On about the twentieth of the Second Month, Niou made a pilgrimage to Hatsuse. Perhaps the pleasant thought of stopping in Uji on the return from Hatsuse made him seek now to honor a vow he had made some years before. The fact that he should be so interested in a place the name of which tended to call up unpleasant associations suggested a certain frivolity. Large numbers of the highest-ranking officials were in his retinue, and as for officials of lower ranks, scarcely any were left in the city. On the far bank of the river Uji stood a large and beautifully appointed villa which Yūgiri, Minister of the Right, had inherited from his father, Genji. Yūgiri ordered that it be put in readiness for the prince’s visit. Protocol demanded that he go himself to receive Niou on the return journey from Hatsuse, but he begged to be excused. Certain occurrences had required him to consult soothsayers, who had replied that he must spend some time in retreat and abstinence Niou was vaguely displeased; but when he heard that Kaoru would be meeting him he decided that this breach of etiquette was in fact a piece of good luck. He need feel no reticence about sending Kaoru to look into the situation on the opposite bank of the Uji, where the Eighth Prince lived. There was, in any case, something too solemn about Yūgiri, a stiffness that invited an answering stiffness in Niou himself.
Several of Yūgiri’s sons were in Kaoru’s retinue: a moderator of the first order, a chamberlain, a captain, and two lesser guards officers. Because he was the favorite of his royal parents, Niou’s prestige and popularity were enormous; and for even the humblest and least influential of Genji’s retainers he was “our prince.” The apartments in which he and his attendants meant to rest were fitted out with the greatest care, in a manner that put the advantages of the setting to the best possible use. The gaming boards were brought out, Go and backgammon and tagi and the rest, and the men settled down for trials of strength as fancy took them. Not used to travel and persuaded by something more than fatigue, Niou decided that it would be a pleasant spot for a night’s lodging. After resting for a time, he had instruments brought out. It was late afternoon. As so often happens far away from the noisy world, the accompaniment of the water seemed to give the music a clearer, higher sound.
The Eighth Prince’s villa was across the river, a stone’s throw away. The sound came over on the breeze to make him think of old days at court.
“What a remarkable flutist that is,” said the prince to himself. “Who might it be? Genji played an interesting flute, a most charming flute; but this is somehow different. It puts me in mind of the music we used to hear at the old chancellor’s, bold and clear, and maybe just a little haughty. It has been a very long time indeed since I myself took part in such a concert. The months and the years have gone by like waking dead!”
Pity for his daughters swept over him. If there were only a way to get them out of these mountains! Kaoru was exactly what he hoped a son-in-law might be, but Kaoru seemed rather wanting in amorous urges. How could he think of handing his daughters over to trifling young men of the sort the world seemed to produce these days? The worries chased each other through his mind, and the spring night, endless for someone lost in melancholy thought, went on and on. Beyond the river, the travelers were enjoying themselves quite without reserve, and for them, in their fuddlement, the spring night was all too quick to end. It seemed a pity, thought Niou, to start for home so soon.
The high sky with fingers of mist trailing across it, the cherries coming into bloom and already shedding their blossoms, “the willows by the river,” their reflections now bowing and now soaring as the wind caught them — it was a novel sight for the visitor from the city, and one he was reluctant to leave.
Kaoru was thinking what a pity it would be not to call on the Eighth Prince. Could he avoid all these inquiring eyes and row across the river? Would he be thought guilty of indiscretion? As he was debating the problem, a poem was delivered from the prince:
“Parting the mist, a sound comes in on the wind,
But waves of white, far out on the stream, roll between us.”
The writing, a strong, masculine hand, was most distinguished.
Well, thought Niou — from precisely the place that had been on his mind. He himself would send an answering poem:
“On far shore and near, the waves may keep us apart.
Come in all the same, O breeze of the river Uji!”
Kaoru set out to deliver it. In attendance upon him were men known to be particularly fond of music. Summoning up all their artistry, the company played “The River Music” as they were rowed across. The landing that had been put out from the river pavilion of the prince’s villa, and indeed the villa itself, seemed in the best of taste, again quite in harmony with the setting. Cleaned and newly appointed in preparation for a distinguished visit, it was a house of a very different sort from the one in which they had passed the night. The furnishings, screens of wattled bamboo and the like, simple and yet in very good taste, were right for a mountain dwelling. Unostentatiously, the Eighth Prince brought out antique kotos and lutes of remarkable timbre. The guests, tuning their instruments to the ichikotsu mode, played “Cherry–Blossom Girl,” and when they had finished they pressed their host to favor them with something on that famous seven-stringed koto of his. He was diffident, and only joined in with a short strain from time to time. Perhaps because it was a style they were not used to, the young men found that it had a somewhat remote sound to it, a certain depth and mystery, strangely moving.
