The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 20

The Morning Glory

Ch20_asago

Traditionally credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691).

Part of the Burke Albums, property of Mary Griggs Burke

The high priestess of Kamo, Princess Asagao, resigned her position upon the death of her father. Never able to forget ladies who had interested him, Genji had sent frequent inquiries after her health. Her answers were always very stiff and formal. She was determined never again to be the subject of rumors. He was of course not happy.

He learned that she had returned to her father’s Momozono Palace in the Ninth Month. The Fifth Princess, younger sister of the old emperor and aunt of Asagao and of Genji as well, was also in residence at Momozono. Genji paid a visit, making the Fifth Princess his excuse. The old emperor had been very fond of his sister and niece, and Genji could say that he had inherited a responsibility. They occupied the east and west wings of the palace, which already showed signs of neglect and wore a most melancholy aspect

The Fifth Princess received him. She seemed to have aged and she coughed incessantly. Princess Omiya, the mother of Genji’s dead wife, was her older sister, but the two were very different. Princess Omiya had retained her good looks to the end. A husky-voiced, rather gawky person, the Fifth Princess had somehow never come into her own.

“The world has seemed such a sad place since your father died. I spend my old age sniffling and sobbing. And now Prince Shikibu has left me too. I was sure that no one in the world would even remember me, and here you are. Your kind visit has done a great deal to dispel the gloom.”

Yes, she had aged. He addressed her most courteously. “Everything seemed to change when Father died. There were those years when with no warning and for no reason that I could see I languished in the provinces. Then when my good brother saw fit to call me back and I was honored with official position once more, I found that I ad little time of my own, and I fear that I have neglected you inexcusably. I have so often thought that I would like to call and have a good talk about old times.”

“As you say, it has been a very uncertain and disorderly world. Everywhere I look I see something more to upset me. And I have lived through it all quite as if I were no part of it. No one should be asked to live so long — but now that I see you back where you should be, I remember how I hated the thought of dying while you were still away.” Her voice cracked and wavered. “Just see what a handsome gentleman you have become. You were so pretty when you were little that it was hard to believe you were really meant for this world, and each time since I have had the same thought, that you might have been meant for somewhere else. They say that His Majesty looks just like you, but I don’t believe it. There can’t be two such handsome men.”

He smiled. She might have waited until he was out of earshot. “You praise me too highly. I neglected myself when I was in the provinces and I fear I have not shaken off the countrified look. As for His Majesty, there has been no one, past or present, to rival him in good looks. You are quite right when you say that there cannot be two such handsome men.”

“I think I may expect to live awhile longer if I may be honored from time to time with a visit like this. It is as if both years and sorrows were leaving me.” There was a pause for tears. “I was, I must admit it, envious of Princess Omiya that she had succeeded in establishing such close relations with you. There was evidence that Prince Shikibu was envious too.”

The conversation had taken an interesting turn. “A bond with Prince Shikibu’s house,” he said somewhat sardonically, “would have been an honor and a pleasure. But I fear that I was not made to feel exactly wanted.”

His eye had been wandering in the direction of the other wing. The Withered garden had a monochrome beauty all its own. He was restless. What would this quiet seclusion have done to Asagao?

“I think I will just look in at the other wing. She would think it rude of me not to.”

He passed through a gallery. In the gathering darkness he could still see somber curtains of mourning beyond blinds trimmed in dark gray. A wonderfully delicate incense came drifting towards him.

He was invited into the south room, for it would not do to leave him on the veranda. Asagao’s lady of honor came with a message.

“So you still treat me as if I were a headstrong boy. I have waited so long that I have come to think myself rather venerable, and would have expected the privilege of the inner rooms.”

“I feel as if I were awakening from a long dream,” the princess sent back, “and I must ask time to deliberate the patience of which you speak.”

Yes, thought Genji, the world was an uncertain, dreamlike place.

“One does indeed wait long and cheerless months

In hopes the gods will someday give their blessing.

“And what divine command do you propose to invoke this time? I have thought and felt a great deal, and would take comfort from sharing even a small part of it with you?”

