The multi-panel curtain at the center bottom of the image is a kichō.
The decorated sliding door panels at the top of the image are fusuma.
Mount Tsukuba beckoned, there in Hitachi, but Kaoru hesitated to approach even the verdant foothills. He had his good name to think of. It would be indiscreet even to write to the girl. Though from time to time the nun Bennokimi gave the girl’s mother a hint of what he had said, the mother found it hard to believe that his intentions were serious. She was glad that he had noticed the girl, but she was aware of his exalted rank; and she could only lament that their own was not high enough to make a match possible.
The governor had numerous children by a former wife, now dead. By his present wife he had a daughter who was known as Himegimi, much pampered, and five or six other children, all of them very young. His affections monopolized by the others, he tended to treat the Eighth Prince’s daughter, Ukifune, like an outsider. The mother greatly resented this partiality, and the thought never left her mind of shaming them all by finding a splendid husband for the girl. She would not have fretted so had Ukifune been no prettier than the others — she was, after all, legally the governor’s daughter. But her beauty and grace were more pronounced as she grew older. How deplorable, thought the mother, that they should go unnoticed.
Aware that the family was well supplied with daughters, several men from the ranks of the petty nobility had indicated an interest in one or another of them. Even now, with two or three of the older girls already married, the governor’s wife refused to abandon her high hopes for Ukifune, who was the center of her life.
The governor could not have been called a man of low estate. He numbered among his relatives several high courtiers. Being a man of considerable private wealth, he indulged himself as his status allowed, and presided over an orderly and not at all vulgar household. A strangely coarse and rustic manner, however, belied these tasteful surroundings. Probably because he had long been buried in the remote East Country, he was incapable of uttering a syllable that struck the cultivated ear as correct. Aware of this defect, he kept his distance from higher circles at court, and koto, but he was an expert archer. Numbers of well-favored women, indeed women rather too good for such a household, had been pulled into its service by the power of money. In dress they were excessively modish, and they wrote bad poetry and fiction and otherwise sought to cultivate the skills that see one through the Kōshin vigil.
This noisy way of life came to be noticed, and Ukifune acquired a certain vogue among the young gallants. They assumed her to be an accomplished young lady, and very pretty as well. Among those who had thrown themselves into the competition for her hand was a certain guards lieutenant. In his early twenties, he was a quiet man who was reputed to have a scholarly bent. He was unable to hold his own in the world of high fashion, and perhaps for this reason had given up his pursuit of other women and commenced paying ardent court to Ukifune. Her mother had decided that he was the most promising of her suitors. He was an honorable man, she said, and a man of discrimination. Though not inexperienced in amorous matters, he was no philanderer. And beautiful though the girl was, she was not likely to attract anyone better.
The mother accepted his letters, and on suitable occasions had the girl send friendly replies. As far as she was concerned, everything was settled. The governor might favor the other girls, but she herself was prepared to sacrifice everything for Ukifune. There was not the slightest chance, once the lieutenant had laid eyes on her, that he would spurn her because of her low rank. It was presently agreed that the marriage would take place in the Eighth Month. The mother began putting a trousseau together. When some trifle, some little piece of lacquer or inlay, would catch her eye for its high quality and good design, she would put it aside for Ukifune, commending to the governor’s attention, for the use of his other daughters, something altogether inferior. He was no judge in these matters, but he collected indefatigably, until they were barely able to see out over the mountains of gimcrackery. A teacher was summoned from the palace to give them lute and koto lessons, and when he had seen them safely through a piece the governor would kowtow with gratitude and bury the man in gifts. On a pleasant evening he would have them at a lively strain, and the effusions with which the governor greeted the performance were quite deafening. Knowing what was good and what was not, his wife would look on contemptuously and refuse to join in the paeans. She might make note now and then, he was constantly saying, that his girl s had their good points too.
