THE “LI AO CHAI”—THE “HUNG LOU MÊNG”
The Manchu Dynasty (A.D. 1644-1900)
BY 1644 the glories of the great Ming dynasty had departed. Misgovernment, referred by Chinese writers to the ascendency of eunuchs, had resulted in rebellion, and the rebel chief with a large army was pressing upon the capital. On the 9th April Peking fell. During the previous night the Emperor, who had refused to flee, slew the eldest Princess, commanded the Empress to commit suicide, and sent his three sons into hiding. At dawn the bell was struck for the Court to assemble; but no one came. His Majesty then ascended the Wan Sui Hill in the palace grounds, and wrote on the lapel of his robe a last decree:—"We, poor in virtue and of contemptible personality, have incurred the wrath of God on high. My Ministers have deceived me. I am ashamed to meet my ancestors; and therefore I myself take off my crown, and, with my hair covering my face, await dismemberment at the hands of the rebels. Do not hurt a single one of my people! "He then hanged himself, as did one faithful eunuch. At this juncture the Chinese commander-in-chief made overtures to the Manchu Tartars, who had long been consolidating their forces, and were already a serious menace to China. An agreement was hurriedly entered into, and Peking was retaken. The Manchus took possession definitively of the throne, which they had openly claimed since 1635, and imposed the "pigtail" upon the Chinese people.
Here then was the great empire of China, bounded by the Four Seas, and stretching to the confines of the habitable earth, except for a few barbarian islands scattered on its fringe, with its refined and scholarly people, heirs to a glorious literature more than twenty centuries old, in the power of a wild race of herdsmen, whose title had been established by skill in archery and horsemanship. Not much was to be expected on behalf of the "humanities" from a people whose own written language had been composed to order so late as 1599, and whose literary instincts had still to be developed. Yet it may be said without fear of contradiction that no age ever witnessed anything like the extensive encouragement of literature and patronage of literary men exhibited under the reigns of two Emperors of this dynasty. Of this, however, in the next chapter.
The literature of this dynasty may be said to begin with a writer who was after all but a mere storyteller. It has already been stated that novels and plays are not included by the Chinese in the domain of pure literature. Such is the rule, to which there is in practice, if not in theory, one very notable exception.
P'u SUNG-LANG, author of the Liao Chai Chih I, which may be conveniently rendered by "Strange Stories," was born in 1622, and took his first degree in 1641. Though an excellent scholar and a most polished writer, he failed, as many other good men have done, to take the higher degrees by which he had hoped to enter upon an official career. It is generally understood that this failure was due to neglect of the beaten track of academic study. At any rate, his disappointment was overwhelming. All else that we have on record of P'u Sung-ling, besides the fact that he lived in close companionship with several eminent scholars of the day, is gathered from his own words, written when, in 1679, he laid down his pen upon the completion of a task which was to raise him within a short period to a foremost rank in the Chinese world of letters. The following are extracts from this record:—
"Clad in wistaria, girdled with ivy,1—thus sang Ch'ü Yüan in his Li Sao. Of ox-headed devils and serpent gods, he of the long nails2 never wearied to tell. Each interprets in his own way the music of heaven; and whether it be discord or not, depends upon antecedent causes. As for me, I cannot, with my poor autumn firefly's light, match myself against the hobgoblins of the age.3 I am but the dust in the sunbeam, a fit laughing-stock for devils.1 For my talents are not those of Yü Pao,2 elegant explorer of the records of the gods; I am rather animated by the spirit of Su Tung-p'o, who loved to hear men speak of the supernatural. I get people to commit what they tell me to writing, and subsequently I dress it up in the form of a story; and thus in the lapse of time my friends from all quarters have supplied me with quantities of material, which, from my habit of collecting, has grown into a vast pile.
"When the bow3 was hung at my father's door, he dreamed that a sickly-looking Buddhist priest, but half-covered by his stole, entered the chamber. On one of his breasts was a round piece of plaster like a cash; and my father, waking from sleep, found that I, just born, had a similar black patch on my body. As a child, I was thin and constantly ailing, and unable to hold my own in the battle of life. Our home was chill and desolate as a monastery; and working there for my livelihood with my pen, I was as poor as a priest with his alms-bowl. Often and often I put my hand to my head and exclaimed, 'Surely he who sat with his face to the wall4 was myself in a previous state of existence;' and thus I referred my non-success in this life to the influence of a destiny surviving from the last. I have been tossed hither and thither in the direction of the ruling wind, like a flower falling in filthy places; but the six paths 1 of transmigration are inscrutable indeed, and I have no right to complain. As it is, midnight finds me with an expiring lamp, while the wind whistles mournfully without; and over my cheerless table I piece together my tales, vainly hoping to produce a sequel to the Infernal Regions.2 With a bumper I stimulate my pen, yet I only succeed thereby in 'venting my excited feelings,' and as I thus commit my thoughts to writing, truly I am an object worthy of commiseration. Alas! I am but the bird that, dreading the winter frost, finds no shelter in the tree, the autumn insect that chirps to the moon and hugs the door for warmth. For where are they who know me? They are 'in the bosky grove and at the frontier pass'3—wrapped in an impenetrable gloom!"
For many years these "Strange Stories" circulated only in manuscript. P'u Sung-ling, as we are told in a colophon by his grandson to the first edition, was too poor to meet the heavy expense of block-cutting; and it was not until so late as 1740, when the author must have been already for some time a denizen of the dark land he so much loved to describe, that his aforesaid grandson printed and published the collection now so universally famous. Since then many editions have been laid before the Chinese public, the best of which is that by Tan Ming-lun, a Salt Commissioner, who flourished during the reign of Tao Kuang, and who in 1842 produced, at his own expense, an excellent edition in sixteen small octavo volumes of about 160 pages each.
Any reader of these stories as transferred into another language might fairly turn round and ask the why and the wherefore of the profound admiration—to use a mild term—which is universally accorded to them by the literati of China. The answer is to be found in the incomparable style in which even the meanest of them is arrayed. All the elements of form which make for beauty in Chinese composition are there in overwhelming force. Terseness is pushed to its extreme limits; each particle that can be safely dispensed with is scrupulously eliminated, and every here and there some new and original combination invests perhaps a single word with a force it could never have possessed except under the hands of a perfect master of his art. Add to the above copious allusions and adaptations from a course of reading which would seem to have been co-extensive with the whole range of Chinese literature, a wealth of metaphor and an artistic use of figures generally, to which only the writings of Carlyle form an adequate parallel, and the result is a work which for purity and beauty of style is now universally accepted in China as among the best and most perfect models. Sometimes the story runs plainly and smoothly enough, but the next moment we may be plunged into pages of abstruse text, the meaning of which is so involved in quotations from and allusions to the poetry or history of the past three thousand years as to be recoverable only after diligent perusal of the commentary, and much searching in other works of reference.
