Gradually as darkness fell the wind that had beset the travellers all day subsided and the particular silence of the lakeside clearing assumed a presence. It was a silence of the discrete movements of animals and sporadic calls of birds, the settling now into stillness of trees wind-tossed for a night and day, the breathing to and fro movement of a large body of water that already held the night sky’s reflections and would soon be enveloped in moonlight. Zou Fen rose and beckoned Meng Ning to accompany her to the Emperor’s Hall. There, they stood together on the long veranda and looked down through the sporadic trees onto the lake.
‘It is said that the Master did not discuss anomalies, feats of strength, civil disorder, or the spirits,’ said Zuo Fen quoting Confucius. ‘It is for you and I to disregard sorcery as nothing but illusion and cunning. We must bend our thoughts to seeking explanations from circumstance.’
‘We know, my Lady, that Yang Mo had already seduced the Emperor and his guests with his many and infamous illusions. To achieve these feats of the miraculous would have required a sizable retinue and the most careful preparation. It is unlikely that the Emperor would have countenanced such sorcery in daylight hours, so we might imagine how with the play of lanterns, fire and smoke Yang Mo was able to make the impossible seem possible. Like the actor he undoubtedly was, he was probably a man of commanding presence - all eyes would have been upon his person, all ears tuned to his words. And round about the harsh clangorous sounds and shouts of his assistants would be sustained as his illusions began to unfold.’
‘Wisely spoken Meng Ning,’ says Zuo Fen, ‘a most convincing exposition. So we must imagine how after a long presentation of illusory wonders, the imbibing of much wine and other intoxigents inhaled or consumed, the first presage of dawn comes upon the company. Guests and their consorts seek the privacy of their quarters, lights are dimmed, only the meditative music of the zither sounds in the Emperor’s hall as new confections of poetry continue to vie with the ancient verses. Then, as the Emperor rises to seek his chamber there, half hidden amongst the wraiths of mist floating on the lake, lies a sailing vessel, its single sail empty of wind, a spectre at once marvelous and shocking.’
‘But an illusionary boat, possibly a vessel that could not and need not run with the wind, something constructed, a shell no more, made out of the lightest wood or taut cloth that in the blue dawn would seem more substantial than it is, fashioned and placed in position by Yang Mo’s assistants at a right distance to evoke the illusion of reality.’
‘The Emperor summons his court and its guests, summons Yang Mo, regarding this as a step taken beyond what protocol allows, a violation of the ancient spirit traditions of the lake. Yang Mo stands his ground suggesting that this is his greatest illusion yet, that there is no harm done, and should the Emperor decline to sail on the ****** waters he will take himself away from his presence boat and all.’
‘At this Xie Jui, the second wife, lets it be known that she regards with some contempt the prohibition of a vessel’s presence on the lake. She wishes passage on the boat and if the Emperor will not accompany her she will go alone with Yang Mo. At this the Emperor is incensed but challenges Yang Mo to explain how he will deliver Xie Jui to the vessel.’
‘This is where, My Lady, we will need to seek the Red Slate Path that, it is said, Yang Mo prepared to take himself and his passenger to the waiting boat - only to disappear from view in front of the very eyes of the assembly. Our task for tomorrow perhaps? Jia Li can be our guide as she surely knows its location.’
And so, as the three quarter moon rises over Eryi-lou and the chamberlain takes his leave of the courtesan, Mei Lim appears from the near darkness to escort her mistress to the small chamber where they will pass the night. Zuo Fen remains in a trance-like state but allows the ministrations of her maid to prepare her for the business of sleep.
Meanwhile Meng Ning, intoxicated by Zuo Fen’s presence, does not return to his quarters but takes the terrace steps down, down to the lakeshore. He allows his official skills as a poet to fashion an array of characters he will first commit to memory, only later write out in his fine calligraphic script, and then destroy. Whereas Zuo Fen commutes between dream and reality he has no such pleasure. This is a stark, cold place at autumn’s end. But this condition only seems to excite and fuel his passion for this woman, this gracious, mysterious woman with whom he has spent the recent hours in close proximity. Her face floats before his eyes; her precise lips and still perfect teeth, gentle chin and youthful neck, the beauty and grace of her bearing seated cross-legged like a sage before him. He imagines for a brief moment her long nakedness revealed in the bright moonlight under which he now stands. Holding this momentary image close to his physical self he makes his way up the many terraces to the small wooden chamber in which he will sleep.
Despite her journeying and the revelations of the day Zuo Fen lies awake. She is savouring a very different quality of the night in this remote place. For many years she has remained wakeful in the hours of the Rat and the Ox to welcome her Lord Wu should his goat cart find its way to her court. She would like to rise and reflect on the images that hold sleep from her – but fears to wake her maid without whose close attention she might falter. This natural world beyond her court and the Emperor’s gardens are of an almost constant wonder. She reflects that as she gets older each season seems to become more vivid than its predecessor. This autumn, with its vivid dreams and visions, she likens to flowers picked from her garden, their colours and textures continuing to hold true and firm. Between such thoughts the intimacy of her time with Meng Ning remind her of the delight of human association. Aside from her dear brother Zuo-Si she has rarely known that keen intimacy of another man - other than her Lord. Though she has, she reflects further, in the writing of The Pale Girl, allowed her mind to explore the variousness of the body’s pleasure. To school Meng Ning in the arts of passion would be pleasurable indeed, and she considers he would be a most willing and attentive student. She imagines, for a moment, guiding him towards the exacting refinements of touch and stroke a woman requires to achieve the deepest coitus. Her body stirs as this thought takes hold and caresses her towards necessary sleep.
(to be continued)