith went with her verses in search of Tai-yü. When Tai-yü came to read them, she found their text to be:

The night grows cool, what time Selene reacheth the mid-heavens.

Her radiance pure shineth around with such a spotless sheen.

Bards oft for inspiration raise on her their thoughts and eyes.

The rustic daren’t see her, so fears he to enhance his grief.

Jade mirrors are suspended near the tower of malachite.

An icelike plate dangles outside the gem-laden portière.

The eve is fine, so why need any silvery candles burn?

A clear light shines with dazzling lustre on the painted rails.

“There’s a good deal of spirit in them,” Tai-yü smiled, “but the language is not elegant. It’s because you’ve only read a few poetical works that you labour under restraint. Now put this stanza aside and write another. Pluck up your courage and go and work away.”

After listening to her advice, Hsiang Ling quietly wended her way back, but so much the more (preoccupied) was she in her mind that she did not even enter the house, but remaining under the trees, planted by the side of the pond, she either seated herself on a rock and plunged in a reverie, or squatted down and dug the ground, to the astonishment of all those, who went backwards and forwards. Li wan, Pao-ch’ai, T’an Ch’un, Pao-yü and some others heard about her; and, taking their position some way off on the mound, they watched her, much amused. At one time, they saw her pucker up her eyebrows; and at another smile to herself.

“That girl must certainly be cracked!” Pao-ch’ai laughed. “Last night she kept on muttering away straight up to the fifth watch, when she at last turned in. But shortly, daylight broke, and I heard her get up and comb her hair, all in a hurry, and rush after P’in Erh. In a while, however, she returned; and, after acting like an idiot the whole day, she managed to put together a stanza. But it wasn’t after all, good, so she’s, of course, now trying to devise another.”

“This indeed shows,” Pao-yü laughingly remarked, “that the earth is spiritual, that man is intelligent, and that heaven does not in the creation of human beings bestow on them natural gifts to no purpose. We’ve been sighing and lamenting that it was a pity that such a one as she, should, really, be so unpolished; but who could ever have anticipated that things would, in the long run, reach the present pass? This is a clear sign that heaven and earth are most equitable!”

“If only,” smiled Pao-ch’ai, at these words, “you could be as painstaking as she is, what a good thing it would be. And would you fail to attain success in anything you might take up?”

Pao-yü made no reply. But realising that Hsiang Ling had crossed over in high spirits to find Tai-yü again, T’an Ch’un laughed and suggested, “Let’s follow her there, and see whether her composition is any good.”

At this proposal, they came in a body to the Hsiao Hsiang lodge. Here they discovered Tai-yü holding the verses and explaining various things to her.

“What are they like?” they all thereupon inquired of Tai-yü.

“This is naturally a hard job for her!” Tai-yü rejoined. “They’re not yet as good as they should be. This stanza is far too forced; you must write another.”

One and all however expressed a desire to look over the verses. On perusal, they read:

’Tis not silver, neither water that on the windows shines so cold.

Selene, mark! covers, like a jade platter, the clear vault of heaven.

What time the fragrance faint of the plum bloom is fain to tinge the air,

The dew-bedecked silken willow trees begin to lose their leaves.

’Tis the remains of powder which methinks besmear the golden steps.

Her lustrous rays enshroud like light hoar-frost the jadelike balustrade.

When from my dreams I wake, in the west tower, all human trace is gone.

Her slanting orb can yet clearly be seen across the bamboo screen.

“It doesn’t sound like a song on the moon,” Pao-ch’ai smilingly observed. “Yet were, after the word ‘moon’, that of ‘light’ supplied, it would be better; for, just see, if each of these lines treated of the moonlight, they would be all right. But poetry primarily springs from nonsensical language. In a few days longer, you’ll be able to do well.”

Hsiang Ling had flattered herself that this last stanza was perfect, and the criticisms, that fell on her ear, damped her spirits again. She was not however disposed to relax in her endeavours, but felt eager to commune with her own thoughts, so when she perceived the young ladies chatting and laughing, she betook herself all alone to the bamboo-grove at the foot of the steps; where she racked her brain, and ransacked her mind with such intentness that her ears were deaf to everything around her and her eyes blind to everything beyond her task.

“Miss Ling,” T’an Ch’un presently cried, smiling from inside the window, “do have a rest!”

“The character ‘rest;’” Hsiang Ling nervously replied, “comes from lot N.° 15, under ‘shan’, (to correct); so it’s the wrong rhyme.”

This rambling talk made them involuntarily burst out laughing.

“In very fact,” Pao-sh’ai laughed, “she’s under a poetical frenzy, and it’s all P’in Erh who has incited her.”

“The holy man says,” Tai-yü smilingly rejoined, “that ‘one must not be weary of exhorting people’; and if she comes, time and again, to ask me this and that how can I possibly not tell her?”

“Let’s take her to Miss Quarta’s rooms,” Li Wan smiled, “and if we could coax her to look at the painting, and bring her to her senses, it will be well.”

Speaking the while, she actually walked out of the room, and laying hold of her, she brought her through the Lotus Fragrance arbour to the bank of Warm Fragrance. Hsi Ch’un was tired and languid, and was lying on the window, having a midday siesta. The painting was resting against the partition-wall, and was screened with a gauze cover. With one voice, they roused Hsi Ch’un, and raising the gauze cover to contemplate her work, they saw that three tenths of it had already been accomplished. But their attention was attracted by the representation of several beautiful girls, inserted in the picture, so pointing at Hsiang Ling: “Every one who can write verses is to be put here,” they said, “so be quick and learn.”

But while conversing, they played and laughed for a time, after which, each went her own way.

Hsiang Ling was meanwhile preoccupied about her verses, so, when evening came, she sat facing the lamp absorbed in thought. And the third watch struck before she got to bed. But her eyes were so wide awake, that it was only after the fifth watch had come and gone, that she, at length, felt drowsy and fell fast asleep.

Presently, the day dawned, and Pao-ch’ai woke up; but, when she lent an ear, she discovered (Hsiang Ling) in a sound sleep. “She has racked her brains the whole night long,” she pondered. “I wonder, however, whether she has succeeded in finishing her task. She must be tired now, so I won’t disturb her.”

But in the midst of her cogitations, she heard Hsiang Ling laugh and exclaim in her sleep: “I’ve got it. It cannot be that this stanza too won’t be worth anything.”

“How sad and ridiculous!” Pao-ch’ai soliloquised with a smile. And, calling her by name, she woke her up. “What have you got?” she asked. “With that firmness of purpose of yours, you could even become a spirit! But before you can learn how to write poetry, you’ll be getting some illness.”

Chiding her the while, she combed her hair and washed; and, this done, she repaired, along with her cousins, into dowager lady Chia’s quarters.

Hsiang Ling made, in fact, such desperate efforts to learn all about poetry that her system got quite out of order. But although she did not in the course of the day hit upon anything, she quite casually succeeded in her dreams in devising eight lines; so concluding her toilette and her ablutions, she hastily jotted them down, and betook herself into the Hsin Fang pavilion. Here she saw Li Wan and the whole bevy of young ladies, returning from Madame Wang’s suite of apartments.

Pao-ch’ai was in the act of telling them of the verses composed by Hsiang Ling, while asleep, and of the nonsense she had been talking, and every one of them was convulsed with laughter. But upon raising their heads, and perceiving that she was approaching, they vied with each other in pressing her to let them see her composition.

But, reader, do you wish to know any further particulars? If you do; read those given in the next chapter.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cao_xueqin/c2359h/chapter48.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:29