Premising that, according to one editor, the intention of most of these stories is to "glorify virtue and to censure vice," the following story, entitled "The Talking Pupils," may be taken as a fair illustration of the extent to which this pledge is redeemed:—
"At Ch'ang-an there lived a scholar named Fang Tung, who, though by no means destitute of ability, was a very unprincipled rake, and in the habit of following and speaking to any woman he might chance to meet. The day before the spring festival of Clear Weather he was strolling about outside the city when he saw a small carriage with red curtains and an embroidered awning, followed by a crowd of waiting-maids on horseback, one of whom was exceedingly pretty and riding on a small palfrey. Going closer to get a better view, Mr. Fang noticed that the carriage curtain was partly open, and inside he beheld a beautifully dressed girl of about sixteen, lovely beyond anything he had ever seen. Dazzled by the sight, he could not take his eyes off her, and now before, now behind, he followed the carriage for many a mile. By and by he heard the young lady call out to her maid, and, when the latter came alongside, say to her, 'Let down the screen for me. Who is this rude fellow that keeps on staring so?' The maid accordingly let down the screen, and looking angrily at Mr. Fang, said to him, 'This is the bride of the Seventh Prince in the City of Immortals going home to see her parents, and no village girl that you should stare at her thus.' Then taking a handful of dust she threw it at him and blinded him. He rubbed his eyes and looked round, but the carriage and horses were gone. This frightened him, and he went off home, feeling very uncomfortable about the eyes. He sent for a doctor to examine them, and on the pupils was found a small film, which had increased by next morning, the eyes watering incessantly all the time. The film went on growing, and in a few days was as thick as a cash. On the right pupil there came a kind of spiral, and as no medicine was of any avail, the sufferer gave himself up to grief and wished for death. He then bethought himself of repenting of his misdeeds, and hearing that the Kuang-ming sûtra could relieve misery, he got a copy and hired a man to teach it to him. At first it was very tedious work, but by degrees he became more composed, and spent every evening in a posture of devotion, telling his beads. At the end of a year he had arrived at a state of perfect calm, when one day he heard a small voice, about as loud as a fly's, calling out from his left eye, 'It's horridly dark in here.' To this he heard a reply from the right eye, saying, 'Let us go out for a stroll, and cheer ourselves up a bit.' Then he felt a wriggling in his nose which made it itch, just as if something was going out of each of his nostrils, and after a while he felt it again as if going the other way. Afterwards he heard a voice from one eye say, 'I hadn't seen the garden for a long time; the epidendrums are all withered and dead.' Now Mr. Fang was very fond of these epidendrums, of which he had planted a great number, and had been accustomed to water them himself, but since the loss of his sight he had never even alluded to them. Hearing, however, these words, he at once asked his wife why she had let the epidendrums die. She inquired how he knew they were dead, and when he told her, she went out to see, and found them actually withered away. They were both very much astonished at this, and his wife proceeded to conceal herself in the room. She then observed two tiny people, no bigger than a bean, come down from her husband's nose and run out of the door, where she lost sight of them. In a little while they came back and flew up to his face, like bees or beetles seeking their nests. This went on for some days until Mr. Fang heard from the left eye, 'This roundabout road is not at all convenient. It would be as well for us to make a door.' To this the right eye answered, 'My wall is too thick; it wouldn't be at all an easy job.' 'I'll try and open mine,' said the left eye, 'and then it will do for both of us.' Whereupon Mr. Fang felt a pain in his left eye as if something was being split, and in a moment he found he could see the tables and chairs in the room. He was delighted at this, and told his wife, who examined his eye and discovered an opening in the film, through which she could see the black pupil shining out beneath, the eyeball itself looking like a cracked peppercorn. By next morning the film had disappeared, and when his eye was closely examined it was observed to contain two pupils. The spiral on the right eye remained as before, and then they knew that the two pupils had taken up their abode in one eye. Further, although Mr. Fang was still blind of one eye, the sight of the other was better than that of the two together. From this time he was more careful of his behaviour, and acquired in his part of the country the reputation of a virtuous man."
To take another specimen, this time with a dash of humour in it. A certain man, named Wang (anglicè Smith), decided to study Tao—in other words, the black art—at a temple of the Taoist persuasion. The priest, who seems to have had a touch of Squeers in his composition, warned Wang that he would probably not be able to stand the training; but on the latter insisting, the priest allowed him to join the other novices, and then sent him to chop wood. He was kept at this task so long that, although he managed to witness several extraordinary feats of magical skill performed by the priest, he scarcely felt that he was making progress himself.
"After a time he could not stand it any longer; and as the priest taught him no magical arts, he determined not to wait, but went to him and said, 'Sir, I travelled many long miles for the benefit of your instruction. If you will not teach me the secret of immortality, let me, at any rate, learn some trifling trick, and thus soothe my cravings for a knowledge of your art. I have now been here two or three months, doing nothing but chop firewood, out in the morning and back at night, work to which I was never accustomed in my own home.' 'Did I not tell you,' replied the priest, 'that you would never support the fatigue? To-morrow I will start you on your way home.' 'Sir,' said Wang, 'I have worked for you a long time. Teach me some small art, that my coming here may not have been wholly in vain.' 'What art?'asked the priest. 'Well,'answered Wang, 'I have noticed that whenever you walk about anywhere, walls and so on are no obstacle to you. Teach me this, and I'll be satisfied.' The priest laughingly assented, and taught Wang a formula which he bade him recite. When he had done so he told him to walk through the wall; but Wang, seeing the wall in front of him, didn't like to walk at it. As, however, the priest bade him try, he walked quietly up to it and was there stopped. The priest here called out, 'Don't go so slowly. Put your head down and rush at it.' So Wang stepped back a few paces and went at it full speed; and the wall yielding to him as he passed, in a moment he found himself outside. Delighted at this, he went in to thank the priest, who told him to be careful in the use of his power, or otherwise there would be no response, handing him at the same time some money for his expenses on the way. When Wang got home, he went about bragging of his Taoist friends and his contempt for walls in general; but as his wife disbelieved his story, he set about going through the performance as before. Stepping back from the wall, he rushed at it full speed with his head down; but corning in contact with the hard bricks, finished up in a heap on the floor. His wife picked him up and found he had a bump on his forehead as big as a large egg, at which she roared with laughter; but Wang was overwhelmed with rage and shame, and cursed the old priest for his base ingratitude."
Episodes with a familiar ring about them are often to be found embedded in this collection. For instance:—
"She then became a dense column of smoke curling up from the ground, when the priest took an uncorked gourd and threw it right into the midst of the smoke. A sucking noise was heard, and the whole column was drawn into the gourd; after which the priest corked it up closely and put it in his pouch."
Of such points the following story contains another good example:—
"A countryman was one day selling his pears in the market. They were unusually sweet and fine flavoured, and the price he asked was high. A Taoist priest in rags and tatters stopped at the barrow and begged one of them. The countryman told him to go away, but as he did not do so, he began to curse and swear at him. The priest said, 'You have several hundred pears on your barrow; I ask for a single one, the loss of which, sir, you would not feel. Why then get angry?' The lookers-on told the countryman to give him an inferior one and let him go; but this he obstinately refused to do. Thereupon the beadle of the place, finding the commotion too great, purchased a pear and handed it to the priest. The latter received it with a bow, and turning to the crowd said, 'We who have left our homes and given up all that is dear to us, are at a loss to understand selfish, niggardly conduct in others. Now I have some exquisite pears which I shall do myself the honour to put before you.' Here somebody asked, 'Since you have pears yourself why don't you eat those?' 'Because,' replied the priest, 'I wanted one of these pips to grow them from.' So saying he munched up the pear; and when he had finished took a pip in his hand, unstrapped a pick from his back, and proceeded to make a hole in the ground several inches deep, wherein he deposited the pip, filling in the earth as before. He then asked the bystanders for a little hot water to water it with, and one among them who loved a joke fetched him some boiling water from a neighbouring shop. The priest poured this over the place where he had made the hole, and every eye was fixed upon him when sprouts were seen shooting up, and gradually growing larger and larger. By and by there was a tree with branches sparsely covered with leaves; then flowers, and last of all fine, large, sweet-smelling pears hanging in great profusion. These the priest picked and handed round to the assembled crowd until all were gone, when he took his pick and hacked away for a long time at the tree, finally cutting it down. This he shouldered, leaves and all, and sauntered quietly away. Now from the very beginning our friend the countryman had been amongst the crowd, straining his neck to see what was going on, and forgetting all about his business. At the departure of the priest he turned round and discovered that every one of his pears was gone. He then knew that those the old fellow had been giving away so freely were really his own pears. Looking more closely at the barrow, he also found that one of the handles was missing, evidently having been newly cut off. Boiling with rage, he set out in pursuit of the priest, and just as he turned the corner he saw the lost barrow-handle lying under the wall, being, in fact, the very pear-tree that the priest had cut down. But there were no traces of the priest, much to the amusement of the crowd in the market-place."
