The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 44

Bamboo River

The story I am about to tell wanders rather far from Genji and his family. I had it unsolicited from certain obscure women who lived out their years in Higekuro’s house. It may not seem entirely in keeping with the story of Murasaki, but the women themselves say that there are numerous inaccuracies in the accounts we have had of Genji’s descendants, and put the blame on women so old that they have become forgetful. I would not presume to say who is right.

Tamakizura, now a widow, had three sons and two daughters. Higekuro had had the highest ambitions for them, and had waited eagerly for them to grow up; and then, suddenly, he was dead. Tamakazura was lost without him. He had been impatient to see his children in court service and now of course his plans had come to nothing. People go streaming off in the direction of power and prestige, and though the treasures and manors from Higekuro’s great days had not been dispersed his house was now still and silent.

Tamakazura came from a large and influential clan, but on such levels people tend to be remote, and Higekuro had been a difficult man, somewhat too open in his likes and dislikes. She found that her brothers kept their distance. Genji’s children, on the other hand, continued to treat her as if she were one of them. Only the empress, Genji’s daughter, had received more careful attention in his will, and Yūgiri was as friendly and considerate as a brother could possibly have been. He lost no opportunity to call on her or to write to her.

The sons went through their initiation ceremonies. Tamakazura wished very much that her husband were still alive, but no one doubted that they would make respectable careers for themselves all the same. The daughters were the problem. Higekuro had petitioned the emperor to take them into court service, and when the emperor was reminded that sufficient time had elapsed for them to have come of age he sent repeatedly to remind Tamakazura of her husband’s wishes. The empress was in a position of such unrivaled influence, however, that the other ladies, waiting far down the line for an occasional sidelong glance, were having a difficult time of it. And on the other hand Tamakazura would not wish it to seem that she did not think her daughters up to the competition.

There were friendly inquiries from the Reizei emperor too. He reminded her that she had long ago disappointed him.

“Perhaps you think me too old to be in the running, but if you were to let me have one of them she would be like a daughter to me.”

Tamakazura hesitated. She had been fated, it seemed, and the matter had always puzzled her, to hurt and disappoint the Reizei emperor. Certainly she had not wanted to. She felt awed and humbled now, and perhaps she was being given a chance to make amends.

Her daughters had acquired a numerous band of suitors. The young lieutenant, son of Yūgiri and Kumoinokari, was his father’s favorite, a very fine lad indeed. He was among the more earnest of the suitors. Tamakazura could not refuse him and his brothers the freedom of her house, for there were close connections on both sides of the family They had their allies among the serving women and had no trouble making representations. Indeed, they had become rather a nuisance, hovering about the house day and night.

There were letters too from Kumoinokari.

“He is still young and not at all important,” said Yūgiri himself, “but he does have his good points. Have you perhaps noticed them?”

Tamakazura would not be satisfied with an ordinary marriage for the older girl, but for the younger — well, she asked modest respectability and not much more. She was beginning to be a little afraid of the lieutenant. There were ominous rumblings to the effect that he would make off with one of the girls if he could not have her otherwise. Though his suit was certainly not beneath consideration, it would not help the prospects of one daughter if the other were to be abducted.

“I do not like it at all,” she said to her women. “You must be very careful.”

These instructions made it difficult for them to go on delivering his notes.

Kaoru, now fourteen or fifteen, had for some time been so close to the Reizei emperor that they might have been father and son. He was sober and mature for his years, a fine young man for whom everyone expected a brilliant future. Tamakazura would have been happy to list him among the suitors. Her house was very near the Sanjō house where he lived with his mother, and one or another of her sons was always inviting him over for a musical evening. Because of the interesting young ladies known to be in residence, he always found other young men on the premises. They tended to seem foppish and none had his good looks or confident elegance. The lieutenant, Yūgiri’s son, was of course always loitering about, his good looks dimmed by Kaoru’s. Perhaps because of his nearness to Genji, Kaoru was held in universally high esteem. Tamakazura’s young attendants thought him splendid. Tamakazura agreed that he was a most agreeable young man and often received him for a friendly talk.

“Your father was so good to me. The sense of loss is still overpowering, and I find myself looking for keepsakes. There is your brother, the minister, of course, but he is such an important man that I cannot see him unless I have a very good reason.”

She treated him like a brother and it was in that mood that he came visiting. She knew that, unlike other young men, he would do nothing rash or frivolous. His rectitude was such, indeed, that some of the younger women thought him a little prudish. He did not take at all well to their teasing.

Early in the New Year Kōbai came calling. He was Tamakazura’s brother, now Lord Inspector, and it was he who had delighted them long before with his rendition of “Takasago.” With him were, among others, a son of the late Higekuro who was full brother to Makibashira, now Kōbai’s wife. Yūgiri also came calling, a very handsome man in grand ministerial procession, all six of his sons among his attendants. They were all of them excellent young gentlemen and their careers were progressing more briskly than those of most of their colleagues. No cause for self-pity here, one would have said — and yet the lieutenant seemed moody and withdrawn. The indications were as always that he was his father’s favorite.

Tamakazura received Yūgiri from behind curtains. His easy, casual manner took her back to an earlier day.

“The trouble is that there has to be an explanation for every visit I make Visits to the palace are an exception, of course, for I must make them; but the most informal call is so hemmed in by ceremony that it hardly seems worth the trouble. I cannot tell you how often I have wanted to come for a talk of old times and have had to reconsider. Please send for these youngsters of mine whenever they can be of service. They have instructions to keep reminding you of their availability.”