The lieutenant was becoming impatient. Must they wait until the Eighth Month? But the governor’s wife was beginning to have second thoughts. Perhaps she should have consulted her husband — and was she quite sure she could trust the man?
The intermediary stopped by one day.
“I have so many things to worry about,” said the mother, calling him aside. “It’s a long time to wait, I know, and I wouldn’t want to seem rude, putting off such an important gentleman. And of course everything is decided. But she has no father to look after her, and I have had to do everything myself. I would hate to have him think I have mismanaged things. All the others have someone to look after them, and I don’t worry a great deal about them. But this one — what will happen to her when I am gone? I have not set any conditions, because everyone says he is a gentleman of understanding. But sometimes a person will wonder, you know. Might he have a change of heart and leave the poor girl for people to laugh at?”
The intermediary passed all of this on to the lieutenant. A look of consternation came over his face.
“You mean she’s not the governor’s daughter? The first I’d heard of it. You may say she’s his stepdaughter and that’s just as good, but I’d be lowering myself before the whole world. It won’t do. Thank you for not looking into things before you came to me. Thank you very much indeed.”
“I swear I didn’t know,” said the intermediary, guiltily. “Someone at my place told me what you had said. Seeing that she was the favorite, I naturally assumed she was his daughter. I didn’t think to ask whether he had a stepdaughter. I hadn’t heard anything even suggesting it. I had heard that she was beautiful and well behaved, and that her mother couldn’t do enough for her and was set on getting her a really good husband. You said you wanted a go-between. Well, I was your man, and I told you so — and how was I to guess that you didn’t know all about her? I don’t think you have any right to call me careless.”
He was a crafty man, and a good talker.
The lieutenant’s reply was not very elegant. “It’s not a family a man would want to marry into for what it is. I’m just doing what all the others do, and no one can blame me for it. I thought that if I could get the governor of Hitachi behind me I might overlook a few other details. He may think of her as no different from his own daughters, but people will say that it doesn’t seem to matter to me what I get. The Minamoto councillor and the governor of Sanuki strut in and out of the house, and how would I feel, the last and smallest in the whole long line?”
The intermediary was an unprincipled man. He was sorry for what had happened, because he had expected favors from both sides.
“You want one of the governor’s own daughters, then? They’re still very young, but maybe I could tell him. The next-oldest they call Himegimi. I hear she’s his favorite.”
“Well — it might not seem very nice just to drop the poor girl and ask for another, now that I’ve gone this far. But let me tell you how I really feel. I got into this because the governor is a man of substance who handles himself well, and I wanted his backing. That’s all. I don’t ask for beauty or superior morals. It wouldn’t be any trouble at all to find that sort of thing, and good manners and a good family to boot. But a poor man who marries a girl with tastes beyond his means is asking for trouble, and can’t expect much praise from the world. No, I’ve seen enough examples of that sort of thing, and I think I’d be willing to put up with a little roughness for a safe, dependable marriage. If you tell the governor how I feel and if he feels the same, I don’t see how anyone could object.”
The intermediary had undertaken the assignment because he had a sister in the west wing of the governor’s mansion. He was not personally acquainted with the governor. He marched directly into the governor’s quarters all the same.
“There is something we ought to discuss.”
“I’d heard about you and your visits.” The governor’s manner was not friendly. “But I don’t recall ever inviting you.”
“I am here at the request of the guards lieutenant.”
The governor consented to an interview. The man edged closer, as if finding the matter hard to broach.