Here again is a scene, the latter part of which would almost justify the belief that Mr. W. S. Gilbert was a student of Chinese, and had borrowed some of his best points in "Sweethearts" from the author of the Liao Chai:—
"Next day Wang strolled into the garden, which was of moderate size, with a well-kept lawn and plenty of trees and flowers. There was also an arbour consisting of three posts with a thatched roof, quite shut in on all sides by the luxuriant vegetation. Pushing his way among the flowers, Wang heard a noise from one of the trees, and looking up saw Ying-ning, who at once burst out laughing and nearly fell down. 'Don't! don't!' cried Wang, 'you'll fall!' Then Ying-ning came clown, giggling all the time, until, when she was near the ground, she missed her hold and tumbled down with a run. This stopped her merriment, and Wang picked her up, gently squeezing her hand as he did so. Ying-ning began laughing again, and was obliged to lean against a tree for support, it being some time before she was able to stop. Wang waited till she had finished, and then drew the flower out of his sleeve and handed it to her. 'It's dead,'said she; 'why do you keep it?' 'You dropped it, cousin, at the Feast of Lanterns,' replied Wang, 'and so I kept it.' She then asked him what was his object in keeping it, to which he answered, 'To show my love, and that I have not forgotten you. Since that day when we met I have been very ill from thinking so much of you, and am quite changed from what I was. But now that it is my unexpected good fortune to meet you, I pray you have pity on me.' 'You needn't make such a fuss about a trifle,' replied she, 'and with your own relatives too. I'll give orders to supply you with a whole basketful of flowers when you go away.' Wang told her she did not understand, and when she asked what it was she didn't understand, he said, 'I didn't care for the flower itself; it was the person who picked the flower.' 'Of course,' answered she, 'everybody cares for their relations; you needn't have told me that.' 'I wasn't talking about ordinary relations,' said Wang, 'but about husbands and wives.' 'What's the difference?' asked Ying-ning. 'Why,' replied Wang, 'husband and wife are always together.' 'Just what I shouldn't like,'cried she, 'to be always with anybody.'"
The pair were ultimately united, and lived happily ever afterwards, in spite of the fact that the young lady subsequently confessed that she was the daughter of a fox, and exhibited supernatural powers. On one occasion these powers stood her in good stead. Being very fond of flowers, she went so far as to pick from a neighbour's tree.
"One day the owner saw her, and gazed at her some time in rapt astonishment; however, she didn't move, deigning only to laugh. The gentleman was much smitten with her; and when she smilingly descended the wall on her own side, pointing all the time with her finger to a spot hard by, he thought she was making an assignation. So he presented himself at nightfall at the same place, and sure enough Ying-ning was there. Seizing her hand to tell his passion, he found that he was grasping only a log of wood which stood against the wall; and the next thing he knew was that a scorpion had stung him violently on the finger. There was an end of his romance, except that he died of the wound during the night."
In one of the stories a visitor at a temple is much struck by a fresco painting containing the picture of a lovely girl picking flowers, and stands in rapt admiration before it. Then he feels himself borne gently into the painted wall, à la "Alice through the Looking-glass," and in the region beyond plays a part in a domestic drama, finally marrying the heroine of the picture. But the presence of a mortal being suspected by "a man in golden armour with a face as black as jet," he was glad to make his way back again; and when he rejoined a friend who had been waiting for him, they noticed that the girl in the picture now wore her hair done up as a married woman.
There is a Rip van Winkle story, with the pathetic return of the hero to find, as the Chinese poet says—
"City and suburb as of old,
But hearts that loved us long since cold."
There is a sea-serpent story, and a story of a big bird or rukh; also a story about a Jonah, who, in obedience to an order flashed by lightning on the sky when their junk was about to be swamped in a storm, was transferred by his fellow-passengers to a small boat and cut adrift. So soon as the unfortunate victim had collected his senses and could look about him, he found that the junk had capsized and that every soul had been drowned.
The following is an extract from a story in which a young student named Liu falls in love with a girl named Fêng-hsien, who was the daughter of a fox, and therefore possessed of the miraculous powers which the Chinese associate with that animal:—
"'But if you would really like to have something that has belonged to me,' said she, 'you shall.' Whereupon she took out a mirror and gave it to him, saying, 'Whenever you want to see me, you must look for me in your books; otherwise I shall not be visible;' and in a moment she had vanished. Liu went home very melancholy at heart; but when he looked in the mirror, there was Fêng-hsien standing with her back to him, gazing, as it were, at some one who was going away, and about a hundred paces from her. He then bethought himself of her injunctions, and settled down to his studies, refusing to receive any visitors; and a few days subsequently, when he happened to look in the mirror, there was Fêng-hsien, with her face turned towards him, and smiling in every feature. After this, he was always taking out the mirror to look at her. However, in about a month his good resolutions began to disappear, and he once more went out to enjoy himself and waste his time as before. When he returned home and looked in the mirror, Fêng-hsien seemed to be crying bitterly; and the day after, when he looked at her again, she had her back turned towards him as on the day he received the mirror. He now knew that it was because he had neglected his studies, and forthwith set to work again with all diligence, until in a month's time she had turned round once again. Henceforward, whenever anything interrupted his progress, Fêng-hsien's countenance became sad; but whenever he was getting on well her sadness was changed to smiles. Night and morning Liu would look at the mirror, regarding it quite in the light of a revered preceptor, and in three years' time he took his degree in triumph. 'Now,' cried he, 'I shall be able to look Fêng-hsien in the face.' And there sure enough she was, with her delicately-pencilled arched eyebrows, and her teeth just showing between her lips, as happy-looking as she could be, when, all of a sudden, she seemed to speak, and Liu heard her say, 'A pretty pair we make, I must allow,' and the next moment Fêng-hsien stood by his side."
Here is a story of the nether world, a favourite theme with P'u Sung-ling. It illustrates the popular belief that at death a man's soul is summoned to Purgatory by spiritual lictors, who are even liable to make mistakes. Cataleptic fits or trances give rise to many similar tales about persons visiting the realms below and being afterwards restored to life.
"A man named Chang died suddenly, and was escorted at once by devil-lictors into the presence of the King of Purgatory. His Majesty turned to Chang's record of good and evil, and then, in great anger, told the lictors they had brought the wrong man, and bade them take him back again. As they left the judgment-hall, Chang persuaded his escort to let him have a look at Purgatory, and accordingly the devils conducted him through the nine sections, pointing out to him the Knife Hill, the Sword Tree, and other objects of interest. By and by they reached a place where there was a Buddhist priest hanging suspended in the air, head downwards, by a rope through a hole in his leg. He was shrieking with pain and longing for death; and when Chang approached, lo! he saw that it was his own brother. In great distress, he asked his guides the reason of this punishment, and they informed him that the priest was suffering thus for collecting subscriptions on behalf of his order, and then privately squandering the proceeds in gambling and debauchery. 'Nor,' added they, 'will he escape this torment unless he repents him of his misdeeds.' When Chang came round, he thought his brother was already dead, and hurried off to the Hsing-fu monastery, to which the latter belonged. As he went in at the door he heard a loud shrieking, and on proceeding to his brother's room, he found him laid up with a very bad abscess in his leg, the leg itself being tied up above him to the wall, this being, as his brother informed him, the only bearable position in which he could lie. Chang now told him what he had seen in Purgatory, at which the priest was so terrified that he at once gave up taking wine and meat, and devoted himself entirely to religious exercises. In a fortnight he was well, and was known ever afterwards as a most exemplary priest."
Snatches of verse are to be found scattered about the pages of these stories, enough to give a taste of the writer's quality without too much boring the reader. These lines are much admired:—
"With wine and flowers we chase the hours
In one eternal spring;
No moon, no light, to cheer the night—
Thyself that ray must bring."
But we have seen perhaps enough of P'u Sung-ling. "If," as Han Yü exclaimed, "there is knowledge after death," the profound and widespread esteem in which this work is held by the literati of China must indeed prove a soothing balm to the wounded spirit of the Last of the Immortals.
