There was in those years a prince of the blood, an old man, left behind by the times. His mother was of the finest lineage. There had once been talk of seeking a favored position for him; but there were disturbances and a new alignment of forces, at the end of which his prospects were in ruins. His supporters, embittered by this turn of events, were less than steadfast: they made their various excuses and left him. And so in his public life and in his private, he was quite alone, blocked at every turn. His wife, the daughter of a former minister, had fits of bleakest depression at the thought of her parents and their plans for her, now of course in ruins. Her consolation was that she and her husband were close as husbands and wives seldom are. Their confidence in each other was complete.
But here too there was a shadow: the years went by and they had no children. If only there were a pretty little child to break the loneliness and boredom, the prince would think — and sometimes give voice to his thoughts. And then, surprisingly, a very pretty daughter was in fact born to them. She was the delight of their lives. Years passed, and there were signs that the princess was again with child. The prince hoped that this time he would be favored with a son, but again the child was a daughter. Though the birth was easy enough, the princess fell desperately ill soon afterwards, and was dead before many days had passed. The prince was numb with grief. The vulgar world had long had no place for him, he said, and frequently it had seemed quite unbearable; and the bond that had held him to it had been the beauty and the gentleness of his wife. How could he go on alone? And there were his daughters. How could he, alone, rear them in a manner that would not be a scandal? — for he was not, after all, a commoner. His conclusion was that he must take the tonsure. Yet he hesitated. Once he was gone, there would be no one to see to the safety of his daughters.
So the years went by. The princesses grew up, each with her own grace and beauty. It was difficult to find fault with them, they gave him what pleasure he had. The passing years offered him no opportunity to carry out his resolve.
The serving women muttered to themselves that the younger girl’s very birth had been a mistake, and were not as diligent as they might have been in caring for her. With the prince it was a different matter. His wife, scarcely in control of her senses, had been especially tormented by thoughts of this new babe. She had left behind a single request: “Think of her as a keepsake, and be good to her.”
The prince himself was not without resentment at the child, that her birth should so swiftly have severed their bond from a former life, his and his princess’s.
“But such was the bond that it was,” he said. “And she worried about the girl to the very end.”
The result was that if anything he doted upon the child to excess. One almost sensed in her fragile beauty a sinister omen.
The older girl was comely and of a gentle disposition, elegant in face and in manner, with a suggestion behind the elegance of hidden depths. In quiet grace, indeed, she was the superior of the two. And so the prince favored each as each in her special way demanded. There were numerous matters which he was not able to order as he wished, however, and his household only grew sadder and lonelier as time went by. His attendants, unable to bear the uncertainty of their prospects, took their leave one and two at a time. In the confusion surrounding the birth of the younger girl, there had not been time to select a really suitable nurse for her. No more dedicated than one would have expected in the circumstances, the nurse first chosen abandoned her ward when the girl was still an infant. Thereafter the prince himself took charge of her upbringing.
Much care had gone into the planning of his garden. Though the ponds and hillocks were as they had always been, the prince gazed listlessly out upon a garden returning to nature. His stewards being of a not very diligent sort, there was no one to fight off the decay. The garden was rank with weeds, and creeping ferns took over the eaves as if the house belonged to them. The freshness of the cherry blossoms in spring, the tints of the autumn leaves, had been a consolation in loneliness while he had had his wife with him. Now the beauties of the passing seasons only made him lonelier. It became his compelling duty to see that the chapel was properly appointed, and he spent his days and nights in religious observances. Even his affection for his daughters, because it was a bond with this world, made him strangely fretful. He had to set it down as a mark against him for some misdeed in a former life, the fact that he was not up to following his inclinations and renouncing the world. The possibility that he might bow to custom and remarry seemed more and more remote. Time went by and thoughts of marriage left him. He had become a saint who still wore the robes of this world. His wife was dead and it was unthinkable that anyone should replace her.
“Enough of this, Your Highness,” said the people around him. “We understand, please believe us, why your grief was what it was when our lady left you. But time passes, grief should not go on forever. Can you not bring yourself to do as others do? And look at this house, if you will, with no one to watch over it. If there were someone, anyone, for us to look to, it would not be the ruin it is.”
So they argued, and he was informed of numerous possible matches; but he would not listen. When he was not at his prayers, his daughters were his companions. They were growing up and they occupied themselves with music and Go, and word games, and other profitless pastimes. Each had her own individual ways, he was beginning to notice. The older girl was composed and meditative, quick to learn but with a tendency toward moodiness. The younger, though also quiet and reserved, was distinguished by a certain shy and childlike gaiety.
One warm spring day he sat looking out over the garden. Mallards were swimming about on the pond, wing to wing, chattering happily to each other. It was a sight which in earlier years would scarcely have caught the prince’s eye, but now he felt something like jealousy toward these mindless creatures, each steadfast to its mate.
He had the girls go over a music lesson, and very appealing they were too, as they bent their small figures to the work. The sound of the instruments was enough to bring tears to his eyes. Softly, he recited a verse, brushing away a tear as he did so.
“She has left behind her mate, and these nestlings too.
Why have they lingered in this uncertain world?”
He was an extremely handsome man. Emaciation from years of abstinence only added to the courtliness of his bearing. He had put on a figured robe for the music lesson. Somewhat rumpled, casually thrown over his shoulders, it seemed to emphasize by its very carelessness the nobility of the wearer.