“For quite a while now he has been in touch with your lady. They had arranged for him to marry her daughter. They had even picked a lucky day. He is an impatient man. But then someone, I don’t know just exactly who, seems to have told him that the girl is your wife’s daughter but not yours. It wouldn’t look good, you know, for him to marry a governor’s step-daughter. Everyone would say it didn’t seem to matter to him what he got. When fine gentlemen marry governors’ daughters, it’s to have the backing of their fathers-in-law, to be treated like their own prized sons. When there seems like a good chance of it, then that sort of marriage can sometimes be arranged. But what would be the point otherwise? What would be the point if the man found that his father-in-law, the governor, hardly recognized him, treated him like the last and smallest of them all? People have been saying things, and he is upset. He tells me he hit on you immediately, sir, because His Majesty himself had spoken of the brilliance and solidity of your house, and so he asked me to approach you. He had not known, he tells me, that one of the young ladies was not your daughter. And now, seeing that you have so many daughters — yes, we know they are very young — but seeing you have so many, he would like to go back to his very first hope, and would be pleased if he might have your cooperation. He asked me to sound you out.”
“I hadn’t heard in any detail what he had in mind. The girl is treated exactly like any daughter of my own. But it’s true that I have several other silly girls, and I’m not very good at these things, and it’s more than I can do to look after them all. So her mother has the notion that I treat the girl like an outsider, and she’s always complaining, and I have no say in the girl’s affairs. I heard that something was going on — but that the young gentleman should be looking to me for support — well, I am delighted. I have a daughter I’m fond of. More than fond of — I’d give my life for her. She’s had proposals, but I haven’t been able to make up my mind. The reports I get about the younger generation aren’t good, and I’ve been thinking my best might not be enough to make her happy. Day and night I ask myself how I’m to go about finding a good, safe man for her. I know the lieutenant. When I was young I worked for his father, the general, now deceased. I could see from close up what a fine, talented boy he was. I hoped I might work for him too someday. But then I was away in the provinces all those years, and since I’ve been back I’ve been shy about making friends again. I’m very glad to hear how he feels about me. Why, I could let him have my girl tomorrow. The only trouble is I wouldn’t want her mother to think I’m trying to snatch a husband away from the other girl.”
The intermediary was delighted. Things were going nicely.
“Why hold back? If you agree, everything is as good as settled. What he really wants is a bride with a father who loves her, it doesn’t matter how young she is. He knows he made a mistake when he let himself get involved with the other one. He’s a fine young fellow, and everyone expects great things from him. And he’s a good deal quieter and steadier than you’d expect such an important young fellow to be. He knows his way around, and he has land scattered all over the country. Of course he doesn’t have much money yet, but to the manner born, as they say. You’d do a good deal better to have him than some flashy upstart, I don’t care how rich he might be. Next year he’ll make the Fourth Rank, not a doubt about it. His Majesty himself has promised to make him a privy secretary, so you see there’s absolutely not a doubt about it. His Majesty goes on to say it’s a crying shame that such a fine young fellow, why you couldn’t find a flaw in him, should still be single. Go get yourself a wife, His Majesty keeps saying, and useful inlaws. One of these days he’ll be right in there with the best of them — His Majesty says he’ll be there himself to promise it. His Majesty doesn’t have a more devoted servant, and knows it. Two people couldn’t be closer. Talented, serious, dedicated — all this and more. Why not make up your mind right here on the spot? A man might almost say if you asked him that this is more than you bargained for. Hundreds of people would jump at the chance to have him for a son-in-law. If you hesitate you’re lost. What I say I say because I have your interests at heart.”
It had been a long and persuasive speech. The countrified governor had listened smiling.
“I don’t care whether he has money or not. I can smother him in money. Do you think I’d leave him short? It’s true I might die on him, but I’ve decided to leave everything, land and warehouses and everything, to my Himegimi. No one can say anything about her right to them. I have all sorts of children, but she’s far and away my favorite. Just let him be good to her, and I’ll see him all the way, I’ll make a minister of him. He won’t have to ask for a thing, even if I have to borrow money while I’m getting things done. Why, anyone that close to His Majesty doesn’t have to worry about whether he can depend on me or not. What a match for the both of them, him and my girl, maybe, if you know what I mean.”
He spoke as if arrangements were complete. Overjoyed, the intermediary did not bother to tell his sister what had happened, or to call on the governor’s wife. He went directly to the lieutenant. Everything was in order, he said, describing the interview. The lieutenant was not at all unhappy, though he thought it somewhat provincial to talk of buying a ministry.