The Hung Lou Mêng, conveniently but erroneously known as "The Dream of the Red Chamber," is the work referred to already as touching the highest point of development reached by the Chinese novel. It was probably composed during the latter half of the seventeenth century. The name of its author is unknown. It is usually published in 24 vols, octavo, containing 120 chapters, which average at the least 30 pages each, making a grand total of about 4000 pages. No fewer than 400 personages of more or less importance are introduced first and last into the story, the plot of which is worked out with a completeness worthy of Fielding, while the delineation of character—of so many characters —recalls the best efforts of the greatest novelists of the West. As a panorama of Chinese social life, in which almost every imaginable feature is submitted in turn to the reader, the Hung Lou Mêng is altogether without a rival. Reduced to its simplest terms, it is an original and effective love story, written for the most part in an easy, almost colloquial, style, full of humorous and pathetic episodes of everyday human life, and interspersed with short poems of high literary finish. The opening chapters, which are intended to form a link between the world of spirits and the world of mortals, belong to the supernatural; after that the story runs smoothly along upon earthly lines, always, however, overshadowed by the near presence of spiritual influences. Some idea of the novel as a whole may perhaps be gathered from the following abstract.
Four thousand six hundred and twenty-three years ago the heavens were out of repair. So the Goddess of Works set to and prepared 36,501 blocks of precious jade, each 240 feet square by 120 feet in depth. Of these, however, she only used 36,500, and cast aside the single remaining block upon one of the celestial peaks.
This stone, under the process of preparation, had become as it were spiritualised. It could expand or contract. It could move. It was conscious of the existence of an external world, and it was hurt at not having been called upon to accomplish its divine mission.
One day a Buddhist and a Taoist priest, who happened to be passing that way, sat down for a while to rest, and forthwith noticed the disconsolate stone which lay there, no bigger than the pendant of a lady's fan. "Indeed, my friend, you are not wanting in spirituality," said the Buddhist priest to the stone, as he picked it up and laughingly held it forth upon the palm of his hand. "But we cannot be certain that you will ever prove to be of any real use; and, moreover, you lack an inscription, without which your destiny must necessarily remain unfulfilled." Thereupon he put the stone in his sleeve and rose to proceed on his journey.
"And what, if I may ask," inquired his companion, "do you intend to do with the stone you are thus carrying away?"
"I mean," replied the other, "to send it down to earth, to play its allotted part in the fortunes of a certain family now anxiously expecting its arrival. You see, when the Goddess of Works rejected this stone, it used to fill up its time by roaming about the heavens, until chance brought it alongside of a lovely crimson flower. Being struck with the great beauty of this flower, the stone remained there for some time, tending its protégée with the most loving care, and daily moistening its roots with the choicest nectar of the sky, until at lengthy yielding to the influence of disinterested love, the flower changed its form and became a most beautiful girl.
"'Dear stone,' cried the girl, in her new-found ecstasy of life, 'the moisture thou hast bestowed upon me here I will repay thee in our future state with my tears!'"
Ages afterwards, another priest, in search of light, saw this self-same stone lying in its old place, but with a record inscribed upon it—a record of how it had not been used to repair the heavens, and how it subsequently went down into the world of mortals, with a full description of all it did, and saw, and heard while in that state.
"Brother Stone," said the priest, "your record is not one that deals with the deeds of heroes among men. It does not stir us with stories either of virtuous statesmen or of deathless patriots. It seems to be but a simple tale of the loves of maidens and youths, hardly important enough to attract the attention of the great busy world."
"Sir Priest," replied the stone, "what you say is indeed true; and what is more, my poor story is adorned by no rhetorical flourish nor literary art. Still, the world of mortals being what it is, and its complexion so far determined by the play of human passion, I cannot but think that the tale here inscribed may be of some use, if only to throw a further charm around the banquet hour, or to aid in dispelling those morning clouds which gather over last night's excess."
Thereupon the priest looked once more at the stone, and saw that it bore a plain unvarnished tale of—
"Beauty and anguish walking hand in hand
The downward slope to death,"
telling how a woman's artless love had developed into deep, destroying passion; and how from the thrall of a lost love one soul had been raised to a sublimer, if not a purer conception of man's mission upon earth. He therefore copied it out from beginning to end. Here it is:—
Under a dynasty which the author leaves unnamed, two brothers had greatly distinguished themselves by efficient service to the State. In return, they had been loaded with marks of Imperial favour. They had been created nobles of the highest rank. They had amassed wealth. The palaces assigned to them were near together in Peking, and there their immediate descendants were enjoying the fruits of ancestral success when this story opens. The brothers had each a son and heir; but at the date at which we are now, fathers and sons had all four passed away. The wife of one of the sons only was still alive, a hale and hearty old lady of about eighty years of age. Of her children, one was a daughter. She had married and gone away south, and her daughter, Tai-yü, is the heroine of this tale. The son of the old lady's second son and first cousin to Tai-yü is the hero, living with his grandmother. His name is Pao-yü.
The two noble families were now at the very zenith of wealth and power. Their palatial establishments were replete with every luxury. Feasting and theatricals were the order of the day, and, to crown all, Pao-yü's sister had been chosen to be one of the seventy-two wives allotted to the Emperor of China. No one stopped to think that human events are governed by an inevitable law of change. He who is mighty to-day shall be lowly tomorrow: the rich shall be made poor, and the poor rich. Or if any one, more thoughtful than the rest, did pause awhile in knowledge of the appointments of Heaven, he was fain to hope that the crash would not come, at any rate, in his own day.
Things were in this state when Tai-yü's mother died, and her father decided to place his motherless daughter under the care of her grandmother at Peking. Accompanied by her governess, the young lady set out at once for the capital, and reached her destination in safety. It is not necessary to dwell upon her beauty nor upon her genius, though both are minutely described in the original text. Suffice it to say that during the years which have elapsed since she first became known to the public, many brave men are said to have died for love of this entrancing heroine of fiction.
Tai-yü was received most kindly by all. Especially so by her grandmother, who shed bitter tears of sorrow over the premature death of Tai-yü's mother, her lost and favourite child. She was introduced to her aunts and cousins, and cousins and aunts, in such numbers that the poor girl must have wondered how ever she should remember all their names. Then they sat down and talked. They asked her all about her mother, and how she fell ill, and what medicine she took, and how she died and was buried, until the old grandmother wept again. "And what medicine do you take, my dear?" asked the old lady, seeing that Tai-yü herself seemed very delicate, and carried on her clear cheek a suspicious-looking flush.
"Oh, I have done nothing ever since I could eat," replied Tai-yü, "but take medicine of some kind or other. I have also seen all the best doctors, but they have not done me any particular good. When I was only three years of age, a nasty old priest came and wanted my parents to let me be a nun. He said it was the only way to save me."
"Oh, we will soon cure you here," said her grandmother, smiling. "We will make you well in no time."
Tai-yü was then taken to see more of her relatives, including her aunt, the mother of Pao-yü, who warned her against his peculiar temper, which she said was very uncertain and variable. "What! the one with the jade?" asked Tai-yü. "But we shall not be together," she immediately added, somewhat surprised at this rather unusual warning. "Oh yes, you will," said her aunt. "He is dreadfully spoilt by his grandmother, who allows him to have his own way in everything. Instead of being hard at work, as he ought to be by now, he idles away his time with the girls, thinking only how he can enjoy himself, without any idea of making a career or adding fresh lustre to the family name. Beware of him, I tell you."
The dinner-hour had now arrived, and after the meal Tai-yü was questioned as to the progress she had made in her studies. She was already deep in the mysteries of the Four Books, and it was agreed on all sides that she was far ahead of her cousins, when suddenly a noise was heard outside, and in came a most elegantly dressed youth about a year older than Tai-yü, wearing a cap lavishly adorned with pearls. His face was like the full autumn moon. His complexion like morning flowers in spring. Pencilled eyebrows, a well - cut shapely nose, and eyes like rippling waves were among the details which went to make up an unquestionably handsome exterior. Around his neck hung a curious piece of jade; and as soon as Tai-yü became fully conscious of his presence, a thrill passed through her delicate frame. She felt that somewhere or other she had looked upon that face before.
Pao-yü—for it was he—saluted his grandmother with great respect, and then went off to see his mother; and while he is absent it may be as well to say a few words about the young gentleman's early days.
Pao-yü, a name which means Precious jade, was so called because he was born, to the great astonishment of everybody, with a small tablet of jade in his mouth—a beautifully bright mirror-like tablet, bearing a legend inscribed in the quaint old style of several thousand years ago. A family consultation resulted in a decision that this stone was some divine talisman, the purpose of which was not for the moment clear, but was doubtless to be revealed by and by. One thing was certain. As this tablet had come into the world with the child, so it should accompany him through life; and accordingly Pao-yü was accustomed to wear it suspended around his neck. The news of this singular phenomenon spread far and wide. Even Tai-yü had heard of it long before she came to take up her abode with the family.
