Not too long later, Old Mistress Zhuang invited everyone to the center of the garden to have a tour as they enjoy the flowers. At the beginning of May, the flowers in the garden flourished, displaying a grand scene. From near or far, the view was splendid, and the fragrance carried by the breeze was absolutely enchanting. With the buzzing bees and beautiful butterflies, the garden was full of life. The Zhuang family had many different flowers, each gorgeous and vibrant in color. Walking leisurely around and admiring the flowerings pleasantly, the atmosphere was great as everyone spoke with laughter and joy.
When the tour came to an end, Old Mistress Zhuang smiled to invite everyone back to their seat.
Earlier on, a few servants were already preparing the seats under a pagoda tree. Arranged neatly on the high table, the desserts, fruits, and tea were all of an exquisite quality. At a side, the different flowers were displayed at different heights in the blue and white porcelain vase for them to be admired.
Resting on the seats while enjoying the tea and gossiping among one another was the most pleasant thing that could be done.
Of course, having each family’s Young Missy duel against each other in poetry was not a bad idea too.
To start off, Old Mistress Zhuang brought Tang Yuzhen to her side. The crowd praised as she was introduced for they knew that Old Mistress Zhuang fancied her and would like to have her married as her daughter-in-law. Now, their heads turned to look at the Shi family’s daughter-in-law this time around. Once the crowd was back to their seats, they glanced at each other with a smile.
Sure enough, after a few words, Old Mistress Zhuang laughed, “A reputable flower without a good poetry to accompany it doesn’t do it any justice. Forget us old ladies, the missies here should be educated enough in poetry. So why not use that knowledge to put colors into these flowers? Missies, you must not refuse oh! And sisters, what do you think?”
The crowd praised the suggestion. Whose family, as a mother, wouldn’t want their daughters or daughter-in-laws to try to overwhelm the others and claim that they had done the best in raising them. Losing before a fight was not an option!
Old Mistress Zhuang laughed again, “I have yet with me another proposal. There are many reputable flowers in the garden, exhausting the missies too much isn’t fun at all. So why don’t, of the ten flowers or so, each missy writes a poetry or two about their chosen flower? Of course, Sang Wan is but a talented woman from a literary family, so doing each flower is a must! Sang Wan, what do you think?”
With that, she smiled and added, “It’s not that I wish to deliberately make it difficult for you, but I just want to take this opportunity to showcase your knowledge in front of everyone else, and also know the difference between a daughter from a literary family and our own!”
Wang Shi listened and remained quiet as she turned her head to look at Sang Wan.
Sang Wan, however, was calm. Just making poetry was nothing difficult for her. Besides, even though the ladies present were not entirely illiterate, they had limited knowledge. So long as she could come up with them, it was enough. It did not matter whether they were good or bad.
Moreover, since Old Mistress Zhuang had already suggested it, she could not refuse or Wang Shi would become unhappy.
Sang Wan smiled slightly at Wang Shi, indicating to her not to worry.
Wang Shi straightened herself and laughed, “Since Old Mistress Zhuang has already suggested so, then it shall be accepted! But if Sang Wan doesn’t do well, you all mustn’t laugh!” smiling, she added, “Having only Sang Wan doing so many is hardly justifiable. Why don’t we invite Miss Tang to do so too, what do you think?”
Tang Yuzhen gently got up and bowed to the crowd before smiling subtly, “If so, then Yuzhen shall gladly accept the challenge!” Smoothly, she gave a quick response.
“Good, good! Miss Tang truly is quick to respond!” Mistress Zhuang eagerly praised as she grinned and clap.
Seeing that a lively battle was about to occur, the crowd were curious as to who would lose and who would win at the very end. As such, they all praised the contest.
And so, Old Mistress Zhuang whispered to a maidservant and the maidservant went as ordered. Immediately, there were servants who came and distributed paper, brushes, and ink. Another servant held onto a blue patterned white vase, in it were twelve different flowers.
Old Mistress Zhuang then ordered for someone to carry a tray up to her. On the tray was a square box half the size of the tray. Opening it up, Old Mistress Zhuang took out the content and showed it to everyone that was present. With a smile, she explained, “This is a perfume obtained from the West, something more expensive than even gold itself. Today, the prize shall be this! Whoever does well today shall walk away with this bottle of perfume!”
The bottle was only three inches long, and made entirely in the West. The gold screw cap with more strips of gold on the top, and a cherry red coral stone which was fixed onto the cap. Under the brilliant sun, the bottle was extremely beautiful.
The crowd were all amazed and praised Old Mistress Zhuang for being generous!
Even with money, purchasing a Western perfume was a difficult feat. And even more so for such a beautifully made glass bottle. The cherry red coral stone on the cap, on its own, was already worth more than a thousand silver.
“This is nothing!” Old Mistress Zhuang laughed. “This exquisite item is a much better fit for our young missies. For us old ladies, this is utterly a useless item!”
The crowd laughed and commented that such words can only be spoken by families with large business like the Zhuang family.
Wang Shi’s heart slightly stiffened. For Old Mistress Zhuang to be willing to take out such a rare Western perfume as the prize, she must be determined to win. Hopefully, Sang Wan would be a good opponent!
The missies each took a flower, and thought deeply by the long table. From time to time, they would whisper to one another and joke a little.
Only Sang Wan and Tang Yuzhen did not pick any flowers. The ladies sat quietly as they listened to Old Mistress Zhuang announce the topic, “There is a saying that of the flowers, they were twelve divisions, twelve friends, and twelve servant girls. The flowers that each missies picked just now belonged to these twelve divisions. Sang Wan and Miss Tang, the both of you shall start with the twelve divisions as your theme!”
