Treasured Sword, Golden Hairpin, Chapter 1, Part 1.
from Wang Dulu's Baojian Jinchai.
Hebei Province (once called Zhili) is cradled on the south by the Yellow River and couched against the Yan Mountains to the north. To the east is the vast Bo Sea, to the west stretched the Taihang Mountains unbroken for hundreds of miles, upon which rested the massive historical remains of the Great Wall, and in the center there lay an expansive plain. The rivers Sha, Hutuo, Yongding and the like flowed through the heart of this expansive plain. Owing to the geographic terrain, it is no wonder that the states of Yan, Zhao and others vied for dominance here, and that Beijing was able to serve as the capital for so many hundreds of years. The people here were of a rustic disposition. They spoke of loyalty and piety, esteemed valiant righteousness, valued words of promise, and treasured martial skill. Hence spoke the Tang Dynasty's Han Wengong, "Yan and Zhao were called in times past the lands of much bravery and valor." Even among the common people, there were high praises of absolute sincerity. These were the customs created wholly by the historical traditions and geographic environment here.
This book tells of the emergence of an old xia from the early Qing Dynasty in Julu County of Zhili Province. This man was surnamed Yu, called Xiongyuan, and his years were over sixty. From childhood on, he had learned a whole body of superhuman martial arts, and when he was eighteen years, he joined the security trade and knocked about Jianghu, traveling as a bodyguard to myriad locales. He had formerly subdued many of Jianghu's bullies, and performed deeds generous and just. The people of Jianghu dubbed him the "Iron-winged Eagle." Then, when he became old, people simply called him the "Old Eagle." The old escort Yu very much liked when people addressed him thus.
The old escort Yu had originally worked for the Taixing Security Firm in Beijing. Because the Taixing Security Firm had one such escort as him, they did over twenty years of good business and were called the best security office in the capital. When he reached his forties, the old escort Yu was no longer willing to rely on the plans of others and so returned to his hometown of Julu and opened the Xiongyuan Security Firm. This security firm of his did not require the use of many escorts, for when they accepted custom, they simply inserted his security flags in front of the wagons and had the men at the escort wagons wear the firm's name. No matter how far they traveled, they never ran into trouble. Because of this, his security office gained the confidence of a number of merchants and so enjoyed over ten years of very good business.
However, there was one instance when the old escort Yu abruptly took a job by himself to Henan that lasted over a month. When he returned from Henan, he dismissed all his cohorts and tore down the placard for his security firm. From then on, he closed his business and never took another escort job. The old escort became an even better natured person than before and did not often leave home easily. Those who more or less knew the old escort Yu all talked to each other about him in private. Some said that something had happened to the old escort Yu's cart out there and he'd suffered a tumble; others said that he must have done something unlawful out there. But in the five or six years since the Xiongyuan Security Firm closed its doors, there was no word of anyone coming to find old escort Yu to request recompense for their security fee, nor did any officials come to arrest him. It was clear that most people had speculated incorrectly.
The old escort Yu's beard was now even whiter than before, but his body was still just as robust as it had been previously. Every day in the early morning, he would take his caged melodious laughingthrush to the teahouse and find acquaintances to chat with. After a little while, he would return home, close his doors and stay inside. The family situation of old escort Yu's home was uncomplicated; there was only his wife, Liu-shi and his daughter Xiulian, living in a few tile-roofed houses he'd built himself.
At this time, old escort Yu the Iron-winged Eagle's reputation had faded to a point where people did not pay as much attention to him. However, there was not one person in the city who didn't know his daughter the young lady Yu Xiulian. Because the young lady Yu was in fact born with an excess of beauty, it was said her stature wasn't tall or short, that she was extremely graceful, her face oval, and that her two bright, misty eyes appeared to smile even when she wasn't smiling. The two sides of her small cherry mouth served to enhance her two dimples, and though her feet were a smidgen large, they couldn't cover up the elegant manner of the maiden of sixteen wonderful years.