As for the repast to which they were treated, it was most tasteful in an old-fashioned way, exactly what the setting asked for, and much superior to what they would have expected. There were in the neighborhood numbers of elderly people who, though not of royal blood, came from gentle families, and some who were distant relatives of the emperor himself. They had long wondered what the prince would do if such an occasion were to arise, and as many of them as were able came to help; and the guests found that their cups were being kept full by attendants who, though not perhaps dressed in the latest fashions, could hardly have been called rustic. No doubt there were a number of youngsters whose hearts were less than calm at the thought of ladies’ apartments. Matters were even worse for Niou. How constricting it was, to be of a rank that forbade lighthearted adventures! Unable to contain himself, he broke off a fine branch of cherry blossoms and, an elegantly attired page boy for his messenger, sent it across the river with a poem:
“I have come, the mountain cherries at their best,
To break off sprays of blossom for my cap.”
And it would seem that he added: “Then stayed the night, enamored of the fields.”
What could they send by way of answer? The princesses were at a loss. But they must send something, that much was sure, said the old women. This was hardly the occasion for a really formal poem, and it would be rude to wait too long. Finally Oigimi composed a reply and had Nakanokimi set it down for her:
“It is true that you have fought your way through the mountain tangles, and yet
“For sprays to break, the springtime wanderer pauses
Before the rustic fence, and wanders on.”
The hand was subtle and delicate.
And so music answered music across the river. It was as Niou had requested, the wind did not propose to keep them apart. Presently Kōbai arrived, upon order of the emperor; and with great crowds milling about Niou made a noisy departure. His attendants looked back again, and he promised himself that he would find an excuse for another visit. The view was magical, with the blossoms at their best and layers of mist trailing among them. Many were the poems in Chinese and in Japanese that the occasion produced, but I did not trouble myself to ask about them.
Niou was unhappy. In the confusion he had not been able to convey the sort of message he had wished to. He sent frequent letters thereafter, not bothering to ask the mediation of Kaoru.
“You really should answer,” said the Eighth Prince. “But be careful not to sound too serious. That would only excite him. He has his pleasure-loving ways, and you are a pleasure he is not likely to forgo.”
Though with this caveat, he encouraged replies. It was Nakanokimi who set them down. Oigimi was much too cautious and deliberate to let herself become involved in the least significant of such exchanges.
The prince, ever deeper in melancholy, found the long, uneventful spring days harder to get through than other days. The beauty and grace of his daughters, more striking as the years went by, had the perverse effect of intensifying the melancholy. If they were plain little things, he said to himself, then it might not matter so much to leave them in these mountains. His mind ran the circle of worries and ran it again, day and night. Oigimi was now twenty-five, Nakanokimi twenty-three.
It was a dangerous year for him. He was more assiduous than ever in his devotions. Because his heart was no longer in this world, because he was intent on leaving it behind as soon as possible, the way down the cool, serene path seemed clear. But there was one obstacle, worry about the future of his daughters.
“When he puts himself into his studies,” said the people around him, “his will power is extraordinary. But don’t you suppose he’ll weaken when the final test comes? Don’t you suppose his worries about our ladies will be too much for him?”
If only there were someone, he thought — someone not perhaps up to the standard he had always set, but still, after his fashion, of a rank and character that would not be demeaning, and someone who would undertake in all sincerity to look after the princesses — then he would be inclined to give his tacit blessing. If even one of the girl s could find a secure place in the world, he could without misgivings leave the other innoer charge. But thus far no one had come forward with what could be described as serious intentions. Occasionally, on some pretext, there would be a suggestive letter, and occasionally too some fellow, in the lightness of his young heart, stopping on his way to or from a temple, would show signs of interest. But there was always something insulting about these advances, some hint that the man looked down upon ladies left to waste away in the mountains. The prince would not permit the most casual sort of reply.
And now came Niou, who said that he could not rest until he had made the acquaintance of the princesses. Was this ardor a sign of a bond from a former life?
In the autumn Kaoru was promoted to councillor of the middle order. The distinction of his manner and appearance was more pronounced as he rose in rank and office, and the thoughts that tormented him made similar gains. They were more tenacious than when the doubts about his birth had still been vague and unformed. As he tried to imagine how it had been in those days, so long ago now, when his father had sickened and died, he wanted to lose himself in prayers and rites of atonement. He had been strongly drawn to the old woman at Uji, and he tried circumspectly to let her know of his feelings.
It was now the Seventh Month. He had been away from Uji, he thought, for a very long while.
Autumn had not yet come to the city, but by the time he reached Mount Otowa the breeze was cool, and in the vicinity of Mount Oyama autumn was already at the tips of the branches. The shifting mountain scenery delighted him more and more as he approached Uji.
The prince greeted him with unusual warmth, and talked on and on of the melancholy thoughts that were so much with him.
“If you should find reasonable occasion, after I am gone,” he said, guiding the conversation to the problem of his daughters, “do please come and see them from time to time. Put them on your list, if you will, of the people you do not mean to forget.”
“You may remember that you have already brought the matter up once or twice before, and you have my word that I shall not forget. Not that you can expect a great deal of me, I am afraid. All my impulses are to run away from the world, and it does not seem to have very strong hopes for me in any case. No, I do not hold a great deal in reserve. But for as long as I live, my determination will not waver.”
The prince was much relieved. A late moon, breaking through the clouds with a soft, clean radiance, seemed about to touch the western hills. Having said his prayers, to which the scene lent an especial dignity, he turned to talk of old times.
