The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 32

a Branch of Plum

Genji was immersed in preparations for his daughter’s initiation ceremonies. Similar ceremonies were to be held for the crown prince in the Second Month. The girl was to go to court immediately afterwards.

It was now the end of the First Month. In his spare time Genji saw to blending the perfumes she would take with her. Dissatisfied with the new ones that had come from the assistant viceroy of Kyushu, he had old Chinese perfumes brought from the Nijō storehouses.

“It is with scents as with brocades: the old ones are more elegant and congenial.

Then there were cushions for his daughter’s trousseau, and covers and trimmings and the like. New fabrics did not compare with the damasks and red and gold brocades which an embassy had brought from Korea early in his father’s reign. He selected the choicest of them and gave the Kyushu silks and damasks to the serving women.

He laid out all the perfumes and divided them among his ladies. Each of them was to prepare two blends, he said. At Rokujō and elsewhere people were busy with gifts for the officiating priests and all the important guests. Every detail, said Genji, must be of the finest. The ladies were hard at work at their perfumes, and the clatter of pestles was very noisy indeed.

Setting up his headquarters in the main hall, apart from Murasaki, Genji turned with great concentration to blending two perfumes the formulas for which — how can they have come into his hands? — had been handed down in secret from the day of the emperor Nimmyō. In a deeply curtained room in the east wing Murasaki was at work on blends of her own, after the secret Hachijō tradition. The competition was intense and the security very strict.

“Let the depths and shallows be sounded,” said Genji solemnly, “before we reach our decisions.” His eagerness was so innocent and boyish that few would have taken him for the father of the initiate.

The ladies reduced their staffs to a minimum and let it be known that they were not limiting themselves to perfumes but were concerned with accessories too. They would be satisfied with nothing but the best and most original jars and boxes and censers.

They had exhausted all their devices and everything was ready. Genji would review the perfumes and seal the best of them in jars.

Prince Hotaru came calling on the tenth of the Second Month. A gentle rain was falling and the rose plum near the veranda was in full and fragant bloom. The ceremonies were to be the next day. Very close since boyhood, the brothers were admiring the blossoms when a note came attached to a plum branch from which most of the blossoms had fallen. It was from Princess Asagao, said the messenger. Prince Hotaru was very curious, having heard rumors.

“I made certain highly personal requests of her,” said Genji, smiling and putting the letter away. “I am sure that as always she has complied with earnest efficiency.”

The princess had sent perfumes kneaded into rather large balls in two jars, indigo and white, the former decorated with a pine branch and the latter a branch of plum. Though the cords and knots were conventional, one immediately detected the hand of a lady of taste. Inspecting the gifts and finding them admirable, the prince came upon a poem in faint ink which he softly read over to himself.

“Its blossoms fallen, the plum is of no further use.

Let its fragrance sink into the sleeves of another.”

Yūgiri had wine brought for the messenger and gave him a set of lady’s robes, among them a Chinese red lined with purple.

Genji’s reply, tied to a spray of rose plum, was on red paper.

“And what have you said to her?” asked the prince. “Must you be so

“I would not dream of having secrets from you.”

This, it would seem, is the poem which he jotted down and handed to his brother:

“The perfume must be hidden lest people talk,

But I cannot take my eye from so lovely a blossom.”

“This grand to-do may strike you as frivolous,” said Genji, “but a man does go to very great troubles when he has only one daughter. She is a homely little thing whom I would not wish strangers to see, and so I am keeping it in the family by asking the empress to officiate. The empress is a lady of very exacting standards, and even though I think of her as one of the family I would not want the smallest detail to be wrong.”

“What better model could a child have than an empress?”

The time had come to review the perfumes.

“It should be on a rainy evening,” said Genji. “And you shall judge them. Who if not you?”

He had censers brought in. A most marvelous display was ranged before the prince, for the ladies were determined that their manufactures be presented to the very best advantage.

“I am hardly the one who knows,” said the prince.

He went over them very carefully, finding this and that delicate flaw, for the finest perfumes are sometimes just a shade too insistent or too bland.

