“The shining Genji”: it was almost too grand a name. Yet he did not escape criticism for numerous little adventures. It seemed indeed that his indiscretions might give him a name for frivolity, and he did what he could to hide them. But his most secret affairs (such is the malicious work of the gossips) became common talk. If, on the other hand, he were to go through life concerned only for his name and avoid all these interesting and amusing little affairs, then he would be laughed to shame by the likes of the lieutenant of Katano.
Still a guards captain, Genji spent most of his time at the palace, going infrequently to the Sanjō mansion of his father-in-law. The people there feared that he might have been stained by the lavender of Kasugano Though in fact he had an instinctive dislike for the promiscuity he saw all around him, he had a way of sometimes turning against his own better inclinations and causing unhappiness.
The summer rains came, the court was in retreat, and an even longer interval than usual had passed since his last visit to Sanjō. Though the minister and his family were much put out, they spared no effort to make him feel welcome. The minister’s sons were more attentive than to the emperor himself. Genji was on particularly good terms with Tō no Chūjō. They enjoyed music together and more frivolous diversions as well. Tō no Chūjō was of an amorous nature and not at all comfortable in the apartments which his father-in-law, the Minister of the Right, had at great expense provided for him. At Sanjō with his own family, on the other hand, he took very good care of his rooms, and when Genji came and went the two of them were always together. They were a good match for each other in study and at play. Reserve quite disappeared between them.
It had been raining all day. There were fewer courtiers than usual in the royal presence. Back in his own palace quarters, also unusually quiet, Genji pulled a lamp near and sought to while away the time with his books. He had Tō no Chūjō with him. Numerous pieces of colored paper, obviously letters, lay on a shelf. Tō no Chūjō made no attempt to hide his curiosity.
“Well,” said Genji, “there are some I might let you see. But there are some I think it better not to.”
“You miss the point. The ones I want to see are precisely the ones you want to hide. The ordinary ones — I’m not much of a hand at the game, you know, but even I am up to the ordinary give and take. But the ones from ladies who think you are not doing right by them, who sit alone through an evening and wait for you to come — those are the ones I want to see.”
It was not likely that really delicate letters would be left scattered on a shelf, and it may be assumed that the papers treated so carelessly were the less important ones.
“You do have a variety of them,” said Tō no Chūjō, reading the correspondence through piece by piece. This will be from her, and this will be from her, he would say. Sometimes he guessed correctly and sometimes he was far afield, to Genji’s great amusement. Genji was brief with his replies and let out no secrets.
“It is I who should be asking to see your collection. No doubt it is huge. When I have seen it I shall be happy to throw my files open to you.”
“I fear there is nothing that would interest you.” Tō no Chūjō was in a contemplative mood. “It is with women as it is with everything else: the flawless ones are very few indeed. This is a sad fact which I have learned over the years. All manner of women seem presentable enough at first. Little notes, replies to this and that, they all suggest sensibility and cultivation. But when you begin sorting out the really superior ones you find that there are not many who have to be on your list. Each has her little tricks and she makes the most of them, getting in her slights at rivals, so broad sometimes that you almost have to blush. Hidden away by loving parents who build brilliant futures for them, they let word get out of this little talent and that little accomplishment and you are all in a stir. They are young and pretty and amiable and carefree, and in their boredom they begin to pick up a little from their elders, and in the natural course of things they begin to concentrate on one particular hobby and make something of it. A woman tells you all about it and hides the weak points and brings out the strong ones as if they were everything, and you can’t very well call her a liar. So you begin keeping company, and it is always the same. The fact is not up to the advance notices.”
Tō no Chūjō sighed,a sigh clearly based on experience. Some of what he had said, though not all, accorded with Genji’s own experience. “And have you come upon any,” said Genji, smiling, “who would seem to have nothing at all to recommend them?”
“Who would be fool enough to notice such a woman? And in any case, I should imagine that women with no merits are as rare as women with no faults. If a woman is of good family and well taken care of, then the things she is less than proud of are hidden and she gets by well enough. When you come to the middle ranks, each woman has her own little inclinations and there are thousands of ways to separate one from another. And when you come to the lowest — well, who really pays much attention?”
He appeared to know everything. Genji was by now deeply interested.
“You speak of three ranks,” he said, “but is it so easy to make the division? There are well-born ladies who fall in the world and there are people of no background who rise to the higher ranks and build themselves fine houses as if intended for them all along. How would you fit such people into your system?”
At this point two young courtiers, a guards officer and a functionary in the ministry of rites, appeared on the scene, to attend the emperor in his retreat. Both were devotees of the way of love and both were good talkers. Tō no Chūjō, as if he had been waiting for them, invited their views on the question that had just been asked. The discussion progressed, and included a number of rather unconvincing points.
“Those who have just arrived at high position,” said one of the newcomers, “do not attract the same sort of notice as those who were born to it. And those who were born to the highest rank but somehow do not have the right backing — in spirit they may be as proud and noble as ever, but they cannot hide their deficiencies. And so I think that they should both be put in your middle rank.
“There are those whose families are not quite of the highest rank but who go off and work hard in the provinces. They have their place in the world, though there are all sorts of little differences among them. Some of them would belong on anyone’s list. So it is these days. Myself, I would take a woman from a middling family over one who has rank and nothing else. Let us say someone whose father is almost but not quite a councillor. Someone who has a decent enough reputation and comes from a decent enough family and can live in some luxury. Such people can be very pleasant. There is nothing wrong with the household arrangements, and indeed a daughter can sometimes be set out in a way that dazzles you. I can think of several such women it would be hard to find fault with. When they go into court service, they are the ones the unexpected favors have a way of falling on. I have seen cases enough of it, I can tell you.’
Genji smiled. “And so a person should limit himself to girls with money?”
“That does not sound like you,” said Tō no Chūjō.
“When a woman has the highest rank and a spotless reputation,” continued the other, “but something has gone wrong with her upbringing, something is wrong in the way she puts herself forward, you wonder how it can possibly have been allowed to happen. But when all the conditions are right and the girl herself is pretty enough, she is taken for granted. There is no cause for the least surprise. Such ladies are beyond the likes of me, and so I leave them where they are, the highest of the high. There are surprisingly pretty ladies wasting away behind tangles of weeds, and hardly anyone even knows of their existence. The first surprise is hard to forget. There she is, a girl with a fat, sloppy old father and boorish brothers and a house that seems common at best. Off in the women’s rooms is a proud lady who has acquired bits and snatches of this and that. You get wind of them, however small the accomplishments may be, and they take hold of your imagination. She is not the equal of the one who has everything, of course, but she has her charm. She is not easy to pass by.”
