In the autumn, as the Uji princesses prepared for the anniversary of their father’s death, the winds and waters which they had known over the years seemed colder and lonelier than ever. Kaoru and the abbot saw to the general plans. The princesses themselves, with the advice of their attendants, took care of the details, robes for the priests and decorations for the scriptures and the like. They seemed so fragile and sad as they went about the work that one wondered what they would possibly have done without this help from outside. Kaoru made it a point to visit them before the formal end of mourning, and the abbot came down from his monastery.
The riot of threads for decking out the sacred incense led one of the princesses to remark upon the stubborn way their own lives had of spinning on. Catching sight of a spool through a gap in the curtains, Kaoru recognized the allusion. “Join my tears as beads,” he said softly. They found it very affecting, this suggestion that the sorrow of Lady Ise had been even as theirs; yet they were reluctant to answer. To show that they had caught the reference might seem pretentious. But an answering reference immediately came to them: they could not help thinking of Tsurayuki, whose heart had not been “that sort of thread,” and who had likened it to a thread all the same as he sang the sadness of a parting that was not a bereavement. Old poems, they could see, had much to say about the unchanging human heart.
Kaoru wrote out the petition for memorial services, including the details of the scriptures to be read and the deities to be invoked, and while he had brush in hand he jotted down a verse:
“We knot these braids in trefoil. As braided threads
May our fates be joined, may we be together always.”
Though she thought it out of place, Oigimi managed an answer:
“No way to thread my tears, so fast they flow;
As swiftly flows my life. Can such vows be?”
“But,” he objected, “‘if it cannot be so with us, what use is life?’”
She had somehow succeeded in diverting the conversation from the most important point, and she seemed reluctant to say more. And so he began to speak most warmly of his friend Niou: “I have been watching him very closely. He has had me worried, I must admit. He has a very strong competitive instinct, even when he does not have much at stake, and I was afraid your chilliness might have made it all a matter of pride for him. And so, I admit it, I’ve been uneasy. But I am sure that this time there is nothing to worry about. It is your turn to do something. Might you just possibly persuade yourself to be a little more friendly? You are not an insensitive lady, I know, and yet you do go on slamming the door. If he resents it, well, so do I. You couldn’t be making things more difficult for me if you tried, and I have been very open with you and very willing to take you at your word. I think the time has come for a clear statement from you, one way or the other.”
“How can you say such things? It was exactly because I did not want to make things difficult for you that I let you come so near — so near that people must think it very odd. I gather that your view of the matter is different, and I must confess that I am disappointed. I would have expected you to understand a little better. But of course I am at fault too. You have said that I am not an insensitive person, but someone of real sensitivity would by now have thought everything out, even in a mountain hut like this. I have always been slow in these matters. I gather that you are making a proposal. Very well: I shall make my answer as clear as I can. Before Father died, he had many things to say about my future, but not one of them touched even slightly on the sort of thing you suggest. He must have meant that I should be resigned to living out my days alone and away from the world; and so I fear I cannot give you the answer you want, at least so far as it concerns myself. But of course my sister will outlive me, and I have to think of her too. I could not bear to leave her in these mountains like a fallen tree. It would give me great pleasure if something could be arranged for her.”
She fell silent, in great agitation. He regretted having spoken so sternly. For all her air of maturity, he should not have expected her to answer like a woman of the world.
He summoned Bennokimi.
“It was thoughts of the next life that first brought me here; and then, in those last sad days, he left a request with me. He asked me to look after his daughters in whatever way seemed best. I have tried; and now it comes as something of a surprise that they should be disregarding their own father’s wishes. Do you understand it any better than I do? I am being pushed to the conclusion that he had hopes for them which they do not share. I know you will have heard about me, what an odd person I am, not much interested in the sort of things that seem to interest everyone else. And now, finally, I have found someone who does interest me, and I am inclined to believe that fate has had a hand in the matter; and I gather that the gossips already have us married. Well, if that is the case — I know it will seem out of place for me to say so — other things being equal, we might as well do as the prince wished us to, and indeed as everyone else does. It would not be the first case the world has seen of a princess married to a commoner.
“And I have spoken more than once about my friend Niou to your other lady. She simply refuses to believe me when I tell her she needn’t worry about the sort of husband he is likely to make. I wonder if someone might just possibly be working to turn her against her father’s wishes. You must tell me everything you know. ”
His remarks were punctuated by many a brooding sigh.
There is a kind of cheeky domestic who, in such situations, assumes a knowing manner and encourages a man in what he wants to believe. Bennokimi was not such a one. She thought the match ideal, but she could not say so.
“My ladies are different from others I have served. Perhaps they were born different. They have never been much interested in the usual sort of thing. We who have been in their service — even while their father was alive, we really had no tree to run to for shelter. Most of the other women decided fairly soon that there was no point in wasting their lives in the mountains, and they went away, wherever their family ties led them. Even people whose families had been close to the prince’s for years and years — they were not having an easy time of it, and most of them gave up and went away. And now that he is gone it is even worse. We wonder from one minute to the next who will be left. The ones who have stayed are always grumbling, and I am sure that my ladies are often hurt by the things they say. Back in the days when the prince was still with us, they say, well, he had his old-fashioned notions, and they had to be respected for what they were. My ladies were, after all, royal princesses, he was always saying, and there came a point at which a suitor had to be considered beneath them, and that was that; and so they stayed single. But now they are worse than single, they are completely alone in the world, and it would take a very cruel person to find fault if they were to do what everyone else does. And really, could anyone expect them to go through their lives as they are now? Even the monks who wander around gnawing pine needles — even they have their different ways of doing things, without forgetting the Good Law. They cannot deny life itself, after all. I am just telling you what these women say. The older of my ladies refuses to listen to a word of it, at least as it has to do with her; but I gather she does hope that something can be found for her sister, some way to live an ordinary, respectable life. She has watched you climb over these mountains year after year and she knows that not many people would have assumed responsibility as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I really do think that she is ready to talk of the details, and all that matters is what you have in mind yourself. As for Prince Niou, she does not seem to think his letters serious enough to bother answering.”
“I have told you of her father’s last request. I was much moved by it, and I have vowed to go on seeing them. You might think that, from my point of view, either of your ladies would do as well as the other, and I really am very flattered that she should have such confidence in me. But you know, even a man who doesn’t have much use for the things that excite most people will find himself drawn to a lady, and when that happens he does not suddenly go running after another — though that would not be too difficult, I suppose, for the victim of a casual infatuation.
“But no. If only she would stop retreating and putting up walls between us. If only I could have her here in front of me, to talk to about the little things that come and go. If so much did not have to be kept back.
“I am all by myself, and I always have been. I have no brother near enough my own age to talk to about the amusing things and the sad things that happen. You will say that I have a sister, but the things I really want to talk about are always an impossible jumble, and an empress is hardly the person to go to with them. You will think of my mother. It is true that she looks young enough to be my sister, but after all she is my mother. All the others seem so haughty and so far away. They quite intimidate me. And so I am by myself. The smallest little flirtation leaves me dumb and paralyzed; and when it seems that the time has come to show my feelings to someone I really care for, I am not up to the smallest gesture. I may be hurt, I may be furious, and there I stand like a post, knowing perfectly well how ridiculous I am.
“But let us talk of Niou. Don’t you suppose that problem could be left to me? I promise that I will do no one any harm.”
It would be far better than this lonely life, thought the old woman, wishing she could tell him to go ahead. But they were both so touchy. She thought it best to keep her own counsel.
Kaoru whiled away the time, thinking that he would like to stay the night and perhaps have the quiet talk of which he had spoken. For Oigimi the situation was next to intolerable. Though he had made it known only by indirection, his resentment seemed to be rising to an alarming pitch. The most trivial answer was almost more than she could muster. If only he would stay away from that one subject! In everything else he was a man of the most remarkable sympathy, a fact that only added to her agitation. She had someone open the doors to the chapel and stir the lamps, and withdrew behind a blind and a screen. There were also lights outside the chapel. He had them taken away — they were very unsettling, he said, for they revealed him in shameful disorder — and lay down near the screen. She had fruit and sweets brought to him, arranged in a tasteful yet casual manner. His men were offered wine and very tempting side dishes. They withdrew to a corridor, leaving the two alone for what they assumed would be a quiet, intimate conversation.
She was in great agitation, but in her manner there was something poignantly appealing that delighted and — a pity that it should have been so — excited him. To be so near, separated from her only by a screen, and to let the time go by with no perceptible sign that the goal was near — it was altogether too stupid. Yet he managed an appearance of calm as he talked on of this amusing event and that melancholy one. There was much to interest her in what he said, but from behind her blinds she called to her women to come nearer. No doubt thinking that chaperones would be out of place, they pretended not to hear, and indeed withdrew yet further as they lay down to rest. There was no one to replenish the lamps before the holy images. Again she called out softly, and no one answered.
“I am not feeling at all well,” she said finally, starting for an anteroom. “I think a little sleep might do me good. I hope you sleep well.”
“Don’t you suppose a man who has fought his way over mountains might feel even worse? But that’s all right. Just having you here is enough. Don’t go off and leave me.”
He quietly pushed the screen aside. She was in precipitous flight through the door beyond.
“So this is what you mean by a friendly talk,” she said angrily as he caught at her sleeve. Far from turning him away, her anger added to the fascination. “It is not at all what I would have expected.”
“You seem determined not to understand what I mean by friendliness, and so I thought I would show you. Not what you would have expected — and what, may I ask, did you expect? Stop trembling. You have nothing to be afraid of. I am prepared to take my vow before the Blessed One here. I have done everything to avoid upsetting you. No one in the world can have dreamed what an eccentric affair this is. But I am an eccentric and a fool myself, and will no doubt continue to be so.”
He stroked the hair that flowed in the wavering light. The softness and the luster were all that he could have asked for. Suppose someone with more active inclinations were to come upon this lonely, unprotected house — there would be nothing to keep him from having his way. Had the visitor been anyone but himself, matters would by now have come to a showdown. His own want of decision suddenly revolted him. Yet here she was, weeping and wringing her hands, quite beside herself. He would have to wait until consent came of its own accord. Distressed at her distress, he sought to comfort her as best he could.
“I have allowed an almost indecent familiarity, and I have had no idea of what was going through your mind; and I may say that you have not shown a great deal of consideration, forcing me to display myself in these unbecoming colors. But I am at fault too. I am not up to what has to be done, and I am sorry for us both.” It was too humiliating, that the lamp-light should have caught her in somber, shabby gray.
“Yes, I have been inconsiderate, and I am ashamed and sorry. They give you a good excuse, those robes of mourning. But don’t you think you might just possibly be making too much of them? You have seen something of me over the years, and I doubt if mourning gives you a right to act as if we had just been introduced. It is clever of you but not altogether convincing.”
He told her of the many things he had found it so hard to keep to himself, beginning with that glimpse of the two princesses in the autumn dawn. She was in an agony of embarrassment. So he had had this store of secrets all along, and had managed to feign openness and indifference!
He now pulled a low curtain between them and the altar and lay down beside her. The smell of the holy incense, the particularly strong scent of anise, stabbed at his conscience, for he was more susceptible in matters of belief than most people. He told himself that it would be ill considered in the extreme, now of all times, when she was in mourning, to succumb to temptation; and he would be going against his own wishes if he failed to control himself. He must wait until she had come out of mourning. Then, difficult though she was, there would surely be some slight easing of the tensions.
Autumn nights are sad in the most ordinary of places. How much sadder in wailing mountain tempests, with the calls of insects sounding through the hedges. As he talked on of life’s uncertain turns, she occasionally essayed an answer. He was touched and pleased. Her women, who had spread their bedclothes not far away, sensed that a happy arrangement had been struck up and withdrew to inner apartments. She thought of her father’s admonitions. Strange and awful things can happen, she saw, to a lady who lives too long. It was as if she were adding her tears to the rushing torrent outside.
The dawn came on, bringing an end to nothing. His men were coughing and clearing their throats, there was a neighing of horses — everything made him think of descriptions he had read of nights on the road. He slid back the door to the east, where dawn was in the sky, and the two of them looked out at the shifting colors. She had come out towards the veranda. The dew on the ferns at the shallow eaves was beginning to catch the light. They would have made a very striking pair, had anyone been there to see them.