Oigimi, the older girl, quietly took out an inkstone and seemed about to write a few lines on it.
“Come now. You know better than to write on an inkstone.” He pushed a sheet of paper towards her.
“I know now, as I see it leave the nest,
How uncertain is the lot of the waterfowl.”
It was not a masterpiece, but in the circumstances it was very touching. The hand showed promise even though the characters were separated one from another in a still childish fashion.
“And now it is your turn,” he said to Nakanokimi, the younger.
More of a child than her sister, she took longer with her verse:
“Unsheltered by the wing of the grieving father,
The nestling would surely have perished in the nest.”
It saddened him to see the princesses, their robes shabby and wrinkled, no one to take care of them, bored and without hope of relief from boredom — but they were utterly charming on such occasions, each in her own way. He read from the holy text in his hand, sometimes interrupting with a poem. To the older girl he had taught the lute, to the younger the thirteen-stringed koto. When they played duets, of which they were fond, he thought them very satisfactory pupils, if still somewhat immature.
He had early lost his father, the old emperor, and his mother as well. Without the sort of resolute backing necessary for a youth in his position, he tended to neglect serious Chinese studies. Practical matters of state and career were yet further beyond his grasp. He was of an elegance extraordinary even for one of his birth, with a soft gentility that approached the womanish; and so the treasures from his ancestors, the fields left by his grandfather the minister, which at the outset had seemed inexhaustible, had presently disappeared, he could not have said where. Only his mansion and its furnishings — fine and numerous, to be sure — remained. The last of his retainers had left him, and the last of those with whom he might find companionship. To relieve the tedium he would summon eminent musicians from the palace and lose himself in impractical pursuits. In the course of time he became as skilled a musician as his teachers.
He was the Eighth Prince, a younger brother of the shining Genji. During the years when the Reizei emperor was crown prince, the mother of the reigning emperor had sought in that conspiratorial way of hers to have the Eighth Prince named crown prince, replacing Reizei. The world seemed hers to rule as she wished, and the Eighth Prince was very much at the center of it. Unfortunately his success irritated the opposing faction. The day came when Genji and presently Yūgiri had the upper hand, and he was without supporters. He had over the years become an ascetic in any case, and he now resigned himself to living the life of the sage and hermit.
There came yet another disaster. As if fate had not been unkind enough already, his mansion was destroyed by fire. Having no other suitable house in the city, he moved to Uji, some miles to the southeast, where he happened to own a tastefully appointed mountain villa. He had renounced the world, it was true, and yet leaving the capital was a painful wrench indeed. With fishing weirs near at hand to heighten the roar of the river, the situation at Uji was hardly favorable to quiet study. But whit mustI e must be. With the flowering trees of spring and the leaves of autumn and the flow of the river to bring repose, he lost himself more than ever in solitary meditation. There was one thought even so that never left his mind: how much better it would be, even in these remote mountains, if his wife were with him!
“She who was with me, the roof above are smoke.
And why must I alone remain behind?”
So much was the past still with him that life scarcely seemed worth living.
Mountain upon mountain separated his dwelling from the larger world. Rough people of the lower classes, woodcutters and the like, sometimes came by to do chores for him. There were no other callers. The gloom continued day after day, as stubborn and clinging as “the morning mist on the peaks.”
There happened to be in those Uji mountains an abbot, a most saintly man. Though famous for his learning, he seldom took part in public rites. He heard in the course of time that there was a prince living nearby, a man who was teaching himself the mysteries of the Good Law. Thinking this a most admirable undertaking, he made bold to visit the prince, who upon subsequent interviews was led deeper into the texts he had studied over the years. The prince became more immediately aware of what was meant by the transience and uselessness of the material world.
“In spirit,” he confessed, quite one with the holy man, “I have perhaps found my place upon the lotus of the clear pond; but I have not yet made my last farewells to the world because I cannot bring myself to leave my daughters behind.”
The abbot was an intimate of the Reizei emperor and had been his preceptor as well. One day, visiting the city, he called upon the Reizei emperor to answer any questions that might have come to him since their last meeting.
“Your honored brother,” he said, bringing the Eighth Prince into the conversation, “has pursued his studies so diligently that he has been favored with the most remarkable insights. Only a bond from a former life can account for such dedication. Indeed, the depth of his understanding makes me want to call him a saint who has not yet left the world.”
“He has not taken the tonsure? But I remember now — the young people do call him’the saint who is still one of us.’”
Kaoru chanced to be present at the interview. He listened intently. No one knew better than he the futility of this world, and yet he passed useless days, his devotions hardly so frequent or intense as to attract public notice. The heart of a man who, though still in this world, was in all other respects a saint — to what might it be likened?
The abbot continued:” He has long wanted to cut his last ties with the world, but a trifling matter made it difficult for him to carry out his resolve. Now he has two motherless children whom he cannot bring himself to leave behind. They are the burden he must bear.”
The abbot himself had not entirely given up the pleasures of the world: he had a good ear for music. “And when their highnesses deign to play a duet,” he said, “they bid fair to outdo the music of the river, and put one in mind of the blessed musicians above.”
