Translator: Sylph, marchmallow
Wang Yue’er was sick.
When she returned from Xiwu Hall that day, she fell ill.
She initially caught a fever, but it worsened to the point where she began murmuring incoherent words in her unconscious state. The doctor they invited had prescribed her medicine to drink, but it proved to be useless. She regained consciousness later on, but only grew thinner and thinner as the days passed.
Old Madam had visited countless times, and every time she left she only became more solemn and apprehensive. Wang Yue’er’s condition was so grave that the Old Madam felt like her heart had been gouged out and ground back and forth on the ground.
“You poor girl, ah!” Old Madam took Wang Yue’er into her arms and patted her back, her tears streaming down.
Wang Yue’er’s face was as white as a sheet of paper, and her lips were dry. “Grandma, don’t blame me. When I first arrived at the manor, you pointed at Wen Cheng saying that he was my fourth brother, and I set my heart on him ever since. After Fang Feng Sheng married fourth brother, I didn’t want to live anymore. I really didn’t want to live…… Grandma, I don’t want to be like this, to be so ugly and hideous, but if I can’t have my fourth brother, I really don’t want to live anymore……”
Old Madam held her hands and wept bitterly. Not a single servant girl remained in the room to give the grandmother and granddaughter pair some privacy.
After crying for a while, the Old Madam wiped her tears and consoled, “Take good care of yourself. Grandma will come to see you tomorrow.”
“If you don’t take care of yourself, do you think Wen Cheng will like it when he comes back and sees you like this?”
Old Madam left, and the room returned to its original silence.
A servant girl in a green shirt and double buns peeked in to check if no one else was in the room before quietly ambling towards the bed.
“Qiu’er!” Seeing the girl, Wang Yue’er sat up without a trace of her previously sick and feeble countenance.
“Miss, Old Madam left?”
“Just left. It’s done,” Wang Yue’er beamed proudly. Although Old Madam did not state it outright, she understood the meaning of her words.
“That’s great, Miss, congratulations.”
Wang Yue’er waved her hand and said, “It was all thanks to your idea.”
Qiu’er was a lively girl with large eyes. Hearing her praise, she hurriedly countered: “This servant was just throwing out random ideas. It’s mainly because Old Madam really favors the Miss.”
Wang Yue’er was extremely pleased by this remark, and her smile blossomed even wider.
“What do you think? Should I continue being sick?”
“Certainly not, or else this would affect the Miss, wouldn’t it? It’s best for Miss to get well soon so that she can separate their relationship.”
Wang Yue’er nodded and said, “But I don’t know what my grandmother will do.”
“Old Madam must have her own plans. Miss doesn’t have to worry about it. Miss just has to wait with a peace of mind.”
Wang Yue’er pondered for a while and placed her gaze on Qiu’er, “If this matter is accomplished, I will reward you well so your efforts will be recognized.”
“This servant doesn’t dare to be greedy. As long as this servant can share the worries and solve difficulties for Miss, it’s this servant’s greatest blessing.”
“You have such a sweet mouth. It’s such a waste for you to only be a second-rank servant girl. The next time I see my grandmother, I’ll ask her to promote you to be a first-rank maid at my side.”
“Thank you, Miss.”
After returning that day, Fang Feng Sheng also fell sick.
When news reached the Old Madam, she said nothing but bid the maids around her to send out more supplements.
After only two days of ingesting supplements, Fang Feng Sheng quickly recovered and was able to bounce off her bed and stroll around. When she arrived at Xiwu Hall to pay respects, Old Madam noticed her relaxed eyebrows and assumed that she had resigned herself into accepting that there was no way to resurrect the dead. She couldn’t help but feel pity intensify in her heart.
Summer had come, and it was already time to tailor new summer clothing for the residents in the manor. Based on the rules, Fang Feng Sheng would receive four sets of clothes a season, but Old Madam personally shelled out her own silver to add an extra four sets for her. Feng Sheng reminded Old Madam that she was in mourning, and that she couldn’t possibly wear them all if they made so many. However, Old Madam only dismissed her, insisting that her other clothes were too plain and that she should switch them up a bit for some variety.
Such a privilege was a first for those in the manor and attracted the envy of many, as even Wang Yue’er had never before been granted such treatment. Both the eldest and second young madams of the eldest branch even kidded that Feng Sheng lucked out on her marriage. Her husband was the most promising grandson in the manor, and it was because of this that even his wife was favored.
All these were just gossip that inadvertently entered Feng Sheng’s ears. In fact, the young madams from the eldest branch never spouted such words. It must have been that their words had changed shape as they were passed around. Since she seldom went out and only read books in her room during her leisure time, she entertained herself by listening to these half-true gossips and never took them to heart.