“Do you know what I would like? To be as we are now. To look out at the flowers and the moon, and be with you. To spend our days together, talking of things that do not matter.”
His manner was so unassertive that her fears had finally left her. “And do you know what I would like? A little privacy. Here I am quite exposed, and a screen might bring us closer.”
The sky was red, there was a whirring of wings close by as flocks of birds left their roosts. As if from deep in the night, the matin bells came to them faintly.
“Please go,” she said with great earnestness. “It is almost daylight, and I do not want you to see me.”
“You can’t be telling me to push my way back through the morning mists? What would that suggest to people? No, make it look, if you will, as if we were among the proper married couples of the world, and we can go on being the curiosities we in fact seem to be. I promise you that I will do nothing to upset you; but perhaps I might trouble you to imagine, just a little, how genuine my feelings are.”
“If what you say is true,” she replied, her agitation growing as it became evident that he was in no hurry to leave, “then I am sure you will have your way in the future. But please, this morning, let me have my way.” She had to admit that there was little she could do.
“So you really are going to send me off into the dawn? Knowing that it is ‘new to me,’ and that I am sure to lose my way?”
The crowing of a cock was like a summons back to the city.
“The things by which one knows the mountain village
Are brought together in these voices of dawn.”
“Deserted mountain depths where no birds sing,
I would have thought. But sorrow has come to visit.”
Seeing her as far as the door to the inner apartments, he returned by the way he had come the evening before, and lay down; but he was not able to sleep. The memories and regrets were too strong. Had his emotions earlier been toward her as they were now, he would not have been as passive over the months. The prospect of going back to the city was too dreary to face.
Oigimi, in agony at the thought of what her women would have made of it all, found sleep as elusive. A very harsh trial it was, going through life with no one to turn to; and as if that huge uncertainty were not enough, there were these women with all their impossible suggestions. They as good as formed a queue, coming to her with proposals that had nothing to recommend them but the expediency of the moment; and if in a fit of inattention she were to accede to one of them, she would have shame and humiliation to look forward to. Kaoru did not at all displease her. The Eighth Prince had said more than once that if Kaoru should be inclined to ask her hand, he would not disapprove. But no. She wanted to go on as she was. It was her sister, now in the full bloom of youth, who must live a normal life. If the prince’s thoughts in the matter could be applied to her sister, she herself would do everything she could by way of support. But who was to be her own support? She had only Kaoru, and, strangely, things might have been easier had she found herself in superficial dalliance with an ordinary man. They had known each other for rather a long time, and she might have been tempted to let him have his way. His obvious superiority and his aloofness, coupled with a very low view of herself, had left her prey to shyness. In timid retreat, it seemed, she would end her days.
She was near prostration, having spent most of the night weeping. She lay down in the far recesses of the room where her sister was sleeping. Nakanokimi was delighted, for she had been disturbed by that odd whispering among the women. She pulled back the coverlet and spread it over Oigimi. She caught the scent of her sister’s robes. It was unmistakable, exactly the scent by which poor Wigbeard had been so sorely discommoded. Guessing what Oigimi would be going through, Nakanokimi pretended to be asleep.
Kaoru summoned Bennokimi and had a long talk with her. He permitted no suggestion of the romantic in the note he left for Oigimi.
She would happily have disappeared. There had been that silly little exchange about the trefoil knots. Would her sister think that she had meant by it to beckon him to within “two arms’ lengths”? Pleading illness, she spent the day alone
“But the services are almost on us,” said the women, “and there is no one but you to tend to all these details. Why did you have to pick this particular moment to come down with something?”
Nakanokimi went on preparing the braids; but when it came to the rosettes of gold and silver thread, she had to admit incompetence. She did not even know where to begin. Then night came, and, under cover of darkness, Oigimi emerged, and the two sisters worked together on the intricacies of the rosettes.
A note came from Kaoru, but she sent back that she had been indisposed since morning. A most unseemly and childish way to behave, muttered her women.
And so they emerged from mourning. They had not wanted to think that they would outlive their father, and, so quickly, a whole year of months and days had passed. How strange, they sighed — and their women had to sigh too — how bleak and grim, that they should have lived on. But the robes of deepest mourning to which they had grown accustomed over the months were changed for lighter colors, and a freshness as of new life came over the house. Nakanokimi, at the best time of life, was the more immediately appealing of the two. Personally seeing to it that her hair was washed and brushed, Oigimi thought her so delightful that all the cares of these last months seemed to vanish. If only her hopes might be realized, if only Kaoru could be persuaded to look after the girl. Despite his evident reluctance, he was not, if pointed in the girl’s direction, likely to find her a disappointment. There being no one else whom she could even consider, and therefore nothing more for her to do, she busied herself with ministering to her sister’s needs, quite as if they were mother and daughter.
Kaoru paid a sudden visit. The Ninth Month, when the mourning robes toward which he had been so deferential would surely have been put away, still seemed an unacceptable distance in the future. He sent in word that he hoped as before to be favored with an interview. Oigimi sent back that she had not been well, and must ask to be excused.
He sent in again: “I had not been prepared for this obstinacy. And what sort of interpretation do you think your women are likely to put upon it?”
“You will understand, I am sure, that when a person comes out of mourning the grief floods back with more force than ever. I really must ask you to excuse me.”
He called Bennokimi and went over the list of his complaints. Since he had all along seemed to the women their one hope in this impossible darkness, they had been telling one another how very nice it would be if he were to answer their prayers and set their lady up in a more becoming establishment. They had plotted ways of admitting him to her boudoir. Though not aware of the details, Oigimi had certain suspicions: given Kaoru’s remarkable fondness for Bennokimi, and indeed their apparent fondness for each other, the old woman might have acquired sinister ideas, and because in old romances wellborn ladies never threw themselves at men without benefit of intermediary, her women presented the weakest point in her defenses.
Kaoru was apparently embittered by her own reception of his overtures, and so perhaps the time had come to put her sister decisively forward as a substitute. He did not seem to be one who, properly introduced and encouraged, would incline toward unkindness even when he found himself in the presence of an ill-favored woman; and once he had had a glimpse of the beauty her sister was, he was sure to fall helplessly in love. No man, of course, would want to spring forward at the first gesture, quite as if he had been waiting for an invitation. This apparent reluctance was no doubt partly from a fear of being thought flighty and too susceptible.
Thus she turned the possibilities over in her mind. But would it not be a serious disservice to give Nakanokimi no hint of what she was thinking? In her sister’s place, she could see she would be very much hurt indeed. So, in great detail, she offered her view of the matter.
“You will remember of course what Father said. We might be lonely for the rest of our lives, but we were not to demean ourselves and make ourselves ridiculous. We have a great deal to atone for, I think. It was we who kept him from making his peace at the end, and I have no reservations about a single word of his advice. And so loneliness does not worry me at all. But there are these noisy women, not giving me a minute’s relief. They chatter on and on about my obstinacy. I must admit that they have a point. I must admit that it would be a tragedy for you to spend the rest of your days alone. If I could only do something for you, my dear — if I only could make a decent match for you — then I could tell myself I had done my duty, and it would not bother me in the least to be alone.”
Nakanokimi replied with some bitterness. Whatever could her sister have in mind? “Do you really think Father was talking about you? No, I was the one he was worried about. I am the useless one, and he knew what a shambles I would make of things. You are missing the point completely: the point is that we will not be lonely as long as we have each other.”
It was true, thought Oigimi, a wave of affection sweeping over her. “I’m sorry. I was upset and didn’t think. These people say I am so difficult. That is the whole trouble.” And she fell silent.
It was growing dark and Kaoru still had not left. Oigimi was more and more apprehensive. Bennokimi came in and talked on at great length of his perfectly understandable resentment. Oigimi did not answer. She could only sigh helplessly, and ask herself what possible recourse she had. If only she had someone to look to for advice! A father or a mother could have made a match for her, and she would have accepted it as the way of the world. She might have been unable herself to say yes or no, but that was the nature of things. She would have concealed the unfortunate facts from a world so ready to laugh. But these women — they were old and thought themselves wise. Much pleased with each new discovery, they came to her one after another to tell her how fine a match it promised to be. Was she to take these opinions seriously? No, she was attended by crones, women with obsessions that made no allowance for her own feelings.
As good as clutching her by the hand and dragging her off, they would argue their various cases; and the result was that Oigimi withdrew into increasingly gloomy disaffection. Nakanokimi, with whom she was able to converse so freely on almost every subject, knew even less about this one than she, and, quietly uncomprehending, had no answer. A strange, sad fate ruled over her, Oigimi would conclude, turning away from the company.
Might she not change into robes a little more lively? pleaded her women. She was outraged — it was as if they were intent on pushing her into the man’s arms. And indeed what was to keep them from having their way? This tiny house, with everyone jammed in against everyone else, offered no better a hiding place than was granted the proverbial mountain pear. It had always been Kaoru’s apparent intention to make no explicit overtures, inviting the mediation of this or that woman, but to proceed so quietly that people would scarcely know when he had begun. He had thought, and indeed said, that if she was unwilling he was prepared to wait indefinitely. But the old women were whispering noisily into one another’s deaf ears. Perhaps they had been somewhat stupid from the outset, perhaps age had dulled their wits. Oigimi found it all very trying in either case.
She sought to communicate something of her distress to Bennokimi. “He is different from other people, I suppose. Father always said so, and that is why we have become so dependent on him since Father died, and allowed him a familiarity that must seem almost improper. And now comes a turn I had not been prepared for. He seems very angry with me, and I cannot for the life of me see why. He must know that if I were in the least interested in the usual things I would most certainly not have tried
t him off. I have always been suspicious of them, and it is a disappointment that he should not seem to understand.” She spoke with great hesitation.
“But there is my sister. It would be very sad if she were to waste the best part of her life. If I sometimes wish this house weren’t quite so shabby and cramped, it is only because of her. He says he means to honor Father’s wishes. Well, then, he should make no distinction between us. As far as I am concerned we share a single heart, whatever the outward appearances. I will do everything I possibly can. Do you suppose I might ask you to pass this on to him?”
“I have known your feelings all along,” said Bennokimi, deeply moved, “and I have explained everything to him very carefully. But he says that a man does not shift his affections at will, and he has his friend Niou to think of; and he has offered to do what he can to arrange matters for my younger lady. I must say I think he is behaving very well. Even when they have parents working for them, two sisters cannot reasonably expect to make good matches at the same time; and here you have your chance. I may seem forward when I say so, but you are alone in the world, and I worry a great deal about you. It is true that no one can predict what may happen years from now; but at the moment I think both of you have very lucky stars to thank. I certainly would not want to be understood as arguing that you should go against your father’s last wishes. Surely he meant no more than that you should not make marriages unworthy of you. He so often said that if the young gentleman should prove willing and he himself might see one of you happily married, then he could die in peace. I have seen so many girl s, high and low, who have lost their parents and gone completely to ruin, married to the most impossible men. I wonder if there has been a time in my whole long life when it hasn’t been happening somewhere, and no one has ever found it in his heart to poke fun at them. And here you are — a man made to order, a man of the most extraordinary kindness and feeling, comes with a proposal anyone would jump at. If you send him off in the name of this Buddha of yours — well, I doubt that you will be rewarded with assumption into the heavens. You will still have the world to live with.”
She seemed prepared to talk on indefinitely. Angry and resentful, Oigimi lay with her face pressed against a pillow. Nakanokimi led her off to bed, with lengthy commiserations. Bennokimi’s remarks had left her feeling threatened, but it was not a house in which she could make a great show of going into retreat. It was, indeed, a house that offered no refuge. Spreading a clean, soft quilt over Nakanokimi, she lay down some slight distance away, the weather still being warm.
Bennokimi told Kaoru of the conversation. What, he asked himself, could have turned a young girl so resolutely away from the world? Was it that she had learned too well from her saintly father the lesson of the futility of things? But they were kindred spirits, he and she, and he could most certainly not accuse her of impertinent trifling.
“And so I suppose from now on I will have trouble even getting permission to speak to her? Take me into her room, just this one evening.”