The Reizei emperor smiled at this rather fusty way of stating the matter. “You would not expect girl s who have had a saint for their principal companion to have such accomplishments. How pleasant to know about them — and what an uncommonly good father he must be! I am sure that the thought of having to leave them is pure torment. It is always possible that I will live longer than he, and if I do perhaps I may ask to be given responsibility for them.
He was himself the tenth son of the family, younger than his brother at Uji. There was the example of the Suzaku emperor, who had left his young daughter in Genji’s charge. Something similar might be arranged, he thought. He would have companions to relieve the monotony of his days.
Kaoru was less interested in the daughters than in the father. Quite entranced with what he had heard, he longed to see for himself that figure so wrapped in the serenity of religion.
“I have every intention of calling on him and asking him to be my master,” he said as the abbot left. “Might I ask you to find out, unobtrusively, of course, how he would greet the possibility?”
“And tell him, please,” said the Reizei emperor, “that I have been much affected by your description of his holy retreat.” And he wrote down a verse to be delivered to the Eighth Prince.
“Wearily, my soul goes off to your mountains,
And cloud upon circling cloud holds my person back?”
With the royal messenger in the lead, the abbot set off for Uji, thinking to visit the Eighth Prince on his way back to the monastery. The prince so seldom heard from anyone that he was overjoyed at these tidings. He ordered wine for his guests and side dishes peculiar to the region. This was the poem he sent back to his brother:
“I am not as free as I seem. From the gloom of the world
I retreat only briefly to the Hill of Gloom.”
He declined to call himself one of the truly enlightened. The vulgar world still called up regrets and resentments, thought the Reizei emperor, much moved.
The abbot also spoke of Kaoru, who, he said, was of a strongly religious bent. “He asked me most earnestly to tell you about him: to tell you that he has longed since childhood to give himself up to study of the scriptures; that he has been kept busy with inconsequential affairs, public and private, and has been unable to leave the world; that since these affairs are trivial in any case and no one could call his career a brilliant one, he could hardly expect people to notice if he were to lock himself up in prayers and meditation; that he has had an unfortunate way of letting himself be distracted. And when he had entrusted me with all this, he added that, having heard through me of your own revered person, he could
“When there has been a great misfortune,” said the prince, “when the whole world seems hostile — that is when most people come to think it a flimsy façade, and wish to have no more of it. I can only marvel that a young man for whom everything lies ahead, who has had everything his way, should start thinking of other worlds. In my own case, it often seems to me, the powers deliberately arranged matters to give my mind such a turn, and so I came to religion as if it were the natural thing. I have managed to find a certain amount of peace, I suppose; but when I think of the short time I have left and of how slowly my preparations creep forward, I know that what I have learned comes to nothing and that in the end it will still be nothing. No, I am afraid I would be a scandalously bad teacher. Let him think of me as a fellow seeker after truth, a very humble one.”
Kaoru and the prince exchanged letters and presently Kaoru paid his first visit.
It was an even sadder place than the abbot’s description had led him to expect. The house itself was like a grass hut put up for a few days’ shelter, and as for the furnishings, everything even remotely suggesting luxury had been dispensed with. There were mountain villages that had their own quiet charm; but here the tumult of the waters and the wailing of the wind must make it impossible to have a moment free of sad thoughts. He could see why a man on the way to enlightenment might seek out such a place as a means of cutting his ties with the world. But what of the daughters? Did they not have the usual fondness for delicate, ladylike things?
A sliding partition seemed to separate the chapel from their rooms. A youth of more amorous inclinations would have approached and made himself known, curious to see what his reception would be. Kaoru was not above feeling a certain excitement at being so near; but a show of interest would have betrayed his whole purpose, which was to be free of just such thoughts, here in distant mountains. The smallest hint of frivolity would have denied the reason for the visit.
Deeply moved by the saintly figure before him, he offered the warmest avowals of friendship. His visits were frequent thereafter. Nowhere did he find evidence of shallowness in the discourses to which he was treated; nor was there a suggestion of pompousness in the prince’s explanations of the scriptures and of his profoundly significant reasons, even though he had stopped short of taking the tonsure, for living in the mountains.
The world was full of saintly and learned men, but the stiff, forbidding bishops and patriarchs who were such repositories of virtue had little time of their own, and he found it far from easy to approach them with his questions. Then there were lesser disciples of the Buddha. They were to be admired for observing the discipline, it was true; but they tended to be vulgar and obsequious in their manner and rustic in their speech, and they could be familiar to the point of rudeness. Since Kaoru was busy with official duties in the daytime, it was in the quiet of the evening, in the intimacy of his private chambers, that he liked to have company. Such people would not do.
Now he had found a man who combined great elegance with a reticence that certainly was not obsequious, and who, even when he was discussing the Good Law, was adept at bringing plain, familiar similes into his discourse. He was not, perhaps, among the completely enlightened, but people of birth and culture have their own insights into the nature of things. After repeated visits Kaoru came to feel that he wanted to be always at the prince’s side, and he would be overtaken by intense longing when official duties kept him away for a time.
Impressed by Kaoru’s devotion, the Reizei emperor sent messages; and so the Uji house, silent and forgotten by the world, came to have visitors again. Sometimes the Reizei emperor sent lavish gifts and supplies. In pleasant matters having to do with the seasons and the festivals and in practical matters as well, Kaoru missed no chance to be of service.
