After catching their breath, a more important problem lay before them.
"I have to go find Old Yuan," said Ling Shu.
"I'll go," offered Yue Dingtang, handing him a water bottle.
Ling Shu was in no condition to walk far without passing out.
"Do you know where Old Yuan might be?" he asked.
Ling Shu thought for a moment. "He said he was going down the mountain to find a doctor for me. Later, Zhen Congyun and the others said they encountered Old Yuan and he fell into a trap. He may have encountered some mishap on the way. He's outnumbered and vulnerable. If we find him soon, there may still be hope."
"No need. By the time you remember to come find me, the yellow flowers will have gone cold!" came a voice from a distance, not too far away.
With slow and heavy steps, it took quite a while before the figure of Old Yuan came into view.
The horse lamp on the ground cast a long shadow behind him.
"Damn it, couldn't find the doctor and almost broke myself trying!" He breathed a sigh of relief and plopped down next to Ling Shu, stretching out his legs and not moving.
"How are you?" Ling Shu was pleasantly surprised to see him return.
"Lucky, didn't get shot. I jumped off a cliff myself and was stopped halfway by a tree. My arms and legs are practically broken. I was afraid they would find you here, so I quickly went back up the mountain to look for you." Old Yuan spat out some blood foam, weakly asking, "What about that wicked woman, is she dead?"
Ling Shu replied, "The body is just around the corner. Stand up and walk a few steps and you'll see it."
Old Yuan's words were exactly the same as before: "I don't have the strength to get up anymore. Let me rest for a while, preferably sleep."
But Ling Shu felt a bit cold.
This place was already damp and cold, and ordinary people couldn't stay here for long, let alone him, who only had half a life left.
No matter how much he wore, he couldn't stop the layers of coldness seeping in from the cracks in the stone and mud. His wounds still ached unbearably, and the half-dried blood and clothing stuck together, giving people the illusion of mold and decay that would come with time.
Yue Dingtang noticed him shivering.
Ling Shu replied softly, kicking Old Yuan with his intact leg.
"Before we go up, show me what's in those two boxes."
Old Yuan said, "What's the point of looking? You're going to keep it for yourself, aren't you?"
Ling Shu exclaimed, "I have to see what's inside too! I risked my life to help you transport this batch of goods. If you don't let me take a look, I won't be able to rest in peace even in death! Stop wasting time and open the door. I want to see what kind of rare treasures are in that box, even the ivory-carved scripture and Buddhist pagoda can be used as bait. What's inside that box?!"
Old Yuan replied, "Speaking of the Buddhist pagoda, that is also an incredible treasure. The old man was so heartbroken when he gave it away."
Ling Shu retorted impatiently, "I don't care about that. After it was stolen by Zhen Congyun, it disappeared without a trace. Maybe someone will stumble upon it by chance in a few decades! Stop beating around the bush and open the door. Otherwise, you owe me half a bowl of noodles and the interest alone is worth at least ten dollars now!"
Old Yuan was at a loss, cursing under his breath as he got up from his seat.
"You used to be a rich young master, didn't you? They say even a rotten ship has three inches of nails left. How come you're acting like someone who's never seen the world before, falling into a money pit? Back then, I could barely get half a bowl of noodles from you, and you're still talking about it now!"
In Yue Dingtang's impression, both the Old Yuan he heard about from others and the one in front of him were quiet and reserved, hardly speaking in front of the Guan family.
Even when the Guan brothers were arguing, he didn't come out to take charge.
Now, he was arguing with Ling Shu, and it seemed like a completely different person.
Perhaps this was his true self. The Old Yuan in front of people was just a shadow of his deceased brother, while the Old Yuan behind closed doors was the true comrade who fought alongside Ling Shu on the battlefield.
Old Yuan walked to the door and bent down to insert the round stone into the groove.
After a dull sound of rolling stones, Old Yuan pushed the door with his hand.
He grimaced, unable to use his arm and had to switch to using his shoulder, still feeling the effort.
"Hey, you, Master Yue, come and give me a hand!"
Ling Shu was hopeless, this young master only knew how to sit on the ground, waiting for food and clothing to be handed to him. If he could take care of himself, it would already be good enough.
Old Yuan directly called out to Yue Dingtang.
"I'll count to three, and we'll use our strength together. The bearing is on the left, and we'll push on the right!"
Yue Dingtang nodded, he also had one arm injured and could only use the other shoulder to push the door.
