The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 8

The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms

Towards the end of the Second Month, the festival of the cherry blossoms took place in the Grand Hall. The empress and the crown prince were seated to the left and right of the throne. This arrangement of course displeased Kokiden, but she put in an appearance all the same, unable to let such an occasion pass. It was a beautiful day. The sky was clear, birds were singing. Adepts at Chinese poetry, princes and high courtiers and others, drew lots to fix the rhyme schemes for their poems.

“I have drawn ‘spring,’” said Genji, his voice finely resonant in even so brief a statement.

Tō no Chūjō might have been disconcerted at something in the eyes of the assembly as they turned from Genji to him, but he was calm and poised, and his voice as he announced his rhyme was almost as distinguished as Genji’s. Several of the high courtiers seemed reluctant to follow the two, and the lesser courtiers were more reluctant still. They came stiffly out into the radiant garden, awed by the company in which they found themselves — for both the emperor and the crown prince were connoisseurs of poetry, and it was a time when superior poets were numerous. To produce a Chinese poem is never an easy task, but for them it seemed positive torture. Then there were the great professors who took such occasions in their stride, though their court dress may have been a little shabby. It was pleasant to observe the emperor’s interest in all these varied sorts of people.

The emperor had of course ordered the concert to be planned with the greatest care. “Spring Warbler,” which came as the sun was setting, was uncommonly fine. Remembering how Genji had danced at the autumn excursion, the crown prince himself presented a sprig of blossoms for his cap and pressed him so hard to dance that he could not refuse. Though he danced only a very brief passage, the quiet waving of his sleeves as he came to the climax was incomparable. The Minister of the Left forgot his anger at his negligent son-in-law. There were tears in his eyes.

“Where is Tō no Chūjō?” asked the emperor. “Have him come immediately.”

Tō no Chūjō, whose dance was “Garden of Willows and Flowers,” danced with more careful and deliberate art than had Genji, perhaps because he had been prepared for the royal summons. It was so interesting a performance that the emperor presented him with a robe — a most gratifying sign of royal approval, everyone agreed.

Other high courtiers danced, in no fixed order, but as it was growing dark one could not easily tell who were the better dancers. The poems were read. Genji’s was so remarkable that the reader paused to comment upon each line. The professors were deeply moved. Since Genji was for the emperor a shining light, the poem could not fail to move him too. As for the empress, she wondered how Kokiden could so hate the youth — and reflected on her own misfortune in being so strangely drawn to him.

“Could I see the blossom as other blossoms,

Then would there be no dew to cloud my heart.”

She recited it silently to herself. How then did it go the rounds and presently reach me?

The festivities ended late in the night.

The courtiers went their ways, the empress and the crown prince departed, all was quiet. The moon came out more brightly. It wanted proper appreciation, thought Genji. The ladies in night attendance upon the emperor would be asleep. Expecting no visitors, his own lady might have left a door open a crack. He went quietly up to her apartments, but the door of the one whom he might ask to show him in was tightly closed. He sighed. Still not ready to give up, he made his way to the gallery by Kokiden’s pavilion. The third door from the north was open. Kokiden herself was with the emperor, and her rooms were almost deserted. The hinged door at the far corner was open too. All was silent. It was thus, he thought, that a lady invited her downfall. He slipped across the gallery and up to the door of the main room and looked inside. Everyone seemed to be asleep.

“‘What can compare with a misty moon of spring?’” It was a sweet young voice, so delicate that its owner could be no ordinary serving woman.

She came (could he believe it?) to the door. Delighted, he caught at her sleeve.

“Who are you?” She was frightened.

“There is nothing to be afraid of.

“Late in the night we enjoy a Misty moon.

There is nothing misty about the bond between us.”

Quickly and lightly he lifted her down to the gallery and slid the door closed. Her surprise pleased him enormously.

Trembling, she called for help.

“It will do you no good. I am always allowed my way. Just be quiet, if you will, please.”