Three years went by. It was the end of autumn, and the time had come for the quarterly reading of the scriptures. The roar of the fish weirs was more than a man could bear, said the Eighth Prince as he set off for the abbot’s monastery, there to spend a week in retreat.
The princesses were lonelier than ever. It had been weighing on Kaoru’s mind that too much time had passed since his last visit. One night as a late moon was coming over the hills he set out for Uji, his guard as unobtrusive as possible, his caparison of the simplest. He could go on horseback and did not have to worry about a boat, since the prince’s villa was on the near side of the Uji River. As he came into the mountains the mist was so heavy and the underbrush so thick that he could hardly make out the path; and as he pushed his way through thickets the rough wind would throw showers of dew upon him from a turmoil of falling leaves. He was very cold, and, though he had no one to blame but himself, he had to admit that he was also very wet. This was not the sort of journey he was accustomed to. It was sobering and at the same time exciting.
“From leaves that cannot withstand the mountain wind
The dew is falling. My tears fall yet more freely.”
He forbade his outrunners to raise their usual cries, for the woodcutters in these mountains could be troublesome. Brushing through a wattle fence, crossing a rivulet that meandered down from nowhere, he tried as best he could to silence the hoofs of his colt. But he could not keep that extraordinary fragrance from wandering off on the wind, and more than one family awoke in surprise at “the scent of an unknown master.”
As he drew near the Uji house, he could hear the plucking of he did not know what instrument, unimaginably still and lonely. He had heard from the abbot that the prince liked to practice with his daughters, but somehow had not found occasion to hear that famous koto. This would be his chance. Making his way into the grounds, he knew that he had been listening to a lute, tuned to the ōjiki mode. There was nothing unusual about the melody. Perhaps the strangeness of the setting had made it seem different. The sound was cool and clean, especially when a string was plucked from beneath. The lute fell silent and there were a few quiet strokes on a koto. He would have liked to listen on, but he was challenged by a man with a somewhat threatening manner, one of the guards, it would seem.
The man immediately recognized him and explained that, for certain reasons, the prince had gone into seclusion in a mountain monastery. He would be informed immediately of the visit.
“Please do not bother,” said Kaoru. “It would be a pity to interrupt his retreat when it will be over soon in any case. But do tell the ladies that I have arrived, sodden as you see me, and must go back with my mission unaccomplished; and if they are sorry for me that will be my reward.”
The rough face broke into a smile. “They will be informed.”
But as he turned to depart, Kaoru called him back. “No, wait a minute. For years I have been fascinated by stories I have heard of their playing, and this is my chance. Will there be somewhere that I might hide and listen for a while? If I were to rush in on them they would of course stop, and that would be the last thing I would want.”
His face and manner were such as to quell even the most untamed of rustics. “This is how it is. They are at it morning and night when there is no one around to hear. But let someone come from the city even if he is in rags, and they won’t let you have a twang of it. No one’s supposed to know they even exist. That’s how His Highness wants it.”
Kaoru smiled. “Now there is an odd sort of secret for you. The whole world knows that two specimens of the rarest beauty are hidden here. But come. Show me the way. I have all the best intentions. That is the way I am, I assure you.” His manner was grave and courteous. “It is hard to believe that they can be less than perfect.”
“Suppose they find out, sir. I might be in trouble.”
Nonetheless he led Kaoru to a secluded wing fenced off by wattled bamboo and the guards to the west veranda, where he saw to their needs as best he could.
A gate seemed to lead to the princesses’ rooms. Kaoru pushed it open a little. The blind had been half raised to give a view of the moon, more beautiful for the mist. A young girl, tiny and delicate, her soft robe somewhat rumpled, sat shivering at the veranda. With her was an older woman similarly dressed. The princesses were farther inside. Half hidden by a pillar, one had a lute before her and sat toying with the plectrum. Just then the moon burst forth in all its brilliance.
“Well, now,” she said. “This does quite as well as a fan for bringing out the moon.” The upraised face was bright and lively.
The other, leaning against an armrest, had a koto before her. “I have heard that you summon the sun with one of those objects, but you seem to have ideas of your own on how to use it.” She was smiling, a melancholy, contemplative sort of smile.
“I may be asking too much, I admit, but you have to admit that lutes and moons are related.”
It was a charming scene, utterly unlike what Kaoru had imagined from afar. He had often enough heard the young women of his household reading from old romances. They were always coming upon such scenes, and he had thought them the most unadulterated nonsense. And here, hidden away from the world, was a scene as affecting as any in a romance. He was dangerously near losing control of himself. The mist had deepened until he could barely make out the figures of the princesses. Summon it forth again, he whispered — but a woman had come from within to tell them of the caller. The blind was lowered and everyone withdrew to the rear of the house. There was nothing confused, nothing disorderly about the withdrawal, so calm and quiet that he caught not even a rustling of silk. Elegance and grace could at times push admiration to the point of envy.
He slipped out and sent someone back to the city for a carriage.
“I was sorry to find the prince away,” he said to the man who had been so helpful, “but I have drawn some consolation from what you have been so good as to let me see. Might I ask you to tell them that I am here, and to add that I am thoroughly drenched?”