“How is it at court these days? On autumn nights people used to gather in His Majesty’s chambers. There was always something a little too good, a little ostentatious — or it so seemed to me — about the way the famous musicians lent their presence to this group and the next one. What was really worth notice was the way His Majesty’s favorites and the ladies of the bedchamber and the rest would be chatting away as pleasantly as you could wish, and all the while you knew that they were in savage competition. And then, as quiet came over the palace, you would have the real music, leaking out from their several rooms. Each strain seemed to be pleading its own special cause.
“Women are the problem, good for a moment of pleasure, offering nothing of substance. They are the seeds of turmoil, and it is not hard to see why we are told that their sins are heavy. I wonder if you have ever tried to imagine what a worry a child is for its father. A son is no problem. But a daughter — there is a limit to worrying, after all, and the sensible thing would be to recognize the hopeless for what it is. But fathers will go on worrying.”
He spoke as if in generalities; but could there be any doubt that he was really speaking of himself and his daughters?
“I have told you of my feelings about the world,” said Kaoru. “One result of them has been that I have not mastered a single art worthy of the name. But music — yes, I know how useless it is, and still I have had a hard time giving it up. I do have a good precedent, after all. You will remember that music made one of the apostles jump up and dance.”
He had been longing, he continued, to have more of the music of which he had caught that one tantalizing snatch. The prince thought this might be the occasion for a sort of introduction. He went to the princesses’ rooms. There came a soft strain on a koto, and that was all. The light, impromptu melody, here where it was always quiet and where now there was not one other human sound, with the sky beginning to take on the colors of dawn, quite entranced Kaoru. But the princesses could not be persuaded to give more.
“Well,” said their father, going to the altar, “I have done what I can to bring you together. You have years ahead of you, and I must leave the rest to you.
“I go, this hut of grass will dry and fall.
But this solemn undertaking must last forever.
“Something tells me that we will not meet again.” He was in tears. “You must think me an insufferable complainer.”
“Your’hut of grass’ has sealed a pledge eternal.
It will not fall, though ages come and go.
“The wrestling meet will keep me busy for a while, but I will see you again when it is out of the way.”
The prince having withdrawn to his prayers, Kaoru called Bennokimi to another room and asked for details of the story she had told. The dawn moon flooded the room, setting him off through the blinds to most wonderful effect. Silently, the princesses withdrew behind deeper curtains. Yet he did seem to be unlike most young men. His way of speaking was quiet and altogether serious. Oigimi occasionally came forth with an answer. Kaoru thought of his friend Niou and the rapidity with which he had been drawn to the princesses. Why must he himself be so different? Their father had as good as offered them to him; and why did he not rush forward to claim them? It was not as if he found the thought of having one of them for his wife quite out of the question. That they were ladies of discernment and sensibility they had shown well enough in tests such as this evening’s, and in exchanges having to do with the flowers of spring and the leaves of autumn and other such matters. In a sense, indeed, he thought of them as already in his possession. It would be a cruel wrench if fate should give them to others.
He started back before daylight, his thoughts on the prince and his apparent conviction that death was near. When the round of court duties was over, thought Kaoru, he would come again.
Niou was hoping that the autumn leaves might be his excuse for another visit to Uji. He continued to write to the princesses. Thinking these advances no cause for concern, they were able to answer from time to time in appropriately casual terms.
With the deepening of autumn, the prince’s gloom also deepened. Concluding that he must withdraw to some quiet refuge where nothing would upset his devotions, he left behind various admonitions.
“Parting is the way of the world. It cannot be avoided: but the grief is easier to bear when you have a companion to share it with. I must leave it to your imagination — for I cannot tell you — how hard it is for me to go off without you, knowing that you are alone. But it would not do to wander lost in the next world because of ties with this one. Even while I have been here with you, I have as good as run away from the world; and it is not for me to say how it should be when I am gone. But please remember that I am not the only one. You have your mother to think of too. Please do nothing that might reflect on her name. Men who are not worthy of you will try to lure you out of these mountains, but you are not to yield to their blandishments. Resign yourselves to the fact that it was not meant to be — that you are different from other people and were meant to be alone — and live out your lives here at Uji. Once you have made up your minds to it, the years will go smoothly by. It is good for a woman, even more than for a man, to be away from the world and its slanders.”
The princesses were beyond thinking about the future. It was beyond them, indeed, to think how they would live if they were to survive their father by so much as a day. These gloomy and ominous instructions left them in the cruelest uncertainty. He had in effect renounced the world already, but for them, so long beside him, to be informed thus suddenly of a final parting — it was not from intentional cruelty that he had done it, of course, and yet in such cases a certain resentment is inevitable.
On the evening before his departure he inspected the premises with unusual care, walking here, stopping there. He had thought of this Uji villa as the most temporary of dwellings, and so the years had gone by. Everything about him suggesting freedom from worldly taints, he turned to his devotions, and thoughts of the future slipped in among them from time to time. His daughters were so very much alone — how could they possibly manage after his death?
He summoned the older women of the household.