He looked at his companion, the young man from the ministry of rites. The latter was silent, wondering if the reference might be to his sisters, just then coming into their own as subjects for conversation. Genji, it would seem, was thinking that on the highest levels there were sadly few ladies to bestow much thought upon. He was wearing several soft white singlets with an informal court robe thrown loosely over them. As he sat in the lamplight leaning against an armrest, his companions almost wished that he were a woman. Even the “highest of the high” might seem an inadequate match for him.
They talked on, of the varieties of women.
“A man sees women, all manner of them, who seem beyond reproach,” said the guards officer, “but when it comes to picking the wife who must be everything, matters are not simple. The emperor has trouble, after all, finding the minister who has all the qualifications. A man may be very wise, but no man can govern by himself. Superior is helped by subordinate, subordinate defers to superior, and so affairs proceed by agreement and concession. But when it comes to choosing the woman who is to be in charge of your house, the qualifications are altogether too many. A merit is balanced by a defect, there is this good point and that bad point, and even women who though not perfect can be made to do are not easy to find. I would not like to have you think me a profligate who has to try them all. But it is a question of the woman who must be everything, and it seems best, other things being equal, to find someone who does not require shaping and training, someone who has most of the qualifications from the start. The man who begins his search with all this in mind must be reconciled to searching for a very long time.
“He comes upon a woman not completely and in every way to his liking but he makes certain promises and finds her hard to give up. The world praises him for his honest heart and begins to note good points in the woman too; and why not? But I have seen them all, and I doubt that there are any genuinely superior specimens among them. What about you gentlemen so far above us? How is it with you when you set out to choose your ladies?
“There are those who are young enough and pretty enough and who take care of themselves as if no particle of dust were allowed to fall upon them. When they write letters they choose the most inoffensive words, and the ink is so faint a man can scarcely read them. He goes to visit, hoping for a real answer. She keeps him waiting and finally lets him have a word or two in an almost inaudible whisper. They are clever, I can tell you, at hiding their defects.
“The soft, feminine ones are likely to assume a great deal. The man seeks to please, and the result is that the woman is presently looking elsewhere. That is the first difficulty in a woman.
“In the most important matter, the matter of running his household, a man can find that his wife has too much sensibility, an elegant word and device for every occasion. But what of the too domestic sort, the wife who bustles around the house the whole day long, her hair tucked up behind her ears, no attention to her appearance, making sure that everything is in order? There are things on his mind, things he has seen and heard in his comings and goings, the private and public demeanor of his colleagues, happy things and sad things. Is he to talk of them to an outsider? Of course not. He would much prefer someone near at hand, someone who will immediately understand. A smile passes over his face, tears well up. Or some event at court has angered him, things are too much for him. What good is it to talk to such a woman? He turns his back on her, and smiles, and sighs, and murmurs something to himself.‘I beg your pardon?’ she says, finally noticing. Her blank expression is hardly what he is looking for.
“When a man picks a gentle, childlike wife, he of course must see to training her and making up for her inadequacies. Even if at times she seems a bit unsteady, he may feel that his efforts have not been wasted. When she is there beside him her gentle charm makes him forget her defects. But when he is away and sends asking her to perform various services, it becomes clear, however small the service, that she has no thoughts of her own in the matter. Her uselessness can be trying.
“I wonder if a woman who is a bit chilly and unfeeling cannot at times seem preferable.”
His manner said that he had known them all; and he sighed at his inability to hand down a firm decision.
“No, let us not worry too much about rank and beauty. Let us be satisfied if a woman is not too demanding and eccentric. It is best to settle on a quiet, steady girl. If she proves to have unusual talent and discrimination — well, count them an unexpected premium. Do not, on the other hand, worry too much about remedying her defects. If she seems steady and not given to tantrums, then the charms will emerge of their own accord.
“There are those who display a womanly reticence to the world, as if they had never heard of complaining. They seem utterly calm. And then when their thoughts are too much for them they leave behind the most horrendous notes, the most flamboyant poems, the sort of keepsakes certain to call up dreadful memories, and off they go into the mountains or to some remote seashore. When I was a child I would hear the women reading romantic stories, and I would join them in their sniffling and think it all very sad, all very profound and moving. Now I am afraid that it suggests certain pretenses.
“It is very stupid, really, to run off and leave a perfectly kind and sympathetic man. He may have been guilty of some minor dereliction, but to run off with no understanding at all of his true feelings, with no purpose other than to attract attention and hope to upset him — it is an unpleasant sort of memory to have to live with. She gets drunk with admiration for herself and there she is, a nun. When she enters her convent she is sure that she has found enlightenment and has no regrets for the vulgar world.
“Her women come to see her.‘How very touching,’ they say.‘How brave of you.’
“But she no longer feels quite as pleased with herself. The man, who has not lost his affection for her, hears of what has happened and weeps, and certain of her old attendants pass this intelligence on to her.‘He is a man of great feeling, you see. What a pity that it should have come to this.’ The woman can only brush aside her newly cropped hair to reveal a face on the edge of tears. She tries to hold them back and cannot, such are her regrets for the life she has left behind; and the Buddha is not likely to think her one who has cleansed her heart of passion. probably she is in more danger of brimstone now in this fragile vocation than if she had stayed with us in our sullied world.
“The bond between husband and wife is a strong one. Suppose the man had hunted her out and brought her back. The memory of her acts would still be there, and inevitably, sooner or later, it would be cause for rancor. When there are crises, incidents, a woman should try to overlook them, for better or for worse, and make the bond into something durable. The wounds will remain, with the woman and with the man, when there are crises such as I have described. It is very foolish for a woman to let a little dalliance upset her so much that she shows her resentment openly. He has his adventures — but if he has fond memories of their early days together, his and hers, she may be sure that she matters. A commotion means the end of everything. She should be quiet and generous, and when something comes up that quite properly arouses her resentment she should make it known by delicate hints. The man will feel guilty and with tactful guidance he will mend his ways. Too much lenience can make a woman seem charmingly docile and trusting, but it can also make her seem somewhat wanting in substance. We have had instances enough of boats abandoned to the winds and waves. Do you not agree?”