The ladies were in an agony of embarrassment. They had not dreamed that anyone would be looking in at them — and had he even overheard that silly conversation? Now that they thought of it, there had been a peculiar fragrance on the wind; but the hour was late and they had not paid much attention. Could anything be more embarrassing? Impatient at the woman assigned to deliver his message — she did not seem to have the experience for the task — Kaoru decided that there was a time for boldness and a time for reserve; and the mist was in his favor. He advanced to the blind that bed been raised earlier and knelt deferentially before it. The countrified maids had not the first notion of what to say to him. Indeed they seemed incapable of so ordinary a courtesy as inviting him to sit down.
“You must see how uncomfortable I am,” he said quietly. “I have come over steep mountains. You cannot believe, surely, that a man with improper intentions would have gone to the trouble. This is not the reward I expected. But I take some comfort in the thought that if I submit to the drenching time after time your ladies may come to understand.”
They were young and incapable of a proper answer. They seemed to wither and crumple. It was taking a great deal of time to summon a more experienced woman from the inner chambers. The prolonged silence, Oigimi feared, might make it seem that they were being coy.
“We know nothing, nothing. How can we pretend otherwise?” It was an elegantly modulated voice, but so soft that he could scarcely make it out.
“One of the more trying mannerisms of this world, I have always thought, is for people who know its cruelties to pretend that they do not. Even you are guilty of the fault, which I find more annoying than I can tell you. Your honored father has gained deep insights into the nature of things. You have lived here with him. I should have thought that you would have gained similar insights, and that they might now demonstrate their worth by making you see the intensity of my feelings and the difficulty with which I contain them. You cannot believe, surely, that I am the usual sort of adventurer. I fear that I am of a rather inflexible nature and refuse to wander in that direction even when others try to lead me. These facts are general knowledge and will perhaps have reached your ears. If I had your permission to tell you of my silent days, if I could hope to have you come forward and seek some relief from your solitude — I cannot describe the pleasure it would give me.”
Oigimi, too shy to answer, deferred to an older woman who had at length been brought from her room.
There was nothing reticent about her. “Oh no! You’ve left him out there all by himself! Bring him in this minute. I simply do not understand young people.” The princesses must have found this as trying as the silence. “You see how it is, sir. His Highness has decided to live as if he did not belong to the human race. No one comes calling these days, not even people you’d think would never forget what they owe him. And here you are, good enough to come and see us. I may be stupid and insensitive, but I know when to be grateful. So do my ladies. But they are so shy.”
Kaoru was somewhat taken aback. Yet the woman’s manner suggested considerable polish and experience, and her voice was not unpleasant.
“I had been feeling rather unhappy,” he said, “and your words cheer me enormously. It is good to be told that they understand.”
He had come inside. Through the curtains, the old woman could make him out in the dawn light. It was as she had been told: he had discarded every pretense of finery and come in rough travel garb, and he was drenched. A most extraordinary fragrance — it hardly seemed of this world — filled the air.
“I would not want you to think me forward,” she said, and there were tears in her voice; “but I have hoped over the years that the day might come when I could tell you a little, the smallest bit, of a sad story of long ago.” Her voice was trembling. “In among my other prayers I have put a prayer that the day might come, and now it seems that the prayer has been answered. How I have longed for this moment! But see what is happening. I am all choked up before I have come to the first word.”
He had heard, and it had been his experience, that old people weep easily. This, however, was no ordinary display of feeling.
“I have fought my way here so many times and not known that a perceptive lady like yourself was in residence. Come, this is your chance. Do not leave anything out.”
“This is my chance, and there may not be another. When you are my age you can’t be sure that you will last the night. Well, let me talk. Let me tell you that this old hag is still among the living. I have heard somewhere that Kojijū, the one who waited upon your revered mother — I have heard that she is dead. So it goes. Most of the people I was fond of are dead, the people who were young when I was young. And after I had outlived them all, certain family ties brought me back from the far provinces, and I have been in the service of my ladies these five or six years. None of this, I am sure, will have come to your attention. But you may have heard of the young gentleman who was a guards captain when he died. I am told that his brother is now a grand councillor. It hardly seems possible that we have had time to dry our tears, and yet I count on my fingers and I see that there really have been years enough for you to be the fine young gentleman you are. They seem like a dream, all those years.
“My mother was his nurse. I was privileged myself to wait upon him. I did not matter, of course, but he sometimes told me secrets he kept from others, let slip things he could not keep to himself. And as he lay dying he called me to his side and left a will, I suppose you might call it. There were things in it I knew I must tell you of someday. But no more. You will ask why, having said this much, I do not go on. Well, there may after all be another chance and I can tell you everything. These youngsters are of the opinion that I have said too much already, and they are right.” She was a loquacious old person obviously, but now she fell silent.
It was like a story in a dream, like the unprompted recital of a medium in a trance. It was too odd — and at the same time it touched upon events of which he had long wanted to know more. But this was not the time. She was right. Too many eyes were watching. And it would not do to surrender on the spot and waste a whole night on an ancient story.
“I do not understand everything you have said, I fear, and yet your talk of old times does call up fond thoughts. I shall come again and ask you to tell me the rest of the story. You see how I am dressed, and if the mist clears before I leave I will disgrace myself in front of the ladies. I would like to stay longer but do not see how I can.”
As he stood up to leave, the bell of the monastery sounded in the distance. The mist was heavy. The sadness of these lives poured in upon him, of the isolation enforced by heavy mountain mists. They were lives into which the whole gamut of sorrows had entered, he thought, and he thought too that he understood why they preferred to live in seclusion.