Genji sent for the two perfumes of his own compounding. It being in the old court tradition to bury perfumes beside the guardsmen’s stream, he had buried them near the stream that flowed between the main hall and the west wing. He dispatched Koremitsu’s son, now a councillor, to dig them up. Yūgiri brought them in.

“You have assigned me a most difficult task,” said the prince. “I fear that my judgment may be a bit smoky.”

The same tradition had in several fashions made its way down to the several contestants. Each had added ingeniously original touches. The prince was faced with many interesting and delicate problems.

Despite Asagao’s self-deprecatory poem, her “dark” winter incense was judged the best, somehow gentler and yet deeper than the others. The prince decided that among the autumn scents, the “chamberlain’s perfumes,” as they are called, Genji’s had an intimacy which however did not insist upon itself. Of Murasaki’s three, the plum or spring perfume was especially bright and original, with a tartness that was rather daring.

“Nothing goes better with a spring breeze than a plum blossom,” said the prince.

Observing the competition from her summer quarter, the lady of the orange blossoms was characteristically reticent, as inconspicuous as a wisp of smoke from a censer. She finally submitted a single perfume, a summer lotus-leaf blend with a pungency that was gentle but firm. In the winter quarter the Akashi lady had as little confidence that she could hold her own in such competition. She finally submitted a “hundred pace” sachet from an adaptation of Minamoto Kintada’s formula by the earlier Suzaku emperor, of very great delicacy and refinement.

The prince announced that each of the perfumes was obviously the result of careful thought and that each had much to recommend it.

“A harmless sort of conclusion,” said Genji.

The moon rose, there was wine, the talk was of old times. The mist-enshrouded moon was weirdly beautiful, and the breeze following gently upon the rain brought a soft perfume of plum blossoms. The mixture of scents inside the hall was magical.

It was the eve of the ceremony. The stewards’ offices had brought musical instruments for a rehearsal. Guests had gathered in large numbers and flute and koto echoed through all the galleries. Kashiwagi, Kōbai, and Tō no Chūjō‘s other sons stopped by with formal greetings. Genji insisted that they join the concert. For Prince Hotaru there was a lute, for Genji a thirteen-stringed koto, for Kashiwagi, who had a quick, lively touch, a Japanese koto. Yūgiri took up a flute, and the high, clear strains, appropriate to the season, could scarcely have been improved upon. Beating time with a fan, Kōbai was in magnificent voice as he sang “A Branch of Plum.” Genji and Prince Hotaru joined him at the climax. It was Kōbai who, still a court page, had sung “Takasago” at the rhyme-guessing contest so many years before. Everyone agreed that though informal it was an excellent concert.

Prince Hotaru intoned a poem as wine was brought in:

“The voice of the warbler lays a deeper spell

Over one already enchanted by the blossoms.

“For a thousand years, if they do not fall?”

Genji replied:

“Honor us by sharing our blossoms this spring

Until you have taken on their hue and fragrance.”

Kashiwagi recited this poem as he poured for Yūgiri:

“Sound your bamboo flute all through the night

And shake the plum branch where the warbler sleeps.”

Yūgiri replied:

“I thought we wished to protect them from the winds,

The blossoms you would have me blow upon madly.

“Most unthinking of you, sir.” There was laughter.

This was Kōbai’s poem:

“Did not the mists intercede to dim the moonlight

The birds on these branches might burst into joyous blossom.”

And indeed music did sound all through the night, and it was dawn when Prince Hotaru made ready to leave. Genji had a set of informal court robes and two sealed jars of perfume taken out to his carriage.

“If she catches a scent of blossoms upon these robes,

My lady will charge me with having misbehaved.”

“How very sad for you,” said Genji, coming out as the carriage was being readied.

“I should have thought your lady might be pleased

To have you come home all flowers and brocades.

“She can scarcely be witness to such a sight every day.”

The prince could not immediately think of an answer.

There were modest but tasteful gifts, ladies’ robes and the like, for all the other guests.