The fifth day of the fifth month was the Dragon Boat Festival.1
According to custom, the Dragon Boat Festival was celebrated by driving away the five poisons2, wearing sachets, eating zongzi3, and racing dragon boats. At this time, Shaoxing City would hold a dragon boat race and a carnival. The women usually cooped up at home were permitted to leave their houses with family and relatives to enjoy the festivities.
Sun Qing Hua, the Shaoxing prefectural magistrate, presided over the dragon boat race every year. Such an event could only be enjoyed during this time at the right spot, so after a thorough discussion, Old Madam and Sun Qing Hua decided that the entire family would go and watch.
On the day the Old Madam departed with several madams, young madams, and maids, the Sun Manor suddenly felt empty.
In Autumn Hall, Feng Sheng’s lunch was delivered from the big kitchen.
As she was currently in mourning, such a merry occasion wasn’t fit for her to attend.
It was the summer, and the weather was hot. Old Madam bestowed Feng Sheng an extra bowl of noodles to commemorate the holiday. Several dishes were laid out, but Feng Sheng’s appetite had always been poor, so she only moved her chopsticks twice before instructing people to clear the table.
“Miss, would you like to eat some more?”
Fang Feng Sheng was wearing a lotus blue summer blouse and a moon-white silk skirt. Her lush black hair was loosely tied together and hung by the sides of her shoulders. Her skin was very white, almost transparent and pale, making her appear weak, but her thick and slender eyebrows exuded a sense of perseverance inconsistent with the rest of her image.
At this time, she was lounging on the Luohan4 bed, leaning back against a big light-olive pillow with begonia patterns. Her expression was a little languid, and she was flipping through the pages of a book out of boredom.
Her slender wrist was exposed, and underneath her half-hanging sleeve concealed a vermilion string bracelet.
The bracelet was a string of Buddhist prayer beads and was the most eye-catching color on Fang Feng Sheng’s body.
Hearing He mama‘s words, she mused for a moment and said, “You can leave that bowl of bird’s nest soup. Carry the rest down and give them more food and wine.”
Before He mama could even say anything, the little servant girls waiting outside the door in eager anticipation instantly cheered as Fang Feng Sheng enunciated that very sentence.
On the occasion of a festival, the masters naturally didn’t need anyone’s permission to eat, drink, or play outside the manor, but the servants weren’t as lucky. Not mentioning those taken out by their masters, it was still mostly servants who were left in the manor.
During the festival, according to common practice, the manor added two more meat dishes than usual, and each person was sent two zongzi, but there was nothing more for the servants. However, if they were serving a master during mealtime, they might get lucky and earn a few dishes. Just like this time, Feng Sheng only shifted her chopsticks a few times and distributed the rest of the dishes to the servants, enough for them to enjoy a sumptuous meal.
“Nanny, you and Zhi Chun should also hurry out. Today’s a holiday after all. You all don’t have to waste your leisure time accompanying me.”
He mama still wanted to say something, but Zhi Chun had already pulled her away.
“Mama, let’s go.”
“We’ll stay in the side room. If there’s anything, Miss can call out and we’ll hear it. Mama, you shouldn’t treat Miss like a child, she’s all grown up now…”
He mama sighed and followed her out without any resistance.
Recently, Fang Feng Sheng’s condition had indeed improved greatly. Since her illness, it seemed as though she was eager to open up, became increasingly sanguine, and was no longer solemn and gloomy like in the past. She would even occasionally crack a joke or two with the servant girls.
Sometimes it felt like she had returned to how she was before her marriage.
However, He mama didn’t dare dwell further into the memories prior to Fang Feng Sheng’s marriage. Those memories were from a distant past that no one could remember clearly.
In the side room, the table had already been set up.
There was a large round table filled with a variety of dishes and two jars of realgar wine5.
He mama, needless to say, naturally sat on the main seat as Fang Feng Sheng’s nanny. This banquet was awarded by Fang Feng Sheng, and she was representing Fourth Young Madam’s face.
Zhi Chun sat at the bottom. Xiao Tao, Xiao Die and the others all followed. The gatekeeper, Granny6 Wang, plopped on the seat by the door. Her old face smiled like a chrysanthemum, incessantly praising Fourth Young Madam for being kind-hearted after rewarding the servants with such a good meal.
There was a total of less than ten people. Except for Feng Sheng, all the people in Autumn Hall gathered there.
After taking a seat, He mama uttered a few formal remarks, and then everyone picked up their chopsticks and poured realgar wine in their cups. During today’s festival, whether they consumed anything else or not, they all at least needed to drink some wine to ward off evil spirits.