“How very sad.
“In the dawn I cannot see the path I took
To find Oyama of the Pines in mist.”
He turned away, and yet hesitated. Even ladies who saw the great gentlemen of the capital every day would have found him remarkable, and he quite dazzled these rustic maids. Oigimi, knowing that it would be too much to ask one of them to deliver it for her, offered a reply, her voice soft and shy as before, and with a hint of a sigh in it.
“Our mountain path, enshrouded whatever the season,
Is now closed off by the deeper mist of autumn.”
The scene itself need not have detained him, but these evidences of loneliness made him reluctant to leave. Presently, uncomfortable at the thought of being seen in broad daylight, he went to the west veranda, where a place had been prepared for him, and looked out over the river.
“To have spoken so few words and to have had so few in return,” he said as he left the princesses’ wing of the house, “makes it certain that I shall have much to think about. Perhaps when we are better acquainted I can tell you of it. In the meantime, I shall say only that if you think me no different from most young men, and you do seem to, then your judgment in such matters is not what I would have hoped it to be.”
His men had become expert at presiding over the weirs. “Listen to all the shouting,” said one of them. “And they don’t seem to be exactly boasting over what they’ve caught. The fish are not cooperating.”
Strange, battered little boats, piled high with brush and wattles, made their way up and down the river, each boatman pursuing his own sad, small livelihood at the uncertain mercy of the waters. “It is the same with all of us,” thought Kaoru to himself. “Am I to boast that I am safe from the flood, calm and secure in a jeweled mansion?”
Asking for brush and ink, he got off a note to Oigimi: “It is not hard to guess the sad thoughts that must be yours.
“Wet are my sleeves as the oars that work these shallows,
For my heart knows the heart of the lady at the bridge.”
He sent it in through the guard of the night before. Red from the cold, the man presently returned with an answer. The princess was not proud of the paper, perfumed in a very undistinguished way, but speed seemed the first consideration.
“I have wet sleeves, and indeed my whole being is at the mercy of the waters.
“With sodden sleeves the boatman plies the river.
So too these sleeves of mine, at morn, at night.”
The writing was confident and dignified. He had not been able to detect a flaw in the lady. But here were these people rushing him on, telling him that his carriage had arrived from the city.
He called the guard aside. “I shall most certainly come again when His Highness has finished his retreat.” Changing to court dress that had come with the carriage, he gave his wet traveling clothes to the man.
The old woman’s remarks were very much on his mind after his return to the city, and the princesses were still before his eyes, more beautiful and reposed than he would have thought possible.
“And so,” he thought, “Uji will not, after all, be my renunciation of the world.”
He sent off a letter, taking care that every detail distinguished it from an ordinary love note: the paper was white and thick and firmly rectangular, the brush strong yet pliant, the ink shaded with great subtlety.
“It seems a great pity,” he wrote, “that my visit was such a short one, and that I held back so much I would have liked to say; but the last thing I wanted was to be thought forward. I believe I mentioned a hope that in the future I might appear freely before you. I have made note of the day on which your honored father’s retreat is to end, and I hope that by then the gloomy mists will have dissipated.”
The letter showed great restraint and avoided any suggestion of romantic intent. The guards officer who was his messenger was instructed to seek out the old woman and give it to her along with certain gifts. He remembered how the watchman had shivered as he made the rounds, and sent lavish gifts for him too, food in cypress boxes and the like.
The following day he dispatched a messenger to the temple to which the prince had withdrawn. “I have no doubt,” said the letter that accompanied numerous bolts of cotton and silk, “that the priests will be badly treated by the autumn tempests, and that you will want to leave offerings.”
The prince was making preparations to depart, his retreat having ended the evening before. He gave silk and cotton cloth as well as vestments to the priests who had been of service.
The garments of which that watchman had been the recipient — a most elegant hunting robe and a fine singlet of white brocade — were further remarkable for their softness and fragrance. Alas, the man could not change the fact that he had not been born for such finery. It was the same everywhere he went: no one could resist praising him or chiding him for the fragrance. He came to regret just a little that he had accepted the gift. It restricted his movements, for he dreaded the astonishment each new encounter produced. If only he could have the robes without the odor — but no amount of scrubbing would take it away. The gift had, after all, been from a gentleman renowned for just that fragrance.
Kaoru was much pleased at the graceful and unassuming answer he had had from Oigimi.
“What is this?” said her father, shown a copy of Kaoru’s letter. “Such a chilly reception cannot have at all the effect we want. You must bring yourselves to see that he is different from the triflers the world seems to produce these days. I have no doubt that his thoughts have turned to you because I once chanced to hint at a hope that he would watch over you after my death.” He too got off a letter, his thanks for the stream of gifts that had flooded the monastery.
Kaoru began to think of another visit. He thought too of Niou, always mooning over the possibility of finding a great beauty lost away in the mountains. Well, he had a story that would interest his friend.
One quiet evening he went calling. In the course of the usual court gossip, he mentioned the prince at Uji, and went on to describe in some detail what had taken place in the autumn dawn.
He was not disappointed. “A masterpiece!” said Niou.
He added yet further exciting details.
“But what of the letter? You said there was a letter, and you haven’t shown it to me. That is not kind of you. You know that I would hold nothing back if I were in your place.”