Genji went to the southwest quarter early that evening. A porch at the west wing, where Akikonomu was in residence, had been fitted out for the ceremony. The women whose duty it would be to bind up the initiate’s hair were already in attendance. Murasaki thought it a proper occasion to visit Akikonomu. Each of the two ladies had a large retinue with her. The ceremonies reached a climax at about midnight with the tying of the ceremonial train. Though the light was dim, Akikonomu could see that the girl was very pretty indeed.

“Still a gawky child,” said Genji. “I am giving you this glimpse of her because I know you will always be good to her. It awes me to think of the precedent we are setting.”

“Do I make a difference?” replied Akikonomu, very young and pretty herself. “None at all, I should have thought.”

Such a gathering of beauty, said Genji, was itself cause for jubilation.

The Akashi lady was of course saedthat she would not see her daughter on this most important of days. Genji debated the possibility of inviting her but concluded that her presence would make people talk and that the talk would do his daughter no good.

I shall omit the details. Even a partial account of a most ordinary ceremony in such a house can be tedious at the hands of an incompetent

The crown prince’s initiation took place later in the month. He was mature for his years and the competition to enter his service should have been intense. It seemed to the Minister of the Left, however, that Genji’s plans for his daughter made the prospects rather bleak for other ladies. Colleagues with nubile daughters tended to agree, and kept the daughters at home.

“How petty of them,” said Genji. “Do they want the prince to be lonely? Don’t they know that court life is only interesting when all sorts of ladies are in elegant competition?”

He postponed his daughter’s debut. The Minister of the Left presently relented and dispatched his third daughter to court. She was called Reikeiden.

It was now decided that Genji’s daughter would go to court in the Fourth Month. The crown prince was very impatient. The hall in which Genji’s mother had lived and Genji had had his offices was now assigned to his daughter. The finest craftsmen in the land were busy redecorating the rooms, which it might have seemed were splendid enough already. Genji himself went over the plans and designs.

And there was her library, which Genji hoped would be a model for later generations. Among the books and scrolls were masterpieces by calligraphers of an earlier day.

“We live in a degenerate age,” said Genji “Almost nothing but the ‘ladies’ hand’ seems really good. In that we do excel. The old styles have a sameness about them. They seem to have followed the copybooks and allowed little room for original talent We have been blessed in our own day with large numbers of fine calligraphers. Back when I was myself a student of the’ladies’ hand’ I put together a rather distinguished collection. he finest specimens in it, quite incomparable, I thought, were some informal jottings by the mother of the present empress. I thought that I had never seen anything so fine. I was so completely under their spell that I behaved in a manner which I fear did damage to her name. Though the last thing I wanted to do was hurt her, she became very angry with me. But she was a lady of great understanding, and I somehow feel that she is watching us from the grave and knows that I am trying to make amends by being of service to her daughter. As for the empress herself, she writes a subtle hand, but” — and he lowered his voice — “it may sometimes seem a little weak and wanting in substance.

“Fujitsubo’s was another remarkable hand, remarkable and yet perhaps just a little uncertain, and without the richest overtones. Oborozukiyo is too clever, one may think, and somewhat given to mannerism; but among the ladies still here to please us she has only two rivals, Princess Asagao and you yourself, my dear.”

“The thought of being admitted to such company overwhelms me,” said Murasaki.

“You are too modest. Your writing manages to be gentle and intimate without ever losing its assurance. It is always a pleasant surprise when someone who writes well in the Chinese style moves over to the Japanese and writes that just as well.”

He himself had had a hand in designing the jackets and bindings for several booklets which still awaited calligraphers. Prince Hotaru must copy down something in one of them, he said, and another was for a certain guards commander, and he himself would see to putting something down in one or two others.

“They are justly proud of their skills, but I doubt that they will leave me any great distance behind.”

Selecting the finest inks and brushes, he sent out invitations to all his ladies to join in the endeavor. Some at first declined, thinking the challenge too much for them. Nor were the “young men of taste,” as he called them, to be left out. Yūgiri, Murasaki’s oldest brother, and Kashiwagi, among others, were supplied with fine Korean papers of the most delicate hues.