“Do what you can for them, as a last favor to me. The world does not pay much attention when an ordinary house goes to ruin. It happens every day. I don’t suppose people pay so very much attention when it happens to one like ours. But if fate seems to have decided that the collapse is final, a man does feel ashamed, and wonders how he can face his ancestors. Sadness, loneliness — they are what life brings. But when a house is kept in a manner that becomes its rank, the appearances it maintains, the feelings it has for itself, bring their own consolation. Everyone wants luxury and excitement; but you must never, even if everything fails — you must never, I beg of you, let them make unsuitable marriages.”
As the moonlight faded in the dawn, he went to take leave of his daughters. “Do not be lonely when I am gone. Be happy, find ways to occupy yourselves. One does not get everything in this world. Do not fret over what has to be.”
He looked back and looked back again as he started up the path to the monastery.
The girls were lonely indeed, despite these admonitions. What would the one do if the other were to go away? The world offers no security in any case; and what could they possibly do for themselves if they were separated? Smiling over this small matter, sighing over that rather more troublesome detail, they had always been together.
It was the morning of the day when the prince’s meditations were to end. He would be coming home. But in the evening a message came instead: “I have been indisposed since this morning. A cold, perhaps — whatever it is, I am having it looked after. I long more than ever to see you.
The princesses were in consternation. How serious would it be? They hastened to send quilted winter garments. Two and three days passed, and there was no sign of improvement. A messenger came back. The ailment was not of a striking nature, he reported. The prince was generally indisposed. If there should be even the slightest improvement he would brave the discomfort and return home.
The abbot, in constant attendance, sought to sever the last ties with this world. “It may seem like the commonest sort of ailment,” he said, “but it could be your last. Why must you go on worrying about your daughters? Each of us has his own destiny, and it does no good to worry about others.” He said that the prince was not to leave the temple under any circumstances.
It was about the twentieth of the Eighth Month, a time when the autumn skies are conducive to melancholy in any case. For the princesses, lost in their own sad thoughts, there was no release from the morning and evening mists. The moon was bright in the early-morning sky, the surface of the river was clear and luminous. The shutters facing the mountain were raised. As the princesses gazed out, the sound of the monastery bell came down to them faintly — and, they said, another dawn was upon them.
But then came a messenger, blinded with tears. The prince had died in the night.
Not for a moment had the princesses stopped thinking of him; but this was too much of a shock, it left them dazed. At such times tears refuse to come. Prostrate, they could only wait for the shock to pass. A death is sad when, as is the commoner case, the survivors have a chance to make proper farewells. For the princesses, who did not have their father with them, the sense of loss was even more intense. Their laments would not have seemed excessive if they had wailed to the very heavens. Reluctant to accept the thought of surviving their father by a day, they asked what they were to do now. But he had gone a road that all must take, and weeping did nothing to change that cruel fact.
As had been promised over the years, the abbot arranged for the funeral. The princesses sent word that they would like to see their father again, even in death. And what would be accomplished? replied the holy man. He had trained their father to acceptance of the fact that he would not see them again, and now it was their turn. They must train their hearts to a freedom from binding regrets. As he told of their father’s days in the monastery, they found his wisdom somewhat distasteful.
It had long been their father’s most fervent wish to take the tonsure, but in the absence of someone to look after his daughters he had been unable to turn his back on them. Day after day, so long as he had lived, this inability had been at the same time the solace of a sad life and the bond that tied him to a world he wished to leave. Neither to him who had now gone the inevitable road nor to them who must remain behind had fulfillment come.
Kaoru was overcome with grief and regret. There were so many things left to talk about if only they might have another quiet evening together. Thoughts about the impermanence of things chased one another through his mind, and he made no attempt to stop the flow of tears. The prince had said, it was true, that they might not meet again; but Kaoru had so accustomed himself over the years to the mutability of this world, to the way morning has of becoming evening, that thoughts “yesterday, today” had not come to him. He sent long and detailed letters to the abbot and the princesses. Having received no other such message, the princesses, though still benumbed with grief, knew once again what kindness they had known over the years. The loss of a father is never easy, thought Kaoru, and it must be very cruel indeed for two ladies quite alone in the world. He had had the foresight to send the abbot offerings and provisions for the services, and he also saw, through the old woman, that there were ample offerings at the Uji villa.
The rest of the month was one long night for the princesses, and so the Ninth Month came. The mountain scenery seemed more capable than ever of summoning the showers that dampen one’s sleeves, and sometimes, lost in their tears, they could almost imagine that the tumbling leaves and the roaring water and the cascade of tears had become one single flow.
Near distraction themselves, their women thought to dislodge them even a little from their grief. “Please, my ladies. If this goes on you will soon be in your own graves. Our lives are short enough in any case.”
Priests were charged with memorial services at the villa as well as at the monastery. With holy images to remind them of the dead prince, the women who had withdrawn into deepest mourning kept constant vigil.
Niou too sent messages, but they were not of a sort that the princesses could bring themselves to answer.
“My friend gets different treatment,” he said, much chagrined. “Why am I the one they will have nothing to do with?”
He had thought that Uji with the autumn leaves at their best might feed his poetic urges, but now, regretfully, he had to conclude that the time was inappropriate. He did send a long letter. The initial period of mourning was over, he thought, and there must be an end to grief and a pause in tears. Dispatching his letter on an evening of chilly showers, he had this to say, among many other things:
“How is it in yon hills where the hart calls out
On such an eve, and dew forms on the hagi?