“And have you spoken to his wife? She’s been dead set on marrying me to the other girl. People will say I have bad manners. They may even say I’m not honest.” He was having brief doubts.
“Come, now. This Himegimi is her real favorite. It’s only that she thought the oldest daughter should marry first, and so she aimed her in your direction. You were a good solution to her problem.”
It seemed a little odd to the lieutenant that the younger daughter should suddenly have replaced Ukifune as the favorite. But it was better to take the long view, even at a risk of having to endure the displeasure of the mother and the reproaches of the world for a time. He was a practical young man, and he quickly made up his mind. On the evening of the very day that had been selected for his marriage to Ukifune he went to the second daughter.
In ignorance of all this, the governor’s wife was pushing ahead with the arrangements. Her women were all decked out in nuptial finery and their rooms were properly appointed, and she had seen to the needs of the bride herself, washed her hair, helped her to dress. She was too good for the lieutenant. Her father was dead, of course, but if he had recognized her and she had grown up with her sisters, then it would not have been wholly out of the question, though perhaps just a little presumptuous, to think of marrying her to Kaoru. But the sad truth was that she would always be looked down upon as an adopted daughter and a girl whose father had not recognized her.
Enough of these thoughts. She was passing her prime, and here was this man, from a not inconsiderable family, of not despicable rank, with his solemn proposals. Keeping her own counsel, the mother had made her decision. The intermediary was a skillful persuader, able to get around even the governor; and it was not at all surprising that he should have succeeded with a woman.
The hour was approaching. Mother and daughter were very busy.
In came the governor with a headlong account of what had happened.
“In that sneaky way of yours, you tried to take away my girl’s husband. What you need is a good long look at your place in the world. Don’t go thinking fine young gentlemen might be interested in that girl of yours. My own may be ugly little things, but for some reason, I don’t just know what it is, men seem to like them better. You had your plans, and pretty good ones too. He had different ones. If it was all the same, he said, he’d like to have one of my girls, and I said yes.”
It was a graceless description of the case and it took no account of his wife’s feelings.
She was stunned. She sat for a time on the verge of tears, recalling one after another the cold, hard ways of the world. Abruptly, she got up and left.
She went to Ukifune’s room. The girl was charming, beautiful — a superior girl, without question, despite what had happened. In tears, the governor’s wife told the nurse her story.
“Men are utterly cruel. I have always said to myself that I must have no favorites among my sons-in-law, but I have known that I would give up everything for the husband of this one. And look at him, throwing her over because she has no father, taking a mere child in her place. He’s impossible. I do not want to be where I have to see him or hear his voice. Just listen to them if you will — as if it were the greatest honor in the world. They’re a match for each other, that man and my good husband. I want no part of it. I only wish that I could get out of this house.”
The nurse was incensed. It was good of him to look down upon her lady. “But there’s nothing to carry on about. I say she’s lucky this has happened. If that’s the sort of person he is, well, let’s just say that he has no taste. We’ll wait for someone with good taste to come along. I had just the quickest glimpse of the gentleman at Uji the other day, and it added years to my life. If he says he’s interested, well, all we have to do is let things run their course.”
“You’re mad. Everyone says it takes the most extraordinary kind of woman to interest him. Lord Yūgiri and Lord Kōbai and Prince Hotaru all went down on their knees, they say, and he sent them away and finally got one of His Majesty’s own daughters. I imagine he just thinks of putting the child in his mother’s service and seeing her now and then. It would be a fine house to be in, of course, but I would worry even so. Everyone says how lucky her sister is, and certainly she has her worries. The only man you can trust is the man who is willing to make do with one wife. I know that well enough from my own experience. The prince at Uji was a fine, sensitive gentleman, but he treated me as if I were less than human. I can’t tell you how much I suffered. The governor is a complete boor and not at all good-looking, but the years have gone quietly by because he has been faithful to me. The sort of thing he did tonight isn’t easy to live with, but he has never given me reason to be jealous. When we have had our quarrels they have been out in the open. All those grand houses, ministers and princes and that sort of people — they may be so stylish they make you dizzy. But a woman has to remember her place in the world. That’s what makes all the difference, and that’s why I’m so sad for the poor child. I only wish I could make her a match that people wouldn’t laugh at.”
