“Also, you didn’t just look like you were merely trying to steal. Your clothes were clearly disheveled. Both masters and Old Madam, this Qian Er is obviously lying, and Third Young Madam…”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Sun Wen Mou interrupted, “I’ll say it again, this has nothing to do with Third Young Madam. Be careful, else I won’t spare you!!”
Everyone in the manor knew that the Third Young Master was a generally callous and passive person, but at this moment of tension, he looked truly frightening as he glared at people, his face flushed and his eyes slanted out of rage.
Old Madam scoffed, “Stand aside, you have no right to speak. He mama is right, Qian Er what else do you have to say?”
Qian Er sobbed and kowtowed relentlessly, “Old Madam, I really didn’t have any other intention. My clothes were messy because I sneaked in through the window. If you don’t believe me, ask Xiao Tao. I just climbed in through the window when Xiao Tao came in.”
Xiao Tao was summoned to the scene.
Her little face was still as white as paper, as though she hadn’t recovered from her initial shock. Old Madam further confirmed whether Qian Er’s claim coincided with Xiao Tao’s experience in Fourth Young Madam’s bedroom.
Xiao Tao mused for a moment and replied, “It seemed like Qian Er climbed in from outside the window. That time, the window was open and he was standing nearby.”
Qian Er cried out in assent: “Old Madam, this little one really just wanted to steal something. Autumn Hall has the most remote location and there are usually few people passing by, that’s why this little one took the risk. Today is also a holiday, so this little one assumed that the maids and grannies have all gone out for a drink and just risked it. This little one just randomly selected a window to pry open, but didn’t expect it to be Fourth Young Madam’s bedroom. This little one won’t even dare to trespass in the young madam’s bedroom even if given the courage. Asking Old Madam to forgive this little one, and this little one will never dare again!”
His explanation made a lot of sense. Was it really just an accident and a coincidence?
He mama faltered as she still had some words left unsaid, but Fang Feng Sheng pulled her from behind.
“You bold and presumptuous slave, you still want your master to spare you after trespassing into the rear court and stealing things. Someone come, pull Qian Er down, beat him twenty times with the plank and expel him from the house.”
Without Qian Er’s ghostly wailing as he was being dragged away, the hall was finally quiet.
Old Madam pleasantly expressed her concerns to Feng Sheng: “Poor girl, I hope it didn’t scare you. I would’ve taken you with us if I had known. Song-shi, let’s have a doctor come and take a look at Feng Sheng. Her body just got better and she must’ve been truly agitated. Let the doctor prescribe some calming medicine.”
“Yes, Mother,” Song-shi replied.
“Alright, let’s all disperse. It’s been a tiring day and we all need to rest.” The Old Madam waved her hand sleepily, and Zhou mama helped her up.
Everyone else headed out, but Feng Sheng stood in place.
“Even if it was an accident, shouldn’t third sister-in-law apologize to me? When third sister-in-law barged in, the situation was still unclear but she already accused me of having an affair. At that time, if there wasn’t only one person there, but a room full of servants, what would outsiders think if this reached their ears?”
Fang Feng Sheng’s scrutiny caused everyone’s movements to come to a halt.
Old Madam sat back down and cast an inquisitive look at the Eldest Madam, “Huang-shi, what’s your say in this matter?”
The Eldest Madam glowered at Hu-shi in disgust and rebuked: “Do you have no ears? Do you still not want to admit your mistakes? You little fool, you never paid any attention when people called you a big-mouthed dunce. Now, our family’s reputation has been tarnished because of that mouth of yours!”
After which, the Eldest Madam stormed out, and the two other daughters-in-law of the eldest branch tailed after.
Sun Wen Mao wanted to impede, but so many people were watching, so he could only sit by as Hu-shi approached Fang Feng Sheng.
Hu-shi clenched her handkerchief, and with a parochial smile on her face, she fawningly said, “I hope fourth sister-in-law doesn’t blame me. You’re aware of my bad qualities. Third Sister-in-law apologizes to you. It’s my fault, and I shouldn’t have spoken without a clear view of the matter. “
Feng Sheng glanced at her indifferently: “Since third sister-in-law is sincerely apologizing, it would be inappropriate for me to insist on arguing. But I’m not magnanimous, so I hope third sister-in-law will be careful in her words and deeds so as not to commit the same mistake again.”
“Third sister-in-law will keep in mind fourth sister-in-law’s piece of advice.”
On the way back, He mama sounded out: “Miss, why didn’t you let me say that Qian Er was standing in front of the bed at that time? He didn’t seem as if he was intent on stealing. Not to mention, what he had said was obviously to create a misunderstanding about your relationship. There’s the matter with Xiao Tao, too. She ran out the exact moment Third Young Madam came, not a second earlier or later.”