I cannot think how on an evening like this you can be indifferent to melancholy like mine. Autumn brings an unusual sadness over Onoe Moor.”
“He is right,” said Oigimi, urging her sister on. “We do let these notes pile up, and I’m sure he thinks us very rude and unfeeling. Do get something off to him.”
Enduring the days since her father’s death, thought Nakanokimi, had she once considered taking up brush again? How cruel those days had been! Her eyes clouded over, and she pushed the inkstone away.
“I cannot do it,” she said, weeping quietly. “I have come this far, you say, and sorrow has to end? No — the very thought of it makes me hate myself.”
Oigimi understood, and urged her no further.
The messenger had left the city at dusk and arrived after dark. How could they send him back at this hour? They told him he must stay the night. But no: he was going back, he said, and he hurried to get ready.
Though no more in control of herself than her sister, Oigimi wished to detain him no longer, and composed a stanza for him to take back:
“A mist of tears blots out this mountain village,
And at its rustic fence, the call of the deer.”
Scarcely able to make out the ink, dark in the night, against dark paper, she wrote with no thought for the niceties. She folded her note into a plain cover and sent it out to the man.
It was a black, gusty night. He was uneasy as he made his way through the wilds of Kohata; but Niou did not pick men Who were noted for their timidity. He spurred his horse on, not allowing it to pause even for the densest bamboo thickets, and reached Niou’s mansion in remarkably quick time. Seeing how wet he was, Niou gave him a special bounty for his services.
The hand, a strange one, was more mature than the one he was used to, and suggestive of a deeper mind. Which princess would be which? he wondered, gazing and gazing at the note. It was well past time for him to be in bed.
They could see why he would wish to wait up until an answer came, whispered the women, but here he was still mooning over it. The sender must be someone who interested him greatly. There was a touch of asperity in these remarks, as of people who wished they were in bed themselves.
The morning mists were still heavy as he arose to prepare his answer:
“The call of the hart whose mate has strayed away
In the morning mist — are there those whom it leaves unmoved?
My own wails are no less piercing.”
“He is likely to be a nuisance if he thinks we understand too well,” said Oigimi, always withdrawn and cautious in these matters. “Before Father died we had him to protect us. We did not want to outlive him, but here we are. He thought of us to the last, and now we must think of him. The slightest little misstep would hurt him.” She would not permit an answer. Yet she did not take the view of Niou that she did of most men. His writing and choice of words, even at their most casual, had an elegance and originality which seemed to her, though she had not had letters from many men, truly superior. But to answer even such subtle letters was inappropriate for a lady in her situation. If the world disagreed, she had no answer: she would live out her life as a rustic spinster, and the world need not think about her.
Kaoru’s letters, on the other hand, were of such an earnest nature that she answered them freely. He came calling one day, even before the period of deepest mourning was over. Approaching the lower part of the east room, where the princesses were still in mourning, he summoned Bennokimi. Wanderers in darkness, they found this sudden burst of light quite blinding. Their own somber garments were too sharp a contrast. They were unable to send out an answer.
“Do they have to go on treating me like a stranger? Have they completely forgotten their father’s last wishes? The most ordinary sort of conversation, now and then, would be such a pleasure. I have not mastered the methods of suitors and it does not seem at all natural to have to use a messenger.”
“We have lived on, as you see,” Oigimi finally managed to send back, “although I do not remember that anyone asked our wishes. It has been one long nightmare. I doubt if our wishes matter much more even now. Everything tells us to stay out of the light, and I must ask you not to ask the impossible.”
“You are being much too conservative. If you were to come marching gaily out into the sunlight or the moonlight of your own free will, now — but you are only creating difficulties. Acquaint me with the smallest particle of what you are thinking and, who knows, I might have a small bit of comfort to offer.”
“How nice,” said the women of the house. “Here you are floundering and helpless, and here he is trying to help you.”
Oigimi, despite her protestations, was recovering from her grief. She remembered his repeated kindnesses (though one might have said that any good friend would have done as much), and she remembered how, over the years, he had made his way through the high grasses to this distant moor. She moved a little nearer. In the gentlest and friendliest way possible, he told how he had felt for them in their grief, and how he had made certain promises to their father. There was nothing insistent in his manner, and she felt neither constraint nor apprehension. Yet he was not, after all, a real intimate; and now, to have him hear her voice — and her thoughts were further confused by the memory of how, over the weeks, she had come to look to him vaguely for support — no, it was still too painful. She was unable to speak. From what little he had heard he knew that she had scarcely begun to pull herself from her grief, and pity welled up afresh. It was a sad figure that he now caught a glimpse of through a gap in the curtains. It suggested all too poignantly the unrelieved gloom of her days; and he thought of the figure he had seen faintly in the autumn dawn.
As if to himself, he recited a verse:
“The reeds, so sparse and fragile, have changed their color,
To make me think of sleeves that now are black.”
And she replied:
“Upon this sleeve, changed though its color be,
The dew finds refuge; there is no refuge for me.
‘The thread from these dark robes of mourning’—” But she could not go on. Her voice wavered and broke in midsentence, and she withdrew deeper into the room.
