☆ Chapter 91
儿 | er | (lit. child) diminutive marker used as a form of endearment
Liu Fei Xu ruthlessly glared at the wretched-looking woman on the ground, itching to step forward and kick her to death. But he clearly understood that he was currently the laughingstock of Lan Zhou and could not stir up any more trouble. Fists tightly clenched, he restrained himself for a long while before the urge to head over there disappeared.
Ruan Zhu voluntarily stood up. She didn’t have much sympathy towards Yu Lian Hua as she felt the other was a clown, but it would be a pity if she died. She stopped in front of her: “Hey, are you all right?”
One of Yu Lian Hua’s arms dangled; it seemed that her shoulder had been injury. She sat slumped on the ground, supported from the back by her husband, as if she was suffering from paralysis. Grimacing in pain, bitterness was all across her face and she howled in grief: “Ouch……Lord, be a little gentler……this is really asking for my life……I dunno if my ribs are broken?”
This was the result of being a busybody and there was no one else to blame! Mockery was concealed in the corner of Ruan Zhu’s mouth: “Oh, that is truly too bad. You had better hire a carriage and return!”
Yu Lian Hua scowled miserably: “Younger Sister Ruan, you know I’m so poor that I can’t even eat rice. Where would I have the coin to hire a carriage to go home? Or how about you lend me some silver based on the fact that we are acquainted. I will definitely return it some day.”
She was already tragic to this extent yet still did not forget to greedily demand some small advantages.
Ruan Zhu feigned anxiousness: “Aiya, Older Sister Yu shouldn’t look at my clothes that are a little brighter and cleaner. To be honest, these clothes have been sitting in a chest for who knows how many years, and I would be too reluctant to take it out if we hadn’t come out today. Let me tell you the truth–we can no longer open the pot lid in our home. If we hadn’t borrowed some silver from the neighbors yesterday to buy vegetables and rice, we would long have eaten ourselves.”
“Younger Sister is trying to mislead me. Look at how your family has all these lavish meals with lots of meat and fish and can also afford to eat rare vegetables in winter. No money–who would believe that, hmm?”
Ruan Zhu was not pleased. No matter how much money she had, it was hers and had absolutely nothing to do with others. Some people always believed that because your family was so wealthy, you couldn’t possibly spend it all, so why not give me some, hmm?
That sort of thinking made no sense whatsoever. If you looked at it from the other side where the rich became the poor, others would definitely not be so kind.
Yu Lian Hua was not needy to the extent where she could not eat as people who were in the mood to come out and play would, at the very least, not have any issues with survival. Money was not a problem–even loaning out three to five thousand taels was a trivial matter–but Ruan Zhu was unwilling to be considered someone with more money than sense, one that subsequently could be easily fooled.
“Who asked for me to be kind from the bottom of my heart? Since Older Sister Yu has said thus, I will strive to be a person on good terms with everyone and spend a bit of coin to hire a carriage to send Older Sister Yu back to the city.”
“Is Younger Sister not returning to the city?” A small abacus appeared in Yu Lian Hua’s mind. If they rode the same carriage back, she could still use some old tricks and curry intimacy and maybe even fish up some profit.
“Older Sister Yu is teasing me. I am a poor person, and the residences in the city are too expensive; I cannot afford to live there and could only build my humble abode on a lump of broken ground in the vicinity, barely enough to avoid the wind and snow.” Ruan Zhu turned her head towards the still-barbecuing Nuan Chun: “Ai, there’s no need to work so hard, Nuan Chun, as we can’t eat that many anyway. There are quite a few people enjoying themselves nearby and it will be very easy to employ a carriage. Go find one to send Mistress Yu back. We are poor so don’t find one that’s too grand or expensive, and remember to not speak carelessly.” Since Yu Lian Hua put on a show of being poor, how could she let the other be disappointed? It would be easier to have conversations if everyone was poor here.
“Eldest Miss, please be at ease. This slave will surely accomplish the task. The carts on the docks that pull merchandise are very cheap, and this slave will immediately go hire one.” Nuan Chun quickly glanced at Yu Lian Hua before bowing towards his master and leaving the forest.
Ruan Zhu telling Nuan Chun to not carelessly speak was her being unwilling to have Yu Lian Hua become aware of her status. Ever since she had become a Princess, the people who paid a formal visit to her trembled with fear for the most part. As time went on, she felt more and more listless. A commoner on the lowest rung of society being able to yak away about her worries without any apprehension made her feel another kind of amusement.