The governor, busy with his own preparations, looked in upon them once more. “You have all these pretty young things. Send them over to be with my Himegimi. And I understand you have new bed curtains. We haven’t had much time, so we’ll just make do with them.”
Jumping up and sitting down and jumping up again, he directed the operations. The rooms had been appointed in quiet good taste, but he had screens brought in until they made solid walls, and vanities and cupboards until they seemed to be fighting for space. He was very pleased with himself. His wife had better taste, but she kept her peace, resolved not to interfere. Ukifune had withdrawn to an inner room.
“I know you,” he said. “Well, my girl is your girl too, and maybe you could help just a little. But it doesn’t matter. Plenty of girls get by without mothers.”
Himegimi’s nurse had been at work since noonday, and the results were not at all displeasing. Himegimi was fifteen or sixteen, small and plump, with hair that trailed to the hems of her skirts and was thick and luxuriant to the farthest edges. The governor was very proud of it.
“Maybe I should feel guilty about taking a man my wife had other ideas about. But he’s too good to let get away. The whole town’s after him, and someone might get him, and I wouldn’t want that to happen.” The go-between had been very successful.
As for the lieutenant, his future seemed bright. The governor was known to be very rich. Not even bothering to change the date, he made his nuptial visit.
The mother and the nurse were outraged. Poor Ukifune was as good as homeless.
And so the mother wrote to Nakanokimi, Prince Niou’s wife: “I have thought that It would be impertinent of me to approach you without good reason, and so I have not written. Certain developments now make life rather difficult for my daughter, and it seems advisable that she be away from here for a time. If there were a place in your house where she could hide, attracting the attention of no one, I should be very happy indeed. It is not possible for an insignificant person like myself to see adequately to her needs, and sad events do have a way in this world of piling one upon another. I have no one to turn to except you.”
She was in tears as she wrote. Nakanokimi was deeply moved, but in a quandary. Would it be right for her, the guardian of his memory, to take in the daughter to whom her father had to the end denied recognition? And on the other hand it would not be easy to look away while her sister suffered and perhaps went to ruin. Nor would it do honor to the memory of her father if, for no good reason, the two were to become strangers. What was she to do?
In an agony of indecision, she appealed to the woman Tayū.
“She must have her reasons,” said Tayū. “Please do not answer in a way that might strike her as even slightly unfriendly. Daughters of low-ranking mistresses are always keeping company with daughters of proper wives. Your good father was altogether too inflexible.”
The princess sent off her answer: “We have a place in the west wing where she may hide. It will be uncomfortable, I am sure, but if she can bear with it she is most welcome.”
The mother was delighted, and the two of them, mother and daughter, slipped out of the house. Ukifune was by now rather happy at her misfortune, because it offered a chance for new intimacy with her sister.
The governor had been determined that his new son-in-law be re ceived with the utmost splendor; but the restraint that makes for true brilliance was foreign to him. He scattered East Country silks in all directions, and at the banquet, a clamorous affair, the dishes threatened to crowd one another off the tables. The underlings were delighted at all this largesse, and even the lieutenant was pleased. It had been clever of him to woo the governor. The governor’s wife suffered in silence, acquiescing in her husband’s demands, for she could hardly be absent from the festivities. This room was to be for the lieutenant, those over there for his attendants, and in the end scarcely a room was left in the whole vast house. The Minamoto councillor occupied the east wing, and the governor had many sons. Himegimi having taken over Ukifune’s west wing, Ukifune herself would have to make do with a corner of a gallery somewhere.
