Published at 20th of March 2019 09:37:05 AM

Chapter 46

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Cousin Taisheng, Cousin Li Yu, Cousin Li Du

In the afternoon, their aunt Sheng Yun who had been married and fraternal cousin Shulan also returned to meet with Old Madam Sheng. Li shi ordered servants to call up the two girls having fun in Pinlan's room. Pinlan's eldest sister and brother got married respectively long ago and second elder brother Changwu was in the capital. With no company to hang out, Pinlan noodled over Chinese ring puzzle which Minglan had no knowledge of, so she willingly threw in the towel, which made Pinlan quite complacent, who kept nagging about the secrecy of the game while ordering the servant to tidy up her clothes and jewelries.  

Danju took from shell inlay jewel case a large pearl hairpin carved into the shape of a red phenix harboring a ruby in its mouth. Minglan bit her teeth, feeling her neck was squeezed by a few inches. Over there a first-level servant was busy with putting on Pinlan's head a heavy pearl hairpin inlayed with butterfly-shaped gems. Pinlan tightened her face and pushed the hairpin away, "I don't want to wear that thing. Last time I wore it, just one morning, my neckache lasted for three days!"

The servant patiently persuaded her, "My young lady, you'd better put it on your head. If the guests are only your lady's aunt and the eldest lady, it's alright you don't wear it, but this time Lady Hui and Third Madam also come over. Look, Lady Minglan has put the jewel on. Hers looks much heavier than ours."

Pinlan, looking up at the big hairpin swinging on Minglan's head, felt better and conceded to put the hairpin on, with a pouting mouth, though.

Taking slow steps towards the main room and turning along the corridor, they saw a girl servant waiting at the door who lifted up door curtain and announced, "Second young lady and lady Minglan are here." Minglan followed Pinlan to enter the room where in the middle sat Old Madam Sheng and First Old Madam Sheng. Li shi, first madam, was sitting on a bench while Wen shi was serving tea and refreshments. Both of them smiled and chatted with several young women dressed in luxurious clothes.

A woman in her forties was seated next to Old Madam Sheng and kept whispering and joking with her. The woman had dark skin but a pair of lively dynamic eyes that didn't match with her age. Seeing a girl that she never met before besides Pinlan, she immediately stood up and pulled over Minglan to check from head to toe. What Minglan impressed her was a fair skin girl with clear eyes and a pair of tiny dimples appearing from time to time near the red corners of her mouth. Her eyes lit up at once, and turned back smiling, "Auntie, this must be my niece Minglan, right? Dear heavens, what a pretty face! Even prettier than the beauty in paintings. It's said that nieces take after aunts. Little wonder that she looks exactly the same with me!"

First Old Madam Sheng pointed at her and smiled, "You shameless thing! On the surface, you are praising Minglan, but in fact, you're praising yourself! Look at you. Even if you lived ten more times, you can't have beautiful appearance like hers!" The woman should stamp her feet like a little child, "Mother! I'm also praising you. I take after you, so when I praise myself, you also have the pride. Why should you debunk me?"

First Old Madam Sheng shook head speechlessly and Old Madam Sheng also burst into laughter and nodded, "Sheng Yun is indeed a filial girl!" All in the room laughed together; even servants snickered behind their hands.

First Old Madam Sheng, pointing at the woman, said to Minglan, "This is your aunt Yun." Then she pointed at a narrow-eyed woman sitting at a bench and introduced, "This is your aunt from your third old master's family." Then at a young bride and a girl standing next and said, "This is your big sister Shulan; that is your cousin Huilan of your third uncle."

Minglan immediately greeted and bowed to every one of them in a polite and well-disciplined manner which gained affection from all in the room. From shoulders to waist to keens to feet, Minglan demonstrated agility and natural grace. First Old Madam liked her so much that she couldn't stop pulling Minglan to have a good chat while others also liked her elegant and descent manner and appreciated her respectful and amiable nature.