“I am as you see me, a recluse quite cut off from the world. Your very great kindness somehow makes me all the more aware of how good your father was to me.” She spoke circumspectly of the messages that had come from the Reizei Palace. “I have been telling myself that a lady who goes to court without strong allies is asking for trouble.”

“I have had reports that the emperor too has been in communication with you. I scarcely know what to advise. The Reizei emperor is no longer on the throne, of course, and one may say that his great day is over. Yet the years have done nothing at all to his remarkable looks. I count over the list of my own daughters and ask whether one of them might not qualify, and have reluctantly decided not to enter them in such grand competition. You know of course that he has a daughter of his own, and one must always consider her mother’s feelings. Indeed, I have heard that people have been frightened off by exactly that question.”

“Oh, but I may assure you that I am interested in the proposal because she approves very warmly. She has little to occupy her, she has said, and it would be a great pleasure to help the Reizei emperor make a young lady feel at home.”

Tamakazura’s house was now thronging with New Year callers. Yūgiri went off to the Sanjō house of the Third Princess, Kaoru’s mother. She had no reason to feel neglected, for courtiers who had enjoyed the patronage of her father and brother found it impossible to pass her by. Tamakazura’s three sons, a guards captain, a moderator, and a chamberlain, went with Yūgiri, who presided over an even grander procession than before.

Kaoru called on Tamakazura that evening. The other young gentlemen having left — who could have found serious fault with any of them? — it was as if everything had been arranged to set off his good looks. Yes, he was unique, said the susceptible young women.

“Oh, that Kaoru. Put him beside our young lady here and you would really have something.”

It may have sounded just a little cheeky, but he was young and certainly he was very handsome, and his smallest motion sent forth that extraordinary fragrance. A discerning lady, however deeply cloistered, had to recognize his superiority.

Tamakazura was in her chapel and invited him to join her. He went up the east stairway and took a place just outside the blinds. The plum at the eaves was sending forth its first buds and the warbler was still not quite able to get through its song without faltering. Something about his manner made the women want to joke with him, but his replies were rather brusque.

A woman named Saishō offered a poem:

“Come, young buds — a smile is what we need,

To tell us that, taken in hand, you would be more fragrant.”

Thinking it good for an impromptu poem, he answered:

“A barren blossomless tree I have heard it called.

At heart it bursts even now into richest bloom.

“Stretch out a hand if you wish to be sure.”

“Lovely the color, lovelier yet the fragrance.” And it was indeed as if she meant to find out for herself.

Tamakazura had come forward from the recesses of the chapel. “What horrid young creatures you are,” she said gently. “Do you not know that you are in the presence of the most proper of young gentlemen?”

Kaoru knew very well that they called him “Lord Proper,” and he was not at all proud of the title.

The chamberlain, Tamakazura’s youngest son, was not yet on the regular court rosters and had no New Year calls to make. Refreshments were served on trays of delicate sandalwood. Tamakazura was thinking that though Yūgiri looked more and more like Genji as the years went by, Kaoru did not really look like him at all. Yet there was an undeniable nobility in his manner and bearing. Perhaps the young Genji had been like him. It was the sort of thought that always reduced her to pensive silence.

The women were chattering about the remarkable fragrance he had left behind.

No, Kaoru did not really like being Lord Proper. Late in the month the plum blossoms were at their best. Thinking it a good time to show them all that they had misjudged him, he went off to visit the apartments of the young chamberlain, Tamakazura’s son. Coming in through the garden gate, he saw that another young gentleman had preceded him. Also in casual court dress, the other did not want to be seen, but Kaoru recognized and hailed him. It was Yūgiri’s son the lieutenant, very frequently to be found on the premises. Exciting sounds of lute and Chinese koto were coming from the west rooms. Kaoru was feeling somewhat uncomfortable and somewhat guilty as well. The uninvited guest was not his favorite role.

“Come,” he said, when there was a pause in the music. “Be my guide. I am a complete stranger.”

Side by side under the plum at the west gallery, they serenaded the ladies with “A Branch of Plum.” As if to invite this yet fresher perfume inside, someone pushed open a corner door and there was a most skillful accompaniment on a Japanese koto. Astonished and pleased that a lady should be so adept at a ryo key, they repeated the song. The lute too was delightfully fresh and clear. It seemed to be a house given over to elegant pursuits. Kaoru was less diffident than usual.

A Japanese koto was pushed towards him from under the blinds. Each of the visitors deferred to the other so insistently that the issue was finally resolved by Tamakazura, who sent out to Kaoru through her son:

“I have heard that your playing resembles that of my father, the late chancellor, and would like nothing better than to hear it. The warbler has favored us this evening. Can you not be persuaded to do as well?”

He would look rather silly biting his finger like a bashful stripling. Though without enthusiasm, he played a short strain on the koto, from which he coaxed an admirably rich tone.

Tamakazura had not been close to her father, Tō no Chūjō, but she missed him, and trivial little incidents were always reminding her of him. And how very much Kaoru did remind her of her late brother Kashiwagi. She could almost have sworn that it was his koto she was listening to. She was in tears — perhaps they come more easily as one grows older.

The lieutenant continued the concert with “This House.” He had a fine voice and he was in very good form this evening. The concert had a gay informality that would not have been possible had there been elderly and demanding connoisseurs in the assembly. Everyone wanted to take part in it, and the music flowed on and on. The chamberlain seemed to resemble his father, Higekuro. He preferred wine to music, at which he was not very good.

