Published at 7th of July 2019 10:58:48 AM

Chapter 113

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Hello, Cousin Jingxiu (2)

Minglan bent her elbow, shook off Madam Cao's hand, and slightly turning around to dodge. She felt puzzled and thought, ‘As the elder sister of Hongwen's mother, how could Madam Cao be such a vulgar woman?’ Minglan looked sideways at He Hongwen’s mother who was crimson with embarrassment but had no way to stop her sister from making a fool of herself. Cao Jingxiu stood by with her head bowed. Minglan looked carefully at her and concluded that she was not beautiful. In reality, Cao Jingxiu had slightly black skin, her face pinched and drawn, looking gaunt.

It was improper for the He family to stop Madam Cao from speaking because she was their guest. Madam Cao put on a triumphant smile and turned to Old Madam Sheng, “Old Madam, I hear from my sister that you are her mother-in-law's confidant. I'll go straight to the point. My daughter and my nephew Hongwen were brought up together. They are affectionate to each other, though I say it myself… When we left the capital that year, Hongwen was chasing after our carriages and crying for Jingxiu. He is very affectionate towards my daughter. Jingxiu would certainly like to…”

Old Madam He’s face dropped to the floor. She put the teacup down with a bang as the cover fell down and smashed into pieces on the tea table. Second Madam He and He Hongwen’s mother knew their mother-in-law well. She was kind and gentle when nothing happened. But when she flew into a rage, she became dominating and tough and even dared to scold Old Master He. Both frightened, Second Madam He and He Hongwen’s mother immediately stood aside.

Old Madam He was overwhelmed with anger but showed nothing on her face. She put on a smile, slowly pulled out a lapis lazuli hairpin with carvings of two words, “Fu” and “Shou”, from her bun and put it on the tea table. Then she pointed at the hairpin and said, “Madam Cao, I've always wanted to give Jingxiu a hairpin. Now everyone is here. If you like this hairpin, just take it.”

T/N note:

“Fu” and “Shou”: good fortune and long life.

Madam Cao was dazed for a second before she came to herself and became overjoyed. She walked up to Old Madam He, picked up the hairpin and praised it. Old Madam He slowly said with a strange smile, “Since you take the hairpin, just ask Jingxiu to put up her hair with the hairpin and change into the clothes of married women. It's improper for her to dress like an unmarried girl.”

Just as the words fell from her lips, there was a moment of dead silence in the drawing room. All were stunned as if a clap of thunder exploded overhead. Cao Jingxiu instantly raised her head with her eyes filled with tears and stood deathly still. Everyone's face changed.

Panic surged through Madam Cao as the hairpin in her hands dropped to the floor and broke into two pieces. Old Madam He turned to He Hongwen’s mother who looked as pale as death, and sneered, “You sister seems to dislike my hairpin.”

He Hongwen’s mother trembled with fear and looked at Madam Cao in disbelief. Madam Cao avoided eye contact with her sister and gritted her teeth. Then she forced a smile and said, “Old Madam He, you must have misunderstood. Jingxiu is unmarried…” Old Madam He waved her hand to stop Madam Cao from speaking, and then abruptly grasped Cao Jingxiu's hand and felt her pulse with three fingers. After that she stared at Madam Cao with a cold smile.

Madam Cao recalled what her sister had told her before-- Old Madam Sheng had studied medicine since childhood. She could tell virgins from non-virgins by observing their postures. If she felt their pulse, she could see through everything.

The mere thought of Old Madam He having known that Cao Jingxiu wasn't a virgin, brought Madam Cao out in a cold sweat. Madam Cao looked at her sister in panic, hoping that she could put in a good word for Cao Jingxiu, but was disappointed to see that her sickly sister was too shaken to say a word.

