Chapter 68: Assets
Seeing Chen Rong lower her eyes wordlessly, Chen Wei leaned forward in spite of herself and wrung her hands together as she nervously said, “Father says that my last meeting with General Ran had been a bit regrettable, and he wants me to make a better showing this time. Ah Rong, you had said that General Ran likes those who are sharp and frank. What else does he like in someone?”
Chen Wei seemed to have forgotten that she had slapped Chen Rong last time for the very same matter.
Chen Rong looked up and shook her head, softly replying: “I don’t know.”
“But you must.” She sounded a little anxious. She reached out for Chen Rong’s hand, shaking it as she smilingly said, “Dearest cousin, tell me. You must let me know.”
Chen Rong continued to shake her head.
Chen Wei was riled now. She got up and angrily demanded, “Is it because I’ve offended you last time that you’re purposely not telling me?”
Yes, I’m not telling you on purpose! Do I owe you anything? Chen Rong secretly scoffed.
Chen Wei got even more incensed when she saw her cousin indifferently hanging her head in silence. She stomped on the ground and yelled: “Ah Rong of the Chen house, why are you like this? Hmph, no wonder none of the girls like you.”
Chen Rong shot to her feet at the same time Chen Wei blurted these words. She lifted her long skirt and turned back into her room. Before long, her bedchamber door had slammed shut.
Chen Wei was infuriated. She screamed at the door: “Ah Rong of the Chen house, you have no sense of social hierarchy! No wonder nobody likes you. Hmph, you’re not betrothed yet, you know. I’ll tell father to throw you to any random old man.”
When she said her peace, she turned and stalked out.
By the time she got the the gate, she was a little surprised that Chen Rong hadn’t chased after her. Was she not afraid?
Chen Wei had always felt that Chen Rong should curry favor with her. Not only because she had a higher status, but also because Chen Rong was under her father’s guard. It stood to reason that she ought to be careful in how she treated her.
After a length of bewilderment, Chen Wei paused to suddenly remember that: yes, Chen Rong has caught Wang Qilang’s attention. No wonder. Hmph, does she think it’s all good and well? I’ll tell father not to give Ah Rong to Wang Qilang so that she can’t be together with her beloved. go to moc.824retsmah
At this thought, Chen Wei began walking again and headed directly for the main compound.
Nurse Ping and the others had been watching since they began to fight, but all they could do was look on. They couldn’t expect too much from their lady when they knew what her personality was like. She was, after all, much gentler now compared to the times they were still in Ping.
After staying quiet for some time, Old Shang went to Chen Rong’s door to report to her: “Miss, land has been bought.”
“Has it really?” go to moc.824retsmah
Chen Rong was thrilled. She threw her door open and happily asked the retainer: “How much did you buy?”
“The entire city is in a state of panic,” he replied with his hands clasped together. “Everybody wants to leave his land to run away from here. Land’s now very cheap. Usually, we could only buy a hundred acres or so with the amount of silk we have on hand. But we can now buy up to six or seven hundred acres, and they’re all good, fertile land. In addition to the farmland, the laborers have also been left behind. They said they are willing to work day and night so long as the landlord gives them a bowl of gruel to drink. I’ve agreed seeing that these people are reliable enough; the rules will be as before. We are buying under General Ran’s name, after all. If we are too harsh, we’ll give him a bad name.”
Chen Rong nodded, waved and said, “You don’t need to tell me these things. Do as you see fit.”
She gazed outside and thought to herself: Six to seven hundred acres of good farmland? Cousin Chen Wei’s dowry are at most this much if not less. Finally, I have some assets of my own.
Thinking awhile, Chen Rong lowered her voice and bade: “Old Shang, trade seven carriages of grains for some storefronts within the next two days. Remember to use General Ran’s name again, and they must be on South Street.” After a pause, she added: “I want all of you to tell outsiders the same thing: that I’m exchanging the grains for books.” There had been a few of her father’s treasured volumes from the bamboo collection she brought with her. They could be used to fill out the numbers.
Old Shang remained looking at her in worriment, sighing as he did. “Miss, if your father sends a missive and asks that you come to Jiankang, we are not going to be able to find buyers.”
