Chapter 23 Despicable Mouth
From the eleventh lunar month, cold weather took over the city of Jiangning. On the eight, snow started to fall. A white coat silently wrapped around the entire city.
The snow was not so thick that it would prevent people from leaving their homes, but based on history, this snow would stay until next spring. Snow would continue to fall in these two to three months. Poor families might have a hard time going out in such weather. In some places, people didn’t have winter clothing so when the snow came down, they would wrap up in their blankets and stay on their bed-stoves. Winter, to most people in these times, was not a good time.
Large cities like Jiangning were better off with more families that were wealthier. In the days after the initial snowfall, the school remained open. Of course, the students that lived outside the city did not come. The teacher would have a small basin of charcoal while the students could only rely on the door and windows to block the wind. Fortunately, they were all at a hot-blooded age, and the problem was not significant. The two female students had handwarmer stoves they held in their arms. The adults in the family told them to not come to school, but they did not bear to miss Ning Yi’s stories so they still came to class.
Elder Qin’s weiqi stall had closed when the weather turned cold. Ning Yi went to his home a few times, but not too frequently. For old people, it was a good thing for them to have people that visited and could talk to them. One time, Ning Yi encountered Kang Xian. This old man came with a few ancient drawings for evaluation. After Elder Qin judged them, he put a seal stamp on them.
After the snow came, Ning Yi built a snowman in the yard. The night scenery of the Su Compound was beautiful. When he looked around from the second floor, the lights that moved among the rooms of each courtyard were warm, beautiful in an antique style. Even in this eastern style, the lights looked like they came from oil paintings. If Ning Yi had a camera, he would want to take a few photographs. However, the wind was strong on the second floor. Xiao Chan would call him down if he stayed up too long.
On nights like this, it was more interesting to stay in the living room on the bottom floor by the fire. He would chat, play weiqi, and read books. Su Tan Er and the other servant girls would choose cloth and embroider. Ning Yi, Su Tan Er and the servants had a good relationship. When they were together, they would play five-in-a-row. Xing’er, who liked to gossip, would occasionally tell stories about what happened in the compounds. Sometimes, the young girls would argue about the stories that Ning Yi told; who was stronger between the fox demon and the great general, did General Xiahou, who liked eating eyeballs, have a beard 1, or if the demonesses who were killed were innocent. If they didn’t have enough content, they would run over to ask Ning Yi for him to judge.
Su Tan Er gradually started to like five-in-a-row with its simple rules. She would go through the ledges every few days, and sit by herself with an abacus. The three girls would occasionally help her. If she played a match with Ning Yi, they would idly talk about the events going on with the families of the compounds and she would tell of the connections between them.
Some nights, relatives would come over. After the snow fell, several of Ning Yi’s students would occasionally come for a morning greeting, but were just wanting to listen to some stories. Su Tan Er also liked listening to these stories, and would embroider as she listened from the side.
Occasionally, some of the sisters and brothers would also come. The younger ones all called Su Tan Er “Second Sister.” Most of them had no money but they wanted to do something so they came to complain to her to get silver. Su Tan Er was good to these people. These people knew if they were not outrageous, Su Tan Er would mostly give them money. If they wanted one hundred guan, they would get from sixty to eighty. They just had to listen to Su Tan Er’s extortions and nagging. Once they got the money, they had enough to drink a few nights of wine on the Qinhuai River.
These people spoke excuses of self-betterment, but even Ning Yi, who were not familiar with these cousins, could clearly see what the reality would be. Su Tan Er was very patient and would always believe everything the others said. She would give sincere suggestions along their words, and then tell the others to not spend recklessly. If this person was an older male, she would speak from a lower status and appear like an obedient younger sister. She would even tease sometimes, “When will the girl from Spring Courtyard become my sister-in-law …” She was awfully friendly. When the person left, she would put away her box filled with silver certificates with her beautiful and kind smile. Then she would tell Ning Yi interesting things about these cousins, all good things. Pride and cousinly affection accompanied her words.