Ruan Zhu hadn’t yet finished eating. Sitting down, she picked up a meat skewer for a taste. Unfortunately, it had already cooled and she placed it back on the coals to warm it up. When she had nearly eaten her fill, Nuan Chun returned with the hired cart and Yu Lian Hua was supported into it with the help of her husband. She was still unwilling to give up: “Aiya, Younger Sister is such a good person. Come visit me some other day, I’ll gift you a chastity belt.”
More chastity belts? It would be strange if the stingy Yu Lian Hua gave something for free!
“Eldest Sister, has that disgusting woman left?” Ruan Yu walked over from beyond the forest, leading her small nephew. She shook her head after glancing at their surroundings: “Where did you become acquainted with her? Truly unbearable.”
Ruan Zhu smiled: “I think she is very interesting.” Ruan Zhu pulled Zhi Xi into her arms, giving him a kiss before taking a few barbecued skewers from Nuan Chun’s hands and handing her son and Ruan Yu one each.
Ruan Yu sat down and took the proffered skewer from her sister’s hands. Her table manners were neat and efficient yet did not have a single trace of vulgarity: “You are currently an imperial princess and are not afraid of lowering your dignity?”
Ruan Zhu sighed: “There is no gain without a loss; I fear I cannot bear the freezing cold.” She now had a noble status and actually cherished her previously simple days.
“I fear I cannot bear the freezing cold. Zhi Xi knows this.” Zhi Xi suddenly loudly recited a few lines that his mother had taught him these past few days: “When did the bright moon come out? Holding a wine cup, I ask the sky. I’m wondering, up in the Celestial Palace, in which year is tonight? I fear I cannot bear the freezing cold. Dancing with my moonlit shadow on the Earth, I find it better than ascending to the Moon……”[a] Zhi Xi recited to here and stopped, bitterness on his small face as he thought hard before raising his head: “Ma, Zhi Xi doesn’t remember the rest.”
Ruan Zhu smiled: “Listen, following that is–Rounding the crimson buildings, it hangs over the ornamental windows, casting its light upon the sleepless. Oh, Moon, you may not hate us, but why are you always at your full before we part? Man has grief at separation and joy at reunion; the Moon wanes and waxes alternatively, which has been a fact since antiquity. May all we humans be blessed with longevity! So, though far apart, we can share the moon’s beauty.” According to her calculations, Su Shi hadn’t yet been born, so during the time she was teaching Zhi Xi, she had thickened her face and plagiarized.
Zhi Xi was very supportive and clapped his little hands: “Mother is amazing.”
A smile spilled from Nuan Chun’s mouth. His family’s Eldest Miss was becoming more and more talented. He did not understand the meaning between the lines yet he felt the verses were very beautiful and they made his spirit become free from worries.
Ruan Yu was enthralled and only remarked after a long time: “That poem is truly nice on the ears. It had not occurred to me that Sister had a new work. Following around a remarkable literary husband for the entire day has actually caused you to turn red from being near cinnabar[b].” Ruan Yu was under the assumption that her older sister’s skill was something that the Prince of Qi had taught her.
“A good poem!” Words of praise came from the depths of the forest.
Ruan Zhu spun and saw a group of people walking out from the forest, among them included Peacock Liu. By his side was a gorgeously-dressed female that looked especially familiar, and she suddenly remembered after thinking a bit–wasn’t this the madam of the prefectural magistrate? She had been put in a difficult spot on a decorated pleasure boat in Lan River by her several years ago, and had then also seen her again when she had visited Tian Yi Pavilion. Peacock Liu had been present both times. But wait, didn’t she still owe her a hundred taels of gold, hmm?
Actually, Liu Fei Xu had been too embarrassed to face someone he had taken liberties with in the past so he had wordlessly slipped away earlier. He had not gone that far when he came across the prefectural magistrate’s madam leading a group of friends. They had originally arranged to meet at this plum blossom forest today, and he had arrived first and then ran into Ruan Yu and Yu Lian Hua. Having been fully unmasked, his heart did not feel comfortable and he wanted to leave, but he was no match for his friends’ enthusiasm and joined together with them to find a secluded spot to appreciate the flowers, reciting some grieved poems at times.
Who could have guessed that the more they walked, the closer they were to Ruan Zhu’s spot? They first heard a child reciting poetry that was soon followed by Ruan Zhu’s continuation.