Chen Rong shook her head, smiled and said, “Don’t worry, just go do as I say.”
She watched Old Shang leave and mulled over things for a while, then went to her room and picked up the whip to play in the backyard.
Another day swiftly passed. go to hamster428
Nan’yang was in a festive mood again with the return of Ran Min. The major clans took turn to hold banquets and invite him to guest.
Many of them didn’t believe that Ran Min was wholly on the Hans’ side. They nonetheless thought that should Ran Min were to really attack Nan’yang, perhaps he’d remember their kind treatment and spare their lives.
On the third day, Chen Rong’s courtyard was again taken over by young ladies.
It must be said that these girls were rather strange. They loved going to her courtyard even though they despised Chen Rong and never failed to taunt her. Those who had similar personality as Chen Wei, Chen Qi, and Chen Qian’s seemed to enjoy the bluntness even more whenever they talked to Chen Rong.
Today, they were again sitting in Chen Rong’s home.
After Chen Qian had had a mouthful of pastry, she frowned to Chen Rong and remarked, “Haven’t you plenty of food and wealth? Why are you scrimping on a little sugar? The pastry was awfully bland.”
Chen Rong smiled and, intentionally or otherwise, glanced toward Nurse Ping.
The nurse promptly got her meaning. She chuckled from the side: “Misses, my lady has given up seven carriages of grains in exchange for some rare books. Now we only have four to five carriages of grains at home.”
The girls’ chattering halted at her words. They looked up at Chen Rong with eyes that were filled with amusement as well as regret for the vanished wealth.
And yet, no one could say a thing. How tasteful and noble it was to exchange precious food supply for books in these times.
While the girls sat there, stunned, Chen Rong lowered her head, raised her cup for a small sip behind her sleeve, and smiled a telltale smile.
It took a good while before Chen Wei demanded, “Ah Rong, how can you do something like that without asking my father first?” Hearing the anxiousness in her voice, the girls all turned to look at her.
Chen Wei froze as she swiftly realized her gaffe. Chen Rong was from another branch, in any case. She had the absolute discretion of how to deal with her own assets. Chen Wei’s remark had sounded as if she and her father were calculating for Chen Rong’s wealth.
Chen Wei produced an awkward smile and quickly explained, “I didn’t mean it that way. What I meant was that food is extremely precious at this time. I’m just feeling bad for Ah Rong, that’s all.”
Chen Qian burst out laughing. “Ah Wei, how vulgar of you.”
Chen Qian’s older sister, Chen Qi, slowly mocked: “Ah Wei has always been vulgar.”
Chen Wei wanted to cry. Her eyes reddened and her lips pressed tight. These cousins were both legitimate daughters, and she did not dare to offend them.
Chen Rong kept her head bowed. She again covered her face with her sleeve and drank a mouthful of wine while hiding the delight on her face.
Following her return, she had heard from Nurse Ping that the people Chen Yuan had sent to keep an eye on them had gone to the warehouse several times. That was when she knew Chen Yuan was still designing for her food.
It turned out to be true. hamster428
While Chen Wei was brimming with tears, arriving footsteps sounded to them.
“Is Ah Rong of the Chen House home?” a clear voice soon called in.
The girls paused while Nurse Ping quickly replied, “Aye.”
“I’m from the House of Wang,” the other person announced.
The House of Wang? Nurse Ping hastened out and gave the people in the yard a bow. “Please speak.”
He presented an exquisitely made invitation and smilingly said, “The lords will have a boating excursion on the lake by Hushan Mountain tomorrow at noon. That being the case, how can they be without a beautiful companion? Since Ah Rong of the Chen House is in possession of Wang Qilang’s jade ornament, the gentlemen wish to see her impart some inspiration through her zither playing.”
Nurse Ping received the invitation and watched the Wang House’s people leave before turning her head to look at Chen Rong.
The girls were also watching her. hamster428
Chen Qian took the lead with a laugh; she covered her mouth and snickered. “Ah Rong, your Qilang misses you.”