Having made up her mind to help him, Bennokimi sent most of the other women off to bed. A few of them had been made partners in the conspiracy. As the night drew on, a high wind set the badly fitted shutters to rattling. It was fortunate — not as much stealth was needed as on a quieter night. She led him to the princesses’ room. The two were sleeping together; but they always slept together, and she could hardly have separated them for this one night. Kaoru knew them well enough, she was sure, to tell one from the other.
But Oigimi, still awake, sensed his approach, and slipped out through the bed curtains. Poor Nakanokimi lay quietly sleeping. What was to be done? Oigimi was in consternation. If only the two of them could hide together — but she was quaking with fear, and could not bring herself to go back. Then, in the dim light, a figure in a singlet pulled the curtains aside and came into the room quite as if he owned it. Whatever would her hapless sister think if she were to awaken? thought Oigimi, huddled in the cramped space between a screen and a shabby wall. Nakanokimi had rebelled at the very hint that there might be plans for her — and how shocked and resentful she would be if it were to appear now that they had all plotted against her. Oigimi was quite beside herself. It had all happened because they had no one to protect them from a harsh world. Her sorrow and her longing for her father were so intense that it was as if he were here beside her now, exactly as he had made his last farewell in the evening twilight.
Thinking that the old woman had arranged it so, Kaoru was delighted to find a lady sleeping alone. Then he saw that it was not Oigimi. It was a fresher, more winsome, superficially more appealing young lady. Nakanokimi was awake now, and in utter terror. She had been no part of a plot against him, poor girl, it was clear; but pity for her was mixed with anger and resentment at the one who had fled. Nakanokimi was no stranger, of course, but he did not take much comfort from that fact. Mixed with the chagrin was a fear lest Oigimi think he had been less than serious. Well, he would let the night pass, and if it should prove his fate to marry Nakanokimi — she was not, as he had noted, a stranger. Thus composing himself, he lay down beside her, and passed the night much as he had the earlier one with her sister.
Their plans had worked beautifully, said the old woman. But where might Nakanokimi be? It would be odd of her, to say the least, to spend the night with the other two.
“Well, wherever she is, I’m sure she knows what she’s doing.”
“Such a fine young gentleman, making our wrinkles go away just by glancing in our direction. He’s exactly what every woman has always asked for. Why does she have to be so standoffish?”
“Oh, no reason, really. Something’s been at her, as they say. She’s hexed.”
Some of the remarks that came from the toothless mouths were not entirely charitable.
They did not pass unchallenged. “Hexed! Now that’s a nice thing to say, as good as asking for bad luck. No, I can tell you what it is. She had a strange bringing up, that’s all, way off here in the hills with no one to tell her about things. Men scare her. You’ll see — she’ll be friendly enough when she gets used to him. It’s bound to happen.”
“Let’s hope it happens soon, and something good happens to us for a change.”
So they talked on as they got ready for bed, and soon there were loud snores.
Though “the company” may not have had a great deal to do with the matter, it seemed to Kaoru that the autumn night had been quick to end.
He was beginning to wonder which of the princesses appealed to him more. If, at his departure, his desires were left unsatisfied, he had no one to blame but himself.
“Remember me,” he said as he left Nakanokimi, “and do not deceive yourself that she is someone to imitate.” And he vowed that they would meet again.
It had been like a strange dream. Mustering all his self-control, for he wanted to have another try at the icy one, he went back to the room assigned him the night before and lay down.
Bennokimi hurried to the princesses’ room. “Very, very strange,” she said, thinking Oigimi the one she saw there. “Where will my other lady be?”
Nakanokimi lay consumed with embarrassment. What could it all mean? She was angry, too, reading deep significance into her sister’s remarks of the day before.
As the morning grew brighter, the cricket came from the wall.
Oigimi knew what her sister would be thinking, and the pity and the sorrow were too much for her. Neither sister was able to speak. So the last veil had been stripped away, thought Oigimi. One thing was clear: theirs was a world in which not a single unguarded moment was possible.
Bennokimi went to Kaoru’s room and at length learned of the uncommon obstinacy of which he had been the victim. She was very sorry for him, and she thought he had a right to be angry.
“I have put up with it all because I have thought there might be hope. But after last night, I really feel as if I should jump in the river. The one thing that holds me back is the memory of their father and how he hated to leave them behind. Well, that is that. I shall not bother them again — not, of course, that I am likely to forget the insult. I gather that Niou is forging ahead without a glance to the left or the right. I can understand how a young lady in her place might feel. A man is a man, and she might as well aim for the highest. I think I shall not show myself again for all of you to laugh at. My only request is that you talk about this idiocy as little as possible.”
Today there were no regretful looks backward. How sad, whispered the women, for both of them.
Oigimi too was asking herself what had happened. Supposing his anger now included her sister — what were they to do? And how awful to have all these women with their wise airs, not one of them in fact understanding the slightest part of her confusion. The thoughts were still whirling through her head when a letter came from Kaoru. Surprisingly, she was pleased, more pleased, indeed, than usual. As if he did not know the season, he had attached a leafy branch only one sprig of which had turned crimson. Folded in an envelope, the note was quiet and laconic, and showed little trace of resentment.
“My mountain ladies have dyed it colors twain.
And which of the twain, please tell me, is the deeper?”
He apparently meant to pretend that nothing of moment had occurred. Uncertainty clutched at her once more; and here were these noisy women trying to goad her into a reply. She would have left it to her sister but for a fear that the poor girl was already at the limits of endurance. Finally, after many false starts, she sent back a verse:
“Whatever the’ladies’ meant, the answer is clear:
The newer of these hues is far the deeper.”
It had been jotted down with an appearance of unconcern, and it pleased him. He decided that his resentment was after all finite.
Two ladies with but a single heart, Bennokimi had told him — there had been more than one hint that Oigimi meant him to have her sister in her place. His refusal to take the hint, it now came to him, accounted for last night’s behavior. He had been unkind. A wave of pity came over him. If he had caused her to think him unfeeling, then his hopes would come to nothing. And no doubt Bennokimi, who had been so good about passing his messages on, was beginning to think him untrustworthy. Well, he had let himself be trapped, the mistake had been his own. If people chose to laugh at him as the sort that is constantly forsaking the world, he could only let them laugh. It was worse than they knew. He was a laughable little boat indeed, paddling out only to come back time and time again!
So he fretted the night away. There was a bright moon in the dawn sky as he went to call on Niou. Upon the burning of his mother’s house in Sanjō, he had moved with her to Rokujō. Niou having rooms near at hand, he was a frequent caller, much, it would seem, to Niou’s satisfaction. It was the perfect place to make one forget the troubles of the world. Even the flowers below the verandas were somehow different. The swaying grasses and trees were as elsewhere — and yet they too were different. The clear moon reflected from the brook was as in a picture. Kaoru had expected to find his friend enjoying the moonlight, and he was not disappointed. Startled at the fragrance that came in on the breeze, Niou slipped into casual court dress and otherwise put himself in order. Kaoru had stopped midway up the stairs. Not asking him to come further, Niou stepped out and leaned against the railing, and in these attitudes they talked idly of this and that. The Uji affair always on his mind, he reproved his friend for various inadequacies as a messenger. This was not at all fair, thought Kaoru. He was incapable of seizing the first thing he wanted for himself, and he could hardly be expected to worry about others. But then it occurred to him that his own cause might be advanced if matters were arranged satisfactorily for Niou, and he talked with unusual candor of what he thought might be done.
A mist came in as the dawn brightened. The air was chilly, and with the moon now hidden the shade of the trees was dark. It was a pleasant scene despite the gloom.
“The time is coming,” said the prince, “when you will not get off so easily for leaving me behind.” No doubt the gloom brought sad Uji very near. Since Kaoru gave no evidence of eagerness, Niou offered a poem:
“All the wide field abloom with maiden flowers!
Why must you string a rope to keep us out?”
In a similarly bantering tone, Kaoru replied:
“The maiden flowers on the misty morning field
Are set aside for those who bestir themselves.
And,” he said, smiling, “there are not many such enterprising people.”
“How utterly shameless!”
Though long importuned by his friend, Kaoru had wondered whether Nakanokimi could meet this most rigorous of tests. Now he knew that she was at least the equal of her sister. He had feared, too, that her disposition might upon close inspection prove to have its defects, and he was sure now that there was nothing for which he need apologize. Though it might seem cruel to go against Oigimi’s wishes, his own affections did not seem prepared to jump lightly to her sister. He must see that Nakanokimi went to his friend. So he would overcome the resentment of both of them, prince and princess.
Unaware of these thoughts, Niou was calling him shameless. It was very amusing.
“We must remember,” said Kaoru, his manner somewhat patronizing, “that you have given us little cause to admire you for your fidelity.”
“Just you wait and see,” answered Niou most earnestly. “I have never liked anyone else half as well, I swear it.”
“And I see few signs that they are about to capitulate. You have given me a formidable assignment.”
Yet he proceeded to describe in great detail his thoughts about an expedition to Uji.
The twenty-eighth, when the equinox festival ended, was a lucky day. With great stealth, including every possible precaution against attracting notice, Kaoru led his friend forth towards Uji. They would be in trouble were Niou’s mother, the empress, to learn of the excursion. She would be certain to forbid it. But Niou was determined. Though Kaoru agreed with him in wanting to make it appear that they were off for nowhere at all, the pretense was not a simple one. They would surely be noticed if they tried to cross the Uji River. Forgoing the splendor of Yūgiri’s villa on the south bank, therefore, Kaoru left Niou at a manor house he happened to own near the Eighth Prince’s villa and went on alone. No one was likely to challenge them now, but it seemed that Kaoru did not want even Wigbeard, who might be patrolling the grounds, to know of Niou’s prese, His Lordship is here, His Lordship is here! “ As usual the women bustled around getting ready to receive him. The princesses were mildly annoyed. But surely, thought Oigimi, she had hinted broadly enough that his affections should rest upon someone other than herself. Nakanokimi, for her part, knew that she was not the one he was attracted to, and that she had nothing to fear from the visit. But since that painful evening she had not felt as close to her sister. A stiff reserve had grown up between them, indeed, and Nakanokimi refused to communicate except through intermediaries. How would it all end? sighed the women who carried her messages.
Niou was led in under cover of darkness.
Kaoru summoned Bennokimi. “Let me have a single word with the older of your ladies. I know when I have been refused, but I can’t very well just run away. And then perhaps, a little later, I may ask you to let me in as you did the other night?”
His manner offered no cause for suspicion. It made little difference, thought the old woman, which of the two girls she took him to. She told Oigimi of the request. Oigimi was pleased and relieved — so his attention had turned to her sister, just as she had hoped. She closed and barred the door to the veranda, leaving open the door through which he would pass on his way to her sister’s; and she was ready to receive him.
“A word is all I need,” he said somewhat testily, “and it is ridiculous that I must shout it to the whole world. Open the door just a little. Can’t you guess how uncomfortable I am out here?”
“I can hear you perfectly well,” she said, leaving the door closed.
Perhaps his affection for her had died and he felt it his duty to say goodbye? They were not, after all, strangers. She must not offend him, she concluded, having come forward a little, but she must watch the time. He clutched at her sleeve through a crack in the door and began railing at her as he pulled her towards him. She was outraged. What was the man not capable of? But she must humor him and hurry him off to her sister. Her innate gentleness came over to him. Quietly and without seeming to insist, she asked that he be to her sister as he had thought of being to herself.
Niou meanwhile was following instructions. He made his way to the door by which Kaoru had entered that other night. He signaled with his fan and Bennokimi came to let him in. How amusing, he thought, that his turn should have come to travel this well-traveled route. In complete ignorance of what was happening, Oigimi still sought to hurry Kaoru on his way. Though he could not keep back a certain exhilaration at being party to such an escapade, he was also moved to pity. He would have no excuse to offer when she learned how effectively she had been duped; and so he said:
“Niou kept pestering me to bring him along, and I couldn’t go on saying no. He is here with me. I suspect that by now he will have made his way in. You must forgive him for not having introduced himself. And I rather imagine that talkative old woman of yours will have been asked to show him the way. So here I am left dangling. You can all have a good laugh over me.”
This was a bit more than she had been prepared for. Indeed, she was aghast, and wondered whether her senses might have deserted her. “Well! I have been nai%ve. Your powers of invention are so far beyond me that I doubt if I could find words to describe them. I have let you see quite through me, and you have learned how stupid and careless I am. This knowledge of your superiority must give you much satisfaction.”