He did not think it proper to call her back. Instead he found himself talking to the old woman. An improbable substitute, she still had many sad and affecting things to say about long ago and yesterday. She had been witness to it all, and he could not dismiss her as just another tiresome old crone.
“I was a mere boy when Lord Genji died,” he said, “and that was my first real introduction to the sorrows of the world. And then as I grew up it seemed to me that rank and office and glory meant less than nothing. And the prince, who had found repose here at Uji — when he was taken away so suddenly, I thought I had the last word about the futility of things. I wanted to get away from the world, leave it completely behind. You will think, perhaps, that I have found a good excuse when I say that your ladies are pulling me back again. But I do not want to recant a word of that last promise I made to him. Now there is your story from all those years ago, pulling in the other direction.”
He was in tears, and the old woman was so shaken with sobs that she could not answer. He was so like his father! Memories of things long forgotten came back to her, flooding over more recent sorrows; but she was not up to telling of them.
She was the daughter of Kashiwagi’s nurse, and her father, a moderator of the middle rank at his death, was an uncle of the princesses’ mother. Back in the capital after her father’s death and some years in the far provinces, she found that she had grown away from the family of her old master; and so, answering an inquiry from the Eighth Prince, she had taken service here. It could not have been said that she was a woman of unusual accomplishments, and she showed the effects of having been too much in the service of others; but the prince saw that she was not devoid of taste and made her a sort of governess to his daughters. Although she had been with them night and day over the years and had become their closest friend, this one ancient secret she had kept locked within herself. Kaoru found cause for doubt and shame even so: she might not have scattered the news lightheartedly to all comers, but unsolicited stories from old women were standard the world over; and, since his presence had the apparent effect of sending the princesses deep into their shells, he feared that she might have passed it on at least to them. He seemed to find here another reason for not letting them go.
He no longer wanted to spend the night. He thought, as he got ready to leave, how the prince had spoken of their last meeting as if it might indeed be their last, and how, confidently looking forward to the continued pleasure of the prince’s company, he had dismissed the possibility. Was it not still the same autumn? Not so many days had passed, and the prince had vanished, no one could say where. Though his had always been the most austere of houses, quite without the usual conveniences, it had been clean and appointed in simple but good taste. The ritual utensils were as they had always been, but now the priests, bustling in and out of the house and busily screening themselves from one another, announced that the sacred images would be taken off to the monastery. Kaoru tried to imagine how it would now be for the princesses, left behind after even such excitement as the priests had offered was gone.
He interrupted these sad thoughts, on the urgings of an attendant who pointed out that it was very late, and got up to leave; and a flock of wild geese flew overhead.
“As I gaze at an autumn sky closed off by mists,
Why must these birds proclaim that the world is fleeting?”
Back in the city, he called on Niou. The conversation moved immediately to the Uji princesses. The time had come, thought Niou, sending off a warm to impossible. He was one of the better-known young gallants, and his intentions were clearly romantic. Could a note thrust from the underbrush in which they themselves lurked strike him as other than clumsy and comically out of date?
They worried and fretted, and their tears had no time to dry. And with what cruel speed the days went by! They had not thought that their father’s life, fleeting though it must be, was a matter of “yesterday, today.” He had taught them an awareness of evanescence, but it had been as if he were speaking of a general principle. They had not considered the possibility of outliving him by even hours or minutes. They looked back over the way they had come. It had, to be sure, had its uncertainties, but they had traveled it with serenity and without fear or shame or any thought that such a disaster might one day come. And now the wind was roaring, strangers were pounding to be admitted. The panic, the terror, the loneliness, worse each day, were almost beyond endurance.
In this season of snow and hail, the roar of the wind was as always and everywhere, and yet they felt for the first time that they knew the sadness of these mountains. Well, the saddest year was over, said some of their women, refusing to give up hope. Let the New Year bring an end to it all. The chances were not good, thought the princesses.
Because the prince had gone there for his retreats, an occasional messenger came down from the monastery and, rarely, there was a note from the abbot himself, making general inquiries about their health. He no longer had reason to call in person. Day by day the Uji villa was lonelier. It was the way of the world, but they were sad all the same. Occasionally one or two of the village rustics would look in on them. Such visits, beneath their notice while their father was alive, became breaks in the monotony. Mountain people would bring in firewood and nuts, and the abbot sent charcoal and other provisions.
“One is saddened to think that the generous flow of gifts may have ceased forever,” said the note that came with them.
It was a timely reminder: their father had made it a practice to send the abbot cottons and silks against the winter cold. The princesses made haste to do as well.
Sometimes they would go to the veranda and watch in tears as priests and acolytes, now appearing among the drifts and now disappearing again, made their way up towards the monastery. Even though their father had quite renounced the world, callers would be more numerous if he were still with them. They might be lonely, but it would not be the final loneliness of knowing they would not see him again.
“For him, the mountain path has now been cut.
How can we look on the pine we watched as we waited?”
And Nakanokimi replied:
“Away in the hills, the snow departs from the pines
But comes again. Ah, would it were so with him!”
As if to mock her, the snow came again and again.