Tō no Chūjō nodded. “It may be difficult when someone you are especially fond of, someone beautiful and charming, has been guilty of an indiscretion, but magnanimity produces wonders. They may not always work, but generosity and reasonableness and patience do on the whole seem best.”
His own sister was a case in point, he was thinking, and he was somewhat annoyed to note that Genji was silent because he had fallen asleep. Meanwhile the young guards officer talked on, a dedicated student of his subject. Tō no Chūjō was determined to hear him out.
“Let us make some comparisons,” said the guardsman. “Let us think of the cabinetmaker. He shapes pieces as he feels like shaping them. They may be only playthings, with no real plan or pattern. They may all the same have a certain style for what they are — they may take on a certain novelty as times change and be very interesting. But when it comes to the genuine object, something of such undeniable value that a man wants to have it always with him — the perfection of the form announces that it is from the hand of a master.
“Or let us look at painting. There are any number of masters in the academy. It is not easy to separate the good from the bad among those who work on the basic sketches. But let color be added. The painter of things no one ever sees, of paradises, of fish in angry seas, raging beasts in foreign lands, devils and demons — the painter abandons himself to his fancies and paints to terrify and astonish. What does it matter if the results seem somewhat remote from real life? It is not so with the things we know, mountains, streams, houses near and like our own. The soft, unspoiled, wooded hills must be painted layer on layer, the details added gently, quietly, to give a sense of affectionate familiarity. And the foreground too, the garden inside the walls, the arrangement of the stones and grasses and waters. It is here that the master has his own power. There are details a lesser painter cannot imitate.
“Or let us look at calligraphy. A man without any great skill can stretch out this line and that in the cursive style and give an appearance of boldness and distinction. The man who has mastered the principles and writes with concentration may, on the other hand, have none of the eye-catching tricks; but when you take the trouble to compare the two the real thing is the real thing.
“So it is with trivialities like painting and calligraphy. How much more so with matters of the heart! I put no trust in the showy sort of affection that is quick to come forth when a suitable occasion presents itself. Let me tell you of something that happened to me a long time ago. You may find the story a touch wanton, but hear me through all the same.”
He drew close to Genji, who awoke from his slumber. Tō no Chūjō, chin in hand, sat opposite, listening with the greatest admiration and attention. There was in the young man’s manner something slightly comical, as if he were a sage expostulating upon the deepest truths of the universe, but at such times a young man is not inclined to conceal his most intimate secrets.
“It happened when I was very young, hardly more than a page. I was attracted to a woman. She was of a sort I have mentioned before, not the most beautiful in the world. In my youthful frivolity, I did not at first think of making her my wife. She was someone to visit, not someone who deserved my full attention. Other places interested me more. She was violently jealous. If only she could be a little more understanding, I thought, wanting to be away from the interminable quarreling. And on the other hand it sometimes struck me as a little sad that she should be so worried about a man of so little account as myself. In the course of time I began to mend my ways.
“For my sake, she would try to do things for which her talent and nature did not suit her, and she was determined not to seem inferior even in matters for which she had no great aptitude. She served me diligently in everything. She did not want to be guilty of the smallest thing that might go against my wishes. I had at first thought her rather strong-willed, but she proved to be docile and pliant. She thought constantly about hiding her less favorable qualities, afraid that they might put me off, and she did what she could to avoid displaying herself and causing me embarrassment. She was a model of devotion. In a word, there was nothing wrong with her — save the one thing I found so trying.
“I told myself that she was devoted to the point of fear, and that if I led her to think I might be giving her up she might be a little less suspicious and given to nagging. I had had almost all I could stand. If she really wanted to be with me and I suggested that a break was near, then she might reform. I behaved with studied coldness, and when, as always, her resentment exploded, I said to her:‘Not even the strongest bond between husband and wife can stand an unlimited amount of this sort of thing. It will eventually break, and he will not see her again. If you want to bring matters to such a pass, then go on doubting me as you have. If you would like to be with me for the years that lie ahead of us, then bear the trials as they come, difficult though they may be, and think them the way of the world. If you manage to overcome your jealousy, my affection is certain to grow. It seems likely that I will move ahead into an office of some distinction, and you will go with me and have no one you need think of as a rival.’ I was very pleased with myself. I had performed brilliantly as a preceptor.
“But she only smiled.‘Oh, it won’t be all that much trouble to put up with your want of consequence and wait till you are important. It will be much harder to pass the months and the years in the barely discernible hope that you will settle down and mend your fickle ways. Maybe you are right. Maybe this is the time to part.’
“I was furious, and I said so, and she answered in kind. Then, suddenly, she took my hand and bit my finger.
“I reproved her somewhat extravagantly.‘You insult me, and now you have wounded me. Do you think I can go to court like this? I am, as you say, a person of no consequence, and now, mutilated as I am, what is to help me get ahead in the world? There is nothing left for me but to become a monk.’ That meeting must be our last, I said, and departed, flexing my wounded finger.
“‘I count them over, the many things between us.
One finger does not, alas, count the sum of your failures.
“I left the verse behind, adding that now she had nothing to complain about.
“She had a verse of her own. There were tears in her eyes.
“‘I have counted them up myself, be assured, my failures.
For one bitten finger must all be bitten away?’
“I did not really mean to leave her, but my days were occupied in wanderings here and there, and I sent her no message. Then, late one evening toward the end of the year — it was an evening of rehearsals for the Kamo festival — a sleet was falling as we all started for home. Home. It came to me that I really had nowhere to go but her house. It would be no pleasure to sleep alone at the palace, and if I visited a woman of sensibility I would be kept freezing while she admired the snow. I would go look in upon her, and see what sort of mood she might be in. And so, brushing away the sleet, I made my way to her house. I felt just a little shy, but told myself that the sleet melting from my coat should melt her resentment. There was a dim light turned toward the wall, and a comfortable old robe of thick silk lay spread out to warm. The curtains were raised, everything suggested that she was waiting for me. I felt that I had done rather well.