It gradually dawned upon He Hongwen’s mother that Old Madam He had kept a suspicion in her mind for a long time but mindful of her daughter-in-law's reputation, she hadn’t spoken it out frankly. The reason Old Madam He said that in front of Old Madam Sheng, Minglan and Second Madam He today was because she wanted to take a clear-cut stand and express her irritation toward the Cao family. He Hongwen’s mother had been a widow since she had been young. Thanks to her mother-in-law's help, she had lived a peaceful life for more than ten years and brought He Hongwen up to be an excellent man. She had a deep admiration for Old Madam He. So, at this moment, she was frightened by the angry mother-in-law.

All were in no mood to enjoy flowers. Old Madam Sheng excused herself on the pretext that she wasn't fully recovered from her illness. Before she left with Minglan, Old Madam He took her hand and had a short chat with her. Second Madam He accompanied them to the gate and apologized repeatedly. She asked servants to fill a box with some medicinal herbs often used in summer and carry it into the carriage before she respectfully said good-bye to them.

After climbing into the carriage, there was a long silence between Old Madam Sheng and Minglan.

Minglan was lost in the contemplation with her head bowed. When she first met Old Madam He, she thought this old woman broad-minded and good-natured. But now she had an in-depth understanding of this woman. Old Master He had been a dissolute and romantic man and had many concubines when he had been young. But over the years none of his concubines had given birth to a child for him. Now they two were getting old but Old Madam He had the absolute authority in He family. She had divided up family property, made her sons live apart and given He Hongwen and his mother many silver and estates. No one in the He family raised an objection to her decisions. She indeed led a carefree life.

Today she defeated Madam Cao at a stroke without mercy. From this Minglan knew that she was not a simple woman. The inner chambers for womenfolk were like a small arena. The women who could survive in the end were born lucky women, such as Yu Yanran's grandmother, or shrewd, capable women.

After a while, Minglan sighed, “It's fortunate that Old Madam He overpowers Madam Cao.”

Old Madam Sheng wore an unfathomable look with a glint of cogitation in her eyes. “When two families want to become related by marriage, they should be satisfied with each other. Otherwise, it will create hatred. A forced marriage won't come to a good end. Now we have to wait and see what happens next. After all, Hongwen’s mother hasn't committed herself…”

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Meanwhile, He Hongwen’s mother was standing in the inner room of Old Madam He, panicky. There were only two people in the room. The door and windows were all closed and it was hot and stuffy in it. But He Hongwen’s mother felt a chill creep over her.

“Are you crazy?!” Old Madam He slapped the tea table hard with the palm of her hand, the teacup on it slightly jumping. “You know that I want Minglan to be Hongwen’s wife. Why did you tell the Cao family that I invited Old Madam Sheng and Minglan to our mansion today? What are you up to? Do you really want Jingxiu to be your daughter-in-law?”

He Hongwen’s mother promptly shook her head with panic. “No! I didn’t mean that. I like Minglan very much. How could I…” With that, tears welled up in her eyes and she sobbed, “But my elder sister implored me with tears. She looked pitiful. So I... She is the only one alive in my original family.”

“Alas!” Old Madam He scolded her with a deep resentment, “I know you are soft-hearted. But now I want to make it clear that I'm not a person who despises the poor and curries favour with the rich. If the Cao family had betrothed their daughter to Hongwen before they had been in trouble, I would have taken Jingxiu as my granddaughter-in-law even though I would be laughed at by the outsiders. But in fact, at that time the Cao family cold-shouldered Hongwen and you because they thought that you two were the orphan and the widow and had no one to turn to. They put on airs and claimed that they would marry their daughter into a noble family. Humph! Now they go to the dogs and become penniless. Only in this case would Madam Cao remember that you are her sister and Hongwen is her nephew.”

Old Madam He raised her voice and went on angrily, “The worst thing is that they hoodwinked us. Jingxiu is not a virgin. How dared they try to deceive everybody and want to marry her to Hongwen! What a hateful family!”