Ning Yi felt this scene was interesting. There might be familial affection but he also understood why people said no one in the third generation was of use. Su Tan Er’s marriage had been delayed a few years already. Nineteen this year, she was already old to be married. But in Ning Yi’s eyes, this was not so. His wife, who had started to take over the main Su family branch, still had the appearance and body of a teenager. There was youth in her smile and words, but her conduct was measured and could not be dismissed.
The air between Ning Yi and Su Tan Er grew better after they gathered today each day to talk and play weiqi compared to when they would only be together during meals. Su Tan Er started to suggest that Ning Yi accompany her to visit some families that had to be visited.
The Su Family’s cloth business was large, and they had many smaller businesses under them as well as business partners. Su Tan Er occasionally had to visit other people’s homes for business, and it was better to have a man with her. The visits before the new years were not necessary, but once the new year celebrations finished, it became very important for the two of them to go to different families and visit them. Su Tan Er’s invitation was in the hopes that Ning Yi could become familiar with these affairs. After a few days, she found to her satisfaction that Ning Yi was very good at being a decoration.
Ning Yi lacked interest in the business affairs of these people. When they talked business, he would sit there and drink tea, look at calligraphy or drawings, and daze about with a smile. If someone greeted him and talked, he would get through with his experienced tactics, and appear like a polite bookworm. Su Tan Er took him along just so that he would be able to naturally deal with other people’s courtesies without making them feel dislike. These people mostly had business relationships with the Su Compound. They knew that Ning Yi had married in and would not make things difficult for him. Of course, there were people who knew of Ning Yi’s reputation and find someone to talk about poetry with him. Ning Yi could easily deal with this kind of idle talk that was not a real test.
Su Tan Er would tell him the backgrounds of the families and households they were going to visit the day before, or on the way there. Some were business elders that had helped the Su Family before. Some were present partners, or people that would turn on a dime. Through interactions like this, her relationship with Ning Yi was very harmonious. When they left, she would tell Ning Yi about the results each time, joking or cursing things like “Old Fox, he tells nothing.”
The majority of trips were boring like this. Occasionally, there were some exceptions. For example, the visit on the fourteenth of the month made Ning Yi feel … he was so bored …
” … The scale of the He Family’s silk business is good. These two brothers are capable, but not very stable. After we discussed business with them, I heard that they have finalized a partnership with the Xue Family. I came today just to fulfil the pleasantries …” Su Tan Er spoke on the carriage as she played with a beaded bracelet. Ning Yi nodded.
“So we just have to get by?”
“Haha, Husband, just get by.” She smiled and put the bracelet on her wrist. She looked up and tilted her head to adjust the hair on the back of her head. “Does Husband have any matters this afternoon?”
“I’m preparing to go to the book shop in the east of the city, and find records of the Tang.”
“This servant will bid farewell early and accompany Husband.”
They would not manage to successfully negotiate a business, and the visit was to just maintain good relations. Just as Ning Yi said, they just had to get by. However, if there was a fly buzzing around during what should be a harmonious time, it would ruin the mood. This afternoon, Su Tan Er and Ning Yi were not the only people who came to visit the He Family. Two other merchants were visiting as well. The oldest of the He Brothers, He Jun, this silkworm merchant who Su Tan Er called “Family Uncle”, received everyone in a side hall in the garden. Several large stoves kept the surroundings hot. From here, it was possible to see the snow scenery in the gardens and the mood was elegant. Also keeping company as the host was his son He Ting Guang.
There were two people in the He Family in charge of matters. Other than He Jun, the second eldest brother He Feng was the most talented in business. Su Tan Er originally came just to send greetings. After the tea party started, she and her three servant girls went to the garden to admire the snow. Then they encountered He Feng who had walked over from the other side. When she looked back, she saw several people talking together. Once people started to leave the hall, He Ting Guang started to ask about Ning Yi. He probably did not believe Ning Yi had much talent and wanted to test him. However, he himself did not have much talent. Ning Yi just did enough to get by and the other started to chatter and nag away. He implied that he had a close connection to the great scholar Xue Jin and recited a few of Xue Jin’s new works for Ning Yi to evaluate.