“But she was nowhere in sight. She had gone that evening to stay with her parents, said the women who had been left behind. I had been feeling somewhat unhappy that she had maintained such a chilly silence, sending no amorous poems or queries. I wondered, though not very seriously, whether her shrillness and her jealousy might not have been intended for the precise purpose of disposing of me; but now I found clothes laid out with more attention to color and pattern than usual, exactly as she knew I liked them. She was seeing to my needs even now that I had apparently discarded her.
“And so, despite this strange state of affairs, I was convinced that she did not mean to do without me. I continued to send messages, and she neither protested nor gave an impression of wanting to annoy me by staying out of sight, and in her answers she was always careful not to anger or hurt me. Yet she went on saying that she could not forgive the behavior I had been guilty of in the past. If I would settle down she would be very happy to keep company with me. Sure that we would not part, I thought I would give her another lesson or two. I told her I had no intention of reforming, and made a great show of independence. She was sad, I gathered, and then without warning she died. And the game I had been playing to seem rather inappropriate.
“She was a woman of such accomplishments that I could leave everything to her. I continue to regret what I had done. I could discuss trivial things with her and important things. For her skills in dyeing she might have been compared to Princess Tatsuta and the comparison would not have seemed ridiculous, and in sewing she could have held her own with princess Tanabata.”
The young man sighed and sighed again.
Tō no Chūjō nodded. “Leaving her accomplishments as a seamstress aside, I should imagine you were looking for someone as faithful as Princess Tanabata. And if she could embroider like princess Tatsuta, well, it does not seem likely that you will come on her equal again. When the colors of a robe do not match the seasons, the flowers of spring and the autumn tints, when they are somehow vague and muddy, then the whole effort is as futile as the dew. So it is with women. It is not easy in this world to find a perfect wife. We are all pursuing the ideal and failing to find it.”
The guards officer talked on. “There was another one. I was seeing her at about the same time. She was more amiable than the one I have just described to you. Everything about her told of refinement. Her poems, her handwriting when she dashed off a letter, the koto she plucked a note on — everything seemed right. She was clever with her hands and clever with words. And her looks were adequate. The jealous woman’s house had come to seem the place I could really call mine, and I went in secret to the other woman from time to time and became very fond of her. The jealous one died, I wondered what to do next. I was sad, of course, but a man cannot go on being sad forever. I visited the other more often. But there was something a little too aggressive, a little too sensuous about her. As I came to know her well and to think her a not very dependable sort, I called less often. And I learned that I was not her only secret visitor.
“One bright moonlit autumn night I chanced to leave court with a friend. He got in with me as I started for my father’s. He was much concerned, he said, about a house where he was sure someone would be waiting. It happened to be on my way.
“Through gaps in a neglected wall I could see the moon shining on a pond. It seemed a pity not to linger a moment at a spot where the moon seemed so much at home, and so I climbed out after my friend. It would appear that this was not his first visit. He proceeded briskly to the veranda and took a seat near the gate and looked up at the moon for a time. The chrysanthemums were at their best, very slightly touched by the frost, and the red leaves were beautiful in the autumn wind. He took out a flute and played a tune on it, and sang’The Well of Asuka’ and several other songs. Blending nicely with the flute came the mellow tones of a japanese koto. It had been tuned in advance, apparently, and was waiting. The ritsu scale had a pleasant modern sound to it, right for a soft, womanly touch from behind blinds, and right for the clear moonlight too. I can assure you that the effect was not at all unpleasant.
“Delighted, my friend went up to the blinds.
“‘I see that no one has yet broken a path through your fallen leaves,’ he said, somewhat sarcastically. He broke off a chrysanthemum and pushed it under the blinds.
“‘Uncommonly fine this house, for moon, for koto.
Does it bring to itself indifferent callers as well?
“‘Excuse me for asking. You must not be parsimonious with your music. You have a by no means indifferent listener.’
“He was very playful indeed. The woman’s voice, when she offered a verse of her own, was suggestive and equally playful.
“‘No match the leaves for the angry winter winds.
Am I to detain the flute that joins those winds?’
“Naturally unaware of resentment so near at hand, she changed to a Chinese koto in an elegant banjiki. Though I had to admit that she had talent, I was very annoyed. It is amusing enough, if you let things go no further, to exchange jokes from time to time with fickle and frivolous ladies; but as a place to take seriously, even for an occasional visit, matters here seemed to have gone too far. I made the events of that evening my excuse for leaving her.
“I see, as I look back on the two affairs, that young though I was the second of the two women did not seem the kind to put my trust in. I have no doubt that the wariness will grow as the years go by. The dear, uncertain ones — the dew that will fall when the hagi branch is bent, the speck of frost that will melt when it is lifted from the bamboo leaf — no doubt they can be interesting for a time. You have seven years to go before you are my age,” he said to Genji. “Just wait and you will understand. perhaps you can take the advice of a person of no importance, and avoid the uncertain ones. They stumble sooner or later, and do a man’s name no good when they do.”
Tō no Chūjō nodded,as always. Genji, though he only smiled, seemed to agree.
“Neither of the tales you have given us has been a very happy one,” he said.
“Let me tell you a story about a foolish woman I once knew,” said Tō no Chūjō.” I was seeing her in secret, and I did not think that the affair was likely to last very long. But she was very beautiful, and as time passed I came to think that I must go on seeing her, if only infrequently. I sensed that she had come to depend on me. I expected signs of jealousy. There were none. She did not seem to feel the resentment a man expects from a woman he visits so seldom. She waited quietly, morning and night. My affection grew, and I let it be known that she did indeed have a man she could depend on. There was something very appealing about her (she was an orphan), letting me know that I was all she had.
“She seemed content. Untroubled, I stayed away for rather a long time. Then — I heard of it only later — my wife found a roundabout way to be objectionable. I did not know that I had become a cause of pain. I had desperately lonely and worried for the child she had borne. One day she sent me a letter attached to a wild carnation.” His voice trembled.
“And what did it say?” Genji urged him on.
“Nothing very remarkable. I do remember her poem, though:
“‘The fence of the mountain rustic may fall to the ground.
Rest gently, O dew, upon the wild carnation.’
“I went to see her again. The talk was open and easy, as always, but she seemed pensive as she looked out at the dewy garden from the neglected house. She seemed to be weeping, joining her laments to the songs of the autumn insects. It could have been a scene from an old romance. I whispered a verse:
“‘No bloom in this wild array would I wish to slight.