The princess sensed cool purpose in the old urgency and impetuosity. He had matured. Yet he still seemed much too young for the high office he held.

“The gods will tell me I have broken my vows

For having had the briefest talk with You.”

“What a pity. I would have thought them prepared to let the gentle winds take these things away.”

There really was no one else like him. But she was in grim earnest, refusing to be amused when her lady of honor suggested that the god of Kamo was likely to take her no more seriously than he had taken Narihira. The years only seemed to have made her less disposed to welcome gallantry. Her women were much distressed by her coldness.

“You have given the interview quite the wrong turn.” Genuinely annoyed, he got up to leave. “We seem to grow older for purposes of suffering more massive indignities. Is it your purpose to reduce me to the ultimate in abjection?”

The praise was thunderous (it always had been) when he was gone. It was a time when the skies would have brought poignant thoughts in any case, and a falling leaf could take one back to things of long ago. The women exchanged memories of his attentions in matters sad and joyous.

He lay awake with his disappointment. He had the shutters raised early and stood looking out at the morning mist. Trailing over the withered flowers was a morning glory that still had one or two sad, frostbitten little blooms. He broke it off and sent it to Asagao.

“You turned me away in shame and humiliation, and the thought of how the rout must have pleased you is not comfortable.

“I do not forget the morning glory I saw.

Will the years, I wonder, have taken it past its bloom?

“I go on, in spite of everything, hoping that you pity me for the sad thoughts of so many years.”

It was a civil sort of letter which it would be wrong to ignore, said her women, pressing an inkstone upon her.

“The morning glory, wholly changed by autumn,

Is lost in the tangle of the dew-drenched hedge.

“Your most apt simile brings tears.”

It could not have been called a very interesting or encouraging reply, but he was unable to put it down. Perhaps it was the elegance of the handwriting, on soft gray-green paper, that so held him.

Sometimes, in an exchange of this sort, one is deluded by rank or an elegant hand into thinking that everything is right, and afterwards, in attempting to describe it, made to feel that it was not so at all. It may be that I have written confidently and not very accurately.

Not wishing to seem impulsive, he was reluctant to reply; but the thought of all the months and years through which she had managed to be cold and yet keep him interested brought some of his youthful ardor back. He wrote a most earnest letter, having summoned her messenger to the east wing, where they would not be observed. Her women tended to be of an easygoing sort, less than firm even towards lesser men, and their noisy praise had put her on her guard. She herself had always been uncompromising, and now she thought that they were too old and too conspicuous, he and she, for such flirtations. The most routine and perfunctory exchange having to do with the flowers and grasses of the seasons seemed likely to invite criticism. The years had not changed her. In annoyance and admiration, he had to admit that she was unusual.

Word that he had seen her got abroad in spite of everything. It was said that he was sending her very warm letters. The Fifth Princess, among others, was pleased. They did seem such a remarkably well-matched pair. The rumor presently reached Murasaki, who at first told herself that he would not dream of keeping such a secret from her. Then, watching him closely, she could not dismiss the evidences which she found of restlessness. So he was serious about something which he had treated as a joke. She and Asagao were both granddaughters of emperors, but somehow the other lady had cut the grander figure. If Genji’s intentions proved serious Murasaki would be in a very unhappy position indeed. Perhaps, too confident that she had no rivals, she had presumed too much upon his affections. It did not seem likely that he would discard her, at least in the immediate future, but it was quite possible that they had been together too long and that he was taking her for granted. Though in matters of no importance she could scold him most charmingly, she gave no hint of her concern when she was really upset. He spent much of his time these days gazing into the garden. He would spend several nights at court and on his return busy himself with what he called official correspondence, and she would conclude that the rumors were true. Why didihe not say something? He seemed like a stranger.

There were no festivals this year. Bored and fidgety, he set off for Momozono again one evening. He had taken the whole day with his toilet, choosThere were no festivals this year. Bored and fidgety, he set off for ing pleasantly soft robes and making sure that they were well perfumed. The weaker sort of woman would have had even fewer defenses against his charms than usual.

He did, after all, think it necessary to tell Murasaki. “The Fifth Princess is not well. I must look in upon her.”