Because the young lady Yu Xiulian was born into a security escort's family, it was unavoidable that her bearing was straightforward and unlike that of a girl from a literary family who never left the ladies' chambers. Yu Xiulian's family did not employ an old housekeeper or any servant girls, so if she wanted to buy needle and thread, it was always up to her to go out and call upon a street peddler. Thus, it was often that people observed her elegant appearance. Of those who saw her, if they happened to be a young man, there were none who did not become enchanted with her and were not left with an indelible impression of her beauty in their minds. Naturally, there were quite a few local sons from wealthy families and frivolous young men who held wild intentions for the young lady Xiulian. However, they also knew that this young lady's father was the old escort Yu, called the "Iron-winged Eagle," so who would dare provoke the old eagle into spreading his iron wings because they wanted to approach this bunch of fresh flowers? The young lady Xiulian was outstanding of appearance, but her temperament was exceptionally kind, not easily looking upon others with her eyes. Every day, besides doing embroidery with her mother, she also learned martial arts from her father.
It was now the middle of the first month when the old escort's disciple-nephew Yu Tianjie the Golden Dart came unannounced to Julu county from Zhangde prefecture in Henan especially to pay his disciple-uncle a New Year visit. The old escort Yu had him stay in his home for a couple days as the two, uncle and nephew, spoke of much. After Yu Tianjie left, the old escort Yu seemed to be extremely worried, as if there was something important he was unable to speak to his old wife or daughter about. When evening came, he closed the front gate especially tightly, and instructed his old wife and daughter, saying, "From tomorrow on, if someone comes knocking on the door, you are not permitted to open it. You must come tell me first before it can be opened." The young lady Xiulian heard this and was puzzled, asking, "Papa, what do we need to be so careful for?" The old escort Yu seemed to be very anxious, as he said, "No questions, girl!" The young lady Xiulian's father had never spoken to her so sternly before, so she dared not ask any further.
The old escort took down a saber that had been hanging on the wall and unsheathed it with a shink. This saber was made deep blue and the old escort had employed it for over twenty years. The blade had drank the blood of several wicked men, but right now it had already been a good many years since the old escort had last used it. He weighed it in his hand and felt it a little heavy. The old escort couldn't help heaving a deep sigh and said to himself, "I am old after all and can no longer boast of my strength!" Saying this, he couldn't help but think, I was almost fifty before I had a child, and it turned out to be a girl. She's learned a set of martial arts from me, but when all's said and done, she doesn't have a talent for it. If Xiulian had been a boy, would I be so worried? He thought this, feeling the loneliness of old age, and couldn't help sighing again.
His old wife Liu-shi had been with Yu Xiongyuan for half his lifetime and frequently saw her husband laugh to himself or sigh repeatedly, so she didn't pay special mind to the old escort's current behavior. However, the young lady Xiulian was not accustomed to seeing her father so pained, so her young woman's heart became very pained itself. She glanced over at her mother and saw that she was still sitting by the lamp sewing clothes, not asking her father what the matter was. Xiulian couldn't help shedding a few tears. She didn't dare inquire further of her father, but she understood an inkling in her mind. She guessed that her father likely had an enemy somewhere out there who must be coming to take his revenge. Thus, Yu Tianjie must have come the day before yesterday, not particularly to pay her father a New Year visit, but to inform him of news that an enemy was on his way for retribution, so that's why her father was being so cautious and vigilant.
The young lady Xiulian's guesses were more or less on the mark. That night, her father did not end up sleeping well. In the middle of the night, she could still hear her father sighing in his bed, and the saber laid by the old escort's pillow all night. First thing the next morning, the old escort worked through his saber moves in the courtyard, as if he was in training. The young lady Xiulian was inside combing her hair, peering into the courtyard through glass, seeing only the glimmer of the saber, whoosh, whoosh, swirling about the old escort's body. It was exceptional saberwork! However, the old escort trained with the saber but only a quarter hour before pulling in from his saber stance. His face was red and sweat dripped from his head. He was panting heavily and blowing his snow white whiskers about. The young lady Xiulian's tears fell continuously. Looking askance through the mirror, she saw the door screen move as her mother entered the room. The young lady Xiulian quickly used a hand towel to wipe her face and put on some rouge to cover her tear stains.
This day, the old escort didn't go to the teahouse. The laughingthrush hung under the eaves and chirped endlessly, though the old escort seemed not to hear it. He paced the courtyard with his hands behind his back, looking up, as if he was thinking through a very important matter. The old escort was very jumpy, and whenever he heard a sound at the door, he would first go inside to retrieve his saber before he went to open it. The young lady Yu Xiulian was not wearing the wide-sleeved clothes she usually wore, but instead the narrow-sleeved, narrow-lapelled short clothes of blue cloth she wore when practicing martial arts. She would often lift her head and fix her gaze upon the set of double sabers suspended on the wall of her lady's chambers, thinking, When my father's enemy comes, my father needn't take action himself. I must have it out with him, also to let my father know that the aged man he is didn't pass his martial arts to me for nothing!