But dearest of all to me is the wild carnation.’
“Her carnation had been the child. I made it clear that my own was the lady herself, the wild carnation no dust falls upon.
“‘Dew wets the sleeve that brushes the wild carnation.
The tempest rages. Now comes autumn too.’
“She spoke quietly all the same, and she did not seem really angry. She did shed a tear from time to time, but she seemed ashamed of herself, and anxious to avoid difficult moments. I went away feeling much relieved. It was clear that she did not want to show any sign of anger at my neglect. And so once more I stayed away for rather a long time.
“And when I looked in on her again she had disappeared.
“If she is still living, it must be in very unhappy circumstances. She need not have suffered so if she had asserted herself a little more in the days when we were together. She need not have put up with my absences, and I would have seen to her needs over the years. The child was a very pretty little girl. I was fond of her, and I have not been able to find any trace of her.
“She must be listed among your reticent ones, I suppose? She let me have no hint of jealousy. Unaware of what was going on, I had no intention of giving her up. But the result was hopeless yearning, quite as if I had given her up. I am beginning to forget; and how is it with her? She must remember me sometimes, I should think, with regret, because she must remember too that it was not I who abandoned her. She was, I fear, not the sort of woman one finds it possible to keep for very long.
“Your jealous woman must be interesting enough to remember, but she must have been a bit wearying. And the other one, all her skill on the koto cannot have been much compensation for the undependability. And the one I have described to you — her very lack of jealousy might have brought a suspicion that there was another man in her life. Well, such is the way with the world — you cannot give your unqualified approval to any of them. Where are you to go for the woman who has no defects and who combines the virtues of all three? You might choose Our Lady of Felicity — and find yourself married to unspeakable holiness.”
The others laughed.
Tō no Chūjō turned to the young man from the ministry of rites. “You must have interesting stories too.”
“Oh, please. How could the lowest of the low hope to hold your attention?”
“You must not keep us waiting.”
“Let me think a minute.” He seemed to be sorting out memories.
“When I was still a student I knew a remarkably wise woman. She was the sort worth consulting about public affairs, and she had a good mind too for the little tangles that come into your private life. Her erudition would have put any ordinary sage to shame. In a word, I was awed into silence.
“I was studying under a learned scholar. I had heard that he had many daughters, and on some occasion or other I had made the acquaintance of this one. The father learned of the affair. Taking out wedding cups, he made reference, among other things, to a Chinese poem about the merits of an impoverished wife. Although not exactly enamored of the woman, I had developed a certain fondness for her, and felt somewhat deferential toward the father. She was most attentive to my needs. I learned many estimable things from her, to add to my store of erudition and help me with my work. Her letters were lucidity itself, in the purest Chinese. None of this japanese nonsense for her. I found it hard to think of giving her up, and under her tutelage I managed to turn out a few things in passable Chinese myself. And yet — though I would not wish to seem wanting in gratitude, it is undeniable that a man of no learning is somewhat daunted at the thought of being forever his wife’s inferior. So it is in any case with an ignorant one like me; and what possible use could you gentlemen have for so formidable a wife? A stupid, senseless affair, a man tells himself, and yet he is dragged on against his will, as if there might have been a bond in some other life.”
“She seems a most unusual woman.” Genji and Tō no Chūjō were eager to hear more.
Quite aware that the great gentlemen were amusing themselves at his expense, he smiled somewhat impishly. “One day when I had not seen her for rather a long time I had some reason or other for calling. She was not in the room where we had been in the habit of meeting. She insisted on talking to me through a very obtrusive screen. I thought she might be sulking, and it all seemed very silly. And then again — if she was going to be so petty, I might have my excuse for leaving her. But no. She was not a person to let her jealousy show. She knew too much of the world. Her explanation of what was happening poured forth at great length, all of it very well reasoned.
“‘I have been indisposed with a malady known as coryza. Discommoded to an uncommon degree, I have been imbibing of a steeped potion made from bulbaceous herbs. Because of the noisome odor, I will not find it possible to admit of greater propinquity. If you have certain random matters for my attention, perhaps you can deposit the relevant materials where you are.’
“‘Is that so?’ I said. I could think of nothing else to say.
“I started to leave. perhaps feeling a little lonely, she called after me, somewhat shrilly.‘When I have disencumbered myself of this aroma, we can meet once more.
“It seemed cruel to rush off, but the time was not right for a quiet visit. And it was as she said: her odor was rather high. Again I started out, pausing long enough to compose a verse:
“‘The spider must have told you I would come.
Then why am I asked to keep company with garlic?’
“I did not take time to accuse her of deliberately putting me off.
“She was quicker than I. She chased after me with an answer.
“‘Were we two who kept company every night,
What would be wrong with garlic in the daytime?’
“You must admit she was quick with her answers.” He had quietly finished his story.
The two gentlemen, Genji and his friend, would have none of it. “A complete fabrication, from start to finish. Where could you find such a woman? Better to have a quiet evening with a witch.” They thought it an outrageous story, and asked if he could come up with nothing more acceptable.
“Surely you would not wish for a more unusual sort of story?”
The guards officer took up again. “In women as in men, there is no one worse than the one who tries to display her scanty knowledge in full. It is among the least endearing of accomplishments for a woman to have delved into the Three Histories and the Five Classics; and who, on the other hand, can go through life without absorbing something of public affairs and private? A reasonably alert woman does not need to be a scholar to see and hear a great many things. The very worst are the ones who scribble off Chinese characters at such a rate that they fill a good half of letters where they are most out of place, letters to other women.‘What a bore,’ you say. ‘If only she had mastered a few of the feminine things.’ She cannot of course intend it to be so, but the words read aloud seem muscular and unyielding, and in the end hopelessly mannered. I fear that even our highest of the high are too often guilty of the fault.
“Then there is the one who fancies herself a poetess. She immerses herself in the anthologies, and brings antique references into her very first line, interesting enough in themselves but inappropriate. A man has had enough with that first line, but he is called heartless if he does not answer, and cannot claim the honors if he does not answer in a similar vein. On the Day of the Iris he is frantic to get off to court and has no eye for irises, and there she is with subtle references to iris roots. On the Day of the Chrysanthemum, his mind has no room for anything but the Chinese poem he must come up with in the course of the day, and there she is with something about the dew upon the chrysanthemum. A poem that might have been amusing and even moving on a less frantic day has been badly timed and must therefore be rejected. A woman who dashes off a poem at an unpoetic moment cannot be called a woman of taste.