And so Pao-yü grew up, a wilful, wayward boy. He was a bright, clever fellow and full of fun, but very averse to books. He declared, in fact, that he could not read at all unless he had as fellow-students a young lady on each side of him, to keep his brain clear! And when his father beat him, as was frequently the case, he would cry out, "Dear girl! dear girl! "all the time, in order, as he afterwards explained to his cousins, to take away the pain. Women, he argued, are made of water, with pellucid mobile minds, while men are mostly made of mud, mere lumps of uninformed Day.
By this time he had returned from seeing his mother and was formally introduced to Tai-yü. "Ha!" cried he, "I have seen her before somewhere. What makes her eyes so red? Indeed, cousin Tai-yü, we shall have to call you Cry-baby if you cry so much." Here some reference was made to his jade tablet, and this put him into an angry mood at once. None of his cousins had any, he said, and he was not going to wear his any more. A family scene ensued, during which Tai-yü went off to bed and cried herself to sleep.
Shortly after this, Pao-yü's mother's sister was compelled by circumstances to seek a residence in the capital. She brought with her a daughter, Pao-ch ai, another cousin to Pao-yü, but about a year older than he was; and besides receiving a warm welcome, the two were invited to settle themselves comfortably down in the capacious family mansion of their relatives. Thus it was that destiny brought Pao-yü and his two cousins together under the same roof.
The three soon became fast friends. Pao-ch'ai had been carefully educated by her father, and was able to hold her own even against the accomplished Tai-yü. Pao-yü loved the society of either or both. He was always happy so long as he had a pretty girl by his side, and was, moreover, fascinated by the wit of these two young ladies in particular.
He had, however, occasional fits of moody depression, varied by discontent with his superfluous worldly surroundings. "In what am I better," he would say, "than a wallowing hog? Why was I born and bred amid this splendid magnificence of wealth, instead of in some coldly furnished household where I could have enjoyed the pure communion of friends? These silks and satins, these rich meats and choice wines, of what avail are they to this perishable body of mine? O wealth! O power! I curse you both, ye cankerworms of my earthly career."
All these morbid thoughts, however, were speedily dispelled by the presence of his fair cousins, with whom, in fact, Pao-yü spent most of the time he ought to have devoted to his books. He was always running across to see either one or other of these young ladies, or meeting both of them in general assembly at his grandmother's. It was at a tête-à-tête with Pao-ch'ai that she made him show her his marvellous piece of jade, with the inscription, which she read as follows;—
"Lose me not, forget me not,
Eternal life shall be thy lot."
The indiscretion of a slave-girl here let Pao-yü become aware that Pao-ch'ai herself possessed a wonderful gold amulet, upon which also were certain words inscribed; and of course Pao-yü insisted on seeing it at once. On it was written—
"Let not this token wander from thy side,
And youth perennial shall with thee abide."
In the middle of this interesting scene, Tai-yü walks in, and seeing how intimately the two are engaged, "hopes she doesn't intrude." But even in those early days the ring of her voice betrayed symptoms of that jealousy to which later on she succumbed. Meanwhile she almost monopolises the society of Pao-yü, and he, on his side, finds himself daily more and more attracted by the sprightly mischievous humour of the beautiful Tai-yü, as compared with the quieter and more orthodox loveliness of Pao-ch'ai. Pao-ch'ai does not know what jealousy means. She too loves to bandy words, exchange verses, or puzzle over conundrums with her mercurial cousin; but she never allows her thoughts to wander towards him otherwise than is consistent with the strictest maidenly reserve.
Not so Tai-yü. She had been already for some time Pao-yü's chief companion when they were joined by Pao-ch'ai. She had come to regard the handsome boy almost as a part of herself, though not conscious of the fact until called upon to share his society with another. And so it was that although Pao-yü showed an open preference for herself, she still grudged the lesser attentions he paid to Pao-ch'ai. As often as not these same attentions originated in an irresistible impulse to tease. Pao-yü and Tai-yü were already lovers in so far that they were always quarrelling; the more so, that their quarrels invariably ended, as they should end, in the renewal of love. As a rule, Tai-yü fell back upon the ultima ratio of all women—tears; and of course Pao-yü, who was not by any means wanting in chivalry, had no alternative but to wipe them away. On one particular occasion, Tai-yü declared that she would die; upon which Pao-yü said that in that case he would become a monk and devote his life to Buddha; but in this instance it was he who shed the tears and she who had to wipe them away.
All this time Tai-yü and Pao-ch'ai were on terms of scrupulous courtesy. Tai-yü's father had recently died, and her fortunes now seemed to be bound up more closely than ever with those of the family in which she lived. She had a handsome gold ornament given her to match Pao-ch'ai's amulet, and the three young people spent their days together, thinking only how to get most enjoyment out of every passing hour. Sometimes, however, a shade of serious thought would darken Tai-yü's moments of enforced solitude; and one day Pao-yü surprised her in a secluded part of the garden, engaged in burying flowers which had been blown down by the wind, while singing the following lines:—
"Flowers fade and fly,
and flying fill the sky;
Their bloom departs, their perfume gone,
yet who stands pitying by?
And wandering threads of gossamer
on the summer-house are seen,
And falling catkins lightly dew-steeped
strike the embroidered screen.
A girl within the inner rooms,
I mourn that spring is done,
A skein of sorrow binds my heart,
and solace there is none.
I pass into the garden,
and I turn to use my hoe,
Treading o'er fallen glories
as I lightly come and go.
There are willow-sprays and flowers of elm.
and these have scent enow,
I care not if the peach and plum
are stripped from every bough.
The peach-tree and the plum-tree too
next year may bloom again,
But next year, in the inner rooms,
tell me, shall I remain?
By the third moon new fragrant nests
shall see the light of day,
New swallows flit among the beams,
each on its thoughtless way.
Next year once more they'll seek their food
among the painted flowers,
But I may go, and beams may go,
and with them swallow bowers.
Three hundred days and sixty make
a year, and therein lurk
Daggers of wind and swords of frost
to do their cruel work.
How long will last the fair fresh flower
which bright and brighter glows?
One morn its petals float away,
but whither no one knows.
Cay blooming buds attract the eye,
faded they're lost to sight;
Oh, let me sadly bury them
beside these steps to-night!
Alone, unseen, I seize my hoe,
with many a bitter tear;
They fall upon the naked stem
and stains of blood appear.
The night-jar now has ceased to mourn,
the dawn comes on apace,
I seize my hoe and close the gates,
leaving the burying-place;
But not till sunbeams fleck the wall
does slumber soothe my care,
The cold rain pattering on the pane
as I lie shivering there.
You wonder that with flowing tears
my youthful cheek is wet;
They partly rise from angry thoughts,
and partly from regret.
Regret—that spring comes suddenly;
anger—it cannot last,
No sound to herald its approach,
or warn us that 'tis past.
Last night within the garden
sad songs were faintly heard,
Sung, as I knew, by spirits,
spirits of flower and bird.
We cannot keep them here with us,
these much-loved birds and flowers,
They sing but for a season's space,
and bloom a few short hours.
Ah! would that I on feathered wing
might soar aloft and fly,
With flower spirits I would seek
the confines of the sky.
But high in air
What grave is there?1
No, give me an embroidered bag
wherein to lay their charms,
And Mother Earth, pure Mother Earth,
shall hide them in her arms.
Thus those sweet forms which spotless came
shall spotless go again,
Nor pass besmirched with mud and filth
along some noisome drain.
Farewell, dear flowers, for ever now,
thus buried as 'twas best,
I have not yet divined when I
with you shall sink to rest.
I who can bury flowers like this
a laughing-stock shall be;
I cannot say in days to come
what hands shall bury me.
