When Yue Dingtang's pocket watch struck six in the afternoon, Steward He arrived on time to invite them for dinner.
Ling Shu, who had been hungry for most of the day, thought he could finally have a good meal. Even if the sleeping arrangements were not ideal, the Guan family would not mistreat their guests. Even if they didn't have a full banquet, they should at least have eight dishes and a soup.
Yue Dingtang's previous mention of a small kitchen in each room had become Ling Shu's hope and dream throughout the journey. Despite seeing the unreliability of the Guan family, Ling Shu still clung to his last bit of persistence and dream.
But this dream was quickly shattered.
A plate of dumplings, a bowl of pork and cabbage stew with vermicelli, and a politely smiling Second Master Guan.
This was the supposedly wealthy and prosperous Guan family?
Ling Shu began to doubt his own eyes. He not only doubted his own eyesight, but also suspected that the Guan family had a problem with their brains.
Those who didn't know thought that Yue Dingtang was some poor relative who had come from somewhere, and the Guan family couldn't wait to get rid of him, hence the subtle hint to leave.
"You're here, come, have a seat!"
The Second Master got up and gestured with his hand, showing his courtesy.
But Yue Dingtang did not take a seat.
"Second Uncle, I'm not a poor relative coming to beg for food. I'm here to pay my respects to our ancestors and fulfill my mother's regret of not being able to see her family before she passed away. If my mother were still alive, she would never have imagined that the Guan family would fall to such a state. Ling Shu is my friend, and I can endure this treatment, but I cannot let my friend suffer with me. Tonight, I will take him out to eat, and tomorrow we will go up the mountain to pay our respects to our ancestors. We will leave for Shanghai immediately and will not bother you again."
Second Uncle was speechless until he saw Yue Dingtang turning to leave, then he panicked and quickly got up to stop him.
"Dingtang, what are you doing? We finally get a chance to see each other and now you want to leave so soon? Don't be in such a hurry, listen to your uncle and let me explain. It's a long story, so don't rush. Mr. Ling, can you help me persuade him?"
Ling smiled and said, "Mr. Guan, I'm just an outsider and it's not appropriate for me to interfere in your family affairs. Besides, you've got it wrong. Old Yue said I'm his friend, but that's just out of loyalty to an old classmate. In reality, I'm his secretary and assistant, which means I'm his subordinate. How could I dare to advise my superior? I'm afraid you've got the wrong person."
Second Master was helpless and held onto Yue Dingtang's arm tightly, afraid that he would run away if he let go.
"Dingtang, to be honest, you've seen the situation at the Guan family. The eldest brother doesn't act like a responsible leader, always fooling around with the fourth brother. The third brother doesn't take care of anything, and the fifth brother just returned and is young and impulsive. Tonight's dinner should have been a grand welcome for you, but the others refused to come. Your second uncle is doing his best with what he has, but please don't be offended. When our father opens the warehouse and I have more money, I'll take you to the best restaurant in town for a proper meal. How does that sound?"
Yue Dingtang replied calmly, "The guest room we're staying in doesn't even have chairs, let alone any decorations. Is this how the Guan family treats their guests?"
The old man sighed, "It's all because of the eldest brother. He claims that as the eldest, most of the belongings of the Guan family should belong to him. Once he started, the fourth brother followed suit, and chaos ensued. I tried to stop them, but to no avail. Just today, they caused a scene and refused to come to your welcoming feast. Since the passing of the old master, the eldest brother has been pushing to divide the family's wealth. Although we haven't officially split, each household is managing their own affairs, and no one wants to give up a single penny!"
While the two old men were talking, Ling Shu's eyes were fixed on the dumplings in the dish.
Yue Dingtang didn't comment on the old man's words but instead reminded him, "Second Uncle, we're a bit hungry. Why don't we finish eating first?"
The Second Master hurriedly said, "Yes, yes, let's eat first. Come on, use your chopsticks!"
The dumplings, according to the Second Master, were filled with vegetables and pork.
Ling Shu chewed for a long time and found his mouth full of vegetables. The pork seemed to have disappeared into the vast filling and was nowhere to be found.
Then, looking at the stewed noodles with cabbage and pork, with a flick of his chopsticks, Ling Shu saw some scattered bits of fat in the sea of cabbage and noodles. It was still better than the idle gossip of some nosy women.
"Second Master, we heard some idle talk from a servant of the Guan family just now," Ling Shu said as he chewed on the noodles, unable to taste any pork.
"Which blabbermouth servant told you nonsense?" The Second Master raised their eyebrows and their tone became more forceful, but unfortunately, it had no intimidating effect.
Ling Shu said, "They say that among the people who moved things from the Guan family to their own private residence, besides the eldest and Fourth Masters, there was also you, Second Master."
The Second Master's face turned red and he exclaimed, "Nonsense!"
Ling Shu chuckled and replied, "I agree, it's all nonsense. Anyway, Old Yue and I will be leaving in a few days, so it's up to you to discipline these servants and their loose tongues. As outsiders, we have no right to interfere. However, on the train ride here, we witnessed a strange incident that I thought you might find interesting, Second Master."
With that, Ling Shu stopped talking and focused on picking out the meat from the stewed noodles.
The Second Master was displeased.
He didn't think much of Ling Shu.
At first, he thought the other was a friend of Yue Dingtang, also from a decent background, so gave him some face. But later he found out that this guy named Ling was just an old classmate of Yue Dingtang's, who relied on him to make a living. It was clear that his family background was limited. The so-called secretary assistant was nothing more than a follower, just a change in terminology with the changing times.