“Come, now. Silence is not permitted. Something cheerful and congratulatory.”

And so, with someone to help him, he sang “Bamboo River.” Though immature and somewhat awkward, it was a commendable enough performance.

A cup was pushed towards Kaoru from under the blinds. He was in no hurry to take it.

“I have heard it said that people talk too much when they drink too much. Is that what you have in mind?”

She had a New Year’s gift for him, a robe and cloak from her own wardrobe, most alluringly scented.

“More and more purposeful,” he said, making as if to return it through her son. “There were all those other parties for the carolers,” he added, deftly turning aside their efforts to keep him on.

He always got all the attention, thought the lieutenant, looking glumly after him, in an even blacker mood than usual. This is the poem with which, sighing deeply, he made his departure:

“Everyone is thinking of the blossoms,

And I am left alone in springtime darkness.”

This reply came from one of the women behind the curtains:

“There is a time and place for everything.

The plum is not uniquely worthy of notice.”

The young chamberlain had a note from Kaoru the next morning. “I fear that I may have been too noisy last night. Was everyone disgusted with me?” And there was a poem in an easy, discursive style, obviously meant for young ladies:

“Deep down in the bamboo river we sang of

Did you catch an echo of deep intentions?”

It was taken to the main hall, where all the women read it.

“What lovely handwriting,” said Tamakazura, who hoped that her children might be induced to improve their own scrawls. “Name me another young gentleman who has such a wide variety of talents and accomplishments. He lost his father when he was very young and his mother left him to rear himself, and look at him, if you will. There must be reasons for it all.”

The chamberlain’s reply was in a very erratic hand indeed. “We did not really believe that excuse about the carolers.

“A word about a river and off you ran,

And left us to make what we would of unseemly haste.”

Kaoru came visiting again, as if to demonstrate his “deep intentions,” and it was as the lieutenant had said: he got all the attention. For his part, the chamberlain was happy that they should be so close, he and Kaoru, and only hoped that they could be closer.

It was now the Third Month. The cherries were in bud and then suddenly the sky was a storm of blossoms and falling petals. Young ladies who lived a secluded life were not likely to be charged with indiscretion if at this glorious time of the year they took their places out near the veranda. Tamakazura’s daughters were perhaps eighteen or nineteen, beautiful and good-natured girls. The older sister had regular, elegant features and a sort of gay spontaneity which one wanted to see taken into the royal family itself. She was wearing a white cloak lined with red and a robe of russet with a yellow lining. It was a charming combination that went beautifully with the season, and there was a flair even in her way of quietly tucking her skirts about her that made other girls feel rather dowdy. The younger sister had chosen a light robe of pink, and the soft flow of her hair put one in mind of a willow tree. She was a tall, proud beauty with a face that suggested a meditative turn. Yet there were those who said that if an ability to catch and hold the eye was the important thing, then the older sister was the great beauty of the day.

They were seated at a Go board, their long hair trailing behind them. Their brother the chamberlain was seated near them, prepared if needed to offer his services as referee.

His brothers came in.

“How very fond they do seem to be of the child. They are prepared to submit their destinies to his mature judgment.”

Faced with this stern masculinity, the serving women brought themselves to attention.

“I am so busy at the office,” said the oldest brother, “that I have quite abdicated my prerogatives here at home to our young lord chamberlain.”

“But my duties, I may assure you, are far more arduous,” said the second. “I am scarcely ever at home, and I have been pushed quite out of things.”

The young ladies were charming as they took a shy recess from their game.

“I often think when I am at work,” said the oldest brother, dabbing at his eyes, “how good it would be if Father were still with us.” He was twenty-seven or twenty-eight, and very handsome and well mannered. He wanted somehow to pursue his father’s plans for the sisters.

Sending one of the women down into the garden, a veritable cherry orchard, he had her break off an especially fine branch.

“Where else do you find blossoms like these?” said one of the sisters, taking it up in her hand.

“When you were children you quarreled over that cherry. Father said it belonged to you” — and he nodded to his older sister — “and Mother said it belonged to you, and no one said it belonged to me. I did not exactly cry myself to sleep but I did feel slighted. It is a very old tree and it somehow makes me aware of how old I am getting myself. And I think of all the people who once looked at it and are no longer living.” By turns jocular and melancholy, the brothers paid a more leisurely visit than usual. The older brothers were married and had things to attend to, but today the cherry blossoms seemed important.

Tamakazura did not look old enough to have such fine sons. Indeed she still seemed in the first blush of maidenhood, not at all different from the girl the Reizei emperor had known. It was nostalgic affection, no doubt, that had led him to ask for one of her daughters.

Her sons did not think the prospect very exciting. “Present and immediate influence is what matters, and his great day is over. He is still very youthful and handsome, of course — indeed, it is hard to take your eyes from him. But it is the same with music and birds and flowers. Every- thing has its day, its time to be noticed. The crown prince, now —”

“Yes, I had thought of him,” said Tamakazura. “But Yūgiri’s daughter dominates him so completely. A lady who enters the competition without very careful preparation and very strong backing is sure to find herself in trouble. If your father were still alive — no one could take responsibility for the distant future, of course, but he could at least see that we were off to a good start.” In sum, the prospect was discouraging.

When their brothers had left, the ladies turned again to the Go board. They now made the disputed cherry tree their stakes.

“Best two of three,” said someone.