She recognized his voice and was somewhat reassured. Though of course upset, she evidently did not wish him to think her wanting in good manners. It may have been because he was still a little drunk that he could not admit the possibility of letting her go; and she, young and irresolute, did not know how to send him on his way. He was delighted with her, but also very nervous, for dawn was approaching. She was in an agony of apprehension lest they be seen.

“You must tell me who you are,” he said. “How can I write to you if you do not? You surely don’t think I mean to let matters stand as they are?”

“Were the lonely one to vanish quite away,

Would you go to the grassy moors to ask her name?”

Her voice had a softly plaintive quality.

“I did not express myself well.

“I wish to know whose dewy lodge it is

Ere winds blow past the bamboo-tangled moor.

“Only one thing, a cold welcome, could destroy my eagerness to visit. Do you perhaps have some diversionary tactic in mind?”

They exchanged fans and he was on his way. Even as he spoke a stream of women was moving in and out of Kokiden’s rooms. There were women in his own rooms too, some of them still awake. Pretending to be asleep, they poked one another and exchanged whispered remarks about the diligence with which he pursued these night adventures.

He was unable to sleep. What a beautiful girl! One of Kokiden’s younger sisters, no doubt. Perhaps the fifth or sixth daughter of the family, since she had seemed to know so little about men? He had heard that both thy fourth daughter, to whom Tō no Chūjō was uncomfortably married, and Prince Hotaru’s wife were great beauties, and thought that the encounter might have been more interesting had the lady been one of the older sisters. He rather hoped she was not the sixth daughter, whom the minister had thoughts of marrying to the crown prince. The trouble was that he had no way of being sure. It had not seemed that she wanted the affair to end with but the one meeting. Why then had she not told him how he might write to her? These thoughts and others suggest that he was much interested. He thought too of Fujitsubo’s pavilion, and how much more mysterious and inaccessible it was, indeed how uniquely so.

He had a lesser spring banquet with which to amuse himself that day. He played the thirteen-stringed koto, his performance if anything subtler and richer than that of the day before. Fujitsubo went to the emperor’s apartments at dawn.

Genji was on tenterhooks, wondering whether the lady he had seen in the dawn moonlight would be leaving the palace. He sent Yoshikiyo and Koremitsu, who let nothing escape them, to keep watch; and when, as he was leaving the royal presence, he had their report, his agitation increased.

“Some carriages that had been kept out of sight left just now by the north gate. Two of Kokiden’s brothers and several other members of the family saw them off; so we gathered that the ladies must be part of the family too. They were ladies of some importance, in any case — that much was clear. There were three carriages in all.”

How might he learn which of the sisters he had become friends with? Supposing her father were to learn of the affair and welcome him gladly into the family — he had not seen enough of the lady to be sure that the prospect delighted him. Yet he did want very much to know who she was. He sat looking out at the garden.

Murasaki would be gloomy and bored, he feared, for he had not visited her in some days. He looked at the fan he had received in the dawn moonlight. It was a “three-ply cherry.” The painting on the more richly colored side, a misty moon reflected on water, was not remarkable, but the fan, well used, was a memento to stir longing. He remembered with especial tenderness the poem about the grassy moors.

He jotted down a poem beside the misty moon:

“I had not known the sudden loneliness

Of having it vanish, the moon in the sky of dawn.”

He had been neglecting the Sanjō mansion of his father-in-law for rather a long time, but Murasaki was more on his mind. He must go comfort her. She pleased him more, she seemed prettier and cleverer and more amiable, each time he saw her. He was congratulating himself that his hopes of shaping her into his ideal might not prove entirely unrealistic. Yet he had misgivings — very unsettling ones, it must be said — lest by training her himself he put her too much at ease with men. He told her the latest court gossip and they had a music lesson. So he was going out again — she was sorry, as always, to see him go, but she no longer clung to him as she once had.

At Sanjō it was the usual thing: his wife kept him waiting. In his boredom he thought of this and that. pulling a koto to him, he casually plucked out a tune. “No nights of soft sleep,” he sang, to his own accompaniment.

The minister came for a talk about the recent pleasurable events.

