Published at 20th of July 2019 05:36:42 PM

Chapter 118

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I Won’t Accept Her as Your Concubine or Maid (2)

Xiaotao's forehead was still oozing sweat. She tugged at Dangju's sleeve and said, “I asked the gatekeeper Xiaoshun to follow them. He returned back soon and said that he saw the carriage driving into the grove of peach trees outside the entrance of the alley. After that I immediately rushed back and told Lady about this.”

Sheng Mansion was located in a good area and not far away from it, there was a grove of peach trees. Although the grove was uneven and few people would go there and enjoy the scenery, it had a rustic charm. Minglan pondered for a while and guessed that Cousin Cao must have come to see He Hongwen alone. Since they wanted to talk about their old times alone, they would choose a secluded romantic place. He Mansion and Cao Mansion were both unsuitable for a chat. In this case the grove of peach trees was the best place for them to chat.

Minglan counted the minutes with her fingers. It would take about seven or eight minutes to reach the grove of peach trees by carriage from Sheng Mansion. Xiaoshun and Xiaotao were good at running. So up to now, Cao Jinxiu and He Hongwen had just talked to each other for half an hour. Minglan conjectured that they had just finished talking about their experiences because Cao Jinxiu must have cried for a long time according to Minglan's reading of the character of Cao Jinxiu.

After hearing Xiaotao's words, Dangju stammered, “… So, my lady, what are you going to do?”

‘Is Lady Minglan going to catch them red-handed?’ Dangju was dumbfounded by her own thought.

“Nothing,” Minglan answered.

The carriage stopped and the curtain was slightly lifted by a gentle breeze. A faint fragrance of peach flowers came in. Minglan opened her eyes, smoothed the wrinkles on her skirt and pushed upright the golden ornament on her hair while she said lightly, “I have run out of patience.” With that she stepped out of the carriage with the help of Xiaotao.

‘Damn it! I’m tired of all the speculation. The average marriage age of people in ancient times is 16. Youth is the most precious time of life and I can't let my youth slip idly by. Furthermore, there are plenty of other fish in the sea. If he doesn’t want to marry me, I will change my mind at once,’ Minglan thought to herself.

The noon sun was fierce in late August and there were few people in the grove of peach trees. This area was in the inner part of the capital and had a good public order these days because it was under the state of siege during the Autumn Imperial Examination and idle persons were not allowed to walk around. Minglan wore the curtained hat and walked toward the depths of the grove with Dangju, Xiaotao and the two young men of Huang family.

Xiaotao walked fast forth to detect the positions of He Hongwen and Cao Jinxiu. After a while, she hurriedly came back and whispered to Minglan, “The carriage of Cao family is in the west of the grove. Young Master He and Lady Cao are over here.” She pointed to tall trees thick with leaves ahead.

Minglan asked the two young men of Huang family to wait here and then led Xiaotao and Dangju to walk on. When they came near to the shade, they heard a woman crying and a man gently consoling her. Minglan, Xiaotao and Dangju promptly hid behind a big tree.

“… Cousin, I have suffered a lot in Liang Prefecture. There was even no clean water to drink. The water fetched from the well was salty and bitter. After drinking it, my parents’ faces swelled up…” Cao Jinxiu said with sobs, “But that was not the worst thing. A few years later, we ran out of money and had nothing to bribe the officials. My family was unable to continue living, so they married me… married me… to him… He’s a military official garrisoning the Liang Prefecture… Cousin, I really wanted to kill myself at that time but I couldn’t do that. If I had died, my parents would have been in a hopeless situation.”

With that she cried sadly and He Hongwen comforted her in a low voice. Cao Jinxiu sounded emotional. Minglan heard a rustle of clothes and it seemed that Cao Jinxiu was tugging at He Hongwen's sleeve. Cao Jinxiu cried and continued, “Thank goodness, I finally see you again. Cousin, I have kept all things we did as children in my mind over the years… When I was a child, I liked the flowers on the pomegranate tree, so you climbed up the tall tree to pick the flowers for me. Then you fell from the tree by accident and Aunt was angry and worried. But you didn’t tell her that you fell down because of picking flowers for me; instead, you took all the blame… I still remember that you made a little lantern with your own hands for me every Lantern Festival. I received the lotus-shaped and rabbit-shaped lanterns from you... Every time I awoke in the middle of the night, what I feared most was being forgotten by you.”

He Hongwen became a bit excited and replied, “Calm down! Don't cry anymore, Cousin Jinxiu. I’m here, so don't be afraid. Now you and your family have returned to the capital. Everything's going to be just fine.”

Cao Jinxiu kept crying for a few seconds and slowly calmed herself down. “A few months later, a general amnesty was proclaimed to the whole country. My parents gave the military official all their money and took me home. He didn’t like me and thought that I would bring ill luck to him and do harm to his official career because I cried every day. I wanted to kill myself but I was afraid that my parents would be broken-hearted for my death. Besides, I longed to see you again before my death. Now that my wish has come true, I can die content...” she said with sadness.

He Hongwen gently scolded, “Don’t talk nonsense. You are still young and you will live a long life.”