She had sounded sore. This invitation wasn’t simple. It clearly originated from the literati. To be asked to such an elegant gathering was an honor in itself.
Like Chen Qian, the other girls were green with envy.
At this time, Chen Wei suddenly interjected: “If Ah Rong follows Qilang, the most she can be is his concubine. What rights does she have to say that Qilang is hers?”
Chen Wei lifted her chin staring contemptuously at Chen Rong before turning to Chen Qian: “Jiejie, you’re breaking all sorts of social hierarchy with those words of yours.”
Chen Qian knew she was retaliating on her for calling her ‘vulgar’ just now. She had wanted to trade barbs, but since Chen Wei’s words were true, she could only shut up in chagrin.
At this time, Chen Rong stood up and curtsied to the others. “I’m not feeling very well. Please excuse me.”
She then ran back to her bedchamber as soon as she finished.
Looking at her fleeing figure, Chen Wei blurted out: “Are you hurt, Ah Rong? But why, when being Wang Qilang’s concubine is already a favor to your station in life?” At this point in her statement, she covered her mouth with her sleeve and felt some remorse for saying such blunt and unkind words. Nonetheless, when she stared after Chen Rong who could do nothing but flee away, she felt a little burst of happiness.
Chen Rong went into her bedchamber.
She took the whip down from the wall, cracked it twice in the air and ground out: “How I wish I could rip their mouths!”
Her anger lessened after the curse. She tiredly plopped down onto a chair and startlingly thought: Go to the lakeside tomorrow at noon, and bring my zither? That’s to say I will be seeing Wang Hong? And perhaps even other famous scholars?
At the thought of Wang Qilang, her hand balled into a fist as she swore to herself: Do not let him say or do anything that cannot be reversed this time.
Chapter 69: Rubbing Elbows
In the afternoon, an unfamiliar voice called in: “Is Ah Rong home?”
“She is,” Nurse Ping smiling said with a greeting.
A girl about 18 or 19 with a round face and large eyes came forth. Although she was dressed in a servant’s attire, her garment was violet silk and she carried a modest smile. She seemed to be even more genteel than some of the young noblewomen.
She glanced toward Nurse Ping then looked to the bedchamber with a smile. “Lady Ruan has asked for Ah Rong.”
Lady Ruan? Chen Yuan’s primary wife?
Chen Rong shuddered and quickly got to her feet, answering from her room: “A moment please, I’ll be right there.”
“Aye,” the maid smiled in reply.
Before long, Chen Rong had changed into an old dress she had often worn in Ping and appeared at the steps.
When the maid saw her come out, she curtsied again and stepped back to let her walk in front.
Chen Rong went on ahead.
The maid led two younger girls and gracefully followed behind. From her movements, propriety and a polished deportment gained through years of training could be seen. They were things Chen Rong did not know, for she had come from the north and her father’s discipline had been lax.
Glancing over, Chen Rong slowed down to imitate her steps. But almost as quickly, she discerned that she didn’t need to curry favor with Lady Ruan. Moreover, nothing would change even if she were to curry favor with her, so why should she bother learning to walk from the people of Handan? (1)
Residents of Handan, capital of Zhao, were known for their graceful steps. A Yan citizen who visited Handan had imitated the way they walked only to forget how to walk himself.
At this thought, she simply relaxed her gait and strode away.
Puzzled by her sudden quickened pace, the maids hurried to catch up to her.
They were a little out of breath by the time Chen Rong arrived at Lady Ruan’s courtyard.
At the gate, one of them panted as she smiled at Chen Rong: “Miss, please wait while we let the madam know.”
Chen Rong nodded and then tilted her head to view the surrounding scenery.
“Ah Rong, come in.” go to moc.824retsmah
“Aye,” Chen Rong replied and walked into the courtyard.
The maid modestly smiled at Chen Rong from the steps. When she saw her approach, she gave a small bow and said, “The madam is waiting inside.”
Chen Rong passed her and went straight into the room.
The area was lavishly decorated. The first thing that caught Chen Rong’s eyes was a three feet tall coral. It was superior than the one she had casually smashed in Ping in both luster and integrity.