“I have nothing to say. I could apologize all night, and little good it would do me. Pinch me and claw me, if you are so furious. I quite understand. You were aiming high, and you have learned that we are not always masters of our fate. I am inclined to suspect that he has been drawn in another direction all along. I do feel sorry for you, believe me. And, do you know, I feel a little sorry for myself too, left out in the cold with requests that have taken me nowhere at all. But be that as it may, you would do well to accept what has happened, maybe you could even coax forth a thought or two about us, you and me. We may know that your door is locked, but can you imagine that other people will believe in the purity that so distinguishes us? Do you think that my royal friend, for instance, who persuaded me to act as his guide this evening — do you think he can imagine the possibility of such a pointless and useless night?”
He seemed prepared to break the door in. It still seemed best to humor him.
“This ‘fate’ you speak of is not easy to grasp, and I cannot pretend to know much about it. I only know that ‘tears block off the unknown way ahead.’ It is a nightmare, trying to guess what you mean to do next. If people choose to remember my sister and me as some sort of case in point, I am sure it will be to add us to the list of ridiculous women who are always turning up in old stories. And are you prepared to tell me what your friend means to do now that the two of you have been so clever? Please, I beg of you, do not make things worse, do not confuse us further. If I should survive this crisis, and I am not at all sure that I will, I may one day be able to compose myself for a talk with you. At the moment I am feeling very upset and unwell, and think I must rest. Leave me alone, if you do not mind.”
She clearly was upset, and that she should be so rational in spite of her distress made him feel his own inadequacy.
“I have done everything imaginable to follow your wishes, and I have made a fool of myself every step of the way. I have done everything, and you seem to find me insufferable. Well, I will go — disappear might be the better expression.” After a moment he continued: “But even if you are not feeling well, we can at least go on talking through the door. Please do not run away.
He released her sleeve and was delighted to see that she did not withdraw very far.” Just stay there and be a comfort through the night. I would not dream of asking more.”
It was a difficult, sleepless night. In the roar of the wind and water, which seemed to rise as the night advanced, he was like a pheasant without its mate.
The first signs of dawn came over the sky, and as always the monastery bells were ringing. His late-sleeping friend had still not left Nakanokimi’s side. In some disquiet, Kaoru gave a summoning cough. It was an unusual situation.
“A futile night. The guide of yestereve
Seems doomed to wander lost down the twilight road.
I cannot believe that you have heard of anything quite like it.”
She replied in a voice so low that he could scarcely hear:
“You walk a road you have chosen for yourself,
While helplessly we stumble on in darkness.”
All his impatience came back. “Can you not be persuaded, please, to dismantle a few of these unnecessary defenses?”
As the sky grew brighter Niou emerged, and with him a quiet fragrance that cast just the right veil of delicacy over the events of the night before. The old women were open-mouthed. But they quickly found comfort. The other young gentleman would surely have all the right motives for his conduct.
Niou and Kaoru hurried back to the city before daylight overtook them. The return journey seemed far longer than had the way to Uji. Always aware of the obstacles that kept a man of his rank from embarking on carefree outings, Niou had already begun to lament” the nights to come. “ The streets were still deserted when they arrived back at Nijō. Ordering the carriage drawn up at the veranda, they slipped indoors, smiling at the strange, ladylike vehicle that had guarded their incognito.
“If you were to ask me, I would say that you had done your duty most admirably,” said Kaoru, letting fall no hint of the grotesque arrangements he himself had made.
Niou hurried off to compose a note.
The sisters were in a daze. Nakanokimi was angry and sullen: so her sister had had these plans and had not permitted her an inkling of them. Oigimi, for her part, unable to find a convenient way to protest her innocence, could only sigh at the thought of how just this resentment was. The old women looked from one to the other in search of an explanation for this startling turn of events; but the lady who should have been their strength seemed lost to the world, and they could only go on wondering.
Oigimi opened the note and showed it to her sister, but Nakanokimi lay with her face pressed against her sleeve. “What a long time they are taking with their answer,” thought the messenger.
This was Niou’s verse:
“You cannot think that a trifling urge induced me
To brave, for you, that tangled, dew-drenched path?”
The accomplished hand, ever more remarkable, had delighted them back in the days when it had been of no particular concern to them. Now it was a source of apprehension. Oigimi did not think it seemly to step forward and answer in her sister’s place. She limited herself to pressing the claims of propriety, and finally persuaded Nakanokimi to put together a note. They rewarded the messenger with a woman’s robe in the wild-aster combination and a pair of doubly lined trousers. The messenger, a court page whom Niou often made use of and who would be unlikely to attract notice, seemed reluctant to accept the gifts, which they therefore wrapped in a cloth parcel and handed to his man. Having been at such pains to make the mission inconspicuous, Niou was annoyed. He blamed the officious old woman of the evening before.
He asked Kaoru to be his guide again that evening.
“I am really very sorry, but I have an engagement at the Reizei Palace from which I cannot ask to be excused.”
“So it is with my worthy friend — not at all interested in the most interesting things in life.”
At Uji, Oigimi had been the first to succumb. Could she turn him away on no better grounds than that he was not the suitor she had had in mind for her sister? The house was badly equipped for decking out a nuptial chamber, but she managed to make do rather well with the rustic furnishings at hand. In control of herself once more, she was pleased that
Niou should come hurrying down the long road to Uji, and at the same time she could not help wondering that her plans had gone so wildly astray. Nakanokimi, still in a daze, gave herself up to the women who had undertaken to dress her for the night. The sleeves of her crimson robe were damp with tears.
The more composed of the sisters was also in tears. “I cannot believe I have much longer to live, and I think only of you. These people have worn my ears out telling me what a fine match it is. Well, I have said to myself, they are older and more experienced, and probably they are right, at least as the world sees things. And so I put together a small amount of resolve — not that I pretend to know a great deal — and told myself that I was not going to leave you unprotected. But I never dreamed that things could go so horribly awry. People talk about matches that are fated to be, and I suppose this is one of them. I am as upset as you are, you must believe me. When you have calmed yourself a little I shall try to prove that I knew nothing at all about it. Please don’t be angry with me. The time will come when you will be sorry if you are.”
She stroked her sister’s hair as she spoke. Nakanokimi did not answer. Her mind was jumping from thought to thought. If her sister was so worried about her now, it did not seem likely that she had behaved with any sort of deliberate malice. She herself was only making things worse. They were fools for the world to laugh at, both of them, and there was no point in adding to her sister’s unhappiness.
Even in a state of something near shock she had been very beautiful. Tonight, more in possession of herself, she was still more of a delight. Niou’s heart ached at the thought of how long, and for him how strewn with obstacles, the road to Uji was. He made promise after promise. Nakanokimi was neither pleased nor moved. She was merely bewildered — men were quite beyond her. All maidens are shy; but shyness has its limits when a maiden, however pampered and sheltered, has lived in a house with brothers. Our princess, though scarcely pampered, had grown up in these secluded mountains, far from the greater world; and the timidity brought on by this unexpected event made it difficult for her to force her way through the tiniest answer. He would think her in every respect queer and countrified, entirely unlike other ladies of his acquaintance; and she was, in every respect, the quicker and more accomplished of the two sisters.
The women reminded them of the rice cakes that are customary on the third night. Yes — it was a form that must be observed, thought Oigimi. She put her sister to work. Nakanokimi was of course a novice in such matters, and Oigimi too, doing her best to play the part of the older sister, felt herself flushing scarlet. How ridiculous they must seem to these women! But in fact the women were entranced. This calm elegance, they thought, was what one expected of an eldest daughter, and at the same time it testified to her concern and affection for her sister.
A letter came from Kaoru, written in a careful cursive hand on rather ordinary Michinoku paper. “I thought of calling last night, but it is clear that my humble efforts are bringing no rewards. I must confess a certain resentment. I know that there will be all manner of errands to see to this evening, but the memory of the other night leaves me squirming. And so I shall bide my time.”
In several boxes he sent Bennokimi numerous bolts of cloth, for the women, he said. It would seem that, relying on what his mother happened to have at hand, he had not been as lavish as he would have wished to be. Lengths of undyed silk, plain and figured, were hidden beneath two tastefully finished robes and singlets. At the sleeve of a singlet was a poem, somewhat old-fashioned, it might have seemed:
“We did not share a bed, I hear you say.
But we were together, that I must insist.”
How very threatening. And yet, in some discomfiture, Oigimi had to grant his point: neither she nor her sister had any defenses left. Some of the messengers ran off while she was still puzzling over her answer. She detained the lowest-ranking among them until she had a poem to give him.
“No barrier, perhaps, between our hearts;
But say not that our sleeves caress each other.”
It was an ordinary poem, showing, however, traces of her agitation. He was touched. He thought he could see in it honest and unaffected feelings.
Meanwhile Niou was beside himself. He was at the palace and there seemed no chance of escaping. His mother had taken advantage of his presence to chide him for his lengthy absences. “Here you are still single, and people tell me that you are already beginning to acquire a name for yourself as a lover. I do not like it at all. Do not, if you please, make a career of it. Your father is no happier than I am.”
Niou withdrew to his private chambers. Kaoru came upon him sunk in thought, having finished a letter to Uji. The visit delighted him. Here was someone who understood.
“What am I to do? It is already dark, and — really, what am I to do?”
Kaoru saw a chance to explore his friend’s intentions. “We haven’t been seeing much of you lately, and your mother will not be at all happy if you go running off again. The ladies have been handing little rumors around. I can already hear the scolding I’ve let myself in for.”
“Yes, there is the problem of my good mother. She has just annihilated me, as a matter of fact. Those women must be lying to her. What have I done, after all, that the whole world should be criticizing me? Life is not easy when your father wears a crown, that I can tell you.” His sighs did suggest that he found his wellborn lot a sad one.
Kaoru was beginning to feel sorry for him. “Well, you will have a scene on your hands whether you go or whether you stay. If there is to be carnage, I am prepared to immolate myself. Suppose we think of a horse for getting over Mount Kohata. It will attract attention, of course.”
The night was blacker and blacker, Niou more and more nervous; but finally he made his departure, on horseback, as Kaoru had suggested.
“I think,” said Kaoru, seeing him off, “that it would be better for me to stay behind and do what I can to cover the rear.” He went from Niou’s apartments to the empress’s audience chamber.
“So he has run off again,” said she. “I cannot understand him. Has he no notion of what people will be thinking? I am the one who will suffer when his father hears of it and concludes that someone has been remiss.”
She was the mother of a considerable band of grown children, and she only seemed younger as the years went by. No doubt her oldest daughter, the First Princess, was very much like her. He thought it a great pity that the occasion had been denied him to approach the daughter, if only to hear her voice, as he was now approaching the mother. It was probably in such a situation, he mused — when the lady was neither distant nor yet near enough to come at a summons — that the amorously inclined young men of the world tended to have improper thoughts. Was there anyone as eccentric as he? And yet even he, once his affections had been engaged, found it impossible to detach them. Here among the empress’s attendants was not a single lady who could be called wanting in sensitivity or elegance. Each had her own merits, and several were outstandingly beautiful. But he was propriety itself towards all of them, determined that none should excite him — and this despite the fact that several had made advances. Since the empress held court with such quiet dignity, nothing was allowed to appear on the surface; but women have their ways, and there were those in her retinue who let slip hints that they found him interesting. He for his part was sometimes amused and sometimes touched, and through all these trifling encounters there ran an awareness of evanescence.