Sheng Yun was the most straightforward one. She pulled Minglan to her with one grab and asked what she liked in great details, such as what food she enjoyed, whether she was used to living here and so on. While talking, she took out from her pocket a red heavy pouch embroidered with golden brims and gave it to Minglan, "Our Minglan is blessed with a pretty appearance. Later, I'll send you best quality brocade to make some clothes for you!"

Pinlan was generous and open-minded, not a bit jealous of Minglan's being loved by others but only pretended to be annoyed, "Auntie, it's unfair. Now you have this sister that is better than me, so you totally forget about me."

Hearing her words, Sheng Yun poked hard at Pinlan's forehead and scolded with a smile, "How ungrateful you are! Don't you remember how many things you have taken from me these years?"

Everyone in the room chitchatted with one another; only third madam had no one around her and sipped tea all on her own. Suddenly, she cut in, "Niece Pinlan, be content. Also as a niece, your sister Huilan got nothing at all."

Minglan lowered her head and peeped at Huilan who, with a flushing face, bowed her head in silence. Third madam, on the other hand, though seemed to wear luxurious clothing, the cuffs showed needlework after wear and tear by careful examination.

Sheng Yun ignored her and only cast out one sentence, "Aunt assisted us with great kindness, so niece Minglan of course deserves my love." Being rebuked, Third Madam turned around and stared fiercely at Huilan, cursing out of spite, "You useless thing. If you are half lovable as your younger cousin Minglan, you'll also get gift from your aunt! Till now you've been calling her aunt for a dozen of years, but not a penny did you get!"

Sheng Yun immediately retorted, "Sister-in-law Zhou, I don't understand what you meant? Did you mean that your children called me aunt just intending to get my staff?"

Third Madam's eyebrow tips stood up and she screamed, "Oh, I don't dare to! It's just that recently people outside the family are saying that the first and second sub-families of Sheng are in possession of oceans of gold and silver but stand by and watch their brothers as poor as beggars with a cold eye! On a daily basis, you give out porridge and rice to the irrelevant poor just in an attempt to gain a fake reputation of kindness. How hypocritical!"

Hearing that her father was insulted, Pinlan replied loudly at once, "My father just sent several carts of firewood and rice to you a few days ago. He also gives you cash allowance month after month. Is that also hypocrisy?"

Li shi ordered in a low voice, "Pinlan, don't be rude! Step back!"

At a time, the room was seething with invisible swords and blades. 

Minglan vented to herself, lowering her head to hide the astonishment on her face. In her home, the three sisters or Wang shi and Concubine Lin did give each other sarcastic remarks or cheap shots, but they never fought in such an open and forthright way.

She peeked at others, finding that everyone, including Old Madam Sheng, maintained a normal face.

First Old Madam snorted, "Zhou's wife, my daughter-in-law, did you come here to visit your second aunt or to provoke fighting? Stop yelling in front of seniors. Don't you fear to be laughed at by children?"

Third Madam's face blushed to purple. Then she sat down silently, gulping up tea and snacks.

Minglan turned around, finding that Pinlan was looking at Huilan proudly and aggressively whereas Shulan showed pity for Huilan and pulled her out to relieve her from embarrassment. At this time, a girl servant walked in, reporting, "Madamn Li the aunt (Li shi's brother's wife, Pinglan's maternal aunt) is here."

First Old Madam said in a hurry, "Let her in quickly." The girl servant lifted up door curtain, ushering in a plump woman wearing many pearl and jade jewels on her head. At the sight of First Old Madam and Old Madam Sheng, the woman bowed respectfully and smiled, "I'm here to bother you. Don't blame me, Old Madam, but I often hear my sister-in-law talk over how loving and amiable her aunt is, so I'm being brazen and call on you today."

Old Madam Sheng smiled and said, "You are being overpolite. Don't regard your yourself as an outsider; we are families. As I get older, I like it more when lots of people surround me, so I'm really glad that you came. Minglan, this is your maternal uncle's wife."

Minglan stepped forward and bowed. As she hesitated how to address her, the woman spoke up, "You can call me aunt as Pinlan does." Minglan looked up at Old Madam Sheng who nodded slightly, so she greeted docilely, "Nice to meet you, aunt."