The skin on Liu Fei Xu’s face was thick, perhaps because he had been in this line of work for too long. Acting as if his previous short unmasking hadn’t occurred at all, he calmly introduced everyone: “This madam is surnamed Ruan, and she is one of my old friends. This lady is perhaps her younger sister. Madam Ruan, I do not know if what I have said is correct?”
Look at that introduction! Nuan Chun had seen the scene of Yu Lian Hu being kicked, and he became enraged inside: The flower thief dared to say Eldest Miss was an old friend; he is too impatient to live! How would it be like if the two princes were to know of this? Wait until I return and make my complaints towards them. When the Princes become angry, it would be best to castrate Liu Fei Xu and place him at home as a palace eunuch. Qu Gao has gone to manage the Lan Zhou branch of Hua Nong Ying so it just so happens that we are lacking a little errand brother to run back and forth with the accounts book. Furthermore, Liu Fei Xu is literate and it would be entirely suitable for him to become Qu Gao’s little brother.
Nuan Chun was completely wrapped up in his beautiful fantasy of Liu Fei Xu becoming a palace eunuch, and his angered mind eased.
“She is indeed my younger sister Ruan Yu.” Ruan Zhu responded.
Ruan Yu heard her elder sister introducing her and slightly bowed. She had led Zhi Xi away earlier and did not know anything regarding whether Liu Fei Xu was the flower thief or not. If she knew, the young lady’s temper would have flared and she would have long turned around and left.
“None of you know this, correct? That incredibly popular five-character “The bright Moon shines in between the pine tree; Over the rocks, the clear spring water runs free” poem is Madam Ruan’s work.”[c]
It was only then that the prefectural magistrate’s Madam recalled what happened on the pleasure boat that year. At the time, her impression of Ruan Zhu was not very good and now she saw Liu Fei Xu was full of praises for her poems. Her eyes couldn’t help but to darken, unhappiness leaking through her gorgeous features. Bright eyes faintly rippling, she gave a charming smile: “Who would have thought this small Madam Ruan was a poem connoisseur. It just so happens that we were reciting poetry to appreciate the beauty of the plum blossoms. Why doesn’t the small Madam recite a few poems to join in the fun?”
A Madam was a Madam, why was there a need for a ‘small Madam’? A trace of mockery was in Ruan Zhu’s eyes. She was currently a noble member of the imperial family–however grandeur the prefectural magistrate’s Madam was, could this Madam still surpass her? However, wanting to embarrass her was but a pipe dream.
“Last time we had bet on a hundred taels of gold; I do not know what we are betting on this time?”
“It is still gold taels. If small Madam Ruan has the skill to recite another verse as famous as ‘The bright Moon shines in between the pine tree; Over the rocks, the clear spring water runs free,’ I am willing to take out another hundred taels of gold. If what is recited is inferior to that verse, then that is also of no matter as everyone in the circle will still be happy with the attempt.”
“Prefectural magistrate’s Madam is very humorous, but I do not know when the taels of gold from many years ago can be redeemed?” Ruan Zhu’s tone was indifferent, as if she didn’t care, but it also carried a faint trace of contempt.
“If there is a good verse, it will be honored together.” She simply did not believe that this person could create another poem that would also be so extensively circulated.
Liu Fei Xu couldn’t resist saying towards the Madam of the prefectural magistrate: “I think Madam should not strive to make a meaningless point. Based on that previous ‘Rounding the crimson buildings, it hangs over the ornamental windows, casting its light upon the sleepless. Oh, Moon, you may not hate us‘……Madam Ruan’s level of mastery towards poetry is absolutely out of the ordinary; you are set to lose.”
The prefectural magistrate’s Madam finally showed some alarm: “That poem was also your work?”
Yet Ruan Zhu did not respond: “I am indebted that you think so highly of me. I will recite two poems and I hope everyone can grant me the honor of offering their instruction.” She was fixed on those golden bars.
Lightly moving sideways, she broke off a branch from an old plum blossom tree then made her way towards an area with soft dirt, where she wrote plum blossom verses from the Song dynasty’s Book of Songs. After multiple years of practice, her writing was now very remarkable and lines of extraordinarily beautiful thin-gold style of calligraphy appeared.[d]
The Snow and the Plum I: The plum and the snow vie to be the first in spring, the poet puts down his pen to assess their fight. In white, the plum is lesser than the snow by thirty percent, yet the snow loses against the plum’s scent.
