Once Fan Xian had left the Tongfu Tavern, the four scholars in the room looked at each other in dismay. It seemed they had not expected such fortune to fall from Heaven straight into their laps.
"This is good... right?" Yang Wanli sat on the bed, dumbfounded. Cheng Jialin and Shi Chanli congratulated him and laughed. "From now on, Brother Yang, you'll be rubbing shoulders with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Revenue. Perhaps your career will turn out just fine."
There was a certain look of dejection on Yang Wanli's honest face. "I have always greatly admired young Master Fan's talent. And I am thankful for his willingness to bend the rules in the exams. I presume that behind the scenes of the grading, young Master Fan expended considerable effort. But... I wish Master Fan had not come here today."
Cheng and Shi were both astounded and lost for words. They knew that Yang Wanli felt that Fan Xian seemed to be trying to win his favor.
Hou Jichang, who had always considered himself the group's leader, smiled and shook his head. "If Master Fan was trying to win your favor, then he wouldn't have come here personally. Wanli, you think too much. I've decided that from this moment on, at court, I shall devote myself to Master Fan in all I do in my career."
Shi Chanli was stunned. Why had the always-virtuous Brother Hou suddenly had a change of heart?
Yang Wanli shook his head. "I am also aware that at each exam, this is the custom. But Brother Hou, you know that I have always prized Master Fan's scholarship. Because of the notes I smuggled into the exam, and because I like his temperament, I hope Master Fan is different from some of those court officials."
"Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good," Cheng Jialin reproached him. "Although Master Fan is an immortal poet, he is still a court official and the son of a noble. For him to come here himself was not easy for him. Brother Wanli, don't tell me you hoped that he was something more than a mere mortal? Besides, having an immortal spirit come to the material world is not necessarily better than having a competent official who is adept at plotting."
Shi Chanli clapped his hands and sighed in admiration. "Jialin, though you do not speak much, your words are incisive." He turned to Yang Wanli. "When it comes to admiration, Wanli, you're nothing compared to me. I often carry the Banxianzhai Poetry Anthology with me to read aloud. I might know those poems so well that I can recite them by heart. But today, meeting with Master Fan, I wasn't disappointed in the slightest. Why? Because his poems show the emotions of his heart. Master Fan truly has interceded for us. How can he be spoken of as being the same as those corrupt court officials?"
He laughed and continued on. "Earlier when I was bringing back the roast chicken, there weren't many people in the alley with umbrellas. I don't care much for stuffiness. I saw a young man with an umbrella and a handsome face. He looked neat and agreeable, and he was having a very interesting discussion. So I barged under his umbrella and walked along with him, as if I were a bigwig just like him. How could he allow me to be so rude? And yet Master Fan simply smiled and walked along with me, his face completely natural. When I learned in the tavern that he was Fan Xian – to tell you the truth, I was absolutely flabbergasted. Fan Xian didn't disappoint me at all."
They finally realized that this was what had happened - no wonder Fan Xian had talked about being linked to Shi Chanli with half an umbrella. When they thought about it, they couldn't help but smile. Yang Wanli rubbed his head awkwardly. "Perhaps... I just feel that my delusions have been shattered? I always felt that Master Fan was the kind of noble and pure official who lay in a vineyard, studying literature and verse, paying no attention to the dirty matters of the court."
Hou Jichang shook his head disapproving
ly. "That sort of person may appear to rise above the dirt of this world, but they are of no use to the state and no benefit to the people," he said coldly. "If Master Fan really were that sort of literati type, I wouldn't care for him."
"Not necessarily. Not necessarily." Yang Wanli sighed.
Hou Jichang laughed a little. "I don't care if you laugh at me. A scholar can only dedicate himself to the service of the country if he enters the court as an official. And court politics are terrible and complicated. How can outsiders like us even begin to understand them? So the reason that Master Fan came to us today was not because he needed us. It's because he knew we needed him."
He paused for a moment. "Though I may be somewhat lofty and unyielding, I am not stubborn and lacking in propriety. Since we have this opportunity, we must seize it. If we must follow someone in the court, then I think Fan Xian is the best man to follow. I think, as future officials, that this is the only way that we will not come into conflict with our everyday ideals."
The others all spoke at once. "Why?" Everyone was somewhat puzzled by Hou Jichang's resolute attitude. Hearing him stress it again made them even more curious.
Hou Jichang raised a teacup from the table. He looked at the tea that Fan Xian had left behind. He seemed somewhat lost in thought, and took a while to speak. "A palace favorite, walking on a rainy day, goes so far as to make sure that the water dripping from his umbrella does not fall into the pots of the street-side food peddlers hiding from the rain. He would rather he got wet himself, so he walks further to one side. Such an attentive and kindhearted person – if he is not evil, then he must be a great sage."