“I am very old, and I have served through four illustrious reigns, but never have I known an occasion that has added so many years to my life. Such clever, witty poems, such fine music and dancing — you are on good terms with the great performers who so abound in our day, and you arrange things with such marvelous skill. Even we aged ones felt like cutting a caper or two.”

“The marvelous skill of which you speak, sir, amounts to nothing at all, only a word here and there. It is a matter of knowing where to ask. ‘Garden of Willows and Flowers’ was much the best thing, I thought, a performance to go down as a model for all the ages. And what a memorable day it would have been, what an honor for our age, if in the advancing spring of your life you had followed your impulse and danced for us.”

Soon Tō no Chūjō and his brothers, leaning casually against the veranda railings, were in fine concert on their favorite instruments.

The lady of that dawn encounter, remembering the evanescent dream, was sunk in sad thoughts. Her father’s plans to give her to the crown prince in the Fourth Month were a source of great distress. As for Genji, he was not without devices for searching her out, but he did not know which of Kokiden’s sisters she was, and he did not wish to become involved with that unfriendly family.

Late in the Fourth Month the princes and high courtiers gathered at the mansion of the Minister of the Right, Kokiden’s father, for an archery meet. It was as followed immediately by a wisteria banquet. Though the cherry blossoms had for the most part fallen, two trees, perhaps having learned that mountain cherries do well to bloom 1ate, were at their belated best. The minister’s mansion had been rebuilt and beautifully refurnished for the initiation ceremonies of the princesses his granddaughters. It was in the ornate style its owner preferred, everything in the latest fashion.

Seeing Genji in the palace one day, the minister had invited him to the festivities. Genji would have preferred to stay away, but the affair seemed certain to languish without him. The minister sent one of his sons, a guards officer, with a message:

“If these blossoms of mine were of the common sort,

Would I press you so to come and look upon them?”

Genji showed the poem to his father.

“He seems very pleased with his flowers,” laughed the emperor. “But you must go immediately. He has, after all, sent a special invitation. It is use that the princesses your sisters are being reared. You are scarcely a stranger.”

Genji dressed with great care. It was almost dark when he finally presented himself. He wore a robe of a thin white Chinese damask with a red lining and under it a very long train of magenta. Altogether the dashing young prince, he added something new to the assembly that so cordially received him, for the other guests were more formally clad. He quite overwhelmed the blossoms, in a sense spoiling the party, and played beautifully on several instruments. Late in the evening he got up, pretending to be drunk. The first and third princesses were living in the main hall. He went to the east veranda and leaned against a door. The shutters were raised and women were gathered at the southwest corner, where the wisteria was in bloom. Their sleeves were pushed somewhat ostentatiously out from under blinds, as at a New Year’s poetry assembly. All rather overdone, he thought, and he could not help thinking too of Fujitsubo’s reticence.

“I was not feeling well in the first place, and they plied me with drink. I know I shouldn’t, but might I ask you to hide me?” He raised the blind at the corner door.

“Please, dear sir, this will not do. It is for us beggars to ask such favors of you fine gentlemen.” Though of no overwhelming dignity, the women were most certainly not common.

Incense hung heavily in the air and the rustling of silk was bright and lively. Because the princesses seemed to prefer modern things, the scene may perhaps have been wanting in mysterious shadows.

The time and place were hardly appropriate for a flirtation, and yet his interest was aroused. Which would be the lady of the misty moon?

“A most awful thing has happened,” he said playfully. “Someone has stolen my fan.” He sat leaning against a pillar.

“What curious things that Korean does do.” The lady who thus deftly returned his allusion did not seem to know about the exchange of fans.

Catching a sigh from another lady, he leaned forward and took her hand.

“I wander lost on Arrow Mount and ask:

May I not see the moon I saw so briefly?

“Or must I continue to wander?”

It seemed that she could not remain silent:

“Only the flighty, the less than serious ones,

Are left in the skies when the longbow moon is gone.”

It was the same voice. He was delighted. And yet —

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