Kaoru paid his visit late in the year. The New Year would be too busy to allow the briefest of visits. With the snow so deep, it was unusual for the ladies to receive even an ordinary caller. That he, a ranking courtier, should have set out on such a journey as if he made one every day was the measure of his kindness. They were at greater pains than usual to receive him. They had taken out and dusted a brazier of a color gayer than this house of mourning had been used to. Their women chattered about how happy his visits had made the prince. Though shy, the princesses did not want to seem rude or unkind. They did at length essay to address him from behind screens. The conversation could hardly have been called lively or intimate, but Oigimi managed to put together, for her, an uncommon number of words. Kaoru was pleased and surprised. Perhaps the time had come, he thought, for a sally. (It would seem that the best of men are sometimes untrue to their resolves.)
“My friend Niou is irritated with me, and I have trouble understanding why. It is just possible that I let something slip, or it may be that he guessed it all — he does not miss very much. In any event, he knows about your father’s last request, and I have orders to tell you about him. Indeed, I have already told you, and you have not been very cooperative. And so he keeps complaining about what an incompetent messenger I am. The charge comes as something of a surprise, considering all I have done, and at the same time I have to admit that I have made myself his ‘guide to your seashore.’ Must you be so remote and haughty?
“It is true, I know, that the gossips have given him a certain name, but beneath the rakish exterior are depths that would surprise you. It is said that he prefers not to spend his time with women who come at his beck and call. Then there are women who take things as they are. What the world does is what the world does, they say, and they do not care a great deal whether they find husbands or not. If someone comes along who is neither entirely pleasing nor entirely repulsive, well, such is life. They make good wives, rather better than you might think. And then, as the poet said, the bank begins to give way, and what is left is a muddy Tatsuta. You must have heard of such cases — the last of the old love gone down the stream.
“But there is another possibility. Supposing he finds someone who follows him because she agrees with him, because she cannot find it in her heart to do otherwise. I do not think that he would deal lightly with such a one. He would make his commitments and stand by them. I know, because I am in a position to tell you of things he has not let other people see. Give me the signal, and I will do everything I can to help you. I will dash back and forth between Uji and the city until my feet are stumps.”
It had been an earnest discourse. Unable to think that it had reference to herself, Oigimi wondered whether it might now be her duty to take the place of her father. But she did not know what to say.
“Words fail me.” Her reply to the discourse was a quiet laugh, which was not at all unpleasant. “This sort of thing is, well, rather suggestive, I’m sure you will admit, and does not simplify the hunt for an answer.”
“Your own situation has nothing to do with the matter. Just take these tidings I bring through the snowdrifts as an older sister might be expected to. He is thinking not of you but of — someone else. I have had vague reports that there have been letters, but there again it is hard to know the truth. Which of you was it that answered?”
Oigimi fell silent. This last question was more embarrassing than he could have intended it to be. It would have been nothing to answer Niou’s letters, but she had not been up to the task, even in jest; and an answer to Kaoru’s question was quite beyond her.
Presently she pushed a verse from under her curtains:
“Along the cliffs of these mountains, locked in snow,
Are the tracks of only one. That one is you.”
“A sort of sophistry that does not greatly improve things.
“My pony breaks the ice of the mountain river
As I lead the way with tidings from him who follows.
‘No such shallowness,’ is it not apparent?”
More and more uncomfortable, she did not answer.
She was not remote to excess, he would have said, and on the other hand she had none of the coyness one was accustomed to in young women. A quiet, elegant lady, in sum — as near his ideal as any lady he could remember having met. But whenever he became forward, however slightly, she feigned deafness. He turned to inconsequential talk of things long past.
His men were coughing nervously. It was late, the snow was deep, and the sky seemed to be clouding over again.
“I can see that you have not had an easy time of it,” he said as he got up to leave. “It would please me enormously if I could prevail on you to leave Uji behind you. I can think of places that are far more convenient and just as quiet.”
Some of the women overheard, and were delighted. How very pleasant if they could move to the city!
But Nakanokimi thought otherwise. It was not to be, she said.
Fruit and sweets, most tastefully arranged, were brought out for Kaoru, and, in equally good taste, there were wine and side dishes for his men. Kaoru thought of the watchman, the man he had made such a celebrity of with that perfume. Of unlovely mien, he was known as Wig-beard. To Kaoru he seemed an uncertain support for sorely tried ladies.
“I imagine that things have been lonely since His Highness died.”
A scowl spread over the man’s face, and soon he was weeping. “I had the honor of his protection for more than thirty years and now I have nowhere to go. I could wander off into the mountains, I suppose, but’the tree denies the fugitive its shelter.’” Tears did not improve the rough face.
Kaoru asked Wigbeard to open the prince’s chapel. The dust lay thick, but the images, decorated as proudly as ever, gave evidence that the princesses had not been remiss with their devotions. The prayer dais had been taken away and the floor carefully dusted, cleaned of the marks it had left. Long ago, the prince had promised that they would be companions in prayer if Kaoru were to renounce the world.
“Beneath the oak I meant to search for shade.
Now it has gone, and all is vanity.”
Numerous eyes were upon him as he stood leaning meditatively against a pillar. The young maidservants thought they had never seen anyone so handsome.