He smiled. "A seventeen-year-old boy cannot hide himself so easily anytime and anywhere he pleases. So I believe that Master Fan is a great sage. My judgment is simple because I was moved by the incident in the rain."
There was silence in the room. Sometime later, there was the sound of sobbing.
The next day, on the vermilion wall on the left side of the exam hall, they had finally pasted up the sheet of yellow parchment that the students had been waiting for. The custom of choosing scholars in the civil service exams was simple. First were the provincial exams, then the metropolitan exams. From the metropolitan exams, the third-rank candidates were chosen, but they were not given ranks; instead they were arranged upon the royal announcement depending on the stroke order of the characters of their names.
The number of third-rank candidates varied from year to year, because a special extra exam was held every third year, so the other two years had fewer candidates. This year, the royal proclamation contained 108 names. Because fewer people had been chosen, whether they were students from the Imperial College in the capital, or those who had come from all the other regions of the land to take the exam, everyone was anxious and uncomfortable.
On the west side of the exam hall was a bridge. If you wanted to see the scroll on the vermilion wall, you had to cross the bridge. A crowd of students had already gathered beneath the vermilion wall wearing their long scholars' robes, craning their necks to nervously scan for their own names on the large yellow parchment.
Already reassured, Hou Jichang and Yang Wanli made their way slowly across the bridge. It was still soaked from yesterday's rain, and the moss on the stones looked particularly slippery. The four of them walked along. Cheng Jialin almost fell over, which provoked laughter from the others. Cheng Jialin laughed at himself too. Although he and Shi Chanli were just as slow as the other two men, they were inevitably much more nervous.
Coming to the vermilion wall, the four of them made their way through the crowd with some difficulty and started from the left-hand side. Quite some time passed. Suddenly, they heard Shi Chanli shout happily: "Brother Hou, Brother Hou! You passed! You passed!"
When the other three heard, they rushed to Shi Chanli's side. Sure enough, astonished, they saw Hou Jichang's name on the top of the third line. They couldn't help but feel excited. Yang Wanli gently clapped his hands on Hou Jichang's shoulder. He had a big smile on his face.
Hou Jichang smiled, wanting to show off a little, but this was a major event! Although he called himself noble and virtuous, he thought of the decade he spent studying, the earnest hopes of his parents at home, and the envious glances of his fellow scholars, and he couldn't help but feel elated. He couldn't stop his lips from forming a delighted smile.
At that moment, the characters for "Hou Jichang", written in golden ink, seemed to glitter in the sunlight. They looked priceless beyond measure. His future was boundless.
The four of them stuck together, and decided to start reading from the right-hand side. And some time later, they finally found Yang Wanli's name. Finally, he believed what Fan Xian had said the day before. Seeing his name on the Emperor's list, Yang Wanli was overcome with emotion. His eyes reddened, and he mumbled to himself. "I passed. I really passed."
He suddenly gave a strange yell, burst out of the crowd, ran to the side of the bridge, and howled as he faced the water under the bridge. The sound reverberated from underneath the bridge, making a humming sound.
The three friends laughed as the watched him, knowing why he was so excited. Yang Wanli had lost his mother at eight years old. He had hardship bitter upbringing in Quanzhou. His father, enduring hunger and cold, had bought him a large collection of books, and urged him to enter a clan school and study. With great difficulty, he had gone through the provincial exams, and had finally come to the capital.
But in the capital in January, Yang Wanli had finally discovered that although he had talent, and his grasp of policy and reason was more practical than his peers, his distant mountain home and his ramshackle clan school had not taught him the flourishing rhetoric of the other scholars in the capital. His essays were always dry and uninteresting.
So even his close friends Hou Jichang and Shi Chanli did not believe that he would be chosen. And neither did Yang Wanli. So he had spent a lot of money on a very fine padded jacket, hiding Shi Chanli's essay inside it, thinking he would take a gamble.
He had not expected that before entering the exam hall, he would be called up by the proctor Fan Xian. At that moment, he wanted to die, thinking that his decade of assiduous studying would have been wasted. He had not expected young Master Fan would give him a second chance.
After he finished the exam and left the hall, he had not dared to use the cheat sheet stuffed inside the jacket. Naturally, his policy essay and his poetic essay had not gone well, so he put all thoughts out of his mind, and turned to drink and merriment. But when he heard that Miniser Guo had been arrested, there was a smile on his face. He never imagined that Master Fan would come to the Tongfu Tavern the day before to tell him personally, in secret, that he had achieved third rank.
His grief had turned to joy; his despair had turned to hope. He had been battered by that state of mind until today, after he had crossed the bridge and stood beneath the vermilion wall, believing more and more that Fan Xian's visit the day before had been a dream – that he could not have passed.
And yet, he had passed!
Yang Wanli looked at his distorted appearance in the rippling waters and calmed himself slightly. Naturally, he understood why his fortune had turned in such a short span of time. He felt truly grateful to that young master.