“For someone who is not alive to the particular quality of each moment and each occasion, it is safer not to make a great show of taste and elegance; and from someone who is alive to it all, a man wants restraint. She should feign a certain ignorance, she should keep back a little of what she is prepared to say.”
Through all the talk Genji’s thoughts were on a single lady. His heart was filled with her. She answered every requirement, he thought. She had none of the defects, was guilty of none of the excesses, that had emerged from the discussion.
The talk went on and came to no conclusion, and as the rainy night gave way to dawn the stories became more and more improbable.
It appeared that the weather would be fine. Fearing that his father-in-law might resent his secluding himself in the palace, Genji set off for Sanjō. The mansion itself, his wife — every detail was admirable and in the best of taste. Nowhere did he find a trace of disorder. Here was a lady whom his friends must count among the truly dependable ones, the indispensable ones. And yet — she was too finished in her perfection, she was so cool and self-possessed that she made him uncomfortable. He turned to playful conversation with Chūnagon and Nakatsukasa and other pretty young women among her attendants. Because it was very warm, he loosened his dress, and they thought him even handsomer.
The minister came to pay his respects. Seeing Genji thus in dishabille, he made his greetings from behind a conveniently placed curtain. Though somewhat annoyed at having to receive such a distinguished visitor on such a warm day, Genji made it clear to the women that they were not to smile at his discomfort. He was a very calm, self-possessed young gentleman.
As evening approached, the women reminded him that his route from the palace had transgressed upon the domain of the Lord of the Center. He must not spend the night here.
“To be sure. But my own house lies in the same direction. And I am very tired.” He lay down as if he meant in spite of everything to stay the night.
“It simply will not do, my lord.”
“The governor of Kii here,” said one of Genji’s men, pointing to another. “He has dammed the Inner River and brought it into his garden, and the waters are very cool, very pleasant.”
“An excellent idea. I really am very tired, and perhaps we can send ahead to see whether we might drive into the garden.”
There were no doubt all sorts of secret places to which he could have gone to avoid the taboo. He had come to Sanjō, and after a considerable absence. The minister might suspect that he had purposely chosen a night on which he must leave early.
The governor of Kii was cordial enough with his invitation, but when he withdrew he mentioned certain misgivings to Genji’s men. Ritual purifi- cation, he said, had required all the women to be away from his father’s house, and unfortunately they were all crowded into his own, a cramped enough place at best. He feared that Genji would be inconvenienced.
“Nothing of the sort,” said Genji, who had overheard. “It is good to have people around. There is nothing worse than a night away from home with no ladies about. just let me have a little comer behind their curtains.”
“If that is what you want,” said his men, “then the governor’s place should be perfect.”
And so they sent runners ahead. Genji set off immediately, though in secret, thinking that no great ceremony was called for. He did not tell the minister where he was going, and took only his nearest retainers. The governor grumbled that they were in rather too much of a hurry. No one listened.
The east rooms of the main hall had been cleaned and made presentable. The waters were as they had been described, a most pleasing arrangement. A fence of wattles, of a deliberately rustic appearance, enclosed the garden, and much care had gone into the plantings. The wind was cool. Insects were humming, one scarcely knew where, fireflies drew innumerable lines of light, and all in all the time and the place could not have been more to his liking. His men were already tippling, out where they could admire a brook flowing under a gallery. The governor seemed to have “hurried off for viands.” Gazing calmly about him, Genji concluded that the house would be of the young guardsman’s favored inbetween category. Having heard that his host’s stepmother, who would be in residence, was a high-spirited lady, he listened for signs of her presence. There were signs of someone’s presence immediately to the west. He heard a swishing of silk and young voices that were not at all displeasing. Young ladies seemed to be giggling self-consciously and trying to contain themselves. The shutters were raised, it seemed, but upon a word from the governor they were lowered. There was a faint light over the sliding doors. Genji went for a look, but could find no opening large enough to see through. Listening for a time, he concluded that the women had gathered in the main room, next to his.
The whispered discussion seemed to be about Genji himself.
“He is dreadfully serious, they say, and has made a fine match for himself. And still so young. Don’t you imagine he might be a little lonely? But they say he finds time for a quiet little adventure now and then.”
Genji was startled. There was but one lady on his mind, day after day. So this was what the gossips were saying; and what if, in it all, there was evidence that rumors of his real love had spread abroad? But the talk seemed harmless enough, and after a time he wearied of it. Someone misquoted a poem he had sent to his cousin Asagao, attached to a morning glory. Their standards seemed not of the most rigorous. A misquoted poem for every occasion. He feared he might be disappointed when he saw the woman.
The governor had more lights set out at the eaves, and turned up those in the room. He had refreshments brought.
“And are the curtains all hung?” asked Genji. “You hardly qualify as a host if they are not.”
“And what will you feast upon?” rejoined the governor, somewhat stiffly. “Nothing so very elaborate, I fear.”
Genji found a cool place out near the veranda and lay down. His men were quiet. Several young boys were present, all very sprucely dressed, sons of the host and of his father, the governor of Iyo. There was one particularly attractive lad of perhaps twelve or thirteen. Asking who were the sons of whom, Genji learned that the boy was the younger brother of the host’s stepmother, son of a guards officer no longer living. His father had had great hopes for the boy and had died while he was still very young. He had come to this house upon his sister’s marriage to the governor of Iyo. He seemed to have some aptitude for the classics, said the host, and was of a quiet, pleasant disposition; but he was young and without backing, and his prospects at court were not good.
“A pity. The sister, then, is your stepmother?”
“A very young stepmother. My father had thought of inviting her to court. He was asking just the other day what might have happened to her. Life,” he added with a solemnity rather beyond his years, “is uncertain.”
“It happened almost by accident. Yes, you are right: it is a very uncertain world, and it always has been, particularly for women. They are like bits of driftwood.”
“Your father is no doubt very alert to her needs. perhaps, indeed, one has trouble knowing who is the master?”
“He quite worships her. The rest of us are not entirely happy with the arrangements he has made.”
“But you cannot expect him to let you young gallants have everything. He has a name in that regard himself, you know. And where might the lady be?”