They came out to the veranda as evening approached. The blinds were raised and each of them had an ardent cheering section. Yūgiri’s son the lieutenant had come again to visit the youngest son of the house. The latter was off with his brothers, however, and his rooms were quiet. Finding an open gallery door, the lieutenant peered cautiously inside. An enchanting sight greeted him, like a revelation of the Blessed One himself (and it was rather sad that he should be so dazzled). An evening mist somewhat obscured the scene, but he thought that she in the red-lined robe of white, the “cherry” as it is called, must be the one who so interested him. Lovely, vivacious — she would be “a memento when they have fallen.” He must not let another man have her. The young attendants were also very beautiful in the evening light.

The lady on the right was the victor. “Give a loud Korean cheer,” said one of her supporters, and indeed they were rather noisy in their rejoicing. “It leaned to the west to show that it was ours all along, and you people refused to accept the facts.”

Though not entirely sure what was happening, the lieutenant would have liked to join them. Instead he withdrew, for it would not do to let them know that they had been observed in this happy abandon. Thereafter he was often to be seen lurking about the premises, hoping for another such opportunity.

The blossoms had been good for an afternoon, and now the stiff winds of evening were tearing at them.

Said the lady who had been the loser:

“They did not choose to come when I summoned them,

and yet I trmble to see them go away.”

And her woman Saishō, comfortingly:

“A gust of wind, and promptly they are gone.

My grief is not intense at the loss of such weaklings.”

And the victorious lady:

“These flowers must fall. It is the way of the world.

But do not demean the tree that came to me.”

And Tayū, one of her women:

“You have given yourselves to us, and now you fall

At the water’s edge. Come drifting to us as foam.”

A little page girl who had been cheering for the victor went down into the garden and gathered an armful of fallen branches.

“The winds have sent them falling to the ground,

But I shall pick them up, for they are ours.”

And little Nareki, a supporter of the lady who had lost:

“We have not sleeves that cover all the vast heavens.

We yet may wish to keep these fragrant petals.

“Be ambitious, my ladies!”

The days passed uneventfully. Tamakazura fretted and came to no decision, and there continued to be importunings from the Reizei emperor.

An extremely friendly letter came from his consort, Tamakazura’s sister. “You are behaving as if we were nothing to each other. His Majesty is saying most unjustly that I seek to block his proposal. It is not pleasant of him even if he is joking. Do please make up your mind and let her come to us immediately.”

Perhaps it had all been fated, thought Tamakazura — but she almost wished that her sister would dispel the uncertainty by coming out in opposition. She sighed and turned to the business of getting the girl ready, and seeing too that all the women were properly dressed and groomed.

The lieutenant was in despair. He went to his mother, Kumoinokari, who got off an earnest letter in his behalf. “I write to you from the darkness that obscures a mother’s heart. No doubt I am being unreasonable — but perhaps you will understand and be generous.”

Tamakazura sighed and set about an answer. It was a difficult situation. “I am in an agony of indecision, and these constant letters from the Reizei emperor do not help at all. I only wish — and it is, I think, the solution least likely to be criticized — that someone could persuade your son to be patient. If he really cares, then someday he will perhaps see that his wishes are very important to me.”

It might have been read as an oblique suggestion that she would let him have her second daughter once the Reizei question had been settled. She did not want to make simultaneous arrangements for the two girls. That would have seemed pretentious, and besides, the lieutenant was still very young and rather obscure. He was not prepared to accept the suggestion that he transfer his affections, however, and the image of his lady at the Go board refused to leave him. He longed to see her again, and was in despair at the thought that there might not be another opportunity.

He was in the habit of taking his complaints to Tamakazura’s son the chamberlain. One day he came upon the boy reading a letter from Kaoru. Immediately guessing its nature, he took it from the heap of papers in which the chamberlain sought to hide it. Not wanting to exaggerate the importance of a rather conventional complaint about an unkind lady, the chamberlain smiled and let him read it.

“The days go by, quite heedless of my longing.

Already we come to the end of a bitter spring.”

It was a very quiet sort of protest compared to the lieutenant’s over-wrought strainings, a fact which the women were quick to point out. Chagrined, he could think of little to say, and shortly he withdrew to the room of a woman named Chūjō, who always listened to him with sympathy. There seemed little for him to do but sigh at the refusal of the world to let him have his way. The chamberlain strolled past on his way to consult with Tamakazura about a reply to Kaoru’s letter, and the sighs and complaints now rose to a level that taxed Chūjō‘s patience. She fell silent. The usual jokes refused to come.

“It was a dream that I long to dream again,” he said, having informed her that he had been among the spectators at the Go match. “What do I have to live for? Not a great deal. Not a great deal is left to me. It is as they say: a person even longs for the pain.”

She did genuinely pity him, but there was nothing she could say. Hints from Tamakazura that he might one day be comforted did not seem to bring immediate comfort; and so the conclusion must be that the glimpse he had had of the older sister — and she certainly was very beautiful — had changed him for life.

Chūjō assumed the offensive. “You are evidently asking me to plead your case. You do not see, I gather, what a rogue and a scoundrel you would seem if I did. A little more and I will no longer be able to feel sorry for you. I must be forever on my guard, and it is exhausting.”

“This is the end. I do not care what you think of me, and I do not care what happens to me. I did hate to see her lose that game, though. You should have smuggled me inside where she could see me. I would have given signals and kept her from losing. Ah, what a wretched fate is mine! Everything is against me and yet I go on hating to lose. The one thing I cannot overcome is a hatred of losing.”