Father and daughter, they spent the next dozen or so days alert in this way with nothing happening at all, even less so a stranger coming to find the old security escort Yu. It wasn't until then that the young lady Xiulian became at ease, though she worried that her father might have gone a little crazy. Perhaps there hadn't been anything that caused the aged man to become so paranoid. There may not have been something in his past that had driven him do something shameful and made him act this way now. By this point, seeing that nothing had happened, everything about the old escort's manner returned to how it had been before. Every morning he would carry his laughingthrush's cage to the teahouse as before, and at home he talked and laughed with his old wife and daughter as before. It seemed as if there was no more fear in his heart.
A month and more passed by and it was now Qingming in the third month. According to custom, every family had to go to their ancestral tomb to burn paper offerings and sweep the tomb. The old escort Yu had one of this men from before by the name of Third Cui the Underground Ghost come to look after his home. The old escort Yu hired a mule wagon, and with the young lady Xiulian and her mother sitting inside and him straddling the wagon shaft, the wagon came out of their lane and followed the main street toward the north gate. As they rode on the main street, they passed by acquaintances who saw paper offerings, paper money, ingots and the like, hanging from the wagon, and bowed a greeting to the old escort Yu, saying, "Old uncle Yu, are you going to the tomb to burn paper offerings?" The old escort Yu sat smiling and nodding on the wagon, saying, "Exactly!" At the same time, the passersby would of course find it hard not to peer inside the carriage. The town's stunning beauty, the young lady Yu was wearing pink clothes as she sat inside, appearing like the peach blossoms that opened up in this third month.
When they came out of the north gate, they followed the wagon track to the east. The ancestral grave of the Yu clan was about sixteen miles of road northeast from the north gate, so it was a long ride in the mule wagon. At this time, wild wheat stalks sprouted green everywhere, and the peach blossoms by the village cottages were smiling at people. Little yellow butterflies and white ones danced amid the wild grass and wildflowers, and the warm easterly wind stroked people's faces and hands. The young lady Xiulian called out from inside the wagon with her tender voice, "Papa, look! The wheat sprouts have grown so tall already!" Old escort Yu agreed completely, "They really have! There will definitely be a great harvest this year." As he said so, he gazed at the countless tombs twisting their way between the wheat fields. Some of the tombs were piled with already burned paper ash, while others had people wearing mourning clothes crying next to them. The old escort Yu stroked his white beard as it was blown about by the spring wind, and felt an indescribable melancholy, as if he felt he was already sixty-some years of age and feared that in a few years, he would be at his eternal rest under the earth! At this moment, the young lady Xiulian's internal reflections were unlike those of her father. Her heart was overflowing with happiness at the newly dangling green willows, the freshly blooming peach blossoms and the fragrant wildflowers growing everywhere. The old married woman was like a wooden figure. She sat in the innermost part of the wagon, not looking at or thinking about anything, hoping only to hurry to the gravesite so they could finish burning the paper offerings and return home, where she could then take apart and wash her lined clothing.
The wagon traveled until the first hour of the afternoon before arriving at the gravesite. In the past, the Yu family had always been people who made their living by the martial arts, though none were personages of renown, so not only were there no stelae erected atop the gravesite, there wasn't even a tree planted anywhere. Xiulian and her mother stepped out of the wagon, and the old escort Yu brought them to kowtow and burn offerings before every grave. They then went to the nearby home of the person who looked after the graves to rest a while, drinking a bit of tea and eating some simple refreshments, before getting onto the wagon and heading back.
The wagon traveled five or six miles and they could already see the Julu county north gate towers in the distance. Just then four riders approached them from the front, the first of which was a young man atop a black horse, with over twenty years, large eyes and a purple-red face. When he came before the old escort Yu's wagon, he hollered, "Come down, come down!" The old master Yu's expression had already turned by now, as the four men all dismounted their horses, each of them drawing a bright saber of their own. The one with the purple-red face sneered at the old security escort Yu, "Today I can consider my father's great grievance avenged!" So saying, they advanced together to pull old escort Yu from the wagon.