As it grew dark, his men sent to certain of his manors for fodder. Not having been warned, he was much discommoded by the noisy droves of country people the summonses brought, and tried to make it seem that he had come to see the old woman. They must be of similar service to the princesses in the future, he said as he left.
The New Year came, the skies were soft and bright, the ice melted along the banks of the pond. The princesses thought how strange it was that they should so long have survived their father. With a note saying that he had had them gathered in the melting snow, the abbot sent cress from the marshes and fern shoots from the mountain slopes. Country life did have its points, said the women as they cooked the greens and arranged them on pilgrims’ trays. What fun it was, really, to watch the days and months go by with their changing grasses and trees.
They were easily amused, thought the princesses.
“If he were here to pluck these mountain ferns,
Then might we find in them a sign of spring.”
“Without our father, how are we to praise
The cress that sends its shoots through banks of snow?”
Such were the trifles with which they passed their days. Neither Niou nor Kaoru missed an occasion for greetings. They came in such numbers, indeed, as to be something of a nuisance, and with my usual carelessness I failed to make note of them.
The cherry blossoms were now at their best. “Sprays of blossom for my cap”: Niou thought of Uji. As if to stir his appetites, the men who had been with him remarked upon the pity of it all, that such a pleasant house should have awaited them in vain.
He sent off a poem to the princesses:
“Last year along the way I saw those blossoms.
This year, no mist between, I mean to have them.”
They thought it rather too broadly suggestive. Still, there was little excitement in their lives, and it would be a mistake not to give some slight notice to a poem that had its merits.
“Our house is robed in densest mists of black.
Who undertakes to guide you to its blossoms?”
It did little to assuage his discontent. Sometimes, when it was too much for him, he would descend upon Kaoru. Kaoru had bungled this, made a botch of that. Amused, Kaoru would answer quite as if he had been appointed the princesses’ guardian. Occasionally he would take it upon himself to chide his friend for a certain want of steadfastness.
“But it won’t go on forever. It’s just that I haven’t found anyone I really like.”
Yūgiri had for some time wanted to arrange a match between Niou and his daughter Rokunokimi. Niou did not seem interested. There was no mystery, no excitement in the proposal, and besides, Yūgiri was so stiff and proper and unbending, so quick to raise a stir over each of Niou’s venialities.
That year the Sanjō mansion of Kaoru’s mother burned to the ground. She moved into Genji’s Rokujō mansion. Kaoru was too busy for a visit to Uji. The solemn nature that set him apart from other youths urged that he wait until Oigimi was ready for him, despite the fact that he already thought her his own; and he would be satisfied if she took note of his fidelity to the promise he had made to her father. He would do nothing reckless, nothing likely to offend her.
It was a very hot summer. Suddenly one day the thought came to him that it would be pleasant there by the river. He left the city in the cool of morning, but by the time he reached the Uji villa the sun was blinding. He called Wigbeard to the west room that had been the prince’s. The ladies seemed to be withdrawing to their own rooms from the room immediately to the east of the prince’s that had been his chapel. Despite their precautions, for but a single thin partition separated the two rooms, he could hear, or rather sense, the withdrawal. In great excitement, he pulled aside the screen before the partition. He had earlier noticed a small hole beside the latch. Alas, there was a curtain beyond. But as he drew back the wind caught the blind at the front veranda.
“Pull them over, hold it down,” said someone. “The whole world can see us.”
It was a foolish suggestion, and Kaoru was delighted. The view was now clear. Several curtain frames, high and low, had been moved to the veranda. The princesses were leaving through open doors at the far side of the chapel. The first to enter his range of vision went to the veranda and looked out at his men, who were walking up and down in front of the house, taking the cool of the river breezes. She was wearing a dark-gray singlet and orange trousers. Unusual and surprisingly gay, the combination suggested subtle, careful taste. A scarf was flung loosely over her shoulders and the ends of a rosary hung from a sleeve. She was slender and graceful, and her hair, which would perhaps have fallen just short of the hem of a formal robe, was thick and lustrous, with no trace of disorder the whole of its length. Her profile was flawless, her skin fresh and unblemished, and there was pride and at the same time serenity in her manner. He thought of Niou’s oldest sister. He had once had a glimpse of her, and the longing it had inspired came back afresh.
The other princess moved cautiously into view.
“That door is absolutely naked.” She looked towards him, everything about her suggesting wariness and reserve. Something in the flow of her hair gave her even more dignity than he had seen in the other lady.
“There’s a screen behind it,” said a young serving woman unconcernedly. “And we won’t give him time for a peek.”
“But how awful if he should see us.” She looked guardedly back as she made her way to the far door, carrying herself with a pensive grace that few could have imitated. She wore a singlet and a lined robe of the same dark stuff as her sister’s, set off in the same combination. Hers was a sadder, quieter beauty which he found even more compelling. Her hair was less luxuriant, perhaps from grief and neglect, and the ends were somewhat uneven. Yet it was very lovely, like a cluster of silken threads, and it had the iridescence of “rainbow tresses,” or the wing of a halcyon. The hand in which she held a purple scroll was smaller and more delicate than her sister’s. The younger princess knelt at the far door and looked back smiling. He thought her completely charming.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57