“Do whatever you feel like doing, reed work or illustrations for poems or whatever.”

The competition was intense. Genji secluded himself as before in the main hall. The cherry blossoms had fallen and the skies were soft. Letting his mind run quietly through the anthologies, he tried several styles with fine results, formal and cursive Chinese and the more radically cursive Japanese “ladies’ hand.” He had with him only two or three women whom he could count on for interesting comments. They ground ink for him and selected poems from the more admired anthologies. Having raised the blinds to let the breezes pass, he sat out near the veranda with a booklet spread before him, and as he took a brush meditatively between his teeth the women thought that they could gaze at him for ages on end and not tire. His brush poised over papers of clear, plain reds and whites, he would collect himself for the effort of writing, and no one of reasonable sensitivity could have failed to admire the picture of serene concentration which he presented.

“His Highness Prince Hotaru.”

Shaking himself from his reverie and changing to informal court dress, Genji had a place readied for his guest among the books and papers. As the prince came regally up the stairs the women were delighted anew. The two brothers carried themselves beautifully as they exchanged formal greetings.

“My seclusion from the world had begun to be a little trying. It was thoughtful of you to break in upon the tedium.”

The prince had come to deliver his manuscript. Genji read through it immediately. The hand could not have been called strikingly original, but of its sort it was disciplined and orderly. The prince had chosen poems from the older anthologies and set each of them down in three short lines. The style was a good cursive that made spare use of Chinese characters.

“I had not expected anything half so good,” said Genji. “You leave me with no recourse but to break my brushes and throw them all away.”

“I do at least give myself high marks for the boldness that permitted me to enter such a competition.”

Genji could not very well hide the manuscript he had been at work on himself. They went over it together. The cursive Chinese characters on unusually stiff Chinese paper were very good indeed. As for the passages in the “ladies’ hand,” they were superb, gently flowing strokes on the softest and most delicately tinted of Korean papers. A flow of admiring tears threatened to join the flow of ink. The prince thought that he could never tire of such pleasures. On bright, bold papers made by the provisioner for our own royal court Genji had jotted down poems in a whimsical cursive style, the bold abandon of which was such as to make the prince fear that all the other manuscripts must seem at best inoffensive.

The guards commander had also hoped to give an impression of boldness, but a certain muddy irresolution was hidden, or rather an attempt had been made to hide it, by mere cleverness. The selection of poems, moreover, left him open to charges of affectation.

Genji was more secretive with the ladies’ manuscripts and especially Princess Asagao’s.

The “reed work” was very interesting, each manuscript different from the others. Yūgiri had managed to suggest the flow of water in generous, expansive strokes, and his vertical strokes called to mind the famous reeds of Naniwa. The joining of reeds anaswater was accomplished very deftly. There were sudden and bold variations, so that, turning a page, the reader suddenly came upon craggy, rocklike masses.

“Very fine indeed,” said the prince, a man of wide and subtle interests. “He has obviously taken it very seriously and worked very hard.”

As the conversation ranged over the varieties of calligraphy and manuscripts, Genji brought out several books done in patchwork with old and new papers. The prince sent his son the chamberlain to bring some scrolls from his own library, among them a set of four on which the emperor Saga had copied selections from the Manyōshū, and a Kokinshū at the hand of the emperor Daigo, on azure Chinese papers with matching jade rollers, intricate damask covers of a darker blue, and flat Chinese cords in multicolored checkers. The writing was art of the highest order, infinitely varied but always gently elegant. Genji had a lamp brought near.

“I could look at them for weeks and always see something new. Who in our own day can do more than imitate the smallest fragment?”

They were for Genji’s daughter, said the prince. “Even if I had a daughter of my own, I would want to be very sure that she was capable of appreciating them. As it is, they would rot ignominiously away.”

Genji gave the chamberlain a fine Korean flute and specimens of Chinese patchwork in a beautifully wrought aloeswood box.