“They have all been told to spend the night in the porter’s lodge, but they don’t seem in a hurry to go.”
The wine was having its effect, and his men were falling asleep on the veranda.
Genji lay wide awake, not pleased at the prospect of sleeping alone. He sensed that there was someone in the room to the north. It would be the lady of whom they had spoken. Holding his breath, he went to the door and listened.
“Where are you?” The pleasantly husky voice was that of the boy who had caught his eye.
“Over here.” It would be the sister. The two voices, very sleepy, resembled each other. “And where is our guest? I had thought he might be somewhere near, but he seems to have gone away.”
“He’s in the east room.” The boy’s voice was low. “ I saw him. He is every bit as handsome as everyone says.”
“If it were daylight I might have a look at him myself.” The sister yawned, and seemed to draw the bedclothes over her face.
Genji was a little annoyed. She might have questioned her brother more energetically.
“I’ll sleep out toward the veranda. But we should have more light.” The boy turned up the lamp. The lady apparently lay at a diagonal remove from Genji. “And where is Chūjō? I don’t like being left alone.”
“She went to have a bath. She said she’d be right back.” He spoke from out near the veranda.
All was quiet again. Genji slipped the latch open and tried the doors. They had not been bolted. A curtain had been set up just inside, and in the dim light he could make out Chinese chests and other furniture scattered in some disorder. He made his way through to her side. She lay by herself, a slight little figure. Though vaguely annoyed at being disturbed, she evidently took him for the woman Chūjō until he pulled back the covers.
“I heard you summoning a captain,” he said, “and I thought my prayers over the months had been answered.
She gave a little gasp. It was muffled by the bedclothes and no one else heard.
“You are perfectly correct if you think me unable to control myself. But I wish you to know that I have been thinking of you for a very long time. And the fact that I have finally found my opportunity and am taking advantage of it should show that my feelings are by no means shallow.”
His manner was so gently persuasive that devils and demons could not have gainsaid him. The lady would have liked to announce to the world that a strange man had invaded her boudoir.
“I think you have mistaken me for someone else,” she said, outraged, though the remark was under her breath.
The little figure, pathetically fragile and as if on the point of expiring from the shock, seemed to him very beautiful.
“I am driven by thoughts so powerful that a mistake is completely out of the question. It is cruel of you to pretend otherwise. I promise you that I will do nothing unseemly. I must ask you to listen to a little of what is on my mind.”
She was so small that he lifted her easily. As he passed through the doors to his own room, he came upon the Chūjō who had been summoned earlier. He called out in surprise. Surprised in turn, Chūjō peered into the darkness. The perfume that came from his robes like a cloud of smoke told her who he was. She stood in confusion, unable to speak. Had he been a more ordinary intruder she might have ripped her mistress away by main force. But she would not have wished to raise an alarm all through the house.
She followed after, but Genji was quite unmoved by her pleas.
“Come for her in the morning,” he said, sliding the doors closed.
The lady was bathed in perspiration and quite beside herself at the thought of what Chūjō, and the others too, would be thinking. Genji had to feel sorry for her. Yet the sweet words poured forth, the whole gamut of pretty devices for making a woman surrender.
She was not to be placated. “Can it be true? Can I be asked to believe that you are not making fun of me? Women of low estate should have husbands of low estate.”
He was sorry for her and somewhat ashamed of himself, but his answer was careful and sober. “You take me for one of the young profligates you see around? I must protest. I am very young and know nothing of the estates which concern you so. You have heard of me, surely, and you must know that I do not go in for adventures. I must ask what unhappy entanglement imposes this upon me. You are making a fool of me, and nothing should surprise me, not even the tumultuous emotions that do in fact surprise me.”
But now his very splendor made her resist. He might think her obstinate and insensitive, but her unfriendliness must make him dismiss her from further consideration. Naturally soft and pliant, she was suddenly firm. It was as with the young bamboo: she bent but was not to be broken. She was weeping. He had his hands full but would not for the world have missed the experience.
“Why must you so dislike me?” he asked with a sigh, unable to stop the weeping. “Don’t you know that the unexpected encounters are the ones we were fated for? Really, my dear, you do seem to know altogether too little of the world.”
“If I had met you before I came to this,” she replied, and he had to admit the truth of it, “then I might have consoled myself with the thought — it might have been no more than self-deception, of course — that you would someday come to think fondly of me. But this is hopeless, worse than I can tell you. Well, it has happened. Say no to those who ask if you have seen me.”
One may imagine that he found many kind promises with which to comfort her.
The first cock was crowing and Genji’s men were awake.
“Did you sleep well? I certainly did.”
“Let’s get the carriage ready.”
Some of the women were heard asking whether people who were avoiding taboos were expected to leave again in the middle of the night.
Genji was very unhappy. He feared he could not find an excuse for another meeting. He did not see how he could visit her, and he did not see how they could write. Chūjō came out, also very unhappy. He let the lady go and then took her back again.
“How shall I write to you? Your feelings and my own — they are not shallow, and we may expect deep memories. Has anything ever been so strange?” He was in tears, which made him yet handsomer. The cocks were now crowing insistently. He was feeling somewhat harried as he composed his farewell verse:
“Why must they startle with their dawn alarums
When hours are yet required to thaw the ice?”
The lady was ashamed of herself that she had caught the eye of a man so far above her. His kind words had little effect. She was thinking of her husband, whom for the most part she considered a clown and a dolt. She trembled to think that a dream might have told him of the night’s happenings.
This was the verse with which she replied:
“Day has broken without an end to my tears.
To my cries of sorrow are added the calls of the cocks.”
It was lighter by the moment. He saw her to her door, for the house was coming to life. A barrier had fallen between them. In casual court dress, he leaned for a time against the south railing and looked out at the garden. Shutters were being raised along the west side of the house. Women seemed to be looking out at him, beyond a low screen at the veranda. He no doubt brought shivers of delight. The moon still bright in the dawn sky added to the beauty of the morning. The sky, without heart itself, can at these times be friendly or sad, as the beholder sees it. Genji was in anguish. He knew that there would be no way even to exchange notes. He cast many a glance backward as he left.
At Sanjō once more, he was unable to sleep. If the thought that they would not meet again so pained him, what must it do to the lady? She was no beauty, but she had seemed pretty and cultivated. Of the middling rank, he said to himself. The guards officer who had seen them all knew what he was talking about.