And yet this precious object was so casually placed on a mahogany table.
Chen Rong withdrew her gaze, curtsied to the woman sitting on the divan by the exquisite jade wall divider in the center of the room and greeted her: “Aunt.”
The woman was in her forties. Her skin was smooth and plump. Her long face, on which she wore a faint smile, was without a trace of wrinkle.
Behind her was a young woman in her late twenties whom Chen Rong had met before. She was the one who had come to expose her malingering that day. Chen Rong knew her as Chen Yuan’s concubine.
She was, nonetheless, one of Lady Ruan’s people. She was clever and competent, and was favored by Chen Yuan. Despite being a concubine, her status was much higher than those of common concubines.
Lady Ruan smiled at Chen Rong in appraisal and then pointed to a chair: “Have a seat.”
Chen Rong went to the chair and unreservedly sat down… From start to finish, her conducts were both untactful and graceless. Unknowingly, Lady Ruan’s slender eyebrows had knitted.
“Ah Rong, I’ve just arrived in Nan’yang a few days ago,” the older lady gently began as she watched Chen Rong silently sit with her head bowed. “I’ve been busy with so many things that I’ve neglected you. I hope you didn’t mind.”
“I’d never dare to,” Chen Rong quickly bowed to her.
Lady Ruan gave an unhurried smile. “I shall be your mother in place of your absent parents. Don’t stand on ceremony.”
Lady Ruan withdrew her gaze, the smile on her face now diminished, as she said, “Ah Rong, you’ll turn 15 next month, won’t you?”
Had she called me here to talk about my marriage? Chen Rong’s heart pounded.
She bowed again, replying: “Aye, your memory is very good, aunt.”
Lady Ruan sighed. “You’re soon to be a young lady of fifteen.”
There was a reprehensive undertone in her voice that Chen Rong did not understand.
If Chen Rong didn’t understand something, then it was the same as if she hadn’t heard it. For a moment, she remained looking down dutifully and betrayed no guilt on her face.
The crease between Lady Ruan’s brow couldn’t help worsening.
She lifted her cup, took a sip of milk and then slowly inquired, “Who’s managing Ah Rong’s courtyard?”
The young woman standing behind her stepped forward, respectfully bowed and replied, “The little miss has great wealth herself and has told the steward that she will be bearing all of her expenditures.”
Lady Ruan frowned and released her cup. “That won’t do,” she said. “Now that her uncle and I have taken her in, how can we leave her to herself like this?”
She turned to Chen Rong and warmly asserted, “I only had one daughter in Ah Wei; now I have another in you. It’s something to be happy about. Ah Rong, you’ll have the same allotment for food and clothing expenses as Ah Wei does from now on. How does that sound?”
Chen Rong broke from her obedient appearance upon hearing this. She hesitated before saying: “Aunt, it is like this: A while ago my uncle said the estate was low on grains and requested to cut servants. My servants have been with me since I was born and I really don’t want to dismiss them. For this reason I had asked my uncle to let me bear all of my expenses.”
She paused, smiled, and then frankly said, “If you don’t cut my servants, then I’ll agree to everything.”
Lady Ruan, who had been frowning, quietly shook her head when she heard this.
She waited for Chen Rong to finish speaking and then softly sighed. “It’s all my fault. It’s true with Ah Wei and it’s true with you. Such imprudent manners and speech…”
Common sense suggests that when an elder blamed herself like this, Chen Rong should get up and apologize. But whether Chen Rong didn’t understand or elseways, she actually just sat there in silence and stillness.
The crease between Lady Ruan’s brows worsened.
She turned her gaze unto the younger woman. moc.824retsmah
The latter stepped forward to whisper to her from behind: “Perhaps Wang Qilang likes this about her.”
Lady Ruan considered the comment for a moment and then nodded her head.
When she looked back at Chen Rong, her smile had grown more sincere.
Again raising the cup of milk for a sip, she laughed, “Ah Rong, you’re just as your uncle said. You’re so frank and darling.”
Chen Yuan said she was frank and darling? Chen Rong almost laughed out loud.