“Yes, Old Mistress!” Tang Yuzhen gave a glance at Sang Wan and smiled.
The crowd of ladies whispered softly among each other. Many of them had never heard of the saying relating to the twelve divisions and twelve friends, and found it fresh and interesting. As such, they smiled and asked each other.
A particular individual could not help but look at Sang Wan and gloated to herself, “If Sang Wan doesn’t even know what a twelve division is, then she’s nothing but just a joke!
Tang Yuzhen was favored by the Zhuang family and was the guest of the house. It was obvious that there would be a high possibility for her to have cheated. To think that Old Mistress Zhuang would be so sly, Wang Shi winced and she quickly looked at Sang Wan. Seeing Sang Wan’s calm and indifferent expression, she felt a little more assured.
Tang Yuzhen also knew that the crowd would claim that she had cheated. As such, she secretly looked at Sang Wan; so long as Sang Wan does not drop her brush, she would definitely not be the first to do so. Otherwise, the crowd would say that she had prepared in advance.
The saying of the twelve divisions refers to the names of twelve different flowers: the garden peony, orchid, plum blossom, chrysanthemum, sweet osmanthus, lotus flower, tree peony, crabapple flower, sacred lily, wintersweet flower, azaleas, and the jade orchid. Each had a unique fragrance and are a national beauty. In the days of old, their fragrance could be smelled from far away, judged and admired from afar, but people dared not fondle and disrespect it. As a result, they could not help but gain the title of a division and was thus named the “twelve division”.
Those twelve types of flowers were often seen in the poetry relating to forests and were often used in discussions among the people. Tang Yuzhen should not find the topic difficult, but to win, the only options were to win in speed and handwriting!
Sang Wan had already set her mind. She spread her white sheet of paper and used a jade paperweight to press onto the paper before holding onto the writing brush firmly and dipping it with ink. But before she started, she folded her sleeves up.
Having seen so, Tang Yuzhen smiled. Holding onto her brush elegantly, she too also began.
Both their brushes were flying across the paper. It was obvious that they both had made the same decision and at this point, a few of the missies had already returned to their seats to witness the two as they compete.
The two stopped and placed their brushes down at almost the same time, which Old Mistress Zhuang could not help but laugh, “The two truly are quick-witted, but who will be better than the other!” And so, she ordered a servant to collect the two sheets of paper and show it in front of the crowd.
At the same time, Old Mistress Zhuang went on and laugh with a smile, “For almost the whole day, all I had heard was your mother-in-law boasting about you being extraordinary, and after this contest, it truly was surprising!” The unspoken implication was that the test was simple for Tang Yuzhen and thus she was not surprised about her skill at all.
“Old Mistress Zhuang, you flatter.” Sang Wan smiled.
Wang Shi, however, did not wish to hear such words and she grunted, “My daughter-in-law is excellent and likes to keep a low profile. Old Mistress Zhuang not knowing is not a surprise either!”
Old Mistress Zhuang laughed and spoke no more as she went to look at the poetry with everyone else.
There were a dozen poetry, all done by the seven to eight missies. The ladies only went to liven the atmosphere, praising each poetry one after another but could not tell whether they were of a great quality or a poor one.
Those whose relationship with the two large business families were neutral and plauded both poetry equally; for those who were of better relations with the Zhuang family or were jealous of the Shi family plauded Tang Yuzhen’s poetry to be better; there were also those who liked Sang Wan’s temperament and wish for a better relationship with the Shi family, and they plauded Sang Wan’s poetry. At this very moment, there was still no clear winner.
But even with the different opinions and their different objectives, the crowd could not help but look at Sang Wan in admiration and was jealous of her. Before, they had felt that the Sang family climbing onto the Shi family through a marriage was a huge deal that was too ambitious, but at this point, they felt that the Sang family maiden had some extraordinary aspects. Those families whose daughters were candidates to be Shi Fengju’s wife were finally a little convinced of Sang Wan’s capabilities.
“Old Mistress Li is educated in poetry and has a fair judgement. Why don’t we listen to what Old Mistress Li has to say?” A shout came from among the ladies.
Old Mistress Li was the wife of Qingzhou’s senior provincial government official. Having her judge would be the most fair after all. The crowd smiled and their eyes fixed onto her.
The Shi family and Zhuang family were huge households and had a close relationship wtih the Li family. Mistress Li was instantly placed in a difficult position and she laughed it off, “How should I put it! In my eyes, both poetry are great! It must’ve been a coincidence that both poetry about chrysanthemums were equally good. As for Miss Tang’s plum blossom poetry, compared to Young Mistress Shi’s lotus poetry, is a little lacking behind. And looking at Young Mistress Shi’s lowercase strokes that are gentle and elegant, it shows that much effort must have been put into practicing, am I right?”
Upon hearing so, the crowd immediately went to compare the handwriting on both sheets of poetry. Indeed, they could immediately tell that Sang Wan’s writing was neat and tidy and the sizes of each characters were equal, giving a comfortable visual perception. On the other hand, Tang Yuzhen had not paid much attention to elegance when it came to putting pressure on the brush. There were also places which were either too dry or had too much ink. When dipping the brush into the ink again, there was a lack of carefulness and many tiny black spots could be seen, which was extremely glaring on the white sheet of paper.
The crowd could not help but laugh in agreement, “Old Mistress Li’s observation truly is on point, Young Mistress Shi’s handwriting is no doubt superb!”
Sang Wan was modest to the end, but her heart felt somewhat disturbed. Those set of characters were in actual fact practiced during the time she had when she was all alone by herself in her previous life in order to let those listless days go by one after another! Looking back at her previous life, she felt particularly sad, but at the same time, it secretly intensified her fighting spirit: In this life, everything must change! Everything must no longer be the same!
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