He Hongwen’s mother sobbed, “Just now my sister told me that Jingxiu was forced to be that military official’s concubine in Liang Prefecture because they had no way out of the impasse at that time. But they didn’t expect that there would be a general amnesty proclaimed to the whole country a few months later. Now the Cao family all regret what they did.”

“So what?” Old Madam He glared at her and continued, “They once wanted to attach themselves to persons in power. And recently they purposely deceived us. Do you really want to do as your sister wishes and accept this girl who has lost her chastity as your daughter-in-law?”

As a widow, He Hongwen’s mother had put her heart and soul into bringing her son up and had a much tougher time than an ordinary mother. She certainly hoped that He Hongwen would have a bright future. But she was soft-hearted and compassionate. When Madam Cao had cried and begged her for help, her heart had been softened. Now everything was put on the table and she had to make a choice between sisterhood and her son's bright future. She couldn’t help but feeling panicky.

Finally, He Hongwen’s mother wiped tears off her face, raised her head and said, “Mother, I have sorted myself out. I prefer Minglan to be my daughter-in-law… But before my sister left, she begged me and said that she was willing to have Jingxiu be Hongwen's concubine. Mother, can you accept this proposal?”

“No way!” Old Madam He gnashed her teeth in anger and slapped the table again. But when she saw He Hongwen’s mother frightened by her, the pity toward her widowed daughter-in-law prevailed and she said in a soft voice, "My daughter-in-law, just think it over. It is the best choice for us to be related to Sheng family by marriage. Your father-in-law is old. He will soon resign from his official post. By then your father-in-law and I will return to our hometown Baishitang or follow our eldest son to go to his appointed post elsewhere. At that time, Hongwen will have no one to depend on if we don’t seek an official family to be his in-laws. We are unable to find a legal daughter of an influential, noble family to be his wife. But girls from ordinary families are not a good match for him. Most of illegal daughters of official families are not presentable. You have also made some inquiries. Do you think that you can find another girl better than Minglan? Her father and brother hold offices at imperial court, and their family is rich. Although she is the illegal daughter of the Sheng family, she is a beautiful girl of good character, and her father, eldest brother and sister-in-law all like her. Besides, she is brought up by Old Madam Sheng. Even if only you three live together in the future, she can manage household chores well, look after her mother-in-law and help her husband. I have studied her for several years, and I conclude that she is the best girl for Hongwen’s wife. Now the Cao family wants to make Jingxiu his concubine. My daughter-in-law, Minglan hasn’t married into our family but you are trying to take a concubine for your son. Humph! If you really do that, I will be too ashamed to face my sister, Old Madam Sheng.”

Persuaded by her mother-in-law, He Hongwen’s mother slowly wiped her tears away and said hesitantly, “Mother, you are right. But… What about Jingxiu?”

Old Madam He answered in a cold voice, “She has her own parents. You are just her aunt. No need for you to worry too much about her. We have done our best to help them. We helped them find a house, gave them furniture and found a job for your brother-in-law. Are you going to look after the Cao family for a lifetime?! I have to give you a warning. You’d better not give financial help to your sister. I divided up the family property earned by my eldest son and second son and gave lots of silver and estates to you and Hongwen. The silver and estates are left for Hongwen to hold his wedding feast and start his career. You can’t give them to the Cao family. You should make a choice between Hongwen and the Cao family. Your sister has her husband and sons, and they are all healthy. They can support their family. It's impossible for us to support the Cao family for a lifetime. In this world, we can help someone to cope with an emergency but the poor should gain livelihoods of their families by their own hands. Now I manage the silver and estates for you, so you are unable to do as you wish. After my death, without a reliable granddaughter-in-law by your side, maybe you will give all the silver and estates to the Cao family. I've made it clear to you. You are Hongwen’s mother. Certainly, you can choose whoever you like to be your daughter-in-law. Just use your own discretion.”

There was a strong insinuation in these harsh words. He Hongwen’s mother was taken aback and knew what her mother-in-law meant. She dared not to say another word.

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