Zhu shi, the aunt, squinted her eyes in lines and smiled, "What a beautiful girl! It's a blessing, Old Madam." While talking, she also took from her girl servant's hand a lotus-flower-colored pouch and put it into Minglan's hand. Minglan looked down at it, finding that it was inserted with jewels and golden threads, the dazzlingly bright outer cover of which indicated its value, even when excluding the staff inside.

Everyone sat down for chatting. Aunt Zhu shi also ignored third madam and only talked with Old Madam Sheng on topics from Jinling to the capital, and from wives to children. Minglan never overlooked gossips and flattering from the mouth of women living within a mansion, so she listened carefully. Then she got to know that in early years, Old Master Li and Old Master Sheng started their careers together. At first, Li family was less prosperous than Sheng, yet they cultivated outstanding sons (because no outer genes were introduced, and he made do with his original wife of peasant born). After diligent operation by three generations, the family thrived, becoming one of the best-off families in Youyang county.

All the several attempts Third Madam made to cut in failed. First Old Madam talked for a while and suddenly turned to Sheng Yun, "Where is Taisheng? Why didn't he come with you today?" Sheng Yun answered with a smile, "It's rare that Changwu comes back from the capital, so my foolish boy is hanging out with him. Madam Zhu, do you also come alone?" Zhu shi replied smiling, "Yu'er and Du'er are waiting outside."

First Old Madam smiled, "We are families. Let them in quickly."

Then she ordered servants to usher them in. When the door curtain was lifted, entering three boys of similar age. Altogether, they kowtowed to Old Madam Sheng as greeting. First Old Madam Sheng smiled and pointed at one boy with smiling eyes, red lips and white teeth, "This is the second young master, Yu'er, from Madam Li the aunt's family." Then at a shy boy, "This is the third young master." And at last, at a dark-skinned well-built body, "This is my daughter Yun's son, Taisheng."

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The three boys had their own styles. For a time, the room was full of vigor; except for Minglan, the rest already knew each other, so Minglan had to greet all of them one by one and called them cousin as Pinlan did.  

Zhu shi smiled and said to Ming Lan, "You still have another big cousin. He went out for procurement. His wife, your big sister-in-law, is a nice person. Remember to visit us often in the future."

Old Madam Sheng praised, "My niece-in-law, you're really blessed to have sons elegant and outstanding as this." The uncle's wife smiled, "The two boys could be really bothering. You're flattering them, Old Madam."

Old Madam Sheng pulled over the two boys from Li family and asked in detail about their learning. Knowing that the elder one had become a scholar and the younger one a student on government grant, she was even happier, "Good, good, good. Your future will be promising through learning." Zhu shi smiled, "This is no big deal. I heard that your eldest grandson made it to Xiucai, Juren and Jinshi all upon his first time of taking the County Examination, Provincial Exam and Imperial Exam. Now he is entitled as an academician and works in the Imperial Academy. This is a real blessing from the God of Wisdom."

Old Madam Sheng turned around and shot a glance at First Old Madam, "It must be you spreading the news. I'm afraid my grandson would be arrogant due to overpraising." First Old Madam smiled, "I'll surely praise him for being so talented. When these two boys take exam in the capital, please look after them for me."

Old Madam Sheng said, "I'll do so without your request. The niece of brother Wei's wife is also a child of our family. Madam the aunt, when the boys are in the capital, let them live in my house. We happen to have another two boys; they can make company of each other."

Zhu shi had been waiting exactly for this promise, so she laughed, "That's really kind of you, Old Madam. Come here to kowtow for her kindness, Yu'er and Du'er."

Li Yu and Li Du immediately kneeled down again, thanking Old Madam Sheng again and again.  

Pinlan leaned over and whispered to Minglan, "They are relatives. Why would they thank so much for living in your house?"

Minglan showed a bitter smile, thinking to herself that Pinlan was so dare to say everything in her mind, and only answered, "We have a great many of books."

