The old dowager was rather moved by Qin Huining’s words. There were indeed many girls in the manor, and the third miss was coming of age soon. Her marriage to Earl of Jianan’s second son was all but agreed upon. If stamped with the layer of gold that was the tutelage from a palace mama… it would indeed be good for all the girls in the manor.
But the difficult part was that the empress had sent Zhan-mama to teach Qin Yining. The decree hadn’t included anyone else. It was one thing if they were close with the mama. She would agree with some gifts of gold and silver. Teaching one was the same as teaching a group after all, but they weren’t that familiar with each other, so it wasn’t proper to request something like this.
In addition, it was uncommon for the empress to personally designate a mama to teach the official daughters of an imperial subject. This was an honor solely awarded to the main branch of the family; there was no reason to share it with the other branches. The old dowager found herself caught between a rock and a hard place. She wanted all of her granddaughters to benefit, but didn’t want to offend anyone.
“Old Dowager.” Qin-mama entered with a smile just as her mistress was busy racking her brain. “Third Madame has arrived.”
The old dowager arched an eyebrow, resting her pipe on the white porcelain ashtray to the side. The clink of the brass pipe and porcelain meeting resonated loudly in the room. “What’s she doing here so late at night?”
Qin Huining adroitly fetched a large towel to wipe the old dowager’s feet and helped her back into white socks. Another maid came discreetly in to spirit away the wooden tub filled with water. When the third madame entered, she just so happened to see Qin Huining helping the old dowager into her boots.
“Old Dowager.” The third madame made her greeting and smiled immediately after. “Niece Hui is surely the most caring of all the children in the manor. I am truly ashamed in front of her.”
The old dowager was so amused that she started chuckling, and laughingly hectored, “You rascal! You’ll make a joke of yourself, complaining in front of your niece like this!”
Qin Huining also joined in with a dainty laugh, but rolled her eyes hard inside. It’s everyone for themselves when it comes to filial piety and pleasing the old dowager. Who can you blame but yourself for not coming earlier? However, the girl also knew that the third madame held a certain degree of status in front of the old dowager.
Although the third senior master was concubine-born, he helmed the family branch that acted as the economic lifeline of the Qin family. The third madame was also quite generous as well, giving the old dowager many gifts from the third branch.
Compared to the haughty senior madame with the lofty family background, and the cunning, quiet second madame always plotting away at something, the old dowager actually liked the third madame the most.
Qin Huining didn’t want to offend this harbinger of wealth either, so she dutifully put on a smile.
“You’re joking, Third Aunt. I just happen to live a bit closer and managed to get here earlier, is all. You care for this family more than all of us juniors, so please don’t laugh at me like this.”
“How would I ever? Niece Hui was personally raised by the old dowager and has a deep understanding of manners, as well as a filial heart. With the truest of hearts, it’s no wonder niece Hui has such a deep relationship with the old dowager.” The third madame sat down on the garden stool that Qin-mama brought over with a slight smile. “Old Dowager, I hear that Zhan-mama, on orders from the empress, has taken up residence in Jade Bamboo Veranda?”
Qin Huining smiled when she heard this topic being brought up. Looks like I have an ally. She didn’t want Qin Yining to monopolize this prime resource. She too wanted to make use of it, and it was likely that the third madame was here on behalf of her own daughter, Qin Jianing.
The old dowager also understood the third madame’s intentions and gave her brass pipe with its accompanying tobacco pouch to Qin-mama. “Darling Hui was just talking to me about this.”
The third madame glanced at Qin Huining with some surprise, offering a conspiratorial smile a heartbeat later. She moved closer to the family matriarch, “And what are your intentions, Old Dowager?”
“I naturally want good futures for all the girls in our family. But the empress specifically arranged for Zhan-mama to teach granddaughter Yi, so this matter is a bit tricky.”
The third madame smiled and took over the bird’s nest stewed in milk that Qin-mama was about to bring over. She carefully fed it to the old dowager, offering a handkerchief when she was done. Qin-mama then left with the empty bowl, trading it for an exquisite bowl used to rinse one’s mouth. The third madame took over this task as well before returning to her seat.
The old dowager was in an exceedingly good mood after these thoughtful ministrations. I’m the matriarch of the family, and I’ve had a title personally awarded to me. With my status and my son’s, it won’t be a difficult matter to order Zhan-mama to some additional exertion.
Qin Huining and the third madame looked at each other, a thought making the latter smile. “We’ll have to make some arrangements for this affair. Naturally, I will bear the costs.”
“It shouldn’t fall to you.” The old dowager waved her hand with a smile. “I’m seeking to better the lives of my granddaughters. I’ll use the house funds for this.”
Qin Huining grasped the old dowager’s arm and spoke cutely, “Grandmother, all of the girls in our family are relying on you. Younger sister Little Creek is a mature and good girl. She won’t object to your arrangements.”
“Even if anyone is dissatisfied, it won’t be her place to be one of them.” The old dowager smiled back. “That’s all for now, all of you are dismissed. I’ll speak to my senior daughter-in-law tomorrow.”
“Understood.” The third madame and Qin Huining stood up happily. The former left, but Qin Huining stuck close to the old dowager’s side and didn’t return to her own house until a long while later. When she prepared to turn in for the night, she had Bitong choose a serving girl to pay attention to anything that happened outside.