“Oh, to be sure. All those letters you’ve had from all those ladies and you have not shown me the smallest scrap. But I know that something of this sort is not for the weak and obscure of the world to have all to themselves. I would like to take you for a look sometime, I most definitely would; but it is out of the question. I could not think of taking such an important man to such a place. We who are not too burdened with glory are in the happier position. We have our affairs as we want to have them. But think: there must be hundreds of beauties hidden away from us all.
There they are, poor dears, cut off from the world, hidden behind this and that mountain, waiting for us to find them. As a matter of fact, I had for a number of years known of princesses off in the Uji mountains, but the thought of them had only made me shudder. A man knows, after all, the effect of saintliness on women. But if the sun sets them off as the moon did, then it would be hard to ask for more.”
By the time he had finished, his companion was honestly jealous. Kaoru was not one to be drawn to any ordinary woman. There must be something truly remarkable here. Niou longed to have a look for himself.
“Do, please, investigate further,” he said, openly impatient with his rank, which made such expeditions difficult.
And he had not even seen the ladies, thought Kaoru, smiling to himself. “Come, now. Women aren’t worth the trouble. I must be serious: I had reasons for wanting to get my mind off of my own affairs, and I especially wanted to avoid the sort of frivolity that so excites you. And if my feelings were to pull me against my resolve — you cannot tell me, can you, that any good would come of it.”
“Fine!” Niou said, laughing. “Another sermon. Let us all fall silent and hear what our saint has to say. But no. I think we have had enough.”
It was with longing and dismay that Kaoru thought of the events the old woman’s story had hinted at. He had never been very strongly drawn even to women of uncommon charm and talent, and now they interested him still less.
On about the fifth or sixth day of the Tenth Month he paid his next visit to Uji. He must make it a point to have a look at the weirs, said his men. It was the season when they were at their most interesting.
He would prefer not to, he replied. “A fly having a look at the fish — a pretty picture.”
To present as austere a figure as possible, he rode in a carriage faced with palmetto fronds, such as a woman might use, and ordered a cloak and trousers of coarse, unfigured material.
Delighted to see him, the prince arranged a most tasteful banquet from dishes for which the region was known. In the evening, under the lamps, they listened to a discourse on some of the more difficult passages in scriptures they had been over together. The abbot was among those invited down from the monastery. Sleep was out of the question. The roar of the waters and the whipping of leaves and branches in the violent river winds, which in lesser degree might have moved one to a pleasant awareness of the season, invited gloom and even despair. Dawn would be approaching, thought Kaoru, and the koto strain he had heard that other morning came back to him.
He guided the conversation to the delights of koto and lute. “On my last visit, as the morning mist was rolling in, I was lucky enough to hear a short melody, a most extraordinary one. It was over in a few seconds, and since then I have not been able to think of anything except how I might hear more.”
“The hues and the scents of the world are nothing to me now,” said the prince, “and I have forgotten all the music I ever knew.” Even so he sent a woman for the instruments. “No, I am afraid it will not be right. But perhaps — if I had someone to follow, a little might come back?” He pressed a lute upon Kaoru.
“Can it be,” said Kaoru, tuning the instrument, “that this is the one I heard the other morning? I had thought that there must be something rather special about the instrument itself, but now I see that there is another explanation for that remarkable music.” He addressed himself to the lute, but in a manner somewhat bemused.
“You must not make sport of us, sir. Where can music likely to catch your ear have come from? You speak of the impossible.”
The prince’s koto had a clearness and strength that were almost chilling. Perhaps it borrowed overtones from “the wind in the mountain pines.” He pretended to falter and forget, and pushed the instrument away when he had finished the first strain. The brief performance had suggested great subtlety and discernment.
“Sometimes, without warning, I do hear in the distance a strain such as to make me think that one of my daughters has acquired some notion of what real music is; but they have had little training, and it has been a very long time since I last made much effort to teach them. As the mood takes them, they play a tune or two, and they have only the river to accompany them. It is most unlikely that their twanging would be of any interest to a musician like you. But suppose,” he called to them, “you were to have a try at it.”
“It was bad enough to be overheard when we thought we were alone.”
“I would disgrace myself.”
And so he was rebuffed by both his daughters. He did not give up easily, but, to Kaoru’s great disappointment, they would have nothing of the proposal.
The prince was deeply shamed that his daughters should thus announce themselves as rustic wenches, out of touch with the ways of the world.
“They have lived in such seclusion that their very existence is a secret. I have wished it to be so; but now, when I think how little time I have left, when I think that I may be gone tomorrow, I find that resignation eludes me. They have their whole lives yet to live, and might they not end their years as drifters and beggars? A fear of that possibility will be the one bond holding me to the world when my time comes.”
“It would not be honest of me to enter into a firm commitment,” said Kaoru, deeply moved; “but you are not to think, because I say so, that I am in the least cool or indifferent to what you have said. Though I cannot be sure that I will survive you for very long, I mean to be true to every syllable I have spoken.”
“You are very kind, very kind indeed.”
When the prince had withdrawn for matins, Kaoru summoned the old woman. Her name was Bennokimi, and the Eighth Prince had her in constant attendance upon his daughters. Though in her late fifties, she was still favored with the graces of a considerably younger woman. Her tears wing liberally, she told him of what an unhappy life “the young captain,” Kashiwagi, had led, of how he had fallen ill and presently wasted away to nothing.