Oigimi was in despair. Kaoru had made such a thing of the night before them. The hours passed, and then came his letter. So Niou’s fickleness and thoughtlessness were exactly as the world had proclaimed them to be. Then, at about midnight, he came in upon a rising wind, a most pleasing figure enveloped in a rich perfume. How could she be angry with him? And the bride herself — unbending a little now, she seemed to understand somewhat better what was expected of her. She was at her most beautiful. He even thought her, carefully groomed for the occasion, an improvement over the night before. Far from disappointing to one who was always surrounded by beauties, her face, her bearing, everything about her seemed more delightful on close inspection — and how could she fail to have these toothless rustic faces wreathed in smiles? She was lovely, the women said to one another, and it would have been a terrible pity had some ordinary man come for her. Fate had finally done them a good turn. And they grumbled that their other lady should still be so unconscionably aloof in her treatment of the other young gentleman. Observing how these persons well past their prime sewed and embroidered bright, flowery things that did not serve their venerable years, how there was not one among them who could escape charges of decking herself out in grotesque brilliance, Oigimi feared that she too was passing her prime. Each day she saw a more emaciated face in her mirror. Who among her women thought herself uncomely? Each of them brushed thin hair over her forehead, unable to observe the strange prospect she afforded from the rear. Each painted herself over with bright cosmetics. Oigimi lay gazing vacantly out at the garden. Was she prey to self-deception when she told herself that she had not decayed to any alarming degree, that her face was still not too sadly changed and wasted? The ordeal of appearing before a fine young gentleman would be worse as time went by, the ravages would be all too evident in a year or two. Youth — how very fleeting and uncertain it was! She looked at her thin hands and wrists, and thought of him and the world and gazed sadly out at the garden.
It had not been easy to win even this small measure of freedom, sighed Niou; and he could expect even less in the future. He told Nakanokimi of his mother’s sharp words.” There may be times when I will not be able to come, however much I may want to, and you are not to let them worry you. Would I have gone to such trouble if I had the slightest intention of neglecting you? I literally threw myself to the winds tonight, and that was because I did not want you to come to the wrong conclusions. Things will not always be this complicated. I will find a way, somehow, to bring you nearer.”
So he said, with apparent sincerity. But here he was already thinking of times, rather extended periods, evidently, when he would not be able to come. Did she not already have a sign that reports about him were true? She was deeply troubled, by his words and by an awareness of how weak her own position was. As dawn began to come over the sky, he opened a side door and invited her out. The layers of mist delighted him even more than in a familiar setting. As always, the little faggot boats rowed out into the mists, leaving faint white traces behind them. The strangeness of the scene spoke strongly to his refined sensibilities. The sky was lighter at the mountain ridge. The most coddled and pampered of ladies, he thought, could scarcely be the superior of the princess beside him. Perhaps it was family pride that made him think of his own sister, the First Princess. The night, over so quickly, had left him longing to explore these gentle charms more carefully. The roar of the waters was loud, and as the mists cleared from the moldering old bridge the riverbank seemed wilder, more wasted. How had they been able to pass the years in such a place?
Nakanokimi was apologizing inwardly for her rustic dwelling. What had happened was beyond her maddest dreams: before her was every young lady’s notion of the ideal prince; and he had made his vows for this life and all the lives to come. Strangely, she felt more at ease with Niou, though she was dazzled, than she had with Kaoru, the only other young man she had known. Kaoru was a chilly young man whose thoughts always seemed to be elsewhere. She had thought Niou unapproachable because of the difference in their stations, and she had had difficulty answering even the briefest and most casual of his notes. How strange that she should be upset at the prospect of not seeing him again for some days!
His attendants were noisily coughing and clearing their throats in an effort to hasten him on his way. He too was in rather a hurry, for he did not want to arrive home in the middle of the busy day. He told her over and over again how he hated the thought that he would not see her on each of the nights to come.
Turning back in the doorway, he handed her a farewell poem:
“The lady at the bridge may steep her sleeves
In lonely midnight tears — but not for long.”
This was the reply:
“That you will come again I do believe.
But must I wait for visits far between?”
Although she did not complain, her very apparent distress quite stabbed at his heart. He was such a fine figure in the morning sunlight that the young women of the house were near swooning. Having seen him on his way, Nakanokimi had as a secret memento the perfume he had left behind (and perhaps it brought new stirrings of the heart).
The women were taking advantage of this first opportunity to see him in broad daylight. “The other young gentleman is such a kind soul,” they said, “but there is something a little withdrawn about him, a little not-quite-there. Of course we know that this young gentleman is more important, and we may just possibly be a little partial.”
Remembering Nakanokimi’s distress, Niou was seized with an almost uncontrollable urge to turn back. Indeed, his want of composure was almost ludicrously evident to his men. But he had to think of appearances. Once he was back in the city it was not easy for him to get away again. Every day he sent letters to Uji. Oigimi thought his sincerity beyond doubting; and yet, as the days went by and he failed to appear in person, she had to sigh that her sister, whom she had wanted above all to shield from unhappiness, should now be unhappier than herself. She managed an outward calm, for to show her disquiet would be to send her sister into deeper gloom. On one score her resolve was now firm: she would not allow any man to bring this sort of uncertainty into her life.
Kaoru kept a close watch over his friend and offered repeated promptings. He knew how things would be at Uji, and much of the responsibility was, after all, his own. But evidence of Niou’s concern gradually put his mind at rest.
The Ninth Month was half over. Those autumn mountains were much on Niou’s mind. One evening, as dark clouds brought threats of rain, his restlessness had him on the point (impossible though he knew the thought to be) of setting forth unassisted. Having guessed that this would be the case, Kaoru stopped by to urge him on. “And how,” he said, “will things be in rainy Furu?”
Niou was delighted. Would his friend go with him? They set out as before in a single carriage. How much unhappier Nakanokimi must be than he himself, said Niou as they fought their way through the mountain tangles. He could talk of nothing but his remorse and his pity for her. Wan twilight enveloped the sere landscape of late autumn, and a chilly rain dampened their clothes; and the fragrance the two of them sent out made the rustics along the way start up in surprise. It was as if from another world. At Uji the old women who had been complaining of Niou’s heartlessness were all smiles as they readied a sitting room. Several nieces and daughters who had been in court service had been called in to help. Long contemptuous of the Uji princesses and their countrified way of life, these self-satisfied women were reduced to silence by the wondrous visit. Oigimi too was pleased: they could not have chosen a better moment. At the same time she was embarrassed and somewhat annoyed that Niou’s rather pompous friend should have come with him. Then, presently, as she watched the two of them, she had to change her mind in this matter too. Kaoru was a most unusual young man: he had a quiet seriousness that put him in the sharpest contrast with Niou.
Niou was received with elaborate hospitality which made tasteful use of the special resources of the district. Kaoru for his part was happy to be treated as one of the family, though less happy, as the hours passed, at being left in the reception room. Surely, he thought, something cozier might be arranged. Oigimi at length took pity on him and let him speak to her through curtains.
“How long does this have to go on? ‘I gave it a try, to which I proved unequal.’”
Oigimi had to grant his point; but her sister’s predicament had left her thinking that relations between husband and wife must be the bleakest the world has to offer. How could she even consider giving herself to a man? The first overtures, capable of arousing such tenderness, must lead to unhappiness later. No, it would be better for them to go on as they were, neither of them demeaning the other and neither going flagrantly against the other’s wishes. Her resolve was firmer than ever. He asked how Niou had been comporting himself. Circumspectly, she told him what had taken place. He assured her that his friend’s intentions were serious, and that he would keep an alert watch.
“When all of this torment is over, and we have regained our composure,” she said, more affably than was her custom, “we must have a good talk.”
She did not, it was true, flee from him in the cruelest and most conclusive manner, and yet her door was closed. She would not forgive him easily, he knew, if he tried to break it down. No doubt she had her own counsels to keep, and there was no question whatever of her scattering her favors elsewhere. And so, with his usual self-control, he braved the chill that emanated from her and sought to sooth the turmoil within himself.
“But it is not at all satisfying, you know, to have to talk to a door. Might I just possibly be favored as I was the other night?”
“I am afraid that my mirror offers me’an uglier visage’ each morning. I would not, after all, like to see disgust written large on your own visage. And do you know, I cannot think why that should be.” There was a trace of laughter in her voice which he found wonderfully appealing.
“And so I am to be forever at the mercy of these whims of yours?” Once again they spent the night as do the pheasants.
“I am jealous of him,” said Niou to Nakanokimi, not dreaming that his friend was being treated like the merest lodger, “throwing himself about as if he owned the place.”
A very curious thing to say, thought Nakanokimi.
It was unfair, Niou was thinking, that he must rush off after having braved such difficulties. Unaware of these regrets, the sisters were left to lament the uncertainty of their situation. They would be grateful if they could but escape the ridicule of the world. It was, all in all, a singularly trying and painful relationship, sighed Niou. In the whole capital there was not one spot where he might hide her. Yūgiri occupied the Rokujō mansion and had given evidence of displeasure that the proposed match between his daughter Rokunokimi and Niou, on which he had placed such hopes, seemed to interest Niou not in the slightest. There were signs, too, that Yūgiri was spreading rumors about the boy’s waywardness, and had taken his accusations to the emperor and empress themselves; and if Niou were now to present them with a daughter-in-law to whom they had not been introduced, the embarrassment was certain to be extreme. Had she been the object of a passing infatuation, he would happily have installed her as a lady-in-waiting; but this was a far more serious affair. The emperor seemed to be turning the problem of the succession over in his mind, and if all went well Niou would soon be in a position to accord her the highest honors; but he had to live with the knowledge that, whatever bright hopes he might have, he was for the moment powerless.
Kaoru was making plants to bring Oigimi into the city once the Sanjō mansion was rebuilt. Here was poor Niou, so enamored of Nakanokimi, so fearful of spying eyes, chafing so (and she too) at the infrequency of his visits to Uji — the life of the commoner did have its advantages. Kaoru even considered letting the secret out, telling the empress and the rest about Niou’s furtive expeditions. There would be a great stir for a time, unfortunate, to be sure, but Nakanokimi would suffer no permanent injury. It was too cruel that Niou could not spend a whole night at Uji — and Nakanokimi deserved, and indeed had every right to demand, a position of dignity. No, he concluded, he did not think it his duty to keep the secret.
Winter was coming on. Winter garments and other provisions against the cold would be needed at Uji, and who if not he could be counted upon to supply them? Without fanfare, he sent off curtains and hangings which he had been collecting for Oigimi’s move to Sanjō. A certain need had arisen elsewhere, he told his mother. He also instructed his old nurse and others to prepare garments for the serving women at Uji.
From early in the Tenth Month he began letting fall remarks about the fish weirs at Uji and how they would be at their most interesting, and how Niou owed himself a look at the autumn leaves. Niou hoped to take only his favorite attendants and certain lesser courtiers with whom he was very friendly. His was a station that attracted notice, however, and the retinue grew and grew, until presently it was headed by Yūgiri’s son the captain. So he had two eminent courtiers with him, this young man and Kaoru, and of lesser courtiers the number was legion.
Kaoru sent off a long letter to Uji “He will of course want to spend a night, and you should be prepared. The men who were with him last year will take advantage of this occasion and of the winter storms to have a look at you.
They changed the blinds and dusted the rooms, and cleared away a few of the leaves that had collected among the rocks, and grasses from the brook. Kaoru sent the best viands to be had and dispatched servants to help with the preparations. Oigimi would once have found such attentions less than pleasing, but now she sighed and resigned herself to what fate seemed to offer, and went on working.
Music and other exciting sounds came from the boat as it was poled up and down the river. The young women went to the bank for a closer look. They could not make out the figure of the prince himself, but the boat, roofed with scarlet leaves, was like a gorgeous brocade, and the music, as members of the party joined their flutes in this impromptu offering and the next one, came in upon the wind so clearly that it was almost startling. The princesses looked out and made note of the fact that even on what had been announced as a quiet, unobtrusive expedition Niou was the cynosure of numerous eyes; and they told themselves that he was a man a lady would happily await if he deigned to come once a year. Knowing that there would be Chinese poems, Niou had brought learned scholars with him. As evening came on, the boat pulled up at the far bank, and the music and the poetry gathered momentum. Maple branches in their caps, some only tinged with autumn red and some quite saturated, several of Niou’s men played” The Wise Man of the Sea.” Only one member of the party was less than satisfied: Niou himself. His heart like “the sea of Omi,” he was in a frenzy of longing as he thought of his princess on the far bank and the disquiet that must be hers. He was quite overwhelmed by Chinese poems appropriate to the season. Kaoru was confident that when the revelry had subsided they could make their visit;
but just as he was telling Niou of these hopes, a guards commander who was an elder brother of the captain already in attendance arrived from the city with a large and splendid retinue. He had come at the behest of the empress. Such expeditions might be undertaken surreptitiously, she had said, but they were certain to attract notice and so to become precedents He had run off without a by-your-leave, very inadequately escorted. She was most displeased. And so Niou had another captain and any number of ranking courtiers on his hands. Kaoru’s plans were in ruin, and for the two friends the pleasure of the evening had evaporated. Unaware of this unhappiness, the party drank and sang the night away.
