Last chapter recap: Nie Yun Zhu teaches the zither back at her old pleasure tower.
Chapter 17 Presence
Ever since two years ago, when Nie Yun Zhu and Hu Tao moved out of Gold Phoenix Tower, they stayed together like sisters, and did their best to work as they were able. But in reality, master and servant were still master and servant. Hu Tao still performed most of the chores while Nie Yun Zhu only did simple things. She would embroider beautiful brocade, and occasionally make some shoes and handkerchiefs. Occasionally, she would go to Gold Phoenix Tower to teach the zither. She supported the home in these ways. Of course, because her embroidery was done for her own amusement, the quality was good but the effort and cost was also high and so she did not make much money.
Since last month when Hu Tao was seriously ill, Nie Yun Zhu could not avoid having to take on these matters. She knew how to make simple dishes, and washing clothes were fine — she was just unpracticed, and couldn’t be as clean as Hu Tao. Before Midautumn Day, she had bought an old chicken and wanted to make soup to feed Hu Tao. During the process, she had had several disasters.
First, she caught the hen and didn’t dare to kill it. Then the hen had ran away. She had fallen into the river when chasing it, losing her knife, and dragging down a good-hearted passerby. The other had saved her, but when she woke up, her first response had been to slap the other person. The next day, the other person had seen her trying to net the knife. He had also helped her kill the chicken …
Usually, she was a calm woman. After being in the pleasure tower for many years, she had seen many people and she valued the impression others had of her. But this time, all the other saw of her were embarrassing incidents. She was embarrassed just thinking about it. A few days ago, she became ill just like Hu Tao. Fortunately her cold had not been severe but she only recovered after Midautumn. She hadn’t even asked her benefactor’s name. Huyan Leifeng … Huyan Leifeng. She didn’t know if the name was correct. Would she encounter him today?
Nie Yun Zhu could be said to have met a lot of people in the past. This young man had looked to be in his early twenties and had a scholarly presence. But after the incidents, when she thought of him, his conduct had been slightly different than other people in both speech and action. He had appeared aloof and casual. He had responded similarly after the events of saving her, her slapping him, how he helped her kill the chicken before walking away. Nie Yun Zhu followed him and saw that he was going to buy charcoal as she expected. But when he saw the charcoal and talked a bit with the storeowner, the situation was slighty different.
Right now, it was near the end of autumn with winter close. Many families had to buy charcoal and there were multiple places selling loose charcoal. However, this store sold charcoal in bags. After the man talked to the storeowner, he poured a large bag of charcoal on the ground, took out a cloth bag, and squatted down to pick the pieces of charcoal up. He did not select many pieces. He would scrape them on the ground a few times before throwing some into his bag. The storeowner wasn’t angry. He just asked a few questions in curiosity before going about his own matters.
After watching for a few moments, Nie Yun Zhu followed and stopped behind the other. She bent down. “Benefactor?”
“Hm?” the man turned to look at her and recognized her. “Oh, it’s you. Such a coincidence.” He was still focused on picking charcoal.
This response and the tone were slightly strange. The Confucian philosophy had reached a peak in its culture, and manners were extremely complicated. Usually, when men saw a woman, they would stand and bow, and treat them warmly. This kind of elegant and scholarly presence was a habit of society. Nie Yun Zhu was encountering a casual response of “Oh, it’s you. Such a coincidence,” for the first time, but she felt it was a natural one. She stilled slightly, blinked, and then picked up her skirt to crouch down at his side.
“Ah, just killing a chicken, it’s nothing. No need to call me benefactor,” the man waved his hand and said casually with a smile.
“Benefactor, do you only remember killing the chicken and not saving this servant from the river?”
The other stilled before reacting. Nie Yun Zhu couldn’t help but burst into laughter. The two crouched in front of the charcoal pile together. Nie Yun Zhu turned to look at him. “This servant is called Nie Yun Zhu.” Pausing slightly to make sure the other would remember the name, she then said, “Is Benefactor’s name Huyan Leifeng?”
“Hu, Huyan Leifeng … …”
The man’s expression seemed to jerk slightly in a complicated manner. Then he laughed. “Haha, Ning Yi,” he said, “Ning Yi, Ning Li Heng.”
Hearing this name, Nie Yun Zhu also stilled.
“Prelude to the Water Melody …”
“That person is called Ning Yi, his literary name Li Heng …”
“A zhuixu of the Su Mansion …”
“He might be one that bought poems for fame …”
The amazement when she saw that poem in Gold Phoenix Tower and the discussion the girls had flashed through her mind. Ning Yi, Ning Li Heng. Originally, she had just admired the poems. She had not yet digested the power of the poem and had no thoughts to gossiping with other people because that name was nothing to her. She didn’t even think about it. But now, it gave a great blow to her mind.