Cao Jinxiu said with sorrow, “… I have met Lady Sheng. She’s beautiful and elegant. She comes from a good family and your grandmother likes her. That’s great! Cousin, you will have a good marriage. Lady Sheng is gentle and kind, and she will surely take good care of Aunt and you…My mother wants you to accept me as your concubine, but I know it is too much to hope for. I’m not a maiden now. I have lost my chastity. So, Cousin, let me be your maid. I’m willing to wait upon you and Lady Sheng as long as I can see you every day…”

Dangju’s face reddened with rage. Xiaotao gritted her teeth and wanted to rush out and bite that shameless woman. Through the branches Minglan could see that Cao Jinxiu had rested her head on He Hongwen's shoulder and sobbed quietly like a helpless child, her thin body constantly trembling. He Hongwen let out a long sigh and stroke her back with his hand to console her while saying under his breath, “… Sister Minglan is really a nice girl…”

Xiaotao trembled with anger and couldn't bear it any more. She stepped on a twig on the grass and it broke with a sharp snap. He Hongwen and Cao Jinxiu cried out in alarm, turned around and looked towards the tall tree behind which Minglan was sheltering.

“Who's there?” He Hongwen shouted.

Dangju gave Xiaotao a stern look. Minglan calmly straightened her clothes, got out of the bushes unhurriedly and then stood gracefully erect in front of He Hongwen and Cao Jinxiu. Xiaotao and Dangju followed her out with their heads bowed.

He Hongwen turned pale at the sight of Minglan and then blushed with shame. For a long while he remained speechless. Finally, he came to his senses and asked dully, “Sister Minglan, why are you here?”

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Minglan waved her hand to her maids. Xiaotao and Dangju immediately retreated and left the three of them under the shade of trees. Minglan cast a glance at He Hongwen’s coat and saw a patch of the darker color on it. It was wetted by Cao Jinxiu's tears. She forced a smile and said with massive understatement, “I come out to deal with something. When I passed by the grove of peach trees, I saw the carriage of Sister Cao. So I walked into the grove and wanted to say hello to her. But Brother Hongwen, I didn't expect you would be here.”

He Hongwen was panicked and asked in embarrassment, “You… Did you hear everything I said to her?”

Minglan smiled at him and answered, “No. What I heard is fragmentary.”

Sunbeams filtered through the soft, green shade of the peach trees and shone on Minglan's white delicate face, flattering her translucent skin and classically beautiful features. She looked truly beautiful in the sunshine and her black eyes quietly stared at him.

He Hongwen stood in a trance. He knew clearly that he liked Minglan for her good nature and vivid personality, and wanted to marry her and spend the rest of his life with her. But when he twisted his head sideways and saw Cao Jinxiu trembling like a leaf, he hesitated. The poor girl was skinny and haggard with a wan and sallow face, completely different from the cute cousin in his memory. He Hongwen didn't have the heart to hurt her, so he felt in a dilemma.

Seeing the hesitation on his face, Cao Jinxiu gave a cry of sadness and fell to her knees at Minglan's feet, tears rolling down her cheeks as she cried sorrowfully, “Lady Sheng, please don't blame him. It’s all my fault. I knew Cousin Hongwen would arrive in the capital today, so I had someone keep an eye on the wharf and inform me as soon as he disembarked. Then I followed Cousin to Sheng Mansion. I know what I have done is improper, but Cousin Hongwen is innocent. You have to trust him. You are the only one he likes.”

Minglan nodded and replied calmly, “This is between your cousin and me. As an unmarried girl, you’d better speak with caution and not take nonsense. Don't bring troubles to others. Now please get up off the ground. If someone saw you kneeling before me, they would mistakenly regard me as a bully.”

Cao Jinxiu was stunned for a while before she nodded and apologized, “Lady, you are right. It’s all my fault. I have lost my chastity, and I can't compare with you. You are highly cultured and steeped in propriety. Please don't be angry with me.” While saying that, she still knelt on the ground.

He Hongwen hastened to bent down and tried to help Cao Jinxiu up but she refused to get up; instead, she tugged at the lower hem of Minglan's skirt and implored with tears, “Lady Sheng, look at me. I'm not a patch on you. Please have mercy on me... Over the years, I have led a miserable life. More than once, desperation drove me to attempt suicide. But when I thought of Cousin Hongwen, I regained the courage to live on. Please! Please allow me to stay by his side...”

Her voice was full of sadness and sorrow and she knelt before Minglan in the submissive posture of a mere supplicant. Then she raised her head and gazed at He Hongwen with imploring eyes as if he was her only hope. On the verge of tears, He Hongwen, who was always soft-hearted, looked imploringly at Minglan and stammered, “… Sister Minglan, you see, she is …”

Words failed He Hongwen when he met Minglan's calm eyes.

A strong current of anger surged through Minglan. It seemed that she would be considered as a malicious woman if she didn't agree to Cao Jinxiu's request in such a situation. Minglan walked a few steps and stood under the shade of a tree, and then she looked at Cao Jinxiu who was groveling on the ground, and said lightly, “Please don't cry, Cousin Jinxiu. I have something to ask you… Brother Hongwen once told me that you have two illegal older sisters and an illegal younger sister. How are they now?”

Cao Jinxiu raised her head and looked blankly at Minglan as she didn't understand what Minglan meant. The question was difficult to answer. Cao Jinxiu thought for a long while and finally answered, “They… They are fine. They stay on in Liang Prefecture and haven't come back with us.”

He Hongwen was dazed for a second and asked, “Why do they stay on in Liang Prefecture? Uncle and Aunt have both returned to the capital. Why didn't they come back with you?” Cao Jinxiu replied in a weak voice, “They are… They are all married.”

He Hongwen promptly understood what had happened to them and his face suddenly changed.


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