It seemed that He mama wasn’t stupid and refused to be deceived.
Feng Sheng checked behind her and noticed Xiao Tao following from afar before saying, “Even if you say so, what’s the use? Should we let people relate things to that kind of filth? Didn’t you see how everyone was relieved when Old Madam made the final decision? Fussing about it won’t do us any good, and it’s an ugly thing to hear about.”
Besides, Hu-shi was also involved. The whole drama the eldest branch acted out just now made it clear that this matter had nothing to do with them. In fact, she didn’t blame the eldest branch for avoiding suspicion. But how long would the eldest branch stand aside if Hu-shi really intended to cause trouble?
Would Hu-shi allow things to die down by using death as an apology, in case she really was involved? If that were the matter, the eldest branch would have no face to go out in the future.
In the end, things could only be like this. Qian Er was greedy, so he trespassed into Autumn Hall, but fortunately caused no serious waves.
Upon returning to Autumn Hall, Xiao Tao pounced and prostrated in front of Fang Feng Sheng.
“Fourth Young Madam, please punish me. It was this servant’s fault for running out. This servant didn’t do it on purpose. This servant was too startled and ran out in a panic, saying the wrong thing in front of Third Young Madam.”
Xiao Tao was whimpering pitifully. Her small palm-sized face was streaked with tears, and her eyes stirred with emotion.
Perhaps Qian Er’s behavior was still excusable, but Xiao Tao’s previous actions were really impossible to discern. Could it really be that she was too panicked that she ended up snitching to Third Young Madam? How could she just easily utter ‘there’s a man in Fourth Young Madam’s room’ in front of Young Madam? A master’s loyal slave would be busy covering up, which slave would be like her?
Xiao Die’s heart overflowed with pity, and she pleaded beside her, “Fourth Young Madam, please spare Xiao Tao. It wasn’t only her, this servant was also scared and confused.”
Feng Sheng’s gaze landed on the Buddhist prayer beads on her wrist.
The Buddhist prayer beads as a whole were vermilion red. The beads were uniform in size, red and transparent, and each one had a slightly raised eye-like pattern on it, which looked a little scary at first glance.
As such, she wasn’t initially aware that the Phoenix Eye Bodhi was one of the bodhi seed1 varieties. It had buds like the moon and was shaped like phoenix eyes, so was thus named Phoenix Eye Bodhi. According to legend, the Phoenix Eye Bodhi was the wise man among all bodhi seed varieties, and that wearing the Phoenix Eye Bodhi all year round could increase one’s wisdom.
The prayer beads were gifted by her father’s friend many years ago, because her name contained the character ‘phoenix’ akin to the beads2. According to her father, when she first saw the string of beads under his possession, she began tugging at them and refused to let go, so he had no choice but to surrender them. Anyway, for as long as she could remember, she had always worn this string of prayer beads.
She rubbed the eye pattern on the bodhi seed and raised her head, “Xiao Tao, how old are you?”
Because Xiao Tao was crying, she didn’t guard against Fang Feng Sheng’s objective for such an inquiry, and froze: “This servant is fifteen this year.”
“Still young.” Her voice seemed to be somewhat sorrowful and forlorn, “Forget it, just push the matter aside. Next time, pay more attention to what you say and do in the future.”
Xiao Tao kowtowed repeatedly, “Thank you, Young Madam for your grace.”
Everyone else retired, and He mama sighed but said nothing and proceeded to tend to her duties.
Zhi Chun pried, “Miss, this Xiao Tao is really suspicious, why did you just let her go?”
Feng Sheng counted the beads with one hand, “We finally forced the mouse to jump out. It will be better to have her here compared to another person whose background we don’t know.”
“So Miss, are we really not telling He mama? It feels… feels…”
“It feels wrong.”
“Aren’t you aware of nanny’s character? She’s not young, and ever since I married, she hasn’t missed a beat worrying about me.” Feng Sheng stopped counting the beads and sighed, “And nanny has always believed that marriage should be the ultimate destination for a woman, and that the couple should be harmonious with children and grandchildren around the knees. But…”
The rest of what Feng Sheng didn’t say, Zhi Chun knew.
She didn’t know if it was right or wrong, but the last ten years of her life had told her that it was best to listen to Miss.
“What about Zhi Qiu there?”
“Tell Zhi Qiu to probe Wang Yue’er’s words, whether or not this game today was devised with Old Madam’s knowledge.”
At first, Feng Sheng speculated that it had something to do with the Old Madam, but the actions of the eldest branch were too suspicious to ignore. And such a clumsy scheme really didn’t seem like the Old Madam’s handiwork, which was why she was even more skeptical.