It would have been a very affecting tale of long ago even if it had been about a stranger. Haunted and bewildered through the years, longing to know the facts of his birth, Kaoru had prayed that he might one day have a clear explanation. Was it in answer to his prayers that now, without warning, there had come a chance to hear of these old matters, as if in a sad dream? He too was in tears.
“It is hard to believe — and I must admit that it is a little alarming too that someone who remembers those days should still be with us. I suppose people have been spreading the news to the world — and I have had not a whisper of it.”
“No one knew except Kojijū and myself. Neither of us breathed a word to anyone. As you can see, I do not matter; but it was my honor to be always with him, and I began to guess what was happening. Then sometimes — not often, of course — when his feelings were too much for him, one or the other of us would be entrusted with a message. I do not think it would be proper to go into the details. As he lay dying, he left the testament I have spoken of. I have had it with me all these years — I am no one, and where was I to leave it? I have not been as diligent with my prayers as I might have been, but I have asked the Blessed One for a chance to let you know of it; and now I think I have a sign that he is here with us. But the testament: I must show it to you. How can I burn it now? I have not known from one day to the next when I might die, and I have worried about letting it fall into other hands. When you began to visit His Highness I felt somewhat better again. There might be a chance to speak to you. I was not merely praying for the impossible, and so I decided that I must keep what he had left with me. Some power stronger than we has brought us together.” Weeping openly now, she told of the illicit affair and of his birth, as the details came back to her.
“In the confusion after the young master’s death, my mother too fell ill and died; and so I wore double mourning. A not very nice man who had had his eye on me took advantage of it all and led me off to the West Country, and I lost all touch with the city. He too died, and after ten years and more I was back in the city again, back from a different world. I have for a very long time had the honor to be acquainted indirectly with the sister of my young master, the lady who is a consort of the Reizei emperor, and it would have been natural for me to go into her service. But there were those old complications, and there were other reasons too. Because of the relationship on my father’s side of the family I have been familiar with His Highness’s household since I was a child, and at my age I am no longer up to facing the world. And so I have become the rotted stump you see, buried away in the mountains. When did Kojijū die? I wonder. There aren’t many left of the ones who were young when I was young. The last of them all; it isn’t easy to be the last one, but here I am.”
Another dawn was breaking.
“We do not seem to have come to the end of this old story of yours,” said Kaoru. “Go on with it, please, when we have found a more comfortable place and no one is listening. I do remember Kojijū slightly. I must have been four or five when she came down with consumption and died, rather suddenly I am most grateful to you. If it hadn’t been for you I would have carried the sin to my grave.”
The old woman handed him a cloth pouch in which several mildewed bits of paper had been rolled into a tight ball.
“Take these and destroy them. When the young master knew he was dying, he got them together and gave them to me. I told myself I would give them to Kojijū when next I saw her and ask her to be sure that they got to her lady. I never saw her again. And so I had my personal sorrow and the other too, the knowledge that I had not done my duty.”
With an attempt at casualness, he put the papers away. He was deeply troubled. Had she told him this unsolicited story, as is the way with the old, because it seemed to her an interesting piece of gossip? She had assured him over and over again that no one else had heard it, and yet — could he really believe her?
After a light breakfast he took his leave of the prince. “Yesterday was a holiday because the emperor was in retreat, but today he will be with us again. And then I must call on the Reizei princess, who is not well, and there will be other things to keep me busy. But I will come again soon, before the autumn leaves have fallen.”
“For me, your visits are a light to dispel in some measure the shadows of these mountains.”
Back in the city, Kaoru took out the pouch the old woman had given him. The heavy Chinese brocade bore the inscription “For My Lady.” It was tied with a delicate thread and sealed with Kashiwagi’s name. Trembling, Kaoru opened it. Inside were multi-hued bits of paper, on which, among other things, were five or six answers by his mother to notes from Kashiwagi.
And, on five or six sheets of thick white paper, apparently in Kashiwagi’s own hand, like the strange tracks of some bird, was a longer letter: “I am very ill, indeed I am dying. It is impossible to get so much as a note to you, and my longing to see you only increases. Another thing adds to the sorrow: the news that you have withdrawn from the world.
“Sad are you, who have turned away from the world,
But sadder still my soul, taking leave of you.
I have heard with strange pleasure of the birth of the child. We need not worry about him, for he will be reared in security. And yet —
“Had we but life, we could watch it, ever taller,
The seedling pine unseen among the rocks.”
The writing, fevered and in disarray, went to the very edge of the paper. The letter was addressed to Kojijū.
The pouch had become a dwelling place for worms and smelled strongly of mildew; and yet the writing, in such compromising detail, was as clear as if it had been set down the day before. It would have been a disaster if the letter had fallen into the hands of outsiders, he thought, half in sorrow and half in alarm. He was so haunted by this strange affair, stranger than any the future could possibly bring, that he could not persuade himself to set out for court. Instead he went to visit his mother. Youthful and serene, she had a sutra in her hand, which she put shyly out of sight upon his arrival. He must keep the secret to himself, he thought. It would be cruel to let her know of his own new knowledge. His mind jumped from detail to detail of the story he had heard.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11