He waited for a reply, but she was busying herself with the little girl. Her profile told him that all was not well.

“You seem so touchy these days. I cannot think why. I have not wanted to be taken for granted, like a familiar and rumpled old robe, and so I have been staying away a little more than I used to. What suspicions are you cherishing this time?”

“Yes, it is true. One does not enjoy being wearied of.” She turned away and lay down.

He did not want to leave her, but he had told the Fifth Princess that he would call, and really must be on his way.

So this, thought Murasaki, was marriage. She had been too confident.

Mourning robes have their own beauty, and his were especially beautiful in the light reflected from the snow. She could not bear to think that he might one day be leaving her for good.

He took only a very few intimate retainers with him. “I have reached an age,” he said, very plausibly, “when I do not want to go much of anywhere except to the palace. But they are having a rather sad time of it at Momozono. They had Prince Shikibu to look after them, and now it seems very natural, and very sad too, that they should turn to me.”

Murasaki’s women were not convinced. “It continues to be his great defect that his attention wanders. We only hope that no unhappiness comes of it.”

At Momozono the traffic seemed to be through the north gate. It would have been undignified for Genji to join the stream, and so he sent one of his men in through the great west gate. The Fifth Princess, who had not expected him so late on a snowy evening, made haste to order the gate opened. A chilly-looking porter rushed out. He was having trouble and there was no one to help him.

“All rusty,” he muttered. Genji felt rather sorry for him.

And so thirty years had gone by, like yesterday and today. It was a fleeting, insubstantial world, and yet the temporary lodgings which It offered were not easy to give up. The grasses and flowers of the passing seasons continued to pull at him.

“And when did wormwood overwhelm this gate,

This hedge, now under snow, so go to ruin?’,

Finally the gate was opened and he made his way in.

The Fifth Princess commenced talking, as always, of old times. She talked on and on, and Genji was drowsy. She too began to yawn.

“I get sleepy of an evening. I’m afraid I’m not the talker I used to be.”

The sounds which then began to emerge from her may have been snores, but they were unlike any he had heard before.

Delighted at this release, he started off. But another woman had taken over, coughing a very aged cough. “I had ventured to hope that you might remember me, but I see that you no longer count me among the living. Your late father used to call me Granny and have a good laugh over me.”

She identified herself and he remembered. It was old Naishi. He had heard that she had become a nun and that she and the old princess kept religious company, but it astonished him to learn that she was still alive.

“It seems a very long time since my father died. Even to think of those days somehow makes me sad. What a pleasure it is to hear your voice. You must be kind to me, as you would be kind to a fatherless wanderer.”

Evidence that he had settled down again and that she had his attention seems to have swept her back to the old years, and all the old coquettishness came forth anew. It was too evident, from the imperfect articulation, that the playful words came from a toothless old mouth. “Even as I spoke,” she said, and it seemed rather too much. He was both amused and saddened at the suggestion that old age had come upon her suddenly and undetected.

Of the ladies who had competed for the old emperor’s affections when Naishi was in her prime, some were long dead, and no doubt others had come upon sad days at the end of long lives. What a short life Fujitsubo had lived! A world which had already seemed uncertain enough was making another display of cruel uncertainty. Here serenely pursuing her devotions was a woman who had seemed ready for death even then and who had never had a great deal to recommend her.

Pleased that she had had an effect upon him, she moved on to other playful endeavors.

“I do not forget that bond, though years have passed,

For did you not choose to call me Mother’s mother?”

It was a bit extreme.

“Suppose we wait for another world to tell us

Of instances of a child’s forgetting a parent.

“Yes, it does seem a most durable bond. We must have a good talk about it sometime.”

And he left.

A few shutters were still open along the west wing, as if the princess did not want to make him feel completely unwelcome. The moon had come out and was shining upon the snow to turn the evening into a suddenly beautiful one. Such encounters as the one from which he had just emerged were held by the world to be inept examples of something or other.

His manner was very sober and proper this evening. “If I could have a single word directly from you expressing your dislike for me, then I might resign myself to what must be.”