This was an idiot … Ning Yi felt bored. He Jun, He Ting Guang’s father, also seemed to feel that his son was saying meaningless things. He started to smooth the conversation over and Ning Yi naturally followed. “I heard Tan Er say that the He Family’s silk business is admirable in scale. You must be around the Shou Prefecture?”
He Jun frowned. He Ting Guang laughed. “Family Brother, let me tell you, our family’s main areas are the Lu Prefecture and Chao Lake. If Family Brother ever has the time to travel, do not go to the wrong place …”
Ning Yi stilled and the nodded. “Oh, so that’s how it is … the Lu Prefecture is not far from the Shou Prefecture, if the raw silk is transported over …”
At the other side, He Jun seemed to think of something and frowned deeply. “Why has Virtuous Nephew suddenly mentioned the Shou Prefecture?”
“Doesn’t the Xue Family have their workshops in the Shou Prefecture, managed by that Shopkeeper Yan. I heard someone say last time … en, so I thought the He Family’s business is also in the Shou Prefecture.”
He Ting Guang laughed out loud, “If Family Brother doesn’t understand, do not speak nonsense. Shopkeeper Yan is responsible for the Lu Prefecture matters. The family uncles here all know this. You can ask them, haha…”
As he spoke, the people from the other two merchant shops also laughed and confirmed. Ning Yi smiled and nodded. “I do not understand this, so I heard some scattered information, and was mistaken …” Everyone knew his status as a zhuixu so they were not surprised by this. They just smiled. But He Jun said solemnly, “Where did Virtuous Nephew hear these scattered news.”
Ning Yi looked at his serious expression and pondered in puzzlement. Then he shook his head blankly, “I just … occasionally heard people talk, ugh … I do not know the specifics. Ha, Family Uncle, please do not laugh. Tan Er knows some things about business but this one doesn’t. I do not know much about the Xue Family and confused the Lu and Shou prefectures, haha …”
After he said this half-heartedly, the entire matter became strange. He Jun frowned and seemed to think of some important matter. Then he called over a steward and said a few words. Ning Yi frowned. He just spoke casually but did he actually guess …
He had followed Su Tan Er around these few days. While he was not interested in the business chatter of these people, he gradually built a general understanding in his mind. He knew what business each family did and how the general situation operated. Even if he did not deliberately think about these matters, a structure, blurry or clear, would appear in front of him. He spoke of the Shou Prefecture just to brush off He Ting Guang’s words. He had only faintly felt from the idle chatter he heard in the previous days that the Xue Family’s business may move from the Lu Prefecture to the Shou Prefecture. There was a silk merchant in the Shou Prefecture who was at odds with the He Family who may also join … these things were just a blurry shape to him that he had no confidence in. He could only perceive a thread of importance but from the result, he seemed to have struck something …
So when Ning Yi and Su Tan Er were bidding farewell to He Jun and preparing to board their carriage, He Feng ran out and exchanged a grave look with He Jun. “Family Niece, please remain. Has the Su Family already ordered their silk for next spring. If Family Niece has time today, there is a spring silk business that we wan to discuss with Family Niece …”
Su Tan Er looked back with puzzlement. She did not understand why there was such a change. Back to the group, Ning Yi rolled his eyes in boredom.
“Damn it … my despicable mouth …”
- Zhui Xu Chapter 27 “How Many Floors High”
- Zhui Xu Chapter 26 “Examination”
- Zhui Xu Chapter 25 “Gather Clouds In One’s Hand”
- Zhui Xu Chapter 24 “First Cousin”
- Zhui Xu Chapter 23 “Despicable Mouth”
- General Xiahou, in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, was said to be struck with an arrow in his eyeball which he plucked out and ate. ↩