It was in these desperate circumstances that the governor’s wife thought of Nakanokimi. With no powerful relatives, poor Ukifune would suffer increasing scorn and abuse. The governor’s wife did not find it easy to seek the help of a lady whose father had refused to accept his responsibilities.
The girl’s nurse and two or three young attendants went with them. A room had been prepared at the northwest corner of the west wing, remote from the main activities of the house. They had lived far apart over the years, the princess and the governor’s wife, but they were not, after all, complete strangers. The princess received her guests warmly. Used to a different sort of company, the governor’s wife thought her charming. Yet envy at the young mother and child before her was mixed in with the pleasure. Was she herself so utterly inferior to the wife of the Eighth Prince? No, he had refused to accept her only because she had been in domestic service. There could be no other reason for such scorn. Forcing her daughter upon the princess had not been easy for her. Word having been sent out that the girl was in retreat, no one came to her room. The mother stayed for several days, quietly studying the household.
Niou appeared one day. Overcome with curiosity, the governor’s wife looked out through a crack between two doors, and thought him radiant as a cherry in full bloom. Numerous courtiers of the Fourth and Fifth ranks waited upon him, far superior in manner and appearance to the husband upon whom she depended, and whom, maddening though he might be, she did not mean to reject. Nakanokimi’s stewards came in to discuss this and that problem in their several domains. Among the young courtiers of the Fifth Rank were many whom she did not recognize. Her own stepson, a secretary in the ministry of rites, came with a message from court, but he was of too inferior a rank to address the prince. What glory, she thought; and what happiness to be near him! Why should an outsider like herself have thought that, grand though he might be, he meant unhappiness for his princess? She should have known better. So remarkable were his face and his bearing as he took the child in his arms that any woman should be delighted at the meager prospect of an annual interview, like the stars at their midsummer meeting. The princess was behind a low curtain, which he pushed aside as he spoke to her. They were a perfect match. The governor’s wife thought of the Eighth Prince and the lonely life he had led, and knew that there were princes and there were princes.
Niou withdrew to the bedchamber. Nurses and young serving women were left in charge of the child. Visitors came in swarms, but he said that he was not feeling well and stayed in bed until nightfall. The elegance of each small detail quite dazzled the governor’s wife. She had thought herself dedicated to the pursuit of good taste, and she saw now that there was a certain point beyond which ordinary people could not go. But she had one daughter, at least, who could mix with the best of them. They too were her daughters, the girls the governor talked of buying ministries and thrones for; yet how different! She must not give up, she must persist with her high ambitions. She lay awake all night, thinking of the future.
The sun was high when Niou arose. The empress was again indisposed, he said, changing to court dress, and he must inquire after her. Still consumed with curiosity, the governor’s wife looked out through the same aperture. In formal dress he was incomparable. He sat dandling the child, clearly reluctant to leave; but finally, after a light breakfast, he made his way out. His escort had emerged from the barracks. Among them was one who, though dressed well enough (he had on a lined robe and wore a sword), had not one mark of real distinction. Indeed, he was rather homely. Before the prince he shrank to a cipher.
The women were talking.
“That’s the lieutenant, the governor of Hitachi’s son-in-law. He was supposed to marry our new guest, but he thought he’d do better for himself if he married one of the governor’s daughters. So he got himself a little dwarf of a thing.”
“The lady hasn’t said a word.”
“But we have our ways. We have our spies over there.”
Only half listening, the governor’s wife was suddenly attentive, and startled. So that was who the man was! What a fool she had been to think him even remotely acceptable! She had only contempt for him now.
On hands and knees, the little prince was peering from under a blind. Niou came back and gave him another bouncing.
“If the empress is feeling better, I’ll come straight home. Otherwise I suppose I’ll have to stay until morning. I do hate to be away for even a single night.”
The governor’s wife gazed on and on until finally he made his departure, and when he was gone she was somehow lonely.