See how when spring begins to fail
each opening flow'ret fades;
So too there is a time of age
and death for beauteous maids;
And when the fleeting spring is gone,
and days of beauty o'er,
Flowers fall, and lovely maidens die,
and both are known no morel'
Meanwhile, Pao-yü's father had received an appointment which took him away to a distance, the consequence being that life went on at home in a giddier round than usual. Nothing the old grandmother liked better than a picnic or a banquet—feasting, in fact, of some kind, with plenty of wine and mirth. But now, somehow or other, little things were always going wrong. In every pot of ointment the traditional fly was sure to make its appearance; in every sparkling goblet a bitter something would always bubble up. Money was not so plentiful as it had been, and there seemed to be always occurring some unforeseen drain upon the family resources. Various members of one or other of the two grand establishments get into serious trouble with the authorities. Murder, suicide, and robbery happen upon the premises. The climax of prosperity had been reached and the hour of decadence had arrived. Still all went merry as a marriage-bell, and Pao-yü and Tai-yü continued the agreeable pastime of love-making. In this they were further favoured by circumstances. Pao-ch'ai's mother gave up the apartments which had been assigned to her, and went to live in lodgings in the city, of course taking Pao-ch'ai with her. Some time previous to this, a slave-girl had casually remarked to Pao-yü that her young mistress, Tai-yü, was about to leave and go back again to the south. Pao-yü fainted on the spot, and was straightway carried off and put to bed. He bore the departure of Pao-ch'ai with composure. He could not even hear of separation from his beloved Tai-yü.
And she was already deeply in love with him. Long, long ago her faithful slave-girl had whispered into her ear the soft possibility of union with her cousin. Day and night she thought about Pao-yü, and bitterly regretted that she had now neither father nor mother on whom she could rely to effect the object that lay nearest to her heart. One evening, tired out under the ravages of the great passion, she flung herself down, without undressing, upon a couch to sleep. But she had hardly closed her eyes ere her grandmother and a whole bevy of aunts and cousins walked in to offer, as they said, their hearty congratulations. Tai-yü was astonished, and asked what on earth their congratulations meant; upon which it was explained to her that her father had married again, and that her stepmother had arranged for her a most eligible match, in consequence of which she was to leave for home immediately. With floods of tears Tai-yü entreated her grandmother not to send her away. She did not want to marry, and she would rather become a slave-girl at her grandmother's feet than fall in with the scheme proposed. She exhausted every argument, and even invoked the spirit of her dead mother to plead her cause; but the old lady was obdurate, and finally went away, saying that the arrangement would have to be carried out. Then Tai-yü saw no escape but the one last resource of all; when at that moment Pao-yü entered, and with a smile on his face began to offer her his congratulations too.
"Thank you, cousin," cried she, starting up and seizing him rudely by the arm. "Now I know you for the false, fickle creature you are!"
"What is the matter, dear girl?" inquired Pao-yü in amazement. "I was only glad for your sake that you had found a lover at last."
"And what lover do you think I could ever care to find now?" rejoined Tai-yü.
"Well," replied Pao-yü, "I should of course wish it to be myself. I consider you indeed mine already; and if you think of the way I have always behaved towards you …"
"What!" said Tai-yü, partly misunderstanding his words, "can it be you after all? and do you really wish me to remain with you?"
"You shall see with your own eyes," answered Pao-yü, "even into the inmost recesses of my heart, and then perhaps you will believe."
Thereupon he drew a knife, and plunging it into his body, ripped himself open so as to expose his heart to view. With a shriek Tai-yü tried to stay his hand, and felt herself drenched with the flow of fresh warm blood; when suddenly Pao-yü uttered a loud groan, and crying out, "Great heaven, my heart is gone!" fell senseless to the ground. "Help! help!" screamed Tai-yü; "he is dying I he is dying!" "Wake up! wake up!" said Tai-yü's maid; "whatever has given you nightmare like this?"
So Tai-yü waked up and found that she had had a bad dream. But she had something worse than that. She had a bad illness to follow; and strange to say, Pao-yü was laid up at the same time. The doctor came and felt her pulse—both pulses, in fact—and shook his head, and drank a cup of tea, and said that Tai-yü's vital principle wanted nourishment, which it would get out of a prescription he then and there wrote down. As to Pao-yü, he was simply suffering from a fit of temporary indigestion.
So Tai-yü got better, and Pao-yü recovered his spirits. His father had returned home, and he was once more obliged to make some show of work, and consequently had fewer hours to spend in the society of his cousin. He was now a young man, and the question of his marriage began to occupy a foremost place in the minds of his parents and grandmother. Several names were proposed, one especially by his father; but it was finally agreed that it was unnecessary to go far afield to secure a fitting bride. It was merely a choice between the two charming young ladies who had already shared so much in his daily life. But the difficulty lay precisely there. Where each was perfection it became invidious to choose. In another famous Chinese novel, already described, a similar difficulty is got over in this way—the hero marries both. Here, however, the family elders were distracted by rival claims. By their gentle, winning manners, Pao-ch'ai and Tai-yü had made themselves equally beloved by all the inmates of these two noble houses, from the venerable grandmother down to the meanest slave-girl. Their beauty was of different styles, but at the bar of man's opinion each would probably have gained an equal number of votes. Tai-yü was undoubtedly the cleverer of the two, but Pao-ch'ai had better health; and in the judgment of those with whom the decision rested, health carried the day. It was arranged that Pao-yü was to marry Pao-ch'ai.
This momentous arrangement was naturally made in secret. Various preliminaries would have to be gone through before a verbal promise could give place to formal betrothal. And it is a well-ascertained fact that secrets can only be kept by men, while this one was confided to at least a dozen women. Consequently, one night when Tai-yü was ill and alone in her room, yearning for the love that had already been contracted away to another, she heard two slave-girls outside whispering confidences, and fancied she caught Pao-yü's name. She listened again, and this time without doubt, for she heard them say that Pao-yü was engaged to marry a lady of good family and many accomplishments. Just then a parrot called out, "Here's your mistress: pour out the tea! "which frightened the slave-girls horribly; and they forthwith separated, one of them running inside to attend upon Tai-yü herself. She finds her young mistress in a very agitated state, but Tai-yü is always ailing now.
This time she was seriously ill. She ate nothing. She was racked by a dreadful cough. Even a Chinese doctor could now hardly fail to sec that she was far advanced in a decline. But none knew that the sickness of her body had originated in sickness of the heart.
One night she grew rapidly worse and worse, and lay to all appearances dying. A slave-girl ran to summon her grandmother, while several others remained in the room talking about Pao-yü and his intended marriage. "It was all off," said one of them. "His grandmother would not agree to the young lady chosen by his father. She had already made her own choice—of another young lady who lives in the family, and of whom we are all very fond." The dying girl heard these words, and it then flashed across her that after all she must herself be the bride intended for Pao-yü. "For if not I," argued she, "who can it possibly be?" Thereupon she rallied as it were by a supreme effort of will, and, to the great astonishment of all, called for a drink of tea. Those who had come expecting to see her die were now glad to think that her youth might ultimately prevail.
So Tai-yü got better once more; but only better, not well. For the sickness of the soul is not to be cured by drugs. Meanwhile, an event occurred which for the time being threw everything else into the shade. Pao-yü lost his jade tablet. After changing his clothes, he had forgotten to put it on, and had left it lying upon his table. But when he sent to fetch it, it was gone. A search was instituted high and low, without success. The precious talisman was missing. No one dared tell his grandmother and face the old lady's wrath. As to Pao-yü himself, he treated the matter lightly. Gradually, however, a change came over his demeanour. He was often absent-minded. At other times his tongue would run away with him, and he talked nonsense. At length he got so bad that it became imperative to do something. So his grandmother had to be told. Of course she was dreadfully upset, but she made a move in the right direction, and offered an enormous reward for its recovery. The result was that within a few days the reward was claimed. But in the interval the tablet seemed to have lost much of its striking brilliancy; and a closer inspection showed it to be in reality nothing more than a clever imitation. This was a crushing disappointment to all. Pao-yü's illness was increasing day by day. His father had received another appointment in the provinces, and it was eminently desirable that Pao-yü's marriage should take place previous to his departure. The great objection to hurrying on the ceremony was that the family were in mourning. Among other calamities which had befallen of late, the young lady in the palace had died, and her influence at Court was gone. Still, everything considered, it was deemed advisable to solemnise the wedding without delay. Pao-yü's father, little as he cared for the character of his only son, had been greatly shocked at the change which he now saw. A worn, haggard face, with sunken, lack-lustre eyes; rambling, inconsequent talk— this was the heir in whom the family hopes were centred. The old grandmother, finding that doctors were of little avail, had even called in a fortune-teller, who said pretty much what he was wanted to say, viz., that Pao-yü should marry some one with a golden destiny to help him on.