Niou was thinking that he would like to spend the day at Uji. But another horde of courtiers arrived, headed by his mother’s chamberlain. They made him no more eager to return to the city.
He sent a note across the river. Eschewing any attempt to be witty or clever, he sought to convey in some detail his honest thoughts. Nakanokimi, knowing that he would be surrounded by prying eyes, did not answer. She knew more than ever how useless it was to think of joining so grand a company. She had been resentful, and with cause, at his prolonged failure to visit her, but she had been able to tell herself that he would one day come; and here he was madly reveling before her very eyes, and he had not a glance for her. She was hurt and she was angry.
Niou’s own gloom was almost beyond enduring — and even the fish in the weirs seemed to favor him with their attentions. The catch was large. His men brought it to him, laid out on autumn leaves of various tints. They were delighted, it had been an expedition with something in it to please every one of them. But Niou stood apart, gazing into space, pain clutching at his heart. The trees in the old garden across the river were extraordinarily powerful, strands of ivy, visible even from this distance, adding a venerable melancholy to the evergreens.
Kaoru was thinking that he had not done very well. The ladies would be the more resentful for his having prepared them so carefully. Several among the attendants remembered the cherry blossoms of the year before and remarked to one another on the sad lot of the princesses, now without a father. A few of them seemed to have caught a hint that their master had intended to make a quiet crossing, and even the more obtuse had something to say about the beautiful princesses. Secluded and cloistered though a life may be, word does somehow get around. Truly superior beauties, the talk had it, and superior musicians as well, their princely father having had them at constant practice.
The captain remembered Kaoru’s affection for the Eighth Prince:
“We saw yon trees in the spring, a blaze of flowers.
Beneath them too sad autumn now has stolen.”
Kaoru offered this in reply:
“With flowers that fade, with leaves that turn, they speak
Most surely of a world where all is fleeting.”
The newly arrived guards commander also had a poem:
“Regretfully, we leave the autumn groves
Whence autumn, unobserved, has slipped away.”
And the chamberlain:
“The vine yet clings to the stone-walled mountain village,
Longer-lived than he whom once I knew.”
The oldest man in the party, he was in tears, remembering how it had been when the Eighth Prince was young.
And finally Niou, also in tears, had a poem:
“Blow not harshly, wind from the mountain pines,
Through trees where sadness waxes as autumn wanes.”
The men who knew even a little about his feelings made admiring note of their genuineness, and of the trial it must have been for him to let such an opportunity pass. Nothing was to be done: they could not send a grand flotilla out across the river.
The more interesting passages from the Chinese poems were intoned over and over again, and there were a great many Japanese poems as well, inspired by the place and the season; but is anything really original likely to emerge from drunken revelry? The smallest fragment would do injury to my story, I fear, if I were to write it down.
The princesses, their thoughts too deep for words, heard the shouts of the outrunners receding into the distance. Hardly what one would expect from a famous gallant, said the women who had helped with the preparations.
Oigimi’s thoughts, indeed, were making her physically ill. It was true, then: he had, after all, the shifting hue of the dewflower. She had heard about that. She had heard, albeit in general terms, that men were good at lying, that many a sweet word went into the pretense of love. The rather common women by whom she was surrounded had told her of their ancient affairs. Well of course, she had said to herself: there would be such cads among the men they were likely to keep company with. But surely among wellborn people a sense of propriety, a respect for appearances, put limits upon such behavior. She had been wrong. Her father, knowing all about Niou’s ways, had rejected him at the outset. And then Kaoru had come along to plead his friend’s case with an intensity that should have made them suspicious, and so the impossible had happened. What would Kaoru be thinking now of the sincerity and steadfastness he had proclaimed so energetically? There was no one here at Uji to whom Oigimi need feel at all inferior, but she cringed to think what must be running through the minds of them all. A ridiculous clown indeed, a perfect fool she had made of herself!
And the lady most concerned: on those meetings so few in number he had made the most solemn of pledges, and she had comforted herself with the thought that his absences might be long but he would not abandon her. Even when his apparent neglect had begun to disturb her, she had been able to tell herself that he must have his reasons. It could not have been said, all the same, that his conduct did not trouble her, and now for him to have come so near and passed on again — she was lost in sorrow and chagrin beyond description.
It was apparent to Oigimi that Nakanokimi was crushed, and the pity was almost as difficult to bear as the anger. “If I had been able to care for her in any ordinary way, if ours had been an ordinary house, she would not have been subjected to such treatment.”
Oigimi was convinced that she would one day find herself in the same predicament. Kaoru had made numerous promises, but he was not to be trusted. However long she might seek to put him off, she would eventually run out of excuses. And her women did not seem to recognize a disaster for what it was. They actually seemed to be asking one another what might be arranged for Oigimi herself, and so she too would presently find herself with an unwanted husband. Against precisely such an eventuality her father had told her over and over again that living alone was far from the worst of fates. They had been born under unlucky stars, that was the first and most essential fact. Why else should their parents have left them behind? They could look forward to being abandoned by their husbands as well. She had made up her mind. If she were to find herself on the list of the world’s favorite ninnies, then her father would be the most grievously injured. No, she wanted to die before the worst happened, while the burden of guilt was still relatively light.
The prisoner of these anguished thoughts, she quite refused to eat. She was tormented too by thoughts of her sister, thoughts so painful that it was almost more than she could do to look at the girl. The loneliness would be next to unbearable. The beautiful figure before her, so sadly neglected by the world, had been the secret support of her own existence, the hope of making a decent marriage for her sister had given purpose to her life. And they had found a husband, a man of indisputably good birth, and the marriage had become a cruel joke! It would now be impossible for her sister, the defenseless butt of the joke, to face the world. A decent life was now out of the question. They had been born to no purpose, she and her sister. Life might offer consolation, but not to them.
Back in the city, Niou considered turning around and making another trip, a quiet one this time, to Uji. But the guards captain had already been to the emperor and empress. It was for the secret reasons which he now chose to divulge, he had informed them, that Prince Niou was in the habit of slipping off into the country; and he had added that Prince Niou was conducting himself in a manner altogether irresponsible, of which people were beginning to talk. The empress was much upset, and the emperor too was displeased. It had all happened, he said, because the boy was allowed to live away from the palace. With matters at this difficult pass, Niou was required to take up residence in the palace. He had no wish at all to marry Yūgiri’s daughter Rokunokimi, but a consensus had been reached to bestow her upon him.
Kaoru was in dismay. What was to be done now? His own eccentric ways had been to blame — and perhaps fate had stepped in. Unable to forget the Eighth Prince’s concern for his daughters, sad that such elegance and beauty, favored by not the smallest stroke of luck, should be wasted, he had been seized by a longing to help them so intense that even to him it had seemed curious. The importunings of his friend had also been hard to resist, and he had found himself in the awkward position of not wanting the one sister when the other did not want him. And so he had made these arrangements, and a fine pass they had come to. No one would have reproved him for making either of the princesses his own. But that was all finished, and what was left was a piece of idiocy to gnash his teeth over at his leisure.
Niou found lighthearted forgetfulness even more elusive. “If you have someone on your mind,” said his mother time after time, “bring her here, and settle down to the sort of life people expect of you. We both know very well that you are your father’s favorite, and it drives me wild to hear what people are saying about your irresponsible behavior.”
On a quiet day of heavy winter rains he went to call on his sister, the First Princess. She and a few attendants had been looking over a collection of paintings. He addressed her through a curtain. She was among the famous beauties of the day, and yet she preserved a winning girlishness that made him ask whether her rival was to be found anywhere. There was, to be sure, the daughter of the Reizei emperor, her father’s joy and pride. What he had heard of her secluded life suggested again a most compelling beauty, but he had no way of approaching her. And there was his own princess at Uji, loveliness itself. With each thought of her the longing grew. By way of distraction he picked up several of the pictures that lay scattered about. They had been painted, and very skillfully, to appeal to womanly tastes. There was, for instance, a lovelorn gentleman, and there was a tasteful mountain villa, and there were numbers of other scenes that seemed to have interested the artists. Several called his own circumstances to mind, and he thought of asking his sister for a few to send to Uji. The illustration for the scene from Tales of Ise in which the hero gives his sister a koto lesson brought him closer to the curtain.
“‘A pity indeed if the grasses so sweet, so inviting,’” he whispered, and one may wonder what he had in mind.” I gather that in those days brother and sister did not have to talk through curtains. You are very remote.”
She asked what picture he was referring to. He rolled it up and pushed it under the curtain, and as she bent to look at it her hair was swept aside and he caught a brief and partial glimpse of her profile. It delighted him. He found himself wishing that she were not his sister. A verse came to his lips:
“I do not propose to sleep among the young grasses,
But ensnared in them I must confess to be.”
Her attendants had withdrawn in embarrassment. A most curious thing to say, thought the princess herself. She did not answer. Her manifest and quite proper discomfort reminded him that the recipient of the old poem had replied in a somewhat inviting manner.
Murasaki had been fondest of these two, the First Princess and Niou, and of all the royal children they had been the closest. The empress had been especially careful with this oldest daughter, and if anyone among her attendants, who were numerous and all from the best families, was seen to have the slightest flaw, she was very quickly made to feel unwanted.
The volatile Niou moved from one liaison to the next as interesting new ladies appeared, but through them all his heart was with the princess at Uji. He was a lazy correspondent, however, and so the days went by.
It seemed to the Uji sisters that they had been asked to wait a very long time. It was as she had feared, thought Oigimi; and then Kaoru, having heard that she was not well, came to inquire after her. She was not seriously ill, but she made the indisposition her excuse for not receiving him.
“I have come running all this way,” he said. “Take me to her room, please, as you did before.”
He seemed so genuinely concerned that someone did presently lead him to her bed curtains. Though she had not wanted to see him, she raised her head and answered civilly enough. He explained that Niou had not had the least intention, on that maple-viewing expedition, of passing them by.
“Do be patient, and try not to worry.”
“My sister does not complain.” There were tears in her voice. “But what a very unhappy situation it is. I know now what Father was trying to warn us against.”
“The world does not always go as we wish it. You have not had a great deal of experience, and it is natural that you should see things entirely from your own point of view. But try to imagine his, if you will. You have nothing to worry about, not a thing. I would not say so if I were not convinced of it.” How odd, he thought, to have to explain away derelictions that were not his responsibility.
She was in greater discomfort at night. Since her sister was uneasy at having a stranger so near, the women suggested that he remove himself to a detached wing with which he was already familiar.
“I am sick with worry, and I want to be near her. Can you really send me into exile? Can I expect anyone else to do what must be done?”
He summoned Bennokimi and told her that religious services were to be commenced immediately. Oigimi objected, but in silence. She did not want priests to see her in her present condition, and she had no wish that anything be done to prolong her life. She was not up to stating her views, however, and she was touched by these hopes for her recovery.
“Are you feeling a little better?” he asked the next morning. “Let me talk to you, please, even as briefly as yesterday.”
“I am afraid that time has only made things worse, and I really am very unwell. But do come in anyway.”
He went to her bedside, in great apprehension. This unwonted docility had the effect of making the worst seem at hand. He spoke of this and that trifling matter.
“I am so unwell, I am afraid, that I cannot really talk to you. Perhaps after I have rested.” The sound of her voice, scarcely more than a whisper, only added to his anguish. But he had work to do, and could stay no longer. With the darkest forebodings, he started back for the city.
“Uji is not good for her,” he said to the old woman. “Don’t you suppose we could make this our excuse to find a more hospitable spot?” He left instructions for the abbot to conduct intensive and careful services.
Some of his attendants had become familiar with the young women of the house. “I hear they have put a stop to Prince Niou’s wanderings?” said one of them, idly passing the time of day.” They have shut him up in the palace. And it seems that they have arranged a match between him and the minister’s young daughter. Her family has wanted it for years, and so no one will be inconvenienced. The talk is that they’ll be married before the end of the year. Of course he isn’t all that enthusiastic. He goes on having little affairs with the ladies-in-waiting. His mother and father haven’t had much luck at reforming him. Now if you want a real contrast look at our own master for a minute or two. So serious and self-contained — so queer, really, some might say. People are all agog at his trips here. Some say they’re the first real sign of human feeling he has ever shown.”