But she was disinclined to grant him even this. Young indiscretion can be forgiven, and she had sensed that her late father was not ill disposed toward him; but she had rejected him, and that was that. At their age it was all most unseemly. The prospect of the single word he asked for left her in acute embarrassment. He thought her a very cold lady indeed, and she for her part wished he would give her credit for trying, through her intermediary, not to seem inhospitable. It was late and the wind was high and cold.

Though feeling very sorry for himself, he managed a certain elegance as he brushed away a tear.

“Long years of coldness have not chastened me,

And now I add resentment to resentment.

Though of course it is true that I came asking for it.”

He spoke as if to himself, and once again her women were noisy in agreeing that he was not being treated well.

She sent out an answer:

“I could not change if I wished at this late date.

I know that others do, but I cannot.

I leave things exactly as I find them.”

He did not wish to go storming out like an angry boy. “This must be kept secret,” he said in the course of whispered consultation with the woman who brought her messages. “I would not want to set a ridiculous example. It is of course not you but your lady — you must think it rather coy of me — to whom I should be commending the river Isara as a model.”

Her women were agreed that he had not been treated well. “Such a fine gentleman. Why must she be so stubborn? He seems incapable of the tiniest rudeness or recklessness.”

She knew well enough that he was a most admirable and interesting man, but she wanted no remark from her to join the anthems she heard all about her. He was certain to conclude that she too had succumbed —

was so shamelessly handsome. No, an appearance of warmth and friendliness would not serve her purposes. Always addressing him through an intermediary, she expressed herself carefully and at careful intervals, just short of what he might take for final silence. She wanted to lose herself in her devotions and make amends for her years away from the Good Law, but she did not want the dramatics of a final break. They too would amuse the gossips. Not trusting even her own women, she withdrew gradually into hed prayers. Prince Shikibu had had numerous children, her mother only one. She was not close to her half brothers and sisters. The Momozono Palace was neglected and her retinue was small. Now came this fine gentleman with his impassioned suit, in which everyone in sight seemed to be joining.

It is not to be imagined that Genji had quite lost his heart to the princess. It was rather that her coldness put him on his mettle. He did not wish to admit defeat. He was extremely careful these days about his behavior, which left no room for criticism. He knew how happy people were to pass judgment in such matters and he was no longer the Genji of the youthful indiscretions. He was not at this late date going to admit scandal into his life. Yet rejected suitors did look rather ridiculous.

His nights away from Nijō were more frequent. “I wonder if even in jest,” said Murasaki to herself. The tears would come, however she tried to hold them back.

“You are not looking well,” he said, stroking her hair. “What can be the trouble?” He gazed affectionately at her, and they seemed such a perfect pair that one would have wished to do a likeness of them. “The emperor has been very despondent since his mother’s death, and now that the chancellor is gone there is no one but me who can really make decisions. I have been terribly busy. You are not used to having me away so much, and it is very natural that you should be unhappy; but you have nothing at all to worry about. You are no longer a girl, and this refusal to understand is rather funny.” He smoothed the hair at her forehead, matted with tears. She looked away. “Who can have been responsible for your education, that you refuse to grow up?”

It was an uncertain and capricious world, and he grieved that anything at all should come between them. “I wonder if you might possibly have misconstrued the little notes I have sent to the high priestess of Kamo. If so, then you are very far from the mark. You will see for yourself one of these days. She has always been such a cold one. I have sought to intimidate her with what might be taken for love notes. Life is dull for her, it would seem, and sometimes she has answered. Why should I come crying to you with the answers when they mean so little to me? I must assure you once more that you have nothing to worry about.” He spent the whole day in her rooms.

There was a heavy fall of snow. In the evening there were new flurries. The contrast between the snow on the bamboo and the snow on the pines was very beautiful. Genji’s good looks seemed to shine more brightly in the evening light.

“People make a great deal of the flowers of spring and the leaves of autumn, but for me a night like this, with a clear moon shining on snow, is the best — and there is not a trace of color in it. I cannot describe the effect it has on me, weird and unearthly somehow. I do not understand people who find a winter evening forbidding.” He had the blinds raised.

