A horse-drawn carriage braved the rugged mountain terrain.
The carriage as a whole was brownish-black, looking quite unobtrusive and a bit unsightly. The person driving wore a bamboo hat on his head, and from time to time he would brandish his whip on the horses as the carriage strove forward.
“Young Master, there seems to be an inn ahead. It’s getting late and I think it’s going to rain soon, so it’s better to find a place to settle down first.”
A voice drifted from within the carriage, “Uncle Yu, do check it out.”
In the carriage, Fang Feng Sheng was half-leaning on a large soft pillow on one side, flipping through a book.
Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu sat beside her, both also propped on pillows against their backs.
These soft pillows were all Zhi Chun’s handiwork. The carriage was jarring and the journey was long, and on the road, it was through relying on these pillows that the three of them were not jolted around to the point where their skeletons scattered apart.
“This servant had advised to take the water route, but Young Master insisted on traveling by land. This dry road is slow and bumpy. Does Young Master regret his decision?”
Fang Feng Sheng knocked Zhi Qiu’s head with her fan, “What do you know? There are numerous roads and routes on the main road, but there’s only one route by taking the waterway. Are you not afraid of being caught in a jar1?”
After settling He mama and Wang Er’s family in Yuyao, Fang Feng Sheng grabbed Uncle Yu and ventured on the road in urgency, despite almost getting caught. The third prince was even more vengeful than expected and actually sent someone to scour Yuyao, compelling Fang Feng Sheng to convince Zhi Chun and the others to abandon the waterway and instead traverse by land.
“Then, when will we reach Yangzhou ah? We’ve journeyed for more than half a month.” Zhi Qiu wrinkled her little face bitterly.
“Uncle Yu had said it will take three to five more days until we arrive.”
“Three or five more days ah!”
“Look at you, you’re so delicate!”
“This one isn’t delicate. This one just feels sorry for Young Master. Didn’t you also say you haven’t been feeling well? You even keep shuffling all over the place. Young Master, stop reading, it will hurt your eyes……”
The so-called ‘running a dead horse towards the mountain’2 couldn’t be any truer.
Uncle Yu had claimed that they would reach the inn after about a quarter of an hour, but it instead took them two quarters to get there.
He didn’t guess wrong. There was indeed rain, and it fell very quickly. When Feng Sheng and her group alighted the carriage, the sky was already dark and the wind was howling. Judging from the noise, the incoming rain probably wouldn’t be light.
As Uncle Yu left to park the carriage, Feng Sheng took Zhi Chun, and the two advanced into the inn.
There was barely any difference between this inn and the private inns strewed along the official road. Because of its remote location in the countryside, the decorations and furnishings were very old, yet there were quite a number of guests. There were several people sitting in the main hall eating and drinking, obviously seeking shelter from the rain.
Feng Sheng asked the waiter for three guest rooms, and since Uncle Yu hadn’t arrived yet, the three of them stood in the main hall and bode their time. A short moment later, rain showered down and thunder rumbled outside.
At that moment, two people rushed in a flurry from outside the door.
Seemingly a master and servant, the young man in front was tall and clear-eyed, wearing green robes, and tailing after him was a page boy carrying a bookcase on his back.
In a place like this, a person garbed in a scholar’s attire was a rare sight, and Feng Sheng inevitably took a second look.
That person seemed to sense Fang Feng Sheng’s gaze on him and looked over. Seeing that the other party was dressed in scholar robes, holding a fan and looking gentle and handsome, he smiled and arched his hand in salute, while simultaneously maintaining his pace and raising his voice to inquire from the waiter if any rooms were available.
“Honored guest, your timing is just right. Today, the sky is beautiful. This small business is booming and there are only five rooms left. That gentleman asked for three, and there are still two left. May I ask how many rooms you require?”
The green-clad man’s smile faded, musing about how the weather was taken advantage of just like that. Just as he was about to book a room, another person barged in.
A large entourage followed this man. Before the person even entered the door, he exclaimed that he would occupy all the remaining rooms.
Immediately after, a fat man, drenched like a drowned rat, crashed in.
He was six feet tall, wearing a robe of ochre satin, and was attired as a merchant. Along with him was a fellow dressed as a manservant and two attendants in blue and short brown, all of whom doused in rainwater.
The fat man, while demanding the waiter for a room, didn’t forget to chide the three people behind him, grumbling that they were wine sacks and food bags3, blaming them for his currently wet state. Fortunately the goods were fine, otherwise he would have ripped their heads off.
“Honored guest, you see, this gentleman came first. You……”
A silver ingot was hurled at him, and the fat man contended, “I’ll pay double the price.”