“That is what he told me.” The woman was quick to pass all this on to her colleagues, and it soon reached the princesses, and did nothing to assuage their distress. Such was the pass they had come to, said Oigimi to herself. It was the end. He had only wanted amusement while he got ready to marry a well-placed lady. With one eye on Kaoru, he had contrived to put together certain words of affection. Beyond thinking further about this duplicity, convinced that the world no longer had a place for her, she lay weeping helplessly. She no longer wished to live. Hers were not women of such rank that she need feel any constraint before them, but the thought of what they would now be saying quite revolted her. She tried to pretend that she had not heard this new report. Her sister was with her, napping as people will who have “thoughts of things.” What a dear little creature she was, her long hair flowing over the arm on which her head was pillowed — what remarkable grace and beauty. Oigimi thought of her father and his last admonitions. He would not be in hell of course — but even if he was, could he not summon them to his side? It was too cruel, that he should leave them in these sad straits, refusing to come to them even in a dream.
The evening was dark and rainy and the wind in the trees was a sigh of utter loneliness For all her worries Oigimi was a figure of great distinction as she sat leaning against an armrest and thinking of what had been and what was to be. Her hair had long gone untended, and yet not a strand was in disarray as it flowed down over a white robe. The pallor from days of illness gave to her features a certain cast of depth and mystery. The eyes and forehead as she sat gazing out into the dusk — one would have longed to show them to the world of high taste, to connoisseurs of the beautiful.
Nakanokimi started up at a particularly harsh gust of wind. Her robes were a lively combination of yellow and rose, and her face had a lively glow, a luster as of having been freshly tinted over. There was no trace of worry upon it.
“I dreamed of Father. I saw him for just a second, standing over there. He seemed upset.”
“I have wanted so to see him, even in a dream,” said Oigimi, in a new access of grief,” and I have not once dreamed of him.”
Both of the girls were in tears. The fact that he had been so much on her mind recently, thought Oigimi, perhaps meant that he was wandering in some limbo. She longed to go to him, wherever he was — not that such a sinful one as she would be permitted to. And so her worries ran on into the other world. There was an incense, it was said, which men of a foreign land had used to bring back the dead. If only she might have a stick of it!
In the evening a letter was delivered from Niou. It came at a difficult time, and should have been some slight comfort to them; but Nakanokimi was in no hurry to look at it.
“You must send off a kind answer, a friendly one,” said Oigimi. “It worries me a great deal to think that I may die and leave you behind, and some awful man may come along and make things even worse. As long as the prince has an occasional thought for you, the worst sort of man will stay away. It will not be easy, I know, but he is a defense of sorts.”
“Do you really think of leaving me? You mustn’t even whisper it.” Nakanokimi hid her face.
“We all have to die, and you know how much I hated the idea of living a moment longer than Father. But here I am, with my life still to live out. And who is it that makes me, after all, sorry to leave’a world where no one can be sure of the morrow’?”
A lamp was brought and they read the letter. It was warm and detailed, as always, and it contained this poem:
“The sky I see is the usual nighttime sky.
Then why tonight do the showers increase my longing?”
It was so trite and perfunctory, just one more allusion to tear-soaked sleeves. “Well, that is that,” one could almost hear him saying as he dashed it off. Yet his manner and appearance were enough to make any girl fall in love with him, and he could be completely charming when he wanted to.
Nakanokimi’s longing increased as time went by. And there had been those effusive promises, which it was hard to believe he meant to ignore completely. She felt her resentment subside.
The messenger said that he would like to go back that night. Everyone was pressing Nakanokimi for an answer, and finally she produced a poem:
“Here in our hail-flogged village, deep in the mountains,
The skies upon which we gaze are forever cloudy.”
It was late in the Tenth Month, and a whole month had gone by since Niou’s last visit to Uji. He thought nervously each night of setting forth. But alas, he was,‘a small boat caught in reeds,” and, with the Gosechi dances coming earl y this year, there were gay events at court to occupy his time. And so the days went by, and at Uji the wait was increasingly painful. This or that court lady would briefly catch his eye, but his heart remained with the Uji princess.
His mother spoke to him again of Yūgiri’s daughter. “When you have made yourself a good, solid marriage, then you can bring in anyone who strikes your fancy and set her up wherever it suits your convenience. But you must build yourself a strong base.”
“Wait just a little longer, please. I’m thinking it over.”
At Uji they could not know that it had never been his intention to hurt them, and each day brought a heavier pall of gloom.
Kaoru meanwhile was wringing his hands. Was his friend less trustworthy than his observations had led him to believe? Had he been wrong all along? He rarely visited Niou’s apartments these days, but he sent frequent messengers to inquire after Oigimi’s health. He learned that she had improved somewhat since the first of the Eleventh Month. It being a season when he had all manner of business, public and private, he let five or six days go by without further inquiry. Then, suddenly alarmed, he shook off all these urgent affairs and rushed to Uji.
He had given instructions that the services be continued until her complete recovery, but she had said that she was much better and dismissed the abbot. There were very few people in attendance upon her. He summoned Bennokimi and asked for a full report.
“There are no alarming symptoms, really. It is just that she refuses to eat. She has always been more delicate than most people, and you would hardly recognize her now. Ever since the Niou affair she hasn’t let the smallest bit of fruit pass her lips. I am beginning to wonder if anything can save her. I have not had an easy life, and it has gone on too long, that I should live to see these things. I only want to die before she does.” She was in tears, as she had every right to be, even before she had finished speaking.
“But why didn’t you tell me? I have been busy at court and at the Reizei Palace and it has worried me terribly that I am not able to look in on her.”
He went to the sickroom and knelt at Oigimi’s bedside. She scarcely had strength to answer him.
“No one, no one at all, came to tell me. I have been worried, but what good does that do now?”
He summoned the abbot and other priests whose prayers were in high repute. With rites to begin the following morning, he sent to the city for some of his people, and the Uji villa was alive with courtiers high and low. The women forgot their loneliness. At dusk they brought him a light supper and sought once again to take him to a distant wing of the house. He replied that he wished to be where he could be useful. The priests having occupied the south room, he put up screens in the east room, somewhat nearer Oigimi. Nakanokimi was much upset, but the women, relieved to see that he had not after all abandoned them, had given up their efforts to take him away. Continuous reading of the Lotus Sutra began in the evening, most impressively, twelve priests of the finest voice taking turns. There was a light in Kaoru’s room, and the inner room, where Oigimi lay, was dark; and so he raised a curtain and slipped a few inches inside. Two or three women knelt beside her, Nakanokimi having withdrawn to the rear of the room. It was a lonely scene.
“Can’t you say just one word to me?”
He took her hand. Startled, she replied in a barely audible whisper. “I would like very much to speak to you, believe me. But it is such an effort. You had not visited me for so long that I feared I might die without seeing you again.”
“I am furious with myself.” He was sobbing aloud. He felt her brow, which seemed fevered. “And what sort of misconduct, do you suppose, is responsible for this? Making someone unhappy, perhaps?” He leaned very near and seemed prepared to talk on and on. The merest wisp of a figure, she covered her face. He could not imagine how it would be if she were to die.
“I am sure you are exhausted,” he said to Nakanokimi. “I am on duty tonight. Suppose you get some rest.”
Hesitantly, Nakanokimi withdrew deeper into the room. Oigimi still hid her face, but he was beside her, and that was some comfort to him. She strove to dispel her embarrassment with the thought that a bond from a former life must account for their being so near. When she compared his calm gentleness with Niou’s heartless behavior, she had to admit that the contrast was startling. And she did not want to be remembered for her coldness. She could not send him away. All through the night he had women at work brewing medicines, but she quite refused to take them. He was beside himself. The crisis was real, that much was clear. And what could be done to save her? New lectors came for the matins, and the abbot, who had been present through the night, started up at the fresh resonance and began intoning mystical formulas. His voice was hoarse with age, but it seemed to have in it a store of grace that was enough to bring hope even to this despairing household.
“How did my lady pass the night?” asked the abbot, going on to speak, his voice sometimes wavering, of her father. “And in which realm will he be now? I wonder. One of peace and serenity, of that I am sure. The other night I dreamed of him. He was wearing secular dress, and he spoke with great clarity.‘I had persuaded myself from the depths of my heart to renounce the world,’ he said,‘and had nothing to hold me back. But now a small worry has come up, to ruffle the calm. I must pause on my way to the land where I long to be. It is a cause of great disappointment to me, and I beg you to pray that I soon recover the ground I have lost.’ I could not immediately think what to do, and so I set five or six of my men to chanting the holy name — it was the one thought that came to me. And then I had another: I sent priests out in the four directions to proclaim the Buddhahood of all men.”
Kaoru was in tears. Oigimi wanted only to die, at the thought of the burden of sin she must bear for her father’s troubles. She longed to be with him wherever he was, to join him before his soul had come to its final rest.
After a few words more the abbot withdrew. The priests sent out to proclaim universal Buddhahood had gone to villages near at hand and to the city as well, but presently they were back, for the dawn gales had been cruel. Seeking out the abbot’s room, they prostrated themselves at the garden gate and grandly brought their invocations to an end. Kaoru, whose studies of the Good Law were by now well advanced, was deeply moved.
In painful uncertainty, Nakanokimi came somewhat nearer. Kaoru drew himself up politely as he caught a rustling of silk.
“And how does it seem to you?” he asked. “These readings may not be the most important things in the world, but they do have a certain dignity.” As if in ordinary conversation, he added a poem:
“Forlorn the dawn, when on the frosty bank
The plovers sound their melancholy notes.”
Something about him reminded her of his cruel friend. But she still found him rather forbidding, and sent her answer through Bennokimi:
“The plovers in the dawn, shaking off the frost:
Do they call to the heart of one now sunk in grief?”
Ill favored though the intermediary was, the poem was delivered gracefully enough.
Nakanokimi seemed very shy, even in these fleeting exchanges, but her gentle replies gave evidence of a sensitive nature he would desperately hate to see leave his life. He thought of the Eighth Prince as the abbot had dreamed of him, and of how it must be to watch all of this from the heavens. He had sutras read at the monastery where the prince had spent his last days and ordered new rites at other temples as well. Taking leave of all his affairs in the city, he set about assuring himself that no device, Buddhist or Shinto, had been overlooked. There were no signs, however, that the sick lady was the victim of a possession, and these varied ministrations seemed to accomplish nothing. Though a prayer in her own behalf might have helped, she saw her chance to die. Kaoru had attached himself to her as if he were her husband. There would be no shaking him off. And if, to push her forebodings further, the emotions that now seemed so powerful were to fade, they would both of them, she and Kaoru, have gloom and uncertainty to look forward to. No, a nun’s vows offered the only refuge, and her illness must be her excuse. Then they could look forward to long and companionable years together. This one resolve she must carry through.
Hoping that it did not seem pompous, she said to her sister: “I begin to feel that I am almost beyond help. I have heard that a woman sometimes lives a little longer if she becomes a nun. Might you point this out to the abbot?”
But the house echoed with the objections of her women. “Absolutely out of the question. Think of the poor young gentleman who has been so kind. Think of the effect it would have on him.”
They refused even to consider telling him of her wishes.
Talk of his retreat was meanwhile going the rounds at court. Several courtiers came to make inquiry. His personal staff and certain stewards and others with whom he was on friendly terms noted that Oigimi’s illness seemed important to him, and commissioned services of their own. Back he city the festival would be reaching its grand and noisy climax. At Uji it was a day of wild storms and winds. It would be more clement in the city, and he could as well have been there. Oigimi was to leave him, it seemed, still a stranger; but something about the fragile figure made him incapable of reproving her for what was over and finished. He was lost in hopeless longing, to see her again, for even a few days, as she once had been, to pour forth before her the whole turbulent flood of his thoughts. Darkness came over an already sunless sky.
He whispered to himself:
“In mountains deep, where clouds turn back the sun,
Each day casts darker shadows upon my heart.”