Chūjō had to laugh.

“A nod from you is all it takes to win?

This somehow seems at odds with reality.”

It confirmed his impression of a certain want of sympathy.

“Pity me yet once more and lead me to her,

Assured that life and death are in your hands.”

Laughing and weeping, they talked the night away.

The next day was the first of the Fourth Month. All his brothers set off in court finery, and he spent the day brooding in his room. His mother wanted to weep. Yūgiri, though sympathetic, was more resigned and sensible. It was quite proper, he said, that Tamakazura should respect the Reizei emperor’s wishes.

“I doubt that I would have been refused if I had really pleaded your case. I am sorry.”

As he so often did, the boy replied with a sad poem:

“Spring went off with the blossoms that left the trees.

I wander lost under trees in mournful leaf.”

His agents, among the more important women in attendance upon Tamakazura and her daughters, had not given up. “I do feel sorry for him,” said Chūjō. “He says that he is teetering between life and death, and he may just possibly mean it.”

His parents had interceded for him, and Tamakazura had thought of consoling him, inconsolable though he held himself to be, with another daughter. She began to fear that he would make difficulties for the older daughter. Higekuro had said that she should not go to a commoner of however high rank. She was going to a former emperor and even so Tamakazura was not happy. In upon her worries came another letter, delivered by one of the lieutenant’s sentimental allies.

Tamakazura had a quick answer:

“At last I understand. This mournful mien

Conceals a facile delight with showy blossoms.”

“That is not kind, my lady.”

But she had too much on her mind to think of revising it.

The older girl was presented at the Reizei Palace on the ninth of the month. Yūgiri provided carriages and a large escort. Kumoinokari was somewhat resentful, but did not like to think that her correspondence with Tamakazura, suddenly interesting and flourishing because of the lieutenant’s tribulations, must now be at an end. She sent splendid robes for the ladies-in-waiting and otherwise helped with the arrangements.

“I was mustered into the service of a remarkably shiftless young man,” she wrote, “and I should certainly have consulted your convenience more thoroughly. Yet I think that you for your part might have kept me better informed.”

It was a gentle and circumspect protest, and Tamakazura had to admit that it was well taken.

Yūgiri also wrote. “Something has come up that requires me to be in retreat just when I ought to be with you. I am sending sons to do whatever odd jobs need to be done. Please make such use of them as you can.” He dispatched several sons, including two guards officers. She was most grateful.

Kōbai also sent carriages. He was her brother and his wife was her stepdaughter and so relations should have been doubly close. In fact, they were rather distant. One of Makibashira’s brothers came, however, to join Tamakazura’s sons in the escort. How sad it was for Tamakazura, everyone said, that her husband was no longer living.

From Yūgiri’s son the lieutenant there came through the usual agent the usual bombast: “My life is at an end. I am resigned and yet I am sad. Say that you are sorry. Say only that, and I shall manage to struggle on for a little while yet, I think.”

She found the two sisters together, looking very dejected. They had been inseparable, thinking even a closed door an intolerable barrier; and now they must part. Dressed for her presentation at the Reizei Palace, the older sister was very beautiful. It may have been that she was thinking sadly of the plans her father had had for her. She thought the note rather implausible, coming from someone who still had two parents living, and very splendid parents, too. Yet perhaps he was not merely gesturing and posing.

“Tell him this,” she said, jotting down a poem at the end of his note:

“When all is evanescence we all are sad,

And whose affairs does’sad’ most aptly describe?”

“An unsettling sort of note,” she added, “giving certain hints of what ‘sad’ may possibly mean.”

He shed tears of ecstasy at having something in the lady’s own hand — for his intermediary had chosen not to recopy it. “Do you think that if I die for love . . .?” he sent back. She did not think it a very well-chosen allusion, and what followed was embarrassing, in view of the fact that she had not expected the woman to pass on her words verbatim:

“How true. We live, we die, not as we ask,

And I must die without that one word ‘sad.’

“I would hurry to my grave if I thought I might have it there.”

She had only the prettiest and most graceful of attendants. The ceremonies were as elaborate as if she were being presented to the reigning emperor. It was late in the night when the procession, having first looked in on Tamakazura’s sister, proceeded to the Reizei emperor’s apartments. Akikonomu and the ladies-in-waiting had all grown old in his service, and now there was a beautiful lady at her youthful best. No one was surprised that the emperor doted upon her and that she was soon the most conspicuous lady in the Reizei household. The Reizei emperor behaved like any other husband, and that, people said, was quite as it should be. He had hoped to see a little of Tamakazura and was disappointed that she withdrew after a brief conversation.

Kaoru was his constant companion, almost the favorite that Genji had once been. He was on good terms with everyone in the house, including, of course, the new lady. He would have liked to know exactly how friendly she was. One still, quiet evening when he was out strolling with her brother the chamberlain, they came to a pine tree before what he judged to be her curtains. Hanging from it was a very fine wisteria. With mossy rocks for their seats, they sat down beside the brook.

There may have been guarded resentment in the poem which Kaoru recited as he looked up at it:

“These blossoms, were they more within our reach,

Might seem to be of finer hue than the pine.”

The boy understood immediately, and wished it to be known that he had not approved of the match.

“It is the lavender of all such flowers,

And yet it is not as I wish it were.”

He was an honest, warmhearted boy, and he was genuinely sorry that Kaoru had been disappointed — not that Kaoru’s disappointment could have been described as bitter.