Lady Ruan didn’t seem as though she wanted to stay with her for too long. Her soft voice quickened a touch: “Ah Rong, you’re now fifteen. That’s not young anymore. When you become a man’s wife in the future, you should pay more attention to things.”
She looked up and called outside: “Nong’er, call Sanlang here.” (1)
Sanlang = third son, same naming convention as Wulang and Qilang of the Wang house, except this is Sanlang of the Chen house.
While Chen Rong was in bewilderment, a young man’s raspy voice soon called in: “Mother, have you asked for me?”
Lady Ruan was delighted to hear his voice. “Sanlang, come in,” she lovingly called to him.
A young man about 18 or 19 stepped in.
He involuntarily paused at the unexpected sight of Chen Rong.
However, he withdrew his gaze quickly enough to bow to Lady Ruan and respectfully greeted her.
“Sit down, my son.”
After he took his seat, the young man turned his attention to Chen Rong and asked, “Mother, she’s…?”
“Her? She’s Ah Rong.”
“Pardon?” go to moc.824retsmah
Surprised, the young man curiously stared at Chen Rong and exclaimed, “The Ah Rong who played ‘The Phoenix’s Love Song’?”
Lady Ruan patted his hand in admonishment: “Don’t say that about your meimei.”
“Ah Rong,” she smilingly said, “this is your third cousin. Treat him like your elder brother from now on as Ah Wei does.”
Chen Rong stood up, curtsied to the man and said, “How do you do, third brother?”
Chen Sanlang got up at her words and also bowed in return. “Let’s not stand on ceremony, Ah Rong.”
Gratified, Lady Ruan smiled and warmly said, “Ah Rong, your third brother is also a very accomplished man. You should spend more time with him in the future. As for those with careless manners and speech, it’s best to limit your interaction with them.” She could see that Chen Rong was a little slow. Her words had been said very bluntly.
She had put it so bluntly, but Chen Rong still didn’t understand.
The younger girl looked up in puzzlement and asked her aunt, “Careless manners and speech? Who do you mean, aunt?”
In Chen Rong’s memory, except for herself, she honestly didn’t know anyone who would deserve this evaluation.
Lady Ruan stared at her confused look while impatience flashed in her eyes.
Sitting beside her, Chen Sanlang had finally discovered that Chen Rong’s looks were rather attractive. He kept staring at her.
In this awkward atmosphere, the young woman stood up and sweetly smiled. “All right, all right. Ah Rong, your aunt is feeling tired. I’ll see you out.”
Chen Rong almost heaved in relief. She quickly got up and answered, “Aye.”
The woman sashayed out in front of Chen Rong.
When they got to the steps, she leaned into Chen Rong and whispered, “Ah Rong, we’ve always loathed those other people in the estate. Hmph, even if they are legitimate daughters, how can their learning and beauty compare to yours?”
Realization suddenly dawned on Chen Rong. So Lady Ruan had meant Chen Qian and Chen Qi. Nay, Chen Wei was also close to her. Lady Ruan’s words were probably meant for her too.
Once she saw that Chen Rong had finally caught on, the young woman’s stiff smile lifted from her face. She glanced toward the room and again said to Chen Rong, “Wang Qilang has asked you out for a lake excursion tomorrow, hasn’t he?”
Chen Rong nodded in surprise.
The woman’s smile stiffened again seeing that Chen Rong still didn’t manage to follow. She whispered helplessly: “Let your third brother take you to the lake excursion tomorrow.”
Realization dawned on Chen Rong once more.
“Aye,” she respectfully replied and gave a curtsy.
The young woman nodded with satisfaction and affectionately said, “Go on.”
She watched Chen Rong leave as she shook her head.
A maid walked to stand behind her while refraining herself from laughing out loud. “It’s my first time seeing a young lady so dense.”
The other nodded, sighed and said, “We can’t help it if Wang Qilang holds her in high regard. I’m sure you know that in Jiankang, even the royal family cannot compare to the Wang house’s prestige! If Sanlang can receive a word of praise from Wang Qilang, it will do him a lot of good for his upcoming trip to Jiankang.”