He seldom left Oigimi’s bedside, and his presence was a comfort to the women of the house. The wind was so high that Nakanokimi was having trouble with her curtains. When she withdrew to the inner rooms the ugly old women followed in some confusion. Kaoru came nearer and spoke to Oigimi. There were tears in his voice.
“And how are you feeling? I have lost myself in prayers, and I fear they have done no good at all. It is too much, that you will not even let me hear your voice. You are not to leave me.”
Though barely conscious, she was still careful to hide her face. “There are many things I would like to say to you, if I could only get back a little of my strength. But I am afraid — I am sorry — that I must die.”
Tears were painfully near. He must not show any sign of despair — but soon he was sobbing audibly. What store of sins had he brought with him from previous lives, he wondered, that, loving her so, he had been rewarded with sorrow and sorrow only, and that he now must say good-bye? If he could find a flaw in her, he might resign himself to what must be. She became the more sadly beautiful the longer he gazed at her, and the more difficult to relinquish. Though her hands and arms were as thin as shadows, the fair skin was still smooth. The bedclothes had been pushed aside. In soft white robes, she was so fragile a figure that one might have taken her for a doll whose voluminous clothes hid the absence of a body. Her hair, not so thick as to be a nuisance, flowed down over her pillow, the luster as it had always been. Must such beauty pass, quite leave this world? The thought was not to be endured. She had not taken care of herself in her long illness, and yet she was far more beautiful than the sort of maiden who, not for a moment unaware that someone might be looking at her, is forever primping and preening. The longer he looked at her, the greater was the anguish.
“If you leave me, I doubt that I will stay on very long myself. I do not expect to survive you, and if by some chance I do, I will wander off into the mountains. The one thing that troubles me is the thought of leaving your sister behind.”
He wanted somehow to coax an answer from her. At the mention of her sister, she drew aside her sleeve to reveal a little of her face.
“I am sorry that I have been so out of things. I may have seemed rude in not doing as you have wished. I must die, apparently, and my one hope has been that you might think of her as you have thought of me. I have hinted as much, and had persuaded myself that I could go in peace if you would respect this one wish. My one unsatisfied wish, still tying me to the world.”
“There are people who walk under clouds of their own, and I seem to be one of them. No one else, absolutely no one else, has stirred a spark of love in me, and so I have not been able to follow your wishes. I am sorry now; but please do not worry about your sister.”
She was in greater distress as the hours went by. He summoned the abbot and others and had incantations read by well-known healers. He lost himself in prayers. Was it to push a man towards renunciation of the world that the Blessed One sent such afflictions? She seemed to be vanishing, fading away like a flower. No longer caring what sort of spectacle he might make, he wanted to shout out his resentment at his own helplessness. Only half in possession of her senses, Nakanokimi sensed that the last moment had come. She clung to the corpse until that forceful old woman, among others, pulled her away. She was only inviting further misfortunes, they said.
Was it a dream? Kaoru had somehow not accepted the possibility that things would come to this pass. Turning up the light, he brought it to the dead lady’s face. She lay as if sleeping, her face still hidden by a sleeve, as beautiful as ever. If only he could go on gazing at her as at the shell of a locust. The women combed her hair preparatory to having it cut, and the fragrance that came from it, sad and mysterious, was that of the living girl. He wanted to find a flaw, something to make her seem merely ordinary. If the Blessed One meant by all this to bring renunciation and resignation, then let him present something repellent, to drive away the regrets. So he prayed; but no relief was forthcoming. Well, he said presently, nothing was left but to commit the body to flames, and so he set about the sad duty of making the funeral arrangements. He walked unsteadily beside the body, scarcely feeling the ground beneath his feet. In a daze, he made his way back to the house. Even the last rites had been faltering, insubstantial; very little smoke had risen from the pyre.
The house was overrun with mourners, and the worst of the loneliness was postponed for a time. Nakanokimi, quite aware of what people would be saying about her predicament, was so sunk in her own sad thoughts that she seemed hardly more alive than her sister. A great many messages of condolence came from Niou; but she had made what now seemed to her a marriage with a curse upon it, Oigimi having gone to her grave unable to forgive him.
Kaoru thought that this ultimate knowledge of evanescence might persuade him to leave the world; but he had his mother’s views in the matter to consider, and there was the sad situation in which Nakanokimi had been left. His mind was in a turmoil. Perhaps it would have been better if he had done as Oigimi had suggested, taken her sister in her place. Try though he might to think of them as one, he had not been able to transfer his affections. Rather than invite the despair into which he now was plunged, might he not better have taken Nakanokimi, and sought in his visits to Uji consolation for unrequited love? He did not venture even a brief visit to the city, and his ties with the world were as good as severed. Since it was evident that this had been no ordinary attachment, messages of condolence came in a steady flow, from the palace and from lesser houses.
And so aimless days sped by. On each of the weekly memorial days he had services conducted with unusual solemnity. There was a limit to what an outsider could do, however. He would catch glimpses of the black to which her closest attendants had changed, and regret that custom forbade his changing to black himself.
“Uselessly they fall, these blood-red tears,
For they do not dye these robes in black remembrance.”
Clean, trim, elegant, he sat gazing out at the garden. His lavender robe had a sheen as of melting ice, and the flow of his tears gave an added luster. The women looked at him admiringly even as they lamented. Their grief over this terrible event aside, they hated to think that the time had come when he must again be a stranger. A heavy burden it was that the fates had asked them to bear! Such a kind gentleman — and neither of their ladies would have him.
“It would be a great comfort,” he said to Nakanokimi, “if I might talk freely with you, and think of you as a sort of keepsake. Please do not send me away.”
But he was asking too much. She had been born for sorrow and humiliation, of that she was sure. He had always thought her a livelier girl than her sister; but for someone in search of delicacy and gentleness, the older girl had had the stronger appeal.
He spent the whole of one dark, snowy day gazing out upon that dreariest of months — as people will have it — the last of the year. In the evening the moon rose in a clear sky. He went to the veranda and lifted the blinds. The vesper bells came faintly from the monastery. So another day had passed, he said to himself as he listened.
“My heart goes after yon retreating moon.
No home, this world, in which to dwell forever.”
A wind having come up, he went to lower the shutters. In brilliant moonlight, the mountains were reflected in the icy river as in a mirror. However much care might go into his new house, he would be unable to fabricate a scene so lovely. Come back for but a moment, he whispered, and enjoy it with me.
“Deep in the Snowy Mountains would I vanish,
In search of the brew that is death for those who love.”
If, like the Lad of the Snowy Mountains, he had an accommodating monster of whom he might inquire about a stanza, he would have an excuse to fling himself away. A less than perfectly enlightened heart our young sage had!
Seemingly unshakable in his serenity, he would talk with the women. The younger ones quite fell in love with him, and the older ones sighed again to think what a hapless lady they had served.
“She lost her grip on herself because she took the prince’s odd behavior too seriously. The whole world was laughing at them, she was sure; but she kept it all to herself. She did not want our other lady to know how worried she was. With everything shut up inside her she quietly stopped eating, and that was that. You couldn’t always be sure what she was thinking, but there wasn’t much that she missed. The beginning of it all was her father, and then there was her sister — she was sure she had done exactly what he had told her not to do.” They would recount little incidents, and at the end of each interview the household was abandoned to tears.
It had been his fault, thought Kaoru, wishing he had it all to do over again. He lost himself in prayers and turned away from the world.
Suddenly, deep in a sleepless night of freezing snow, there was a loud shouting outside and a neighing of horses. The reverend priests started up in surprise, wondering who could have made his way through such gales in the dead of night. It was Niou, soaking wet, in bedraggled travel dress. For Kaoru the pounding on the door had a familiar sound, and he withdrew to seclusion in one of the inner apartments. Though the mourning was not yet over, an impatient Niou had given a whole night over to his battle with the snows.
The visit should have softened Nakanokimi’s resentment at the days of neglect, but she had no wish to receive him. What he had done to her sister seemed inexcusable. He had let her die without a hint of reforming his ways. Perhaps he meant to change now, but it was too late. Her women were determined, however, that she do the sensible thing, and finally she let him address her through curtains. He was profuse with his apologies. She listened quietly, and he sensed that she was still in a daze. Was it possible that she might go the way of her sister? Whatever punishment he might have to face later, he would stay the night.
“You don’t of course mean to leave me sitting here?”
But she turned away. “Perhaps when I am a little more myself.”
Guessing what had happened, Kaoru sent a woman with a secret word of advice.” You have every right to be angry. From the beginning he behaved in a manner one can only describe as heartless. Scold him if you wish, but not so emphatically as to make him angry in his turn. He is not used to being crossed, and he is easily hurt.”
These sage words only made things worse. She could think of nothing to say.
“You are being rather unpleasant, I must say, “sighed Niou. “Have you quite forgotten my promises?”
A fierce gale came up in the night. Though he had no one to blame but himself, he was very unhappy. She finally relented and spoke to him, though still through curtains. Calling upon the thousand gods to be his witnesses, he promised that he would be at her side forever. She was not greatly comforted — a most remarkable glibness, she thought. But though his thoughtlessness over the weeks might have seemed too much to excuse, he was with her now, and irresistible. Her bitter resolutions wavering, she said in a whisper:
“Unsure has been the road over which I look back.
What can I know of the road that lies ahead?”
It was not a very inviting or reassuring sort of poem.
“The road ahead must needs be short, you tell me?
Then let us presume upon it while we may.
Life is fleeting, you know, and so is everything in it. Do not make things worse with useless worries.”
Despite his various efforts to please her, she at length said that she was not feeling well and withdrew to an inner room.
He spent a sleepless night, aware that he must seem ridiculous to these women. He understood Nakanokimi’s anger, he told himself, shedding bitter tears of his own, but she went too far. Still he could imagine that the resentment he now felt she must have known several times over.
Kaoru seemed to comport himself as if he were master of the place. He treated the domestics like his own, it seemed to Niou, and they trooped off in procession to see that he was comfortable and abundantly fed. Niou was touched and somewhat amused. Kaoru had lost weight and his color was bad; he seemed but half alive to his surroundings. Niou offered genuinely felt condolences. Kaoru longed to talk about the dead girl, knowing well the futility, but he cut himself short, lest he sound like a womanish complainer. The days that had been given over to tears had changed him, but not for the worse. His features were more interesting, more cleanly cut than ever, thought Niou, sure that he himself would find them attractive were he a woman. Further evidence of his deplorable susceptibility, he could see. He turned his thoughts to Nakanokimi. How, without calling down malicious slander upon himself, could he move her to the city? She was being difficult, but to stay another night would certainly mean displeasing his father; and so he started back. He had exhausted his powers of gentle persuasion. Thinking to show him even a little of what aloofness was like, she had been to the end unyielding.
As New Year approaches the skies are forbidding even in civilized regions. Here in the mountains no day passed without storms to heap the snows deeper. The passing days brought no lessening of the sorrow. Niou sent lavish offerings for memorial services. People were beginning to worry about Kaoru, from whom there came hardly a word. Did he mean to weep his way into the New Year? His thoughts were beyond words when finally he left Uji. For the women the sorrow was as great. The house had somehow been alive while he had been with them, and now he was going. The quiet would be even worse than the shock of those first tragic days. He had been with them so gentle and considerate, so attentive in matters small and large, and they had come to know him far better than in the days of the early visits. They wept as they told themselves that they would see him no more.
A message came from Niou: “I have concluded that I will find it no easier as time goes by to travel such distances, and have made plans to bring you nearer.”
His mother had apprised herself of all the details, and was sympathetic. If Kaoru was so lost in grief for the older princess, then the younger must also be a rather considerable person. Suppose Niou were to install her in the west wing at Nijō, where he could visit her as he wished. She evidently meant to have it seem that Nakanokimi had entered the service of the First Princess. Still, he must be grateful. Regular visits would now be possible. It was in these circumstances that he sent off his message to Uji.
Kaoru heard of his plans. It had been Kaoru’s intention to bring his own love into the city once the Sanjō mansion was finished. He regretted that he had not taken her advice and made Nakanokimi a substitute.
He concluded that it must be his duty to make arrangements for the move to the city. If Niou chose to be suspicious, that was very silly of him.
Last updated Sunday, March 1, 2015 at 21:07