Spending most of his time now at Sanjō, he thought sadly of the unapproachable lady. At last he summoned her stepson, the governor of Kii.
“The boy I saw the other night, your foster uncle. He seemed a promising lad. I think I might have a place for him. I might even introduce him to my father.”
“Your gracious words quite overpower me. Perhaps I should take the matter up with his sister.”
Genji’s heart leaped at the mention of the lady. “Does she have children?”
“No. She and my father have been married for two years now, but I gather that she is not happy. Her father meant to send her to court.”
“How sad for her. Rumor has it that she is a beauty. Might rumor be correct?”
“Mistaken, I fear. But of course stepsons do not see a great deal of stepmothers.”
Several days later he brought the boy to Genji. Examined in detail the boy was not perfect, but he had considerable charm and grace. Genji addressed him in a most friendly manner, which both confused and pleased him. Questioning him about his sister, Genji did not learn a great deal. The answers were ready enough while they were on safe ground, but the boy’s self-possession was a little disconcerting. Genji hinted rather broadly at what had taken place. The boy was startled. He guessed the truth but was not old enough to pursue the matter.
Genji gave him a letter for his sister. Tears came to her eyes. How much had her brother been told? she wondered, spreading the letter to hide her flushed cheeks.
It was very long, and concluded with a poem:
“I yearn to dream again the dream of that night.
The nights go by in lonely wakefulness.
“There are no nights of sleep.”
The hand was splendid, but she could only weep at the yet stranger turn her life had taken.
The next day Genji sent for the boy.
Where was her answer? the boy asked his sister.
“Tell him you found no one to give his letter to.”
“Oh, please.” The boy smiled knowingly. “How can I tell him that? I have learned enough to be sure there is no mistake.”
She was horrified. It was clear that Genji had told everything.
“I don’t know why you must always be so clever. Perhaps it would be better if you didn’t go at all.”
“But he sent for me.” And the boy departed.
The governor of Kii was beginning to take an interest in his pretty young stepmother, and paying insistent court. His attention turned to the brother, who became his frequent companion.
“I waited for you all day yesterday,” said Genji. “Clearly I am not as much on your mind as you are on mine.”
The boy flushed.
“Where is her answer?” And when the boy told him: “A fine messenger. I had hoped for something better.”
There were other letters.
“But didn’t you know?” he said to the boy. “I knew her before that old man she married. She thought me feeble and useless, it seems, and looked for a stouter support. Well, she may spurn me, but you needn’t. You will be my son. The gentleman you are looking to for help won’t be with us long.”
The boy seemed to be thinking what a nuisance his sister’s husband was. Genji was amused.
He treated the boy like a son, making him a constant companion, giving him clothes from his own wardrobe, taking him to court. He continued to write to the lady. She feared that with so inexperienced a messenger the secret might leak out and add suspicions of promiscuity to her other worries. These were very grand messages, but something more in keeping with her station seemed called for. Her answers were stiff and formal when she answered at all. She could not forget his extraordinary good looks and elegance, so dimly seen that night. But she belonged to another, and nothing was to be gained by trying to interest him. His longing was undiminished. He could not forget how touchingly fragile and confused she had seemed. With so many people around, another invasion of her boudoir was not likely to go unnoticed, and the results would be sad.
One evening after he had been at court for some days he found an excuse: his mansion again lay in a forbidden direction. Pretending to set off for Sanjō, he went instead to the house of the governor of Kii. The governor was delighted, thinking that those well-designed brooks and lakes had made an impression. Genji had consulted with the boy, always in earnest attendance. The lady had been informed of the visit. She must admit that they seemed powerful, the urges that forced him to such machinations. But if she were to receive him and display herself openly, what could she expect save the anguish of the other night, a repetition of that nightmare? No, the shame would be too much.
The brother having gone off upon a summons from Genji, she called several of her women. “I think it might be in bad taste to stay too near. I am not feeling at all well, and perhaps a massage might help, somewhere far enough away that we won’t disturb him.”
The woman Chūjō had rooms on a secluded gallery. They would be her refuge.
It was as she had feared. Genji sent his men to bed early and dispatched his messenger. The boy could not find her. He looked everywhere and finally, at the end of his wits, came upon her in the gallery.
He was almost in tears. “But he will think me completely useless.”
“And what do you propose to be doing? You are a child, and it is quite improper for you to be carrying such messages. Tell him I have not been feeling well and have kept some of my women to massage me. You should not be here. They will think it very odd.”
She spoke with great firmness, but her thoughts were far from as firm. How happy she might have been if she had not made this unfortunate marriage, and were still in the house filled with memories of her dead parents. Then she could have awaited his visits, however infrequent. And the coldness she must force herself to display — he must think her quite unaware of her place in the world. She had done what she thought best, and she was in anguish. Well, it all was hard fact, about which she had no choice. She must continue to play the cold and insensitive woman.
Genji lay wondering what blandishments the boy might be using. He was not sanguine, for the boy was very young. Presently he came back to report his mission a failure. What an uncommonly strong woman! Genji feared he must seem a bit feckless beside her. He heaved a deep sigh. This evidence of despondency had the boy on the point of tears.
Genji sent the lady a poem:
“I wander lost in the Sonohara moorlands,
For I did not know the deceiving ways of the broom tree.
“How am I to describe my sorrow?”
She too lay sleepless. This was her answer:
“Here and not here, I lie in my shabby hut.
Would that I might like the broom tree vanish away.”
The boy traveled back and forth with messages, a wish to be helpful driving sleep from his thoughts. His sister beseeched him to consider what the others might think.
Genji’s men were snoring away. He lay alone with his discontent. This unique stubbornness was no broom tree. It refused to vanish away. The stubbornness was what interested him. But he had had enough. Let her do as she wished. And yet — not even this simple decision was easy.
“At least take me to her.”
“She is shut up in a very dirty room and there are all sorts of women with her. I do not think it would be wise.” The boy would have liked to be more helpful.
“Well, you at least must not abandon me.” Genji pulled the boy down beside him.
The boy was delighted, such were Genji’s youthful charms. Genji, for his part, or so one is informed, found the boy more attractive than his chilly sister.
Last updated Sunday, March 1, 2015 at 21:07