"As the saying goes, two people working together can break through any obstacle. Let's do this!" Ling Shu lazily commented on the side, only making noise without any effort, making people feel annoyed.
"Shut up!" Old Yuan snapped.
Old Yuan gave him a fierce glare. This guy never changed, always owing people.
But he was handsome, and most of the people he met were shallow and easily swayed by his looks.
He was always treated better than others, even getting an extra spoonful of food in the cafeteria.
"Come on, one, two, three, push!"
Finally, the door slowly opened.
The gap widened.
Inside the stone room, a few boxes were piled up in the corner. Other than that, there was nothing.
"The two boxes on the left contain dry rations, as well as water and wine. The water has been sitting for a while, so it needs to be boiled. The dry rations are sealed in jars and should still be edible."
The boxes weren't even locked. Old Yuan took out a few small cloth bags from the coffin and carefully placed them next to the boxes.
Ling Shu didn't know when he had come over and was holding a lantern to shine inside.
Old Yuan cautioned, "Be careful, there are calligraphy and paintings inside, don't touch them!"
"I know, I know. I've seen more calligraphy and paintings than the amount of salt you've eaten, and I haven't damaged anything." Ling Shu was too lazy to listen to him and put down the box, taking out a scroll from inside.
"Come on, Old Yue, help me open it. Let's see what treasure the old man left behind."
Yue Dingtang was also curious about the two boxes that old master Guan had carefully protected, which also involved the Yue family.
However, he didn't show it as blatantly as Ling Shu did.
The scroll was slowly opened. The lighting inside was extremely dim, but the general outline could still be seen.
Lush greenery, distant mountains and nearby buildings, overlooking the lake, with peach blossoms and verdant greens, and a high platform like a fairyland.
Surrounded by a dimly lit environment, it felt like a dreamland had materialized before their eyes. The thick smoke and the beauty frozen in time left them intoxicated.
"What is this?"
"The Forty Scenes of the Yuanmingyuan."
"But wait, I remember this painting was stolen from the Yuanmingyuan when it was burned down. Now it's in France."
"This is not the real thing, but a copy. However, its origin is still remarkable. After the burning of the Old Summer Palace, Emperor Xianfeng couldn't sleep and wanted to make amends and leave something for future generations. He followed the example of his ancestors and had famous artists of the time paint a picture of the Eight Scenes of the Summer Palace. However, the Summer Palace was not as grand as the Old Summer Palace, which was built and managed during a prosperous era. After much thought, Emperor Xianfeng felt that painting the Summer Palace was lacking in meaning. So, he gathered several court painters and talented calligraphers, and copied this painting based on the forty sketches preserved in the palace."
Old Yuan spoke at length, leaving himself exhausted. He opened a jar of wine and took several gulps to catch his breath.
"These are all things that old master Guan told me," said Old Yuan. "He said that although this imitation is far inferior in skill and reputation to the real Forty Scenes, at least it can be passed down to future generations, allowing them to catch a glimpse of the flourishing era of garden landscapes. Seeing this imitation can also remind us that the real one is still in the hands of the foreigners. We must not forget the past and learn from it for the future. It's more precious than any gold, silver, or treasure. That's probably what he meant. I didn't study much, so I can't remember his exact words, but you probably understand the general idea."
Yue Dingtang carefully rolled up the painting and tied it back together, then went to look at the other things in the box.
There was a rare surviving copy of a Ming Dynasty book that was ordered to be destroyed during the compilation of the Complete Library of the Four Treasuries.
There was a painted camel that had faded since the Tang Dynasty.
There was a pair of persimmons carved from red jade.
There were two Buddhist pagodas wrapped in yellow cotton cloth. They were exquisitely beautiful, with more precious stones embedded on them than the Buddhist pagoda Yue Dingtang had obtained. The various techniques used inside, such as inlaying, silk twisting, and micro-carving, were all of superb craftsmanship that could not be compared to the previous pagoda.
When Ling Shu saw the Buddhist pagoda before, he felt that his eyes were about to be blinded by its brilliance. Now, looking at these two smaller pagodas, he felt that the previous one was vulgar and unworthy. These two pagodas before him were the true treasures that combined art and wealth.
He couldn't help but take a deep breath of cool air.
He heard a slight movement and turned his head to look.
Old Yuan had retreated a few steps without him noticing, and was now looking at them with a vigilant expression, as if guarding against them suddenly becoming greedy and turning against each other.