So the chief actors in the tragedy about to be enacted had to be consulted at last. They began with Pao-ch'ai, for various reasons; and she, like a modest, well-bred maiden, received her mother's commands in submissive silence. Further, from that day she ceased to mention Pao-yü's name. With Pao-yü, however, it was a different thing altogether. His love for Tai-yü was a matter of some notoriety, especially with the slave-girls, one of whom even went so far as to tell his mother that his heart was set upon marrying her whom the family had felt obliged to reject. It was therefore hardly doubtful how he would receive the news of his betrothal to Pao-ch'ai; and as in his present state of health the consequences could not be ignored, it was resolved to have recourse to stratagem. So the altar was prepared, and naught remained but to draw the bright death across the victim's throat.
In the short time which intervened, the news was broken to Tai-yü in an exceptionally cruel manner. She heard by accident in conversation with a slave-girl in the garden that Pao-yü was to marry Pao-ch'ai. The poor girl felt as if a thunderbolt had pierced her brain. Her whole frame quivered beneath the shock. She turned to go back to her room, but half unconsciously followed the path that led to Pao-yü's apartments. Hardly noticing the servants in attendance, she almost forced her way in, and stood in the presence of her cousin. He was sitting down, and he looked up and laughed a foolish laugh when he saw her enter; but he did not rise, and he did not invite her to be seated. Tai-yü sat down without being asked, and without a word spoken on either side. And the two sat there, and stared and leered at each other, until they both broke out into wild delirious laughter, the senseless crazy laughter of the madhouse. "What makes you ill, cousin?" asked Tai-yü, when the first burst of their dreadful merriment had subsided. "I am in love with Tai-yü," he replied; and then they both went off into louder screams of laughter than before.
At this point the slave-girls thought it high time to interfere, and, after much more laughing and nodding of heads, Tai-yü was persuaded to go away. She set off to run back to her own room, and sped along with a newly acquired strength. But just as she was nearing the door, she was seen to fall, and the terrified slave-girl who rushed to pick her up found her with her mouth full of blood.
By this time all formalities have been gone through and the wedding day is fixed. It is not to be a grand wedding, but of course there must be a trousseau. Pao-ch'ai sometimes weeps, she scarcely knows why; but preparations for the great event of her life leave her, fortunately, very little leisure for reflection. Tai-yü is in bed, and, but for a faithful slave-girl, alone. Nobody thinks much about her at this juncture; when the wedding is over she is to receive a double share of attention.
One morning she makes the slave-girl bring her all her poems and various other relics of the happy days gone by. She turns them over and over between her thin and wasted fingers until finally she commits them all to the flames. The effort is too much for her, and the slave-girl in despair hurries across to the grandmother's for assistance. She finds the whole place deserted, but a moment's thought reminds her that the old lady is doubtless with Pao-yü. So thither she makes her way as fast as her feet can carry her, only, however, to be still further amazed at finding the rooms shut up, and no one there. Utterly confused, and not knowing what to make of these unlooked-for circumstances, she is about to run back to Tai-yü's room, when to her great relief she espies a fellow-servant in the distance, who straightway informs her that it is Pao-yü's wedding-day, and that he had moved into another suite of apartments. And so it was. Pao-yü had joyfully agreed to the proposition that he should marry his cousin, for he had been skilfully given to understand that the cousin in question was Tai-yü. And now the much wished-for hour had arrived. The veiled bride, accompanied by the very slave-girl who had long ago escorted her from the south, alighted from her sedan-chair at Pao-yü's door. The wedding march was played, and the young couple proceeded to the final ceremony of worship, which made them irrevocably man and wife. Then, as is customary upon such occasions, Pao-yü raised his bride's veil. For a moment he seemed as though suddenly turned into stone, as he stood there speechless and motionless, with fixed eyes gazing upon a face he had little expected to behold. Meanwhile, Pao-ch'ai retired into an inner apartment; and then, for the first time, Pao-yü found his voice.
"Am I dreaming?" cried he, looking round upon his assembled relatives and friends.
"No, you are married," replied several of those nearest to him. "Take care; your father is outside. He arranged it all."
"Who was that?" said Pao-yü, with averted head, pointing in the direction of the door through which Pao-ch'ai had disappeared.
"It was Pao-ch'ai, your wife …"
"Tai-yü, you mean; Tai-yü is my wife," shrieked he, interrupting them; "I want Tai-yü! I want Tai-yü! Oh, bring us together, and save us both!" Here he broke down altogether. Thick sobs choked his further utterance, until relief came in a surging flood of tears.
All this time Tai-yü was dying, dying beyond hope of recall. She knew that the hour of release was at hand, and she lay there quietly waiting for death. Every now and again she swallowed a teaspoonful of broth, but gradually the light faded out of her eyes, and the slave-girl, faithful to the last, felt that her young mistress's fingers were rapidly growing cold. At that moment, Tai-yü's lips were seen to move, and she was distinctly heard to say, "O Pao-yü, Pao-yü …" Those words were her last.
Just then, breaking in upon the hushed moments which succeed dissolution, sounds of far-off music were borne along upon the breeze. The slave-girl crept stealthily to the door, and strained her ear to listen; but she could hear nothing save the soughing of the wind as it moaned fitfully through the trees.
But the bridegroom himself had already entered the valley of the dark shadow. Pao-yü was very ill. He raved and raved about Tai-yü, until at length Pao-ch'ai, who had heard the news, took upon herself the painful task of telling him she was already dead. "Dead?" cried Pao-yü, "dead?" and with a loud groan he fell back upon the bed insensible. A darkness came before his eyes, and he seemed to be transported into a region which was unfamiliar to him. Looking about, he saw some one advancing towards him, and immediately called out to the stranger to be kind enough to tell him where he was. "You are on the road to the next world," replied the man; "but your span of life is not yet complete, and you have no business here." Pao-yü explained that he had come in search of Tai-yü, who had lately died; to which the man replied that Tai-yü's soul had already gone back to its home in the pure serene. "And if you would see her again," added the man, "return to your duties upon earth. Fulfil your destiny there, chasten your understanding, nourish the divinity that is within you, and you may yet hope to meet her once more."The man then flung a stone at him and struck him over the heart, which so frightened Pao-yü that he turned to retrace his steps. At that moment he heard himself loudly called by name; and opening his eyes, saw his mother and grandmother standing by the side of his bed.
They had thought that he was gone, and were overjoyed at seeing him return to life, even though it was the same life as before, clouded with the great sorrow of unreason. For now they could always hope; and when they saw him daily grow stronger and stronger in bodily health, it seemed that ere long even his mental equilibrium might be restored. The more so that he had ceased to mention Tai-yü's name, and treated Pao-ch'ai with marked kindness and respect.
All this time the fortunes of the two grand families are sinking from bad to worse. Pao-yü's uncle is mixed up in an act of disgraceful oppression; while his father, at his new post, makes the foolish endeavour to be an honest incorrupt official. He tries to put his foot down upon the system of bribery which prevails, but succeeds only in getting himself recalled and impeached for maladministration of affairs. The upshot of all this is that an Imperial decree is issued confiscating the property and depriving the families of their hereditary rank. Besides this, the lineal representatives are to be banished; and within the walls which have been so long sacred to mirth and merrymaking, consternation now reigns supreme. "O high Heaven," cries Pao-yü's father, as his brother and nephew start for their place of banishment, "that the fortunes of our family should fall like this!"