Apparently this waiter was a little swayed, because he set his eyes on the scholar clad in green.
“Will you be reasonable or not? There has to be a first come, first serve basis.” The scholar took a step forward indignantly.
“What basis? Did you pay the silver? Have you booked a room with the owner? It doesn’t seem so. I paid the silver up front, so why can’t I have it?”
The fat man ignored the page boy and vied to the waiter, “Whatever price he offers, I’ll pay twofold. Alright, stop dilly-dallying and move faster. Take us to the guest room. This master is going to take a bath. My whole body got stained with mud protecting the goods.”
This argument drew many sideways glances, but most of them just decided to sit back and watch, choosing not to speak. After all, one was away from home, hence couldn’t stir up trouble. This guest dressed as a merchant had strength in numbers while the scholar only had one other person with him, and seeing that he was only clothed as a poor scholar, naturally no one spoke up for him.
“We arrived before they did, so why should we give them the room?”
The page boy was stubborn and persisted on arguing with the fatty, but the scholar held him back, “Forget it, Xiao Qi.”
“Forget what, Young Sir? There are only two rooms left. Are we sleeping outside today?”
The green-clad scholar faced the waiter, “There are no guest rooms, but is there a firewood shed or some other place for us to settle down? We’re not too particular about it, so we’ll be fine for one night.”
The waiter pondered for a moment, and somewhat embarrassed, admitted, “There is a firewood shed, but it’s dirty and damp, so I’m afraid that living in such a place would aggrieve the gentleman.”
“Afraid it might aggrieve the gentleman? I can’t even see your grip on a certain someone’s silver loosening,” Xiao Qi scoffed.
The waiter expressed shame, but the fat man was haughty and once again urged him to lead them to the guest room.
“All right, Xiao Qi, don’t talk anymore.”
The green-clad scholar arched his hands at the waiter, “Alright, just the firewood shed then, as long as we can have a place to settle down.”
“What kind of people are these ah? They’re just bullying honest people.” Zhi Chun muttered.
Feng Sheng thought about it and stepped forward, “This brother, I had booked three rooms, but there are only four of us, so we can squeeze into two rooms. How about this? I’ll hand over one room to you.”
The green-clad scholar was a bit startled, and then he gratefully cupped his hands and bowed to Feng Sheng in ceremony: “Then thank you, brother.”
Feng Sheng waved her hand, “There’s no need for thanks.”
As the two conversed here, the fat man on the other side loftily clarified whether or not there were really only two rooms left, and once given an unsatisfactory answer, pressed the waiter to clear out another room for him. When he heard Fang Feng Sheng offer one of her rooms to this poor scholar, he interjected, “Why give it to him? He probably can’t even afford the room; he’s too poor. Give it to me and I’ll pay you twice the price.”
Because it had nothing to do with her, Zhi Chun had been holding back her temper. But now, she once again witnessed this dreaded fatty reusing the same shameful trick. Before Feng Sheng even spoke, she spat out, “Bah! Who cares about your stinking money!”
“Hey, what did you say, you little page boy?” The fat man pointed at Zhi Chun, but his face was directed at Fang Feng Sheng.
Zhi Chun was disdainful and insisted on squabbling, but Feng Sheng pulled her aside.
With her lips curled upwards, she arched her hand at the fat man and apologized: “My page boy is still young. He doesn’t know how to speak and has quite a temper. When he walks down the street and sees a vicious dog snatching others’ food, he has to say a word or two. Sigh, I had spoiled him and led him astray. Please don’t take offense, brother.”
The fat man could perceive Feng Sheng’s good attitude, and it would be improper of him to keep pursuing the matter. Anyway, the other party was a scholar who was erudite in speech, and in order to avoid losing face, he also clumsily cupped his hand in response, and said not to bother with him.
It wasn’t until he waited for Fang Feng Sheng’s group to disappear that he sensed something wasn’t quite right somewhere.
“What did he mean by that just now?”
The manservant who followed him replied: “Master, he was scolding you for being a vicious dog with unsightly table manners.”
The fat man was so angry that he wanted to catch up with the group. However, the person didn’t seem easy to bully based on his speech and demeanor. If he chased after those people, he would probably get his face beaten back instead, from what he’s seen of them. He could only vent his resentment by slapping his manservant and berating him: “Why didn’t you say so earlier? Keeping a dog is better than keeping you! Useless thing!”
The young manservant received the beating and didn’t say anything, only lowering his head.
