Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou Meng) or The Story of the Stone (Shitou Ji) is a novel composed by Cao Xueqin in the middle of the 18th century. One of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, it is known for its psychological scope, and its observation of the worldview, aesthetics, life-styles, and social relations of 18th-century China.
The Dream of the Red Chamber
Four thousand six hundred and twenty-three years ago the heavens were out of repair. So the Goddess of Works set to work 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 eternal 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 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 protegee with the most loving care, and daily moistening its roots with the choicest nectar of the sky, until at length, 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 you have bestowed upon me here I will repay you 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 states men 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 favor. 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 filled 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 today shall be low tomorrow: the rich shall be made poor, and the poor rich. or if any one, more youghtful than the rest, did pause awhile in knowledge of the appointments of Heaven, he was inclined 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 favorite 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 grand mother, 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 new glory 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 uith 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 yousand 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 in time. 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 willful, wayward boy. He was a bright, clever fellow and full of fun, but strongly disliked 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 in order to keep his brain clear! And when his father beat him, as was frequently the case, he would cry out, “Dear sister! Dear sister!” all the time, in order, as he afterwards explained to his cousins, to ease the pain. Women, he argued, are made of water, with clear and mobile minds, while men are mostly made of mud, mere lumps of unformed clay.
By this time he had returned from seeing his mother and was formally introduced to Tai-yü.
“Ha!” he cried, “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 down in the large 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.
“How am I any 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 use are they to this perishable body of mine? O wealth! O power! I curse you both, you 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 tete-a-tete 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 your 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 your side,
And youth perennial shall with you 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-chai does not know what jealousy means. She too loves to bandy words, exchange verses, or puzzle over riddles 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 was jealous of 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 their love. As a rule, Tai-yü fell back upon the last resort 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 the 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 veil of sorrow binds my heart,
and solace there is none.
I pass into the garden,
and I turn to use my hoe,
Treading over fallen glories
as I lightly come and go.
There are willow-sprays and flowers of elm,
and these have scent enough.
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 fly 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 morning its petals float away,
but to where no-one knows.
Gay bloooming buds attract the eye,
faded they’re lost to sight;
Oh, let me sadly bury them
beside these steps tonight.
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 until sunbeams dot 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;
and anger that it cannot last.
No sound to announce its approach,
or warn us when it’s passed.
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.
If only I on a feathered wing
might soar aloft and fly,
With flower spirits I would seek
the rooms within the sky.
But high in the air
What grave is there?
No, give me an embroidered bag
within 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 dirty with mud and filth
along some filthy drain.
Farewell, dear flowes, forever now,
thus buried as was 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 flower fades;
So too there is a time of age
and death for beautiful maids;
And when the fleeting spring is gone,
and days of beauty over,
Flowers fall, and lovely maidens die,
and both are known no more. 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 “playing wind and clouds.” In this they were further favored 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 bring about her heart’s desire. 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 before 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 stubborn, and finally went awav, 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,” she shouted, 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! He is dying!”
“Wake up! Wake up!” said Tai-yü’s maid, “Whatever has given you nightmare like this?”
So Tai-yü woke 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 hard 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 in terms of opinion each would probably have gained an equal number of votes. Tai-yü was un doubtedly 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 engagement. 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 though she heard 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 accomplish merits. Just then a parrot called out, “Here’s your mistress: pour out the tea!” which frightened the slave girls horribly; and they immediately 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 not hardly fail to see 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 1,” argued she, “who can it possibly be?”
At that moment her health improved as it were by a supreme effort of will, and, to the great astonishment of all, she 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 on 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 demeanor. 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 perform 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-luster eyes; rambling, inconsequent talk—this was the heir in whom the family hopes were centered. The old grandmother, finding that doctors were of little use, had even called in a fortune-teller, who said pretty much what he was wanted to say, that is, 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 engagement 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 stratagy. So the altar was prepared, and nothing 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 time; 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 she makes her way there 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 sees 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 music 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?” he cried, 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,” he shrieked, 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 words back, 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 sighing 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 someone 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. Fulfill 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 akvays hope; and when they saw him daily grow stronger and stronger in bodily health, it seemed that before 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 endeavor 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 bad administration 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 fulfill 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 honors and glory of this world; and what is stranger than all, he appears to have completely 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 locked up in the examination.
The hours and days speed by, 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 some body runs out to see if Pao-yü is not yet in sight. But time passes and he does not arrive. 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 favorably at last. Those who had been banished to the frontier had greatly distinguished themselves against the bandits who ravaged the country roundabout. 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, and confiscated estates were returned. The two families basked again in the glow of Imperial favor. 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 use.
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 waiting for him. The three vanished as imperceptibly as they had come; before, indeed, the astonished father was able to realize that he had been, for the last time, face-to-face with Pao-yü!
Continue to Chapter Two…
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