Ling Shu laughed and cried, "We are both brothers who were pulled out of the dead trenches. The only thing missing is that we weren't born from the same mother. Why are you acting like this? You're making me look like a villain! Even if I wanted to rob you, there are only two of us here. You can't beat me, so just get out of here!"
Hearing Ling Shu's words, Old Yuan breathed a sigh of relief and smiled awkwardly, "So many fathers, sons, and brothers have fought over money. You saw what happened with the Guan brothers. I have to be cautious. We haven't seen each other in so many years, and I was afraid that you might have been corrupted by the bright lights and wine of Shanghai."
"But you were already ambushed by me when you came down earlier. Let me tell you, even if you were kissed by the pigs from the Guan family, I wouldn't have changed!"
After cursing him, Ling Shu's demeanor changed.
He picked up the small Buddhist pagoda and examined it closely, making clicking sounds with his tongue. "Speaking of which, these treasures are quite rare. Let's see if there are any pearls or gemstones that fell off during transportation. They separated voluntarily, so if we pick them up, it can be considered as finding them a good home."
Old Yuan looked on in fear as Ling Shu picked up each item and put them back down. He was afraid that Ling Shu would shake them and accidentally knock off a few gems.
However, Yue Dingtang was puzzled and asked, "Where did the old man get all these treasures?"
There were many things here that clearly came from the palace.
Although the Guan family had been prosperous in the past, they had fallen on hard times in recent years.
It was like finding a needle in a haystack to collect these rare treasures from the common people, and it was unlikely that the old man, who was just a commoner, could have gathered them in such large quantities.
Old Yuan sighed, "I know about that. Over a decade ago, there was a huge fire in the Forbidden City. It was said to have been caused by the former Qing emperor who had abdicated but still lived in the palace. He suspected that the eunuchs and guards were stealing treasures from the palace, so he wanted to take inventory. However, just two days after he spoke, the Jianfu Palace caught fire."
Yue Dingtang replied, "I've heard about that fire too. It burned for a whole night, and even the foreign fire brigade came to help put it out. But it's said that many treasures were lost in the fire."
Old Yuan said, "Those are all external statements. There's no such coincidence in the world. It's clearly those eunuchs below who are bold and daring, and when they see their master settling accounts, they just burn everything down and call it a day. Even the emperor can only be dumbfounded. In my opinion, this emperor has been so wronged that he can't even speak. He has lost his country and is confined to the Forbidden City. Even the land inside is not under his control. If I were him, I would have just laid down, closed my eyes, kicked my legs, and called it a day!"
Ling Shu interrupted, "Enough with the nonsense, get to the point!"
Old Yuan said, "What else is important? The palaces and buildings with the most treasures were all burned to ashes, and those account books are impossible to find. Later on, many treasures that were said to have leaked out of the palace appeared in antique shops and pawnshops. From calligraphy and paintings to utensils, everything was available. These two boxes of things were collected by old master Guan over a period of ten years. Some were bought from elderly and young people who fled from the capital, some were bought from local antique shops, and some were sold by distant relatives who wanted to exchange their family heirlooms for money. You know the background of the Guan family, there are many such relatives and connections."
Yue Dingtang said, "With so many treasures, why not leave them for your children? Even if you wait for a descendant to succeed in the future, it will still be a considerable fortune."
Old Yuan chuckled, "With the country in ruins, where is the wealth? Even if you have mountains of gold and silver, you still have to protect it! Instead of letting it fall into the hands of those incompetent people in Guanqin, who will sell it off or even give it to the Japanese, it's better to bring it back to Beijing. The old man heard that the Forbidden City has already started to transport everything to the south to avoid the possible war, so let me take these two boxes and find the main force together. He said that if these things can meet up with the main force and be taken out again when the country is peaceful, then it will truly bring blessings to future generations and leave a legacy!"
It's impossible for Yue Dingtang to have no resentment towards old master Guan.
This old man called him all the way from Shanghai just to use the Yue family to make this plan more perfect.
Yue Dingtang became the number one target after obtaining the Buddha's pagoda.
While everyone envied and jealously looked at him, Old Yuan secretly transported two boxes of real treasures.
The old man not only tricked his distant nephew but also his own sons.
He allowed his sons to breed conflicts among themselves, causing them to dislike each other and even inviting Russians and Japanese into their home.