“This servant will take her leave.”
Everyone left, and only the Second Master, Sun Qing Hua, remained. A single glance at her son’s stance, what else did the Old Madam not understand? She sighed and waved off all the servants.
“Mother, was it your doing?” Sun Qing Hua wore a brown-green summer shirt. His face was long and lean, and he had a wisp of beard on his chin, looking elegant and dignified.
Although it had been anticipated, Old Madam was still a little uncomfortable being subjected to her own son’s probing, and questioned, “In your heart, is your mother one who can do such nasty things?”
When Sun Qing Hua kept his mouth shut, Old Madam smiled bitterly and stroked the white hair at her temples.
Perhaps the people in the manor had forgotten, and many even didn’t know, but Sun Qing Hua knew, and the Old Madam herself knew that she was that kind of person.
Old Madam was not the Old Master Sun’s first wife. She was merely the second wife, and the eldest son Sun Qing Bin was the true eldest son.
But Old Madam raised Sun Qing Bin as a wastrel. After Old Master Sun’s death, several concubine-born sons asked to be separated from the family. The position of family head was reserved only for her son, and rightfully so. Sun Qing Bin was useless, but Old Madam was concerned about reputation. Otherwise, Sun Qing Bin wouldn’t have remained in the family.
How could Old Madam, who was capable of such sinister schemes, be good? She had used vicious means to deal with concubines in the past. Others might not be aware of these things, but as her own son, Sun Qing Hua couldn’t be ignorant. So towards the recent happenings, Sun Qing Hua subconsciously felt that it was one of Old Madam’s machinations.
To elevate Wang Yue’er’s position, and to prevent the Sun family from being branded as malicious.
“Had it been your mother who did this, would it have been executed so poorly? Don’t you forget there’s still the eldest branch.”
Yes, there was still the eldest branch.
It was just that Sun Qing Bin had always been a character who cared about nothing but eating, drinking, and fooling around. Huang-shi was vulgar and her sons were useless. Similar to their father, all they desired was eating and drinking. Hence, Sun Qing Hua never took them seriously.
Even the scene that Hu-shi had acted out with Sun Wen Mao and Huang-shi before, he felt that the eldest branch didn’t want to cause trouble but deliberately came to clamor for them.
“What good will this do to them?”
For Sun Qing Hua to ask such a question, Old Madam widened her eyes at him in surprise.
“Don’t you forget Wen Cheng’s exam will be in August. If Wen Cheng finds out about Fang-shi’s affair, won’t it have any impact?!”
How could it have no impact? Maybe the eldest branch would even send someone to ‘kindly’ inform Sun Wen Cheng, just anticipating his failure after the long-awaited exam. If he missed this time, he would have to wait another three years, and the duration of three years was enough for several things to happen.
The tactics of the rear court were like this. Instead of launching a stealth attack, they actually caused a direct offensive. Using a blunt knife to kill was the most painful. Old Madam didn’t know when the eldest son, the one she never put in her eyes, became like this. It was only in the last few years that the change was gradually revealed.
Perhaps Sun Qing Bin had long understood the sinister intentions of his stepmother and pretended as if he didn’t know, or maybe he had only discovered her deceptive and treacherous actions in retrospect. Exactly how, no one knew. However, after maintaining appearances for so many years, Old Madam would not turn against her eldest son without definite evidence.
After all, the Sun family still had ancestral shrines and some clan elders and relatives, so she didn’t dare to do too much.
Hearing Old Madam’s words, Sun Qing Hua broke into cold sweat and was ashamed, “Mother, I’m sorry. This son shouldn’t have misunderstood you.”
Old Madam waved her hand: “Well, don’t worry about it. I have my own opinion in my heart. It’s good that they made such a mess, with this ‘beautiful jade in front’3, if something happens later on, we can give Wen Cheng an appropriate explanation.”
“Mother, what do you mean?”
1 Many Buddhists wear the bodhi seeds during their meditation practices to ultimately reach enlightenment. The seeds have a special significance to all seekers of divine wisdom as it is under the bodhi tree that Buddha became enlightened. Each seed brings a sense of peace and wisdom on the path to one’s own enlightenment. There is a teaching within each bead as they can be used for mantra counting, prayer and meditation.
2 Feng Sheng’s name is 凤笙 while Phoenix Eye Bodhi is 凤眼 (fèng yǎn) with the character 凤 (fèng) meaning, ‘phoenix’.
3 美玉在前: meaning, ‘something good in front of you.’ The ‘beautiful jade in front’ Old Madam is referring to is probably the trouble eldest branch caused (regarding fourth young master’s marriage), giving them an opening to act against Feng Sheng, so it would be easier for them to do something in the future.