Yūgiri’s son the lieutenant, on the other hand, seemed so completely unhinged that one half expected violence. Some of the older girl’s suitors were beginning to take notice of the younger. It was the turn which Tamakazura, in response to Kumoinokari’s petitions, had hoped his own inclinations might take, but he had fallen silent. Though the Reizei emperor was on the best of terms with all of Yūgiri’s sons, the lieutenant seldom came visiting, and when he did he looked very unhappy and did not stay long.

And so Higekuro’s very strongly expressed wishes had come to nothing. Wanting an explanation, the emperor summoned Tamakazura’s son the captain.

“He is very cross with us,” said the captain to Tamakazura, and it was evident that he too was much put out. “I did not keep my feelings to myself, you may remember. I said that people would be very surprised. You did not agree, and I found it very difficult to argue with you. Now we seem to have succeeded in alienating an emperor, not at all a wise thing to do.”

“Once again I do not entirely agree with you,” replied Tamakazura calmly. “I thought the matter over carefully, and the Reizei emperor was so insistent that I had to feel sorry for him. Your sister would have had a very difficult time at court without your father to help her. She is much better off where she is, of that I feel very sure. I do not remember that you or anyone else tried very hard to dissuade me, and now my brother and all of you are saying that I made a horrible mistake. It is not fair — and we must accept what has happened as fate.”

“The fate of which you speak is not something we see here before us, and how are we to describe it to the emperor? You seem to worry a great deal about the empress and to forget that your own sister is one of the Reizei ladies. And the arrangements you congratulate yourself upon having made for my sister — I doubt that they will prove workable. But that is all right. I shall do what I can for her. There have been precedents enough for sending a lady to court when other ladies are already there, so many of them, indeed, as to argue that cheerful attendance upon an emperor has from very ancient times been thought its own justification. If there is unpleasantness at the Reizei Palace and my good aunt is displeased with us, I doubt that we will find many people rushing to our support.”

Tamakazura’s sons were not making things easier for her.

The Reizei emperor seemed more pleased with his new lady as the months went by. In the Seventh Month she became pregnant. No one thought it strange that so pretty and charming a lady should have been plagued by suitors or that the Reizei emperor should keep her always at his side, a companion in music and other diversions. Kaoru, also a constant companion, often heard her play, and his feelings as he listened were far from simple. The Reizei emperor was especially fond of the Japanese koto upon which Chūjō had played “A Branch of Plum.”

The New Year came, and there was caroling. Numbers of young courtiers had fine voices, and from this select group only the best received the royal appointment as carolers. Kaoru was named master of one of the two choruses and Yūgiri’s son the lieutenant was among the musicians. There was a bright, cloudless moon, almost at full, as they left the main palace for the Reizei Palace. Tamakazura’s sister and daughter were both in the main hall, where a retinue of princes and high courtiers surrounded the Reizei emperor. Looking them over, one was tempted to conclude that only Yūgiri and Higekuro had succeeded in producing really fine sons. The carolers seemed to feel that the Reizei Palace was even more of a challenge than the main palace. The lieutenant was very tense and fidgety at the thought that his lady was in the audience. The test on such occasions is the verve with which a young man wears the rather ordinary rosette in his cap. They all looked very dashing and they sang most commendably. As the lieutenant stepped ceremoniously to the royal staircase and sang “Bamboo River,” he was so assailed by memories that he was perilously near choking and losing his place. The Reizei emperor went with them to Akikonomu’s apartments. As the night wore on, the moon was immodestly bright, brighter, it almost seemed, than the noonday sun. A too keen awareness of his audience was making the lieutenant feel somewhat unsteady on his feet. He wished that the wine cups would not come quite so unfailingly in his direction.

Exhausted from the night of caroling, which had taken him back and forth across the city, Kaoru was resting when a summons came from the Reizei Palace.

“Sleep is not permitted? “ But though he grumbled he set off once more.

The Reizei emperor wanted to know how the carolers had been received at the main palace.

“Isn’t it fine that you were chosen over all the old men to lead one of the choruses.”

He was humming “The Delight of Ten Thousand Springs” as he started for his new lady’s apartments. Kaoru went with him. Her relatives had come in large numbers to enjoy the caroling and everything was very bright and modish.

Kaoru was engaged in conversation at a gallery door.

“The moon was dazzling last night,” he said, “but I doubt that moons and laurels account entirely for an appearance of giddiness on the lieutenant’s part. It is just as bright up in the clouds where His Majesty lives, but the palace does not seem to have that effect on him at all.”

The women were feeling sorry for the lieutenant. “The darkness was completely defeated,” said one of them. “We thought the moonlight did better by you than by him.”

A bit of paper was pushed from under the curtains.

“‘Bamboo River,’ not my favorite song,

But somewhat striking, its effect last night.”

The tears that mounted to Kaoru’s eyes may have seemed an exaggerated response to a rather ordinary poem, but they served to demonstrate that he had been fond of the lady.

“I looked to the bamboo river. It has run dry

And left an arid, barren world behind it.”

This appearance of forlornness, they thought, only made him handsomer. He did not, like the lieutenant, indulge in a frenzy of grief, but he attracted sympathy.

“I shall leave you. I have said too much.”

He did not want to go, but the Reizei emperor was calling him.

“Yūgiri has told me that when your father was alive the music in the ladies’ quarters went on all through the morning, long after the carolers had left. No one is up to that sort of thing any more. What an extraordinary range of talent he did bring together at Rokujō. The least little gathering there must have been better than anything anywhere else.”