She could not find strong enough words of praise. Nakanokimi smiled, thinking the lack of restraint a bit countrified.
“You were a mere infant when your mother died. All of us, and your father too, wondered what would become of you. You were born under lucky stars. That’s why you could grow up way off in the mountains and still be the fine young lady you are. What a tragedy that your sister had to leave us.”
She was in tears, and Nakanokimi’s eyes were moist. “A person lives on, and there are times when anger and resentment seem very far away. I have become resigned to a great many things — that I was fated to live longer than those who were most important to me, that I was not meant to know my own mother. But I do go on weeping for my sister. Why did she have to die, when a man like the general, a man of real feeling, could not take his mind from her?”
“But isn’t he just a little too pleased with himself, now that the emperor has singled him out for special attention? If your sister were still alive, there would be the other princess standing between them.”
“I wonder. We would have been alike, you mean, with the whole world laughing at us? You may be right. It may be better that she died. He goes on grieving, I suppose, because she never let him come near. But it is more than that. He seems completely unable to forget — it is very odd, really. And he has taken care of all the memorial services for Father.” She did not mention the more troublesome aspects of their relationship.
“He seems to have told the nun at Uji that he would like to have my daughter, useless little thing, in place of your poor dead sister. It is not for me to say it, I know, but there are’those lavender grasses.’”
In tears, she went on to tell of Ukifune’s troubles. Thinking that Nakanokimi might have heard of the affair, though not perhaps in detail, she spoke obliquely of how the girl had been wronged by her stepfather and the lieutenant.
“While I am alive we can somehow get by, I suppose. I can take care of her after a fashion, and we can be a comfort to each other. But what awful things will happen to her when I die and leave her behind? I worry, and have almost decided that it would be best to give up the idea of finding a husband for her, and put her in a nunnery somewhere off in the mountains.”
“Yes, it is very sad. But we who have been left behind must learn to live with insults. It was not possible for my sister and me to go into a nunnery, and so Father chose the next-best thing, and taught us to live alone, away from the world. And here I am, living this strange life, right in the middle of the city. No, you mustn’t think of it. I couldn’t bear to see her in those awful blacks and grays.”
It had been spoken with care and gravity, and the governor’s wife was much comforted. Though no longer young, she dressed with modest good taste. She had not, however, been able to control a tendency toward fleshiness, and her generous proportions made her an admirable match for His Eminence of Hitachi.
“Your esteemed father was not kind to her, I have always thought, and that is why the world chooses to treat her as if she were less than human; but what you have said does a great deal to help me forget the old sorrow.” She talked of her life over the years and of places she had seen, wild, remote places like Ukishima. “ I was’left alone to think these dismal thoughts,’ and now I find such pleasure in your company that I would like to stay on and on, and possibly give you some idea of what it is like to live at the foot of Tsukuba, where there is no one, literally no one, to talk to. But all those other tiresome children will be raising a great stir, I know, and I am, after all, a little restless. I know better than most what it means to lose your proper place in the world, and so I shall leave her with you, and say no more.”
The list of her grievances stretched on. Nakanokimi did indeed hope that something could be done for the girl, who was certainly attractive and seemed to have a pleasant disposition. She was quiet and composed and yet not excessively shy, and her way of avoiding the scrutiny of even Nakanokimi’s women suggested that she was not wanting in intelligence. Her speech was astonishingly reminiscent of Oigimi’s. Yes, thought Nakanokimi, remembering that there had been talk of a statue of her sister. She would like to have him see this image.
And just then there came a shouting. “The general is here, the general is here?”
The usual care went into arranging the curtains.
“I must have a look at him,” said the governor’s wife. “Everyone says he’s wonderfully handsome, but of course he can’t possibly be as handsome as the prince.”
“We don’t know about that,” replied the women. “We’d be hard put to choose between them.”
“When they are side by side,” said Nakanokimi, “my husband seems rather short on good looks; but when they are apart it really is impossible to decide which one is the better-looking. The way good looks have of blotting out everyone else can be rather annoying.”