Of all, perhaps the old grandmother felt the blow most severely. She had lived for eighty-three years in affluence, accustomed to the devotion of her children and the adulation of friends. But now money was scarce, and the voice of flattery unheard. The courtiers of prosperous days forgot to call, and even the servants deserted at their posts. And so it came about that the old lady fell ill, and within a few days was lying upon her death-bed. She spoke a kind word to all, except to Pao-ch'ai. For her she had only a sigh, that fate had linked her with a husband whose heart was buried in the grave. So she died, and there was a splendid funeral, paid for out of funds raised at the pawnshop. Pao-ch'ai appeared in white; and among the flowers which were gathered around the bier, she was unanimously pronounced to be the fairest blossom of all.
Then other members of the family die, and Pao-yü relapses into a condition as critical as ever. He is in fact at the point of death, when a startling announcement restores him again to consciousness. A Buddhist priest is at the outer gate, and he has brought back Pao-yü's lost tablet of jade. There was, of course, great excitement on all sides; but the priest refused to part with the jade until he had got the promised reward. And where now was it possible to raise such a sum as that, and at a moment's notice? Still it was felt that the tablet must be recovered at all costs. Pao-yü's life depended on it, and he was the sole hope of the family. So the priest was promised his reward, and the jade was conveyed into the sick-room. But when Pao-yü clutched it in his eager hand, he dropped it with a loud cry and fell back gasping upon the bed.
In a few minutes Pao-yü's breathing became more and more distressed, and a servant ran out to call in the priest, in the hope that something might yet be done. The priest, however, had disappeared, and by this time Pao-yü had ceased to breathe.
Immediately upon the disunion of body and soul which mortals call death, the spirit of Pao-yü set off on its journey to the Infinite, led by a Buddhist priest. Just then a voice called out and said that Tai-yü was awaiting him, and at that moment many familiar faces crowded round him, but as he gazed at them in recognition, they changed into grinning goblins. At length he reached a spot where there was a beautiful crimson flower in an enclosure, so carefully tended that neither bees nor butterflies were allowed to settle upon it. It was a flower, he was told, which had been to fulfil a mission upon earth, and had recently returned to the Infinite. He was now taken to see Tai-yü. A bamboo screen which hung before the entrance to a room was raised, and there before him stood his heart's idol, his lost Tai-yü. Stretching forth his hands, he was about to speak to her, when suddenly the screen was hastily dropped. The priest gave him a shove, and he fell backwards, awaking as though from a dream.
Once more he had regained a new hold upon life; once more he had emerged from the very jaws of death. This time he was a changed man. He devoted himself to reading for the great public examination, in the hope of securing the much coveted degree of Master of Arts. Nevertheless, he talks little, and seems to care less, about the honours and glory of this world; and what is stranger than all, he appears to have very much lost his taste for the once fascinating society of women. For a time he seems to be under the spell of a religious craze, and is always arguing with Pao-ch'ai upon the advantages of devoting one's life to the service of Buddha. But shortly before the examination he burned all the books he had collected which treated of immortality and a future state, and concentrated every thought upon the great object before him.
At length the day comes, and Pao-yü, accompanied by a nephew who is also a candidate, prepares to enter the arena. His father was away from home. He had gone southwards to take the remains of the grandmother and of Tai-yü back to their ancestral burying-ground. So Pao-yü first goes to take leave of his mother, and she addresses to him a few parting words, full of encouragement and hope. Then Pao-yü falls upon his knees, and implores her pardon for all the trouble he has caused her. "I can only trust," he added, "that I shall now be successful, and that you, dear mother, will be happy." And then amid tears and good wishes, the two young men set out for the examination-hall, where, with several thousand other candidates, they are to remain for some time immured.
The hours and days speed apace, full of arduous effort to those within, of anxiety to those without. At last the great gates are thrown wide open, and the vast crowd of worn-out, weary students bursts forth, to meet the equally vast crowd of eager, expectant friends. In the crush that ensues, Pao-yü and his nephew lose sight of each other, and the nephew reaches home first. There the feast of welcome is already spread, and the wine-kettles are put to the fire. So every now and again somebody runs out to see if Pao-yü is not yet in sight. But the time passes and he comes not. Fears as to his personal safety begin to be aroused, and messengers are sent out in all directions. Pao-yü is nowhere to be found. The night comes and goes. The next day and the next day, and still no Pao-yü. He has disappeared without leaving behind him the faintest clue to his whereabouts. Meanwhile, the list of successful candidates is published, and Pao-yü's name stands seventh on the list. His nephew has the 130th place. What a triumph for the family, and what rapture would have been theirs, but for the mysterious absence of Pao-yü.
Thus their joy was shaded by sorrow, until hope, springing eternal, was unexpectedly revived. Pao-yü's winning essay had attracted the attention of the Emperor, and his Majesty issued an order for the writer to appear at Court. An Imperial order may not be lightly disregarded; and it was fervently hoped by the family that by these means Pao-yü might be restored to them. This, in fact, was all that was wanting now to secure the renewed prosperity of the two ancient houses. The tide of events had set favourably at last. Those who had been banished to the frontier had greatly distinguished themselves against the banditti who ravaged the country round about. There was Pao-yü's success and his nephew's; and above all, the gracious clemency of the Son of Heaven. Free pardons were granted, confiscated estates were returned. The two families basked again in the glow of Imperial favour. Pao-ch'ai was about to become a mother; the ancestral line might be continued after all. But Pao-yü, where was he? That remained a mystery still, against which even the Emperor's mandate proved to be of no avail.
It was on his return journey that Pao-yü's father heard of the success and disappearance of his son. Torn by conflicting emotions he hurried on, in his haste to reach home and aid in unravelling the secret of Pao-yü's hiding-place. One moonlight night, his boat lay anchored alongside the shore, which a storm of the previous day had wrapped in a mantle of snow. He was sitting writing at a table, when suddenly, through the half-open door, advancing towards him over the bow of the boat, his silhouette sharply defined against the surrounding snow, he saw the figure of a shaven-headed Buddhist priest. The priest knelt down, and struck his head four times upon the ground, and then, without a word, turned back to join two other priests who were awaiting him. The three vanished as imperceptibly as they had come; before, indeed, the astonished father was able to realise that he had been, for the last time, face to face with Pao-yü!
1 Said of the bogies of the hills, in allusion to their clothes. Here quoted with reference to the official classes, in ridicule of the title under which they hold posts which, from a literary point of view, they are totally unfit to occupy.
2 A poet of the T'ang dynasty, whose eyebrows met, whose nails were very long, and who could write very fast.
3 This is another hit at the ruling classes. Hsi K'ang, the celebrated poet, musician, and alchemist (A.D. 223-262), was sitting one night alone, playing upon his lute, when suddenly a man with a tiny face walked in, and began to stare hard at him, the stranger's face enlarging all the time. "I'm not going to match myself against a devil!" cried the musician after a few moments, and instantly blew out the light.
1 When Liu Chüan, Governor of Wu-ling, determined to relieve his poverty by trade, he saw a devil standing by his side, laughing and rubbing its hands for glee. "Poverty and wealth are matters of destiny," said Liu Chüan, "but to be laughed at by a devil—," and accordingly he desisted from his intention.
2 A writer who flourished in the early part of the fourth century, and composed a work in thirty books, entitled "Supernatural Researches."
3 The birth of a boy was formerly signalled by hanging a bow at the door; that of a girl, by displaying a small towel—indicative of the parts that each would hereafter play in the drama of life.
4 Alluding to the priest Dharma-nandi, who came from India to China, and tried to convert the Emperor Wu Ting of the Liang dynasty; but failing in his attempt, he retired full of mortification to a temple at Sung-shan, where he sat for nine years before a rock, until his own image was imprinted thereon.
1 The six gâti or conditions of existence, viz., angels, men, demons, hungry devils, brute beasts, and tortured sinners.
2 The work of a well-known writer, named Lin I-ch'ing, who flourished during the Sung dynasty.
3 The great poet Tu Fu dreamt that his greater predecessor, Li T'ai-po, appeared to him, "coming when the maple-grove was in darkness, and returning while the frontier pass was still obscured,"—that is, at night, when no one could see him; the meaning being that he never came at all, and that those "who know me (P'u Sung-ling)" are equally non-existent.
1 These two lines are short in the original.