In truth, passing the Imperial Examination took more than just burying oneself in devouring books, but also pre- and post-preparations. There were things known only to insiders: first, the examinee had to know the article style, political inclination and even font preference of the major and assistant examiner. Then, the examinee must be familiar with the current political arena and his articles mustn't touch on sensitive topics and factional strife. At last, he must make friends and visit higher officials, making himself familiar among scholars and upright officials.

Although the test paper was sealed, in fact, anyone that could become an examiner was able to read by the examinees' handwriting. This wasn't for cheating. As long as the examinee didn't go over the top, he would be highly praised. With the help of an official family like Sheng to introduce them to the circle, the effort made by Li Yu and Li Du would be much more effective.  

Minglan held that…an examinee that didn't want to pass the exam was not a good one, but an exam that no connections were involved was a good one.

At this moment, Pinlan walked over to talk with Hu Taisheng. Their laughter was a bit loud, so Sheng Yun turned around and frowned, then stuck herself to Old Madam Sheng, "Our Taisheng has no potential in learning. Aunt, do you think less of him?"

Old Madam Sheng seemed to like this naughty niece very much, and scolded in a smile, "You naughty monkey. How many times did I teach you to read and learn when you were young? You learnt for a day and hanged out for two, never be able to recite Three Character Classic. How shameless of you to even mention it! Taisheng takes after you! Come over here, Taisheng." She took his hand and smiled, "Good boy. A man can achieve success in every industry. I often hear your uncle praising you as an honest, diligent boy with ability to manage family business. You don't know how happy I am for your mother when hearing this!"

Hu Taisheng only laughed with an honest face, while Pinlan came over and smiled, "Cousin, sister Minglan just arrived. Did you bring her something nice?" Taisheng answered straightforwardly, "Across Haizi, there is a shop selling western cakes. I bought some for you to have a taste."

Third Madam were unwilling to stay alone and finally began to talk after keeping silent for long, "I never knew the flavor of western cakes which are said to be sweet. Give me some to bring back to your third uncle; my nephew, don't follow others in despising your uncle!" Huilan also smiled, "Look what you said mother. Cousin Taisheng is most upright. How could he be snobbish and look down upon us?" Huilan's tone was intimate and her watery eyes were cast right toward Taisheng whose face and ears turned red. He stood there, lowered his head, and couldn't speak up. 

The rest of the room all pretended not hearing her; only Pinlan was irritated and wanted to rush over. Minglan sighed secretly. She had wanted to pull her, but gauging her physical strength against Pinlan's, she decided to use another strategy.

Minglan turned around nimbly and blocked Pinlan without any trace. Not having thought of an excuse at this critical moment, so she said something that she believed was wise, "Sister Pinlan, why don't you tell me how to solve the nine-ring puzzle? It's been on my mind and makes me really itchy."

As expected, Pinlan stopped and turned over in surprise, "Didn't I tell you how to solve it step by step? How come you forget so soon?" Her volume was a bit high, attracting the attention of the boys, especially the youngest one Li Du whose expression suggested "she is stupid". Minglan blushed out of embarrassment and cursed to herself.

Li Yu laughed slightly, took a friendly glance at Minglan, and came to her rescue, "Only a clever person like Sister Pinlan can learn how to solve something as unfathomable as nine-ring puzzle. People dumb like us must learn for a few times." Hu Taisheng was the most honest one and agreed, "Right, right. I never knew how to solve it."

Hearing the words, Pinlan felt quite complacent, "You are right, cousin." Then she turned around and began to teach Minglan from the beginning with great patience.

Minglan was a little upset and groaned to herself, unfathomable! Unfathomable! Anyway, she got what she wanted.

Minglan listened to Pinlan with a smile and constantly nodded in approval. At a moment when she casually looked around, she caught a sight of Old Madam Sheng sitting up there, chatting with female relatives and couldn't stop laughing from time to time. Minglan was a bit shocked, feeling familiar with her grandmother's smiling face…Right, it suddenly came to her that when she was young, and her grandmother coaxed her into getting ears pierced with a boiled egg, her grandma had exactly the same smile.

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