As if hoping to bring the good Rokujō days back, the emperor sent for instruments, a Chinese koto for his new lady, a lute for Kaoru, a Japanese koto for himself. He immediately struck up “This House.” The new lady had been an uncertain musician, but he had been diligent with his lessons and she had proved eminently teachable. She had a good touch both as soloist and as accompanist, and indeed Kaoru thought her a lady with whom it would be difficult to find fault. He knew of course that she was very beautiful.

There were other such occasions. He managed without seeming querulous or familiar to let her know how she had disappointed him. I have not heard how she replied.

In the Fourth Month she bore a princess. It was not as happy an event as it would have been had the Reizei emperor still been on the throne, but the gifts from Yūgiri and others were lavish. Tamakazura was forever taking the child up in her arms, but soon there were messages from the Reizei Palace suggesting that its father too would like to see it, and on about the fiftieth day mother and child went back to Reizei. Although, as we have seen, the Reizei emperor already had one daughter, he was delighted with the little princess, who certainly was very pretty. Some of the older princess’s women were heard to remark that paternal affection could sometimes seem overdone.

The royal ladies did not themselves descend to vulgar invective, but there were unpleasant scenes among their serving women. It began to seem that the worst fears of Tamakazura’s sons were coming true. Tamakazura was worried, for such incidents could bring cruel derision upon a lady. It did not seem likely that the Reizei emperor’s affection would waver, but the resentment of ladies who had been with him for a very long time could make life very unpleasant for the new lady. There had moreover been suggestions that the present emperor was not happy. Perhaps, thought Tamakazura, casting about for a solution, she should resign her own position at the palace in favor of her younger daughter. It was not common practice to accept resignations in such cases and she had for some years sought unsuccessfully to resign. The emperor remembered Higekuro’s wishes, however, and very old precedents were called in, and the resignation and the new appointment were presently ratified. The delay, Tamakazura was now inclined to believe, had occurred because the younger daughter’s destinies must work themselves out.

In the matter of the new appointment there yet remained the sad case of the lieutenant. Kumoinokari had supported his suit for the hand of the older daughter. Tamakazura had hinted in reply that she might let him have the younger. What might his feelings be now? She had one of her sons make tactful inquiry of Yūgiri.

“There have been representations from the emperor which have left us feeling somewhat uncertain. We would not wish to seem unduly ambitious.”

“It is only natural that the arrangements you have made for your older sister should not please the emperor. And now he proposes a court appointment for the younger, and one does not dismiss such an honor lightly. I suggest that you accept it, and with the least possible delay.”

Sighing that her husband’s death had left her and her daughter so unprotected, Tamakazura decided that she must now see whether the empress would approve of the appointment.

Everything was in order, and the calm, dignified efficiency with which the younger sister, very handsome and very elegant, acquitted herself of her duties soon made the emperor forget his dissatisfaction.

Tamakazura thought that the time had come to enter a nunnery, but her sons disagreed. “You will not be able to concentrate on your prayers until our sisters are somewhat more settled.”

Occasionally she paid a quiet visit at court, but because the Reizei emperor still seemed uncomfortably fond of her she did not visit his palace

when there were important matters to be discussed. She continued to reprove herself for her behavior long ago, and she had given him a daughter at a risk of seeming too ambitious. Any suggestion, even in jest, that she was now being coquettish would be more than she could bear. She did not explain the reasons for her diffidence, and so the Reizei daughter concluded that her old view of the situation had been correct. Her father had been fond of her but her mother had not. Even in such trivial matters as the contest for the cherry tree her mother had sided with her sister. The Reizei emperor let it be known that he too was resentful. Tamakazura’s conduct was not at all hard to understand, he said. A mother who has given a young daughter to a hoary old man prefers to keep her distance. He also let it be known that his affection for his new lady was if anything stronger.

After a few years, to everyone’s astonishment, a prince was born. What a fortunate lady, people said. So many of the Reizei ladies were still childless after all these years. The Reizei emperor was of course overjoyed, and only wished that he had had a son before he abdicated. There was so much less now that he could do for the child. He had doted upon one princess and then a second, and now he had a little prince, to delight him beyond measure. Tamakazura’s sister, the mother of the older princess, thought he was being a little silly, and she was no longer as tolerant of her niece as she once had been. There were little incidents and presently there was evidence that the two ladies were on rather chilly terms. Whatever her rank, it is always the senior lady in such instances who attracts the larger measure of sympathy. So it was at the Reizei Palace. Everyone, high and low, took the part of the great lady who had been with the Reizei emperor for so long. No opportunity was lost to show the younger lady in an unfavorable light.

“We told you so,” said her brothers, making life yet more difficult for Tamakazura.

“So many girls,” sighed that dowager, “live happy, inconspicuous lives, and no one criticizes them. Only a girl who seems to have been born lucky should think of going into the royal service.

The old suitors were meanwhile rising in the world. Several of them would make quite acceptable bridegrooms. Then an obscure cham- berlain, Kaoru now had a guards commission and a seat on the council. One rather wearied, indeed, of hearing about “his perfumed highness” and “the fragrant captain.” He continued to be a very serious and proper young man and stories were common of the princesses and ministers’ daughters whom he had been offered and had chosen not to notice.

“He did not amount to a great deal then,” sighed Tamakazura, “and look at him now.”

Yūgiri’s young son had been promoted from lieutenant to captain. He too was much admired.