“I didn’t expect that Worthy Brother Fang’s sense of humor could actually force him to swallow such a loss. It’s just that this person has a violent temper and is narrow-minded, and I see that he either beats or yells at his servants. For ridiculing him on my behalf, I’m fearing that it will attract some trouble to Worthy Brother Fang,” Fan Jin Chuan expressed apologetically.
Feng Sheng chuckled nonchalantly: “Brother Fan, don’t worry. Although his temper is fierce, he is also a bully and is thus fearful of defeat. He didn’t catch up with me just now, so he won’t bite back. Besides, I wasn’t just speaking up for Brother Fan. He was also unwilling to let me and my page boy off, so I had to teach him a thing or two. “
“In the end, it was all because of me. Well, in any case, I’m extremely thankful that Worthy Brother Fang was willing to give up a room for me. Otherwise, Xiao Qi and I will have to endure in that firewood shed.”
The page boy Xiao Qi couldn’t help saying, “Young Sir, you should learn from Gentleman Fang. If you weren’t so good-tempered, you wouldn’t have been bullied by a merchant.”
“I refuse to argue with him, but I have to say, he really is quite ‘reasonable.’ We didn’t pay for the room yet, so he took one step ahead of us and threw silver at the waiter. The waiter was also a greedy one, getting easily blinded after being paid twice the usual amount. What use would it be if I contend against him? Should I also raise the price like the other party? This kind of struggle is meaningless.”
“But the way he spoke to you was too rude. Aren’t you angry?”
“An evil word will not issue from his mouth, and an angry word will not come back to his person.”4
“This lowly one does not understand the meaning of Young Sir’s words, but such a man should not be tolerated.”
“The superior man seeks to perfect the admirable qualities of men, and does not seek to perfect their bad qualities. The mean man does the opposite of this.5 And why bother with him, no need to spoil your mood.”
After instructing the page boy, Fan Jin Chuan noticed Fang Feng Sheng looking at him with a smile, making him somewhat blush with shame.
“I apologize for making Worthy Brother Fang laugh. Xiao Qi is still young and doesn’t quite understand.”
“What Brother Fan said is very reasonable. How can I possibly ridicule?”
At this time, Uncle Yu strode over, and Fan Jin Chuan felt it wasn’t good to disturb them anymore. Fang Feng Sheng nodded at him, and he took Xiao Qi into the guest room next to him.
Fang Feng Sheng’s group also entered the room.
After closing the door, Zhi Chun didn’t hold back and snorted, “What a pedant!”
This short conversation was enough time for everyone to perceive that this scholar surnamed Fan was modest and neither servile nor overbearing, just that he was also rather excessively bookish to the point where it was annoying.
“Alright, all clean up and change your clothes. Later, we will dine. After two days of eating watered-down porridge with steamed buns, I want to eat a big meal today,” Feng Sheng announced.
Watching her like this, not only did Uncle Yu’s eyes flash with a smile, but Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu also giggled.
“What are you all laughing at?”
Feng Sheng stepped out the door, and only then did Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu whisper from behind that the gentleman was much more cheerful now.
The rain didn’t stop and only grew heavier.
The inn’s innkeeper stood at the doorway, anxiously peering at the heavy rain outside, whispering a prayer to himself. He was apprehensive about the soil and rock on the mountain loosening and then collapsing down on them.
The waiter on the other side of the room listened, grinned, and sneaked a look at the main hall: “Innkeeper, you worry too much. The terrain here is smooth and the landslide couldn’t make it all the way here, but will block the road at most. It will be better for us, as this kind of business isn’t common in the area.”
The innkeeper slapped him, “Not working yet, boy?!”
Looking at the bustling hall, he felt a bit of joy, but then he surmised that if the road really was blocked, the food in the inn would only last a few more days. Therefore, the waiter was not wrong, but the innkeeper was concerned just the same.
However, the old innkeeper’s worry was not unreasonable. Sure enough, the next day, some guests had checked out and left, but returned saying that the rain had destroyed the road.
This way, they could only wait for the rain to cease and for the road to dry enough for them to travel on. Inevitably, there were a few complaints. After all, those who traveled the road were mostly merchants in a hurry. But it was useless to fret, so they could only endure.
It was dark, and a scream cut through the long night.
Something happened; someone died at the inn.
1 瓮中捉鳖: to catch a turtle in a jar (idiom); fig. to set oneself an easy target
2 望山跑死马: to run a dead horse towards the mountain ; fig. It might seem like its close by but in reality it’s far away
3 酒囊饭袋: wine sack, food bag (idiom); useless person, only fit for guzzling and boozing
4 An excerpt from 礼记 (Liji), ‘The Book of Rites’, translation rendered by James Legge.