He now immersed himself in study of the cursive Japanese styles. Having made the acquaintance of the more notable calligraphers, he commissioned from each a book or scroll for his daughter’s library, into which only the works of the eminent and accomplished were to be admitted. In the assembled collection there was not an item that could have been called indifferent, and there were treasures that would have filled gaps in the great court libraries across the seas. Young people were begging to see the famous patchwork. There were paintings too. Genji wanted his own Suma diary to go to his descendants, but decided that his daughter was perhaps still a little young for it.

Tō no Chūjō caught distant echoes of the excitement and was resentful. His daughter Kumoinokari was being wasted in the full bloom of her youth. Her gloom and boredom weighed on his own spirits — and Yūgiri seemed quite unconcerned. Tō no Chūjō knew that he would look ridiculous if he were suddenly to admit defeat. He was beginning to regret that he had not grandly nodded his acquiescence back in the days when Yūgiri was such an earnest plaintiff. He kept these thoughts to himself, and he was too honest with himself to be angry with the boy. Yūgiri was aware of them, but the people around Kumoinokari had once treated him with contempt and he was not going to give them the satisfaction of seeming eager. Yet he showed that he was still interested by not being even slightly interested in other ladies. These were matters which he could not treat of even in jest. It may have been that he was seeking a chance to show his councillor’s robes to the nurse who had had such contempt for the humbler blue.

Genji thought it time he was married. “If you no longer want the minister’s daughter, then Prince Nakatsukasa and the Minister of the Right have both let it be known that they would welcome a proposal. Suppose you were to take one of their daughters.”

Yūgiri listened respectfully but did not answer.

“I did not pay a great deal of attention to my father’s advice and so I am in no position to lecture to you. But I am old enough now to see what an unerring guide he would have been if I had chosen to listen.

“People think there is something odd about you because you are not married, and if in the end it seems to have been your fate to disappoint us, well, we can only say that you once showed promise. Do please always be on guard against the possibility that you are throwing yourself away because your ambitions have proven unreal.

“I grew up at court and had little freedom. I was very cautious, because the smallest mistake could make me seem reckless and giddy. Even so, people said that I showed promiscuous tendencies. It would be a mistake for you to think that because you are still relatively obscure you can do as you please The finest of men — it was true long ago and it is still true today — can disgrace themselves because they do not have wives to keep them from temptation. A man never recovers from a scandal, nor does the woman he has let himself become involved with. Even a difficult marriage can be made to work. A man may be unhappy with his wife, but if he tries hard he can count on her parents to help him. If she has none, if she is alone in the world and without resources, then pity for her can make him see her good points. The man of discrimination makes the best of the possibilities before him.”

It was when he had little else to do that he offered such advice.

But for Yūgiri the thought of taking another wife was not admissible. Kumoinokari was not comfortable with his attentions these days because she knew how disturbed and uncertain her Father was. She was sorry for herself too, but tried to hide her gloom. Sometimes, when the longing was too much for Yūgiri, there would be an impassioned letter. A more experienced lady, though aware that there was no one except the man himself to question about his intentions, might have suspected posing and posturing. She found only sentiments that accorded with her own.

Her women were talking. “It seems that Prince Nakatsukasa has reached a tacit understanding with Genji and is pushing ahead with the arrangements.”

Tō no Chūjō was troubled. There were tears in his eyes when, very gently, he told Kumoinokari what he had heard. “It seems very unkind of the boy. I suppose that Genji is trying to get back at me. I cannot give my consent now without looking ridiculous.”

Intensely embarrassed, she too was weeping. He thought her charming as she turned away to hide her tears. He left feeling more uncertain than ever. Should he make new attempts to learn what they all were thinking?

Kumoinokari went out to the veranda. Why was it, she asked herself, that the tide of tears must be forever waxing and joy forever on the wane? What would her poor father be thinking?

A letter from Yūgiri came in upon the gloom. She opened it, and could detect no change in his manner.

“This coldness takes you the usual way of the world

Am I the deviant, that I cannot forget you?”

She did not like this calm refusal to say anything of his new affair. Yet she answered.

“You cannot forget, and now you have forgotten.

You are the one who goes the way of the world.”

That was all. What could she possibly mean? He looked at it from this angle and that — so one is told — and could make no sense of it.

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