The Snow and the Plum II: Without the snow, the plum is listless, and snow without a poem is very humdrum. When the poem is finished at sunset, it snows again and forms a complete spring together with the plum.[e]
When Ruan Zhu had finished writing, she threw the branch away and fixed her gaze on the people waiting: “How is it?”
The prefectural magistrate’s Madam silently stared at the words on the ground, annoyance in her eyes.
But the group of people who had arrived with her were in a commotion and started reading the lines, with some saying the poem was good, others saying the writing was good. A peerlessly beautiful man gave a long greeting to Ruan Zhu with his clasped hands raised high: “This humble one is Feng Qing Bai who has long heard of Madam’s matchless poems and is willing to extend a firm hand and praise.”
Feng Qing Bai! She seemed to have heard someone mention this name before.
Yet Ruan Yu’s face changed colors and with one arm carrying her nephew, her other hand pulled her elder sister out of the forest.
Nuan Chun did not even have the time to put away all of the barbecue tools and hurriedly followed after them.
Feng Qing Bai was grieved. No matter how clean he was or how much he cherished his good name, he could not escape the contemptible reputation of having been a courtesan and was looked down on by all who stood before and behind him. Liu Fei Xu’s eyes also became gloomy as his gaze followed that beautiful figure who was now distantly far away.
Guan Ju Villa–the two sisters were currently conversing inside Yi Zhu Cottage.
“What’s with you, getting angry for no reason?”
“You’re still saying that? Don’t tell me Sister really doesn’t know the background of that Feng Qing Bai?”
“What am I supposed to know, ah?” Ruan Zhu was baffled.
“He is an unclean man, and I’m afraid that the other people are also no good.” Disgust was all over Ruan Yu’s face.
“How old are you, you silly girl, to be pretending to be so noble and virtuous? What do you understand?” Ruan Zhu used her finger to poke her. Her younger sister was extremely beautiful. The sixteen year old female had bright eyes and bright teeth, a rare beauty. She couldn’t help but to say: “Yu’er is now sixteen years old and ought to have her own family. Unfortunately, neither of our parents are home, and it looks like it is something I, the older sister, has to worry about.”
Ruan Yu disdainfully responded: “By no means do I want those mediocre men. If I want one, I want the best.”
“Who is the one that Sister is saying is the best? You seem to have a target?”
Ruan Yu was a little embarrassed. Her cheeks flushed as she whispered: “Eldest Sister knows that if I have nothing better to do, I’ll run over to Ci Ji Hall. I……I met a very remarkable man……”
Ruan Zhu’s interest was piqued: “What is his clan name? Tell me. If his family’s situation and status is considered compatible with our Ruan clan’s, Sister will act as the Head and marry you to him.”
Ruan Yu remained silent and only indistinctly sighed after a moment: “It is because I do not know his clan name that I am at a loss.”
“No way, you like him even without knowing his clan name?” Ruan Zhu felt a little dizzy. Although this was a little rare, it also couldn’t be considered that strange: “Then what do you plan on doing?”
“I will still go to Ci Ji Hall and wait……”
No wonder she had not seen a trace of her shadow during this time. It turns out she had matters of the heart.
Xuanyuan Zong Zhi returned at night. It was his turn to stay at Yi Zhu Cottage tonight and he very naturally shed his armor. Ruan Zhu personally helped her hubby wash his face and mentioned the things that had happened in the plum blossom forest this morning.
“Big Brother Lu, do you think Liu Fei Xu could possibly be the long-rumored flower thief?”
Xuanyuan Zong Zhi lazily replied: “I do not know whether he is the flower thief or not, but I do know he is the Four Great Master’s Wan Zi Yu……”
[a] This poem is called 水调歌头·明月几时有 “The Water Melody–When will the Moon come out?” by 苏轼 Su Shi. English translation taken from An Outline of Chinese Literature II by Yuan Xing Pei.
[b] 近朱者赤, Half of an idiom meaning, being near a good person makes one good aka the environment has a great influence on people. The rest of the saying is 近墨者黑 being near ink makes one black.
[c] The English translation is clearly not five characters per line, but the Chinese poem actually is, so I kept that part untouched. And again, translation is by Alan Ma and Frank Yue, taken from here.
[d] 瘦金体 is a type of Chinese calligraphy where all the strokes are very thinly made. Examples in the Chinese Wikipedia page.
[e] These are two poems from 雪梅二首 (The Snow and the Plum Two Poems) by 卢梅坡 Lu Mei Po.
TN: If anyone has forgotten, the Four Great Masters of Lan Zhou were mentioned in detail in Chapter 28.