On the wine table, it was only natural for the few girls and grannies to chatter loudly after downing a few cups. They started exchanging gossip, prattling about which miss or madam had quarreled and of course not forgetting to sing praises about Fang Feng Sheng.
“I say, our Fourth Young Madam’s fortune will soon come. When Fourth Young Master will pass the big exam in August, Fourth Young Madam will become the wife of a juren7 and will have more face in the manor. Us who serve around her will also share her glory.”
“Easy for you old thing to say. Who of us don’t know that you’re just trying to curry favor with Fourth Young Madam?” Xiao Tao was smiling, and her beautiful face was tinged with a layer of crimson because of the alcohol.
Granny Wang was an old servant who did rough work in Autumn Hall. Despite the fact that Xiao Tao was a second-rank servant girl, her status was still above hers.
She was old and thick-skinned, so getting ridiculed like that didn’t affect her in the slightest. Instead, she retorted with a smile, “Miss Xiao Tao, this old face is almost thicker than the city wall. At first glance, one could tell that our Fourth Young Madam is fortunate and is born with a blessed face. Not to mention a juren’s wife, she will even be a jinshi’s8 wife in the future.”
Granny Wang was expressive and was fond of teasing people, injecting humor into the crowd. Even He mama couldn’t help but be a little amused and had to cover her mouth as she laughed.
After this banter, the atmosphere lightened.
They toasted wine back and forth. After finishing half of the meal, they inspected each other’s faces and found that they glowed bright red from all the alcohol. However, they didn’t take it seriously. Since it was a holiday, the master herself had permitted them to drink.
Zhi Chun stood up and brought a pot of boiling water to make everyone tea.
The tea used for guests wasn’t actually that tasty, but it was still much better than the crushed tea the servants often drank. Tea kept for over a year was considered old, so generally, if the first year’s tea was not finished, Feng Sheng would reward it to servant girls and grannies.
Tasting the tea, the few servant girls and grannies experienced a bit of what it felt like to be a master. Zhi Chun also poured herself a cup, turned to sit down, and let out a ‘huh’ as she looked out the window.
“Sister Zhi Chun, what’s wrong?”
Zhi Chun was a little drunk and her cheeks were flushed. She held her forehead while smiling and said, “Nothing. I think I saw someone coming in, but the door was closed and I didn’t hear it open. I must have been dizzy.”
Everyone didn’t take it seriously. Xiao Tao peeked at Granny Wang, who was chatting with He mama and not even sparing her a single glance.
After drinking tea, they resumed drinking wine. Zhi Chun was already intoxicated, caressing her forehead and clamoring in dizziness. He mama scolded her for being a noisy mess, but she was no better than her, as her speech had also become a bit inarticulate.
Xiao Tao and the others tried to persuade Zhi Chun to nap for a while, but Zhi Chun didn’t want to go and kept insisting that she wanted to see Miss.
But how could she go looking like this?
Xiao Tao persuaded, “Sister Zhi Chun, you go and take a rest. I’ll go check on Fourth Young Madam. Young Madam had never been a strict person, so she surely won’t blame you. She might be napping at this time. You can also take a nap and wake up after a while.”
“Thank you, Xiao Tao.”
“Thanks for what? Although I’m just a second-rank servant girl who can’t serve near Young Madam, I can still do some chores.” Xiao Tao smiled, took out her handkerchief to wipe her face, and hurried out.
The table was cleared up, and Xiao Die was holding Zhi Chun, while Granny Wang was assisting He mama. They were about to leave when suddenly, a sharp voice broke out from the main room, “Who are you? Who allowed you to enter Fourth Young Madam’s room?”
There seemed to be the sound of a man talking, and everyone immediately sobered up and bolted towards the main room.
I can only say that things are not simple as simple as they seem on the surface.
1 端午节 (Duānwǔ jié): One of the most dangerous and inauspicious days of the year in ancient China was the 5th day of the 5th month, according to the lunar calendar, which was popularly referred to as “Double 5” or “Double 5th”. This day marked the beginning of summer which by midseason meant dangerous animals and insects, the spread of infectious diseases, and the appearance of evil spirits. Learn more
3 粽子(zòngzi): a traditional Chinese rice dish made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves.
4 Luohan bed looks like this:
5 雄黃酒 (Xiónghuáng Jiǔ): a Chinese alcoholic drink traditionally consumed as part of the Dragon Boat Festival.
6 婆子(pó zi): lit. old woman, but can mean old or low-rank servant. It’s been mentioned a few times before, but in this case it was used to address a person, so I translated it as ‘Granny’.
7 舉人 (jǔrén): lit. ‘recommended man’, a successful candidate in the imperial examination at the provincial level. One level below jinshi.