When Qin Huining rose the next morning, her expectations were confirmed. The third madame had sent many items to the old dowager during the night. She didn’t think much of it at first, but envy and sourness began to creep in again when she heard that the third madame had also sent presents to Snowpear Courtyard earlier in the morning. Even a respectable mama from the second branch was reported visiting the courtyard with gifts. Why wasn’t second aunt and third aunt so generous to me before?
A real niece is different alright!
Qin Yining instructed her people to accept the gifts and treat the mamas who’d delivered them to tea, sending them off only after a round of pleasant chitchat. The second madame’s gifts, bolts of cloth with the latest patterns along with fine tea, brush and ink, were placed on a round side table. A set of fine jade jewelry and the latest all-natural powder from Pureheart Pavilion rested in a delicate black lacquer cosmetic box. These had come from the third madame.
She might not know much about powder, rouge, or cosmetics in general, but Qin Yining knew expensive items when she saw them. She thought for a moment and then directed some instructions to Ruilan, “Count the items carefully and record them in a separate book. Use the ones that we should use.”
Ruilan started with delight when she heard her instructions. The miss was trusting her to look after her personal inventory and record the flow of favors!
“This servant understands and won’t disappoint you, miss!” Ruilan curtsied solemnly.
Qin Yining knew that Ruilan was still worried about those matters from the first night, so arranged a task to set the maid’s mind at ease. Although, it was also another test. How would her little household present a united front if those around her spent their days living in apprehension and were unable to trust each other?
“Go about your business.” Qin Yining’s tone was gentle as she smiled and continued copying “The Classic of Filial Piety”.
Ruilan nodded happily, heading off to clean with Zhu-mama, so full of vigor that she seemed to have received a shot of adrenaline. Qin Yining took a look at the time and decided to go present herself for her evening greeting to the old dowager after finishing the line she was working on. However, just at that moment, a maid announced, “Miss, Qin-mama is here.”
Qin Yining was astonished and hastily stuck her brush in a blue and white porcelain pen holder. She rose to welcome the old servant with a smile, “Qin-mama’s here. Please, come in and have a seat.”
“I hope you’re doing well, Fourth Miss.” Qin-mama curtsied with a smile as Ruilan fetched a satin upholstered stool for her. The old servant didn’t sit, instead lowering her head as she gently spoke, “I’m only here with a message, miss, and need to return afterwards. There’s a mountain of work to be done at the Garden of Loving Piety.”
“Does Old Dowager have any pressing matters? Please, speak on.” Qin Yining looked seriously at the servant.
“Old Dowager says that the evening greetings can be foregone for today. She wants all the girls to learn from Zhan-mama, and invites the miss to the Garden of Loving Piety at the beginning of the hour of the snake for lessons.”
Although Qin Yining didn’t hesitate to nod back with a smile, she knew what was really going on. The appearance of such an impressive mama had spurred the other branches into action. There were plenty of Qin daughters, after all. Even though she hadn’t seen what had happened across the manor with her own eyes, Qin Yining could easily detect Qin Huining’s hand behind this. With that girl’s personality, how would she possibly allow such an outstanding mama to teach only Qin Yining?
The old servant was soothed by Qin Yining’s lack of surprise, as well as the unflinchingly demure smile. The girl was like a clear spring, gently welling up beneath the sunlight, which only further softened Qin-mama’s tone. “The teacher that the lord has hired for you has also arrived. Apparently he’s a very distinguished old scholar. He’s settled into the outer residence, and Old Dowager has said that you will learn manners with the girls in the mornings, and add to your knowledge with the teacher in the afternoons.” The old servant’s smile grew more sincere. “It’s quite wonderful that you have gained Old Dowager’s attention, miss.”
“It’s all thanks to Old Dowager’s love and favor. I am very grateful and will learn well so that I don’t let her down. Please convey my thanks to her, Qin-mama. I will go kowtow in thanks when the opportunity presents itself.”
“Yes, this servant will surely bring that message.” Qin-mama took her leave, and Qin Yining walked her to the covered walkway, chatting along the way. The old servant hadn’t even descended the steps before head maid Jixiang, Ruyi, and the various serving girls and old grannies from the Garden of Loving Piety came by, carrying much luggage with them.
Qin-mama was greatly surprised. She’d just come from there, why hadn’t the old dowager given all of her orders in one go? Were these more presents for Qin Yining?
Jixiang and Ruyi walked up to curtsey to the mama. The head maid smiled. “This servant is here on behalf of Old Dowager. Zhan-mama just said that while Jade Bamboo Veranda is nice, it’s too lonely. She genuinely likes the miss and specially asked Old Dowager to permit her to live in Snowpear Courtyard. Old Dowager and Senior Madame have already agreed. We were sent ahead with her belongings.”
She turned back to point at the various comforters, pillows, and other daily necessities. Two strong grannies lifted two stretchers of various items. They were filled with clothing, cloth, blankets, braziers, and others.
“Fourth Miss, the old dowager specifically sent you this,” said Ruyi. “She says that the days are turning cold, and you must be careful to dress warmly. Don’t catch a cold or pneumonia.”
Was this compensation for taking a share of the mama sent to teach her? Qin Yining smiled. “Many thanks, sister. Please thank the old dowager for me when you return."