“He is so good-looking,” whispered one of the cattier women. “He would have been a much better catch than an old emperor surrounded by nasty women.”

There was, alas, some truth in it.

The lieutenant, now captain, had lost none of his old ardor. He went on feeling sorry for himself, and though he was now married to a daughter of the Minister of the Left, he was not a very attentive husband. He was often heard declaiming or setting down in writing certain thoughts about a “sash of Hitachi.” Not everyone caught the reference.

Tamakazura’s older daughter, exhausted by the complications of life at the Reizei Palace, was now spending most of her time at home, a great disappointment to Tamakazura. The younger daughter was meanwhile doing beautifully. She was a cheerful, intelligent girl, and she presided over a distinguished salon.

The Minister of the Left died. Yūgiri was promoted to Minister of the Left and Kōbai to Minister of the Right. Many others were on the promotion lists, including Kaoru, who became a councillor of the middle order. A young man did well to be born into that family, people said, if he wished to get ahead without delay.

In the course of the round of calls that followed the appointment, Kaoru called on Tamakazura. He made his formal greetings in the garden below her rooms.

“I see that you have not forgotten these weedy precincts. I am reminded of your late father’s extraordinary kindness.”

She had a pleasant voice, soft and gently modulated. And how very youthful she was, thought Kaoru. If she had aged like other women the Reizei emperor would by now have forgotten her. As it was, there were certain to be incidents.

“I do not much care about promotions, but I thought it would be a good excuse to show you that I am still about. When you say I have not forgotten, I suspect you are really saying that I have been very neglectful.”

“I know that this is not the time for senile complaining, but I know too that it is not easy for you to visit me. There are very complicated matters that I really must discuss with you in person. My Reizei daughter is having a very unhappy time of it, so unhappy, indeed, that we cannot think what to do next. I was careful to discuss the matter with the Reizei empress and with my sister, and I was sure that I had their agreement. Now it seems that they both think me an impertinent upstart, and this, as you may imagine, does not please me. My grandchildren have stayed behind, but I asked that my daughter be allowed to come home for a rest. She really was having a most difficult time of it. She is here, and I gather that I am being criticized for that too, and indeed that the Reizei emperor is unhappy. Do you think you might possibly speak to him, not as if you were making a great point of it, in the course of a conversation? I had such high hopes for her, and I did so want her to be on good terms with all of them. I must ask myself whether I should not have paid more attention to my very modest place in the world.” She was trying not to weep.

“You take it too seriously. We all know that life in the royal service is not easy. The Reizei emperor is living in quiet retirement, we may tell ourselves, away from all the noise and bother, and his ladies should be sensible and forbearing. But it is too much to ask that they divest themselves of pride and the competitive instinct. What seems like nothing at all to us on the outside may seem intolerable effrontery to them. Royal ladies, empresses and all the others, are unbelievably sensitive, a fact which you were surely aware of when you made your plans.” She could not have accused him of equivocation. “The best thing would be to forget the whole problem. It would not do, I think, for me to intercede between the Reizei emperor and one of his ladies.”

She smiled. “I have entertained you with a list of complaints and you have treated it as it deserves.”

It was hard to believe that anyone so quietly and calmly youthful should be upset about the problems of a married daughter. Probably the daughter was very much like her. Certainly his Uji princess was. Just such qualities had drawn him to her.

The younger sister had come home from the palace and the house wore that happy air of being lived in. Easy, companionable warmth seemed to come to him through the blinds. The dowager could see that although he was very much in control of himself he was also very much on his mettle, and again she thought what a genuinely satisfactory son-in-law he would make.

Kōbai’s mansion was immediately to the east. Young courtiers had gathered in large numbers to help with the grand ministerial banquet. Niou had declined Kōbai’s invitation to be present, although he had attended the banquet given by the Minister of the Left after the archery meet and the banquet after the wrestling matches, and it had been hoped that he would lend his radiance to this occasion as well. Kōbai was thinking about the arrangements he must make for his much-loved daughters, and Niou did not for some reason seem interested. Kōbai and his wife also had their eye on Kaoru, a young gentleman in whom it would be difficult to find a flaw.

The festivities next door, the rumbling of carriages and the shouting of outrunners, brought memories of Higekuro’s day of glory. Tamakazura’s house was quiet by comparison, and sunk in memories.

“Remember how people talked when Kōbai started visiting her and Prince Hotaru was hardly in his grave. Well, it lasted, as you see, and the talk has come to seem rather beside the point. You never can tell. Which sort of lady do you think we should offer as a model?”

Yūgiri’s son, newly promoted to captain, came calling that evening, on his way home from the banquet. He knew that the Reizei daughter was at home and he was on unusually good behavior.

“It may be said that I am beginning to matter just a little, perhaps.” He brushed away a tear that may have seemed a trifle forced. “I am no happier for that fact. The months and years will not take away the knowledge that my deepest wish was refused.”

He was at the very best age, some twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old.

“What a tiresome boy,” said Tamakazura, also in tears. “Things have come too easily, and so you care nothing about rank and promotion. If my husband were still alive my own boys might be permitted that sort of luxury.”

They were in fact doing rather well. The oldest was a guards commander and the second a moderator, though it pained her that they did not yet have seats on the council. The youngest, until recently a chamberlain, was now a guards captain. He too was doing well enough, but other boys his age were doing better.

Yūgiri’s son, the new captain, had many plausible and persuasive things to say.

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