But then Ling Shu took out a small white ivory plaque from his pocket. It was the gold foil and ivory carved scripture they had confiscated from Dongli on the train.
The face of the Second Master changed.
"Where did you get this thing?" asked the Second Master.
Ling Shu sighed and evaded the question.
"Old Yue, I think you're really in a tough spot," he said.
Yue Dingtang asked, "What do you mean by that?"
Ling Shu said, "As soon as you received the letter from the Guan family, you immediately packed your bags and traveled day and night without stopping, enduring exhaustion and hardship, just to come here. And what happened? Except for the Second Master, no one gave you a sincere word of thanks, and no one understood that you couldn't even have a decent meal on the way. They were either busy quarreling or didn't even show their faces. I really feel sorry for you!"
Yue Dingtang thought to himself that although they had to turn back several times on the way, they were all traveling in first-class compartments, with steak and red wine as well as dumplings and fried rice.
How could they not have enough to eat?
But he had long been disgusted with the way the Guan family behaved, so he just went along with it without saying a word.
"Well, there's nothing we can do. They're relatives," he replied.
Ling Shu said, "I thought we would have a good meal at the Guan family's, but these dumplings are barely warm and it's hard to even find any meat filling."
Yue Dingtang said, "The Guan family is in such a mess, they don't even have money."
Ling Shu replied, "Really? I saw Second Master using that set of tea utensils. It's worth at least several dozen silver dollars in Shanghai's antique shops. Could it be a fake?"
Yue Dingtang said, "The Guan family is a distinguished family. Their ancestors were great people. Second Master is also a dignified person. It's unlikely that they would use fakes."
The Second Master remained silent.
Ling Shu continued, "But something doesn't add up. If it's not a fake, why would Second Master Gao Ji casually leave it there with unfinished tea in the cup? It seems like an ordinary thing to him, not worth even several tens of dollars. So why would he serve us pork dumplings without any meat filling? Could it be the servants acting on their own, or a conspiracy by the Eldest Master or Fourth Master to drive us away ahead of time?"
After pondering for a moment, Yue Dingtang nodded solemnly, "It's possible."
Second Master: ...
Ling Shu said, "Let's not make things difficult for Second Master. I heard that the donkey meat hotpot at the street corner outside the Guan family is especially delicious. Why don't we go try it tonight?"
Yue Dingtang asked, "What about Second Master?"
Ling Shu replied, "Second Master probably eats it every day and is tired of it. He's not like us country bumpkins who just arrived. You still have to go up the mountain to pay respects tomorrow, so you can't eat too plain. Otherwise, how will you manage?"
Whether it's good or bad, you've said it all. What else can I say?!
Second Master roared and screamed in his heart, his face slightly distorted.
Ling Shu still showed him a brilliant smile.
"Alright, Second Uncle, you go ahead and eat first. We'll go out and find something to fill our stomachs. If there's anything you need, we'll talk about it when we come back. And when we do, do you want us to bring you something to eat too?"
Without waiting for a response from Second Master Guan, Ling Shu continued, "Forget it, the Guan family is wealthy and prosperous. You don't lack anything. You're getting older, so it's better to eat more vegetarian dishes. Why don't you stay and have some dumplings and noodles? Old Yue, let's go."
"Wait!" Old Master Guan suddenly stood up, his face turning red and his expression frightening as he glared at Ling Shu.
Ling Shu thought he was going to start cursing at them.
If Old Master Guan did curse at them, they could leave the Guan family with their heads held high and not have to sleep in that empty guest room at night.
"Old Li!!!" After holding his breath for a while, Old Master Guan shouted at his attendant beside him. "Go to the small kitchen and prepare a donkey meat hotpot, quickly, Tang and the others must be hungry!"
The servant rushed in, looking puzzled upon hearing the order.
"Master, where can we get donkey meat now?"
"There's a ready-made one at the street corner! Go ask them to buy it, I don't care how much money you spend. Bring back the donkey meat hotpot and all the side dishes. Dingtang and his friend came from far away, they deserve a good meal!"
The last four words were bitten out by Second Master, as if his teeth were bleeding.
He took out a money bag from his sleeve and handed it tremblingly to the servant. The gaze on the money bag was like that of Emperor Tang Minghuang, who helplessly watched his beloved consort go to her death. It was desolate and mournful.
As for Ling Shu, he laughed like a treacherous minister misleading the king, taking advantage and acting cute. "How can we let Second Master pay for it?"
"It's okay, we're all family. You guys enjoy your meal, and Second Uncle will be happy."
Second Master forced a smile that was uglier than crying.
The three of them sat down again.
Second Master adjusted his mood and tried not to focus on the money bag that had just been taken away by his servant.
"Little Ling, can you show Second Master the ivory carved scripture that you just took out?"
"You mean Zhang Chaofeng's ivory carved scripture?"
As soon as the name Zhang Chaofeng was mentioned, Second Master became even more convinced that Ling Shu wasn't lying to him.
"What do you mean?"
"This thing was sold to him by you, right?"
Second Master laughed and refused to admit it.
"How could that be? I just thought it looked nice and wanted to borrow it to play with."
Ling Shu pretended not to notice his abnormality and let out a long sigh of relief.
"If it has nothing to do with you, then that's good. I won't hide it from you, Zhang Chaofeng was murdered, and the cause of death was these ivory and gold leaf carved scriptures."
Second Master Guan's heart trembled.