She finally reacted after a long moment. “Young Master Ning … what is your utility in buying the charcoal?”
“Hm, used for writing.” Ning Yi tapped the wooden board which had been painted white. Then he used a charcoal stick with a narrow end to write a “nie” character on the board. Originally, he seemed to want to write the name Nie Yun Zhu, but when he wrote the last stroke in “nie,” he paused slightly. He probably thought that it was not polite to write someone else’s name so he changed positions and wrote “Ning Yi.”
The characters were in regular calligraphic style, masculine and full of power. After the last stroke, the charcoal broke. Nie Yun Zhu had some skill in calligraphy. She thought for a moment. Holding wooden charcoal would be different compared to holding a brush. If she wrote with a charcoal stick, the writing would be far worse. He was able to write like this with a charcoal stick. His understanding of calligraphy must be like a master.
In these times, poetry and calligraphy were always together. Those with great skill in calligraphy were likely also a great scholar. A person who could write like this would undoubtedly be able to compose the Prelude to the Water Melody. Nie Yun Zhu thought, the rumors could not be believed. She didn’t know that Ning Yi’s brush calligraphy was barely legible. However, he once had practiced different calligraphy styles using chalk and fountain pens. Later on, when he had gained status and wealth, with the support of his mental state, his writing had become more powerful. He looked at the characters. He felt that he had deteriorated slightly in skill but it could be used to go fool people.
Practicing his writing was not done overnight. He could not let those students who practiced their brush writing everyday feel that their teacher’s writing was ugly …
“If used in the classroom, one can write on the white board, and then wipe it. With the sand trays, it is not clear enough and has to be swept all the time. The sand trays are also flat, and the students get tired. This can be hung.”
“Classroom … school? Young Master Ning is a teacher at a school?”
“Yes, a small school, teaching a few stupid students to write and read …”
“Ah … Young Master Ning, can this be used?”
Brothels cared about the skill of how to interact naturally with people. If she was prepared, Nie Yun Zhu believed she could converse with anyone without any awkwardness. This time, she spoke naturally, but this naturalness was not due to her, but because of the other’s attitude. The two picked some charcoal sticks and filled the small bag in a short while. Their hands became dusted in black. When paying, Ning Yi gave more than a dozen coins for the small bag of charcoal.
“The shop is so unreasonable to demand extra for these charcoal sticks,” Nie Yun Zhu said after they left.
“Ah, it is not good to impose. He probably only let me pick like this because he heard I was using them at school. The status of a teacher is good to use.”
“Young Master, if you are going to buy next time, you should buy a few bags and pick at home. Since your home must use them, you can save the money.”
“Haha, next time, I won’t come to select. Those students will bring suitable ones to the school to use.”
In a short while, the two washed their hands next to the Qinhuai River. One person held a wooden board and charcoal. The other walked behind with a cloth bag and a medicine bag. Nie Yun Zhu once again mentioned being rescued from the river. Ning Yi waved his hand, and said it wasn’t anything important.
The atmosphere was strange as the two only conversed sparsely. The two walked a while. Nie Yun Zhu, who walked behind, thought of the atmosphere of the Prelude to the Water Melody and felt that only such a free and casual person could compose such a poem.
They walked like this for a distance until they reached a small bay. Ning Yi stopped and bid farewell. The shore nearby was serene and bright, with green willows. There was a teashop and some other small stores over there. A weiqi stall was set up next to the tea shop with two old men playing a match. One of them was dressed in brocade and appeared very important.
She bid farewell to the other and stopped for a while before walking. The other was also walking forward in the direction of the tea shop and weiqi stall. The two old men seemed to know him and were laughing and saying something. She could make out some words.
“… … I have been greatly harmed by you two for the last few days … this morning, that Yu Zi Xing came to fine me …”
She walked over and when she turned back to look, the man was sitting there watching the match while drinking from a teacup. The two of them did not have much overlap in their lives. Without an excuse like paying him back, maybe they would not have a chance to ever meet again in this large Jiangning. The other did not appear to have much intentions or ambition when talking to other people. This was rare among the students and famed scholars she had encountered previously. On their walk, he had been at ease, and unrestrained, without much complicated politeness, but not offensive. However, he still maintained a distance just like the mannerisms told of the scholars of the Tang times. Right now, all scholars were said to be gentlemen. Maybe gentlemen should have such a presence.
Maybe they would not meet again in the future. The other did not think much of those “favors.” But she still would remember a figure like this.
Ning Yi, Ning Li Heng …
Nie Yun Zhu thought as she walked in the direction of home.
Translator Ramblings: The tenses in this chapter. I tried my best to make sure the simple past and past perfect were correct but there were so many times in the same paragraph the author did a “flashback” and a return.