But Yue Dingtang couldn't do anything about the old man.
Because he was already dead, and the dead don't need to take any responsibility.
Even if Yue Dingtang cursed him loudly in front of his grave, the old man wouldn't come back to life.
Moreover, in the end, the old man wasn't just acting for his own benefit.
His sons might not understand him, and even if they knew the truth, they might blame the old man for favoring outsiders.
The person who understood him the most was actually the daring Old Yuan who was willing to transport treasures at personal risk.
"Let's just get the boxes up there first. I don't want to stay down here any longer. I'm afraid that woman will beat me to death. I'd rather freeze to death up here!" grumbled Old Yuan.
He snapped the boxes shut, not allowing Ling Shu to admire them any longer.
The two boxes were quite heavy, and all three of them were exhausted soldiers. It took them half a day to finally get the boxes up.
The temple gate was tightly closed, but they managed to start a fire and boil some water. They added some barley flour and preserved beef to make a warm meal.
Ling Shu lay on a pile of straw, his face glowing red from the flames. After going through hell and back, he just wanted to sleep well.
When Yue Dingtang saw that the food in the pot was almost cooked, he wanted to wake up Ling Shu to eat.
But he saw that he was sleeping soundly and couldn't wake him up no matter how softly he called.
"Forget it, don't wake him up. Let him sleep for a while and we'll eat when he wakes up. If it weren't for me dragging him into the pit, he wouldn't have been injured like this. I owe him as his brother. By the way, I have something to ask you."
Old Yuan scooped a large piece of braised beef into a bowl with a spoon and handed it to Yue Dingtang.
The taste of the braised beef mixed with the boiled barley flour may not be a feast, but it was a rare delicacy at the moment.
Old Yuan didn't beat around the bush.
He stared at Yue Dingtang and asked straightforwardly, "If we transport these things out, will you stop us?"
Yue Dingtang gave a straightforward answer, "No, I won't."
Old Yuan pressed on, "So, do you have any connection with the Japanese?"
Yue Dingtang replied, "Perhaps some members of the Yue family do, but I do not."
This answer was quite intriguing, and Old Yuan was momentarily taken aback before sneering.
"I can't stand dealing with you literati who beat around the bush and refuse to be clear. I ask you, if you suspected Ling Shu that day, why did you let Ivanov and his men go ahead with their killing and looting?"
Yue Dingtang explained, "At the time, I only knew that he was hiding something from me and guessed that you might know about it. But I didn't know your specific plans and only wanted to play along and see what he was up to. That night, after he drugged me, I was awakened by the Eldest Master and you know the rest."
After a moment of silence, Old Yuan spoke up: "I had him steal the pagoda to divert everyone's attention, but I didn't expect Ivanov to show up. It almost ruined everything and could have cost you your life. I owe you for that. At the time, he made some noise to draw the crowd away and protect you, which allowed Ivanov and his men to escape quickly."
Yue Dingtang raised an eyebrow. "He drugged me and almost killed me. Are you saying I shouldn't blame him?"
Old Yuan scoffed and pulled out a box of cigarettes from his pocket.
He lit one up and started blowing smoke rings.
After a moment, he remembered the person next to him and politely offered one to Yue Dingtang.
He thought the young man from a wealthy family wouldn't be interested in this kind of cigarette, but to his surprise, Yue Dingtang took three, smoked one, and pocketed the other two, making Old Yuan wince in pain.
"That day he went to the hospital to see you. When he came out, your ward had just exploded. He didn't hesitate to go back and find you, but I knocked him out. Later, on the mountain, he said that after helping me with my business, he still wanted to go back to the city to find you."
Yue Dingtang's hand holding the lighter paused.
Old Yuan didn't notice and continued to speak earnestly, "Young Master Yue, I know people like you never lack friends, especially those who flatter and please you. But Ling Shu, don't judge him by his laziness and bonelessness on ordinary days. Those are all the roots of his battlefield injuries. Some people may not seem well-behaved on the surface, talk a lot of nonsense, love money and life, but in reality, they are more loyal and devoted than anyone else. That's the kind of person Ling Shu is."
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PS: Although this story is fictional, the part about the protection of the treasures in the Forbidden City is true and a magnificent legend. With tens of thousands of precious items, they were transported from the north to the south for 33 years until the country was liberated, and almost none were lost or damaged. It was all thanks to the hard work of the people who transported them. If you're interested, you can read more about this fascinating story.