The moon turned the deepest recesses of the garden a gleaming white. The flower beds were wasted, the brook seemed to send up a strangled cry, and the lake was frozen and somehow terrible. Into this austere scene he sent little maidservants, telling them that they must make snowmen. Their dress was bright and their hair shone in the moonlight. The older ones were especially pretty, their jackets and trousers and ribbons trailing off in many colors, and the fresh sheen of their hair black against the snow. The smaller ones quite lost themselves in the sport. They let their fans fall most immodestly from their faces. It was all very charming. Rather outdoing themselves, several of them found that they had a snowball which they could not budge. Some of their fellows jeered at them from the east veranda.

“I remember a winter when they made a snow mountain for your aunt, the late empress. There was nothing remarkable about it, but she had a way of making the smallest things seem remarkable. Everything reminds me of her. I was kept at a distance, of course, and did not have the good fortune to observe her closely, but during her years at court she was good enough to take me into her confidence. In my turn I looked to her for advice. She was always very quiet and unassertive, but I always came away feeling that I had been right to ask her. I think I never came away without some small thing that seemed very precious. I doubt that we will see anyone quite like her again. She was a gentle lady and even a little shy, and at the same time she had a wonderful way of seeing to the heart of things. You of course wear the same co1ors, but I do sometimes find that I must tax you with a certain willfulness.

“The Kamo priestess is another matter. With time on our hands and no real business, we have exchanged notes. I should say that she is the one who puts me to the test these days.”

“But the most elegant and accomplished one of them all, I should think, is Lady Oborozukiyo. She seemed like caution incarnate and yet those strange things did happen.”

“If you are naming the beautiful and interesting ones, she must be among them. It does seem a pity that there should have been that incident. A wild youth is not an easy thing to have on one’s conscience — and mine was so much tamer than most.” The thought of Oborozukiyo brought a sigh. “Then there is the lady off in the hills of whom you have such a low opinion. She is more sensitive and accomplished than one might expect from her rank. She demands rather special treatment and so I have chosen to overlook a tendency not to be as aware as she might of her place in the world. I have never taken charge of a lady who has had nothing at all to recommend her. Yet the really outstanding ones are rare indeed. The lady in the east lodge here is an example of complete devotion and dependability. I undertook to look after her when I saw her finer qualities, and I have found absolutely nothing in her behavior which I might call forward or demanding. We have become very fond of each other, and would both, I think, be sad at the thought of parting.” So they passed the night.

The moon was yet brighter, the scene utterly quiet.

“The water is stilled among the frozen rocks.

A clear moon moves into the western sky.”

Bending forward to look out at the garden, she was incomparably lovely. Her hair and profile called up most wonderfully the image of Fujitsubo, and his love was once again whole and undivided.

There was the call of a waterfowl.

“A night of drifting snow and memories

Is broken by another note of sadness.”

He lay down, still thinking of Fujitsubo. He had a fleeting dream of her. She seemed angry.

“You said that you would keep our secret, and it is out. I am unable to face the world for the pain and the shame.”

He was about to answer, as if defending himself against a sudden, fierce attack.

“What is the matter?”

It was Murasaki’s voice. His longing for the dead lady was indescribable. His heart was racing and in spite of himself he was weeping. Murasaki gazed at him, fear in her eyes. She lay quite still.

“A winter’s night, I awaken from troubled sleep.

And what a brief and fleeting dream it was?”

Arising early, sadder than if he had not slept at all, he commissioned services, though without explaining his reasons. No doubt she did blame him for her sufferings. She had tried very hard, it seemed, to do penance for her sins, but perhaps the gravest of them had remained with her. The thought that there are laws in these matters filled him with a sadness almost unbearable. He longed, by some means, to visit her where she wandered alone, a stranger, and to take her sins for his own. He feared that if he made too much of the services he would arouse suspicions. Afraid that a suspicion of the truth might even now be disturbing the emperor, he gave himself over to invoking the holy name.

If only they might share the same lotus in another world.

“I fear, in my longing, to go in search of her

And find not her shade on the banks of the River of Death.”

These are the thoughts, one is told, with which he tormented himself.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09