“This is just talk,” laughed one of her women. “It would take a very extraordinary man to blot out Prince Niou.”
Now he was getting out of his carriage, came the report; but he was concealed by his retinue, shouting to clear the way. Then they saw him approaching. Yes, thought the governor’s wife: these were not the showy kind of good looks, but the impression was of a gentle elegance such as to make one feel rather common. She smoothed her hair at the forehead.
He had a large retinue, for he was on his way home from court.
“I was told last night that Her Majesty was ill. She seemed lonely without her children, and so I stayed on in place of the prince. He was late this morning too. You must be charged with responsibility for these delinquencies, I fear.”
“Very kind of you,” she answered simply, “I am sure.”
He of course had something on his mind, for he had come at a time when he knew that Niou would be at court. His manner was, as always, affectionately nostalgic. He spoke with circumspection of his inability to forget the past and his unhappiness with his marriage. How, she wondered, could he go on forever thinking of her sister? Or was there an element of pretense in his tenacity? Having been so ardent at the outset, he would not have it thought that he had forgotten? But he seemed so open with her that, not being a log or a stone, she had presently to recognize the genuineness of his sorrow. She sighed. Then, perhaps hoping to wash away part of the pain, she mentioned the “image” of which they had spoken. An image had come in secret to this very house, she let it be known.
This was exciting news. He longed to be shown to the girl’s presence, but feared that he might seem capricious.
“It would indeed be a comfort if an idol were to come at my command. But a bad conscience would only muddy the waters.”
“It is not easy to be a saint.” She laughed a soft laugh which the governor’s wife found charming.
“But you might at least describe my feelings to them. I am reminded of an earlier case of evasion and it does not bode well for the future.” There were tears in his voice, which he sought to cover with a playful poem.
“The permanent loan, if you please, of a useful image,
A handy memento, to take away the gloom.”
“To float downstream afresh at each atonement,
And yet to have forever at your side?
No, there are too many hands tugging at you. I would fear for the poor girl.”
“You know very well which shoal I shall come upon in the end. Please do not pretend that you do not. I am like the foam that sinks and rises again, and I find your talk of being floated downstream very much to the point. Where will the foam come to rest?”
It was growing dark, and she had her guests to think about. “I do seem to have some people with me at the moment, and must have a thought or two for appearances. Suppose you go home early, this one time.”
“You might tell her, if it would not be too much trouble, that these feelings have been with me for some years, and that it would be wrong of her to think herself the victim of a sudden whim. But I tend to be wrapped up in myself, and handle these matters clumsily.”
And he went out.
The governor’s wife thought him splendid, indeed quite flawless. Bennokimi had on more than one occasion spoken of a possibility which she had dismissed as altogether too remote; but now she thought that one could easily wait a whole year to bathe in the light of such a star. She was determined that her daughter go to no ordinary man; and she was aghast at her want of discrimination (for she had long kept company with rough East Country people) in thinking the lieutenant acceptable. As for the perfume left at the cypress pillar and upon the cushion, she despaired of finding words to describe it.
And those who knew him well had to praise him afresh. “The good books tell us that a strong perfume is one of the real signs of grace. It must be true. There’s that sandalwood from Oxhead Mountain (awful name) that the Lotus Sutra makes so much of. The first whiff of him and you know what it means. He’s been at his books and beads ever since he was a little boy.”
And another: “What I’d like to know is what he was up to in other lives to deserve it all.”
The governor’s wife listened smiling.
Nakanokimi relayed certain of his remarks. “And once he has made up his mind to something, it becomes an obsession with him. Nothing can budge him. Yes, I know that his life is complicated; but if you really have thought of sending her off to a nunnery, you have nothing to lose by giving him a try.”
“Yes, it is true that I’ve thought of sending her where’no birds fly singing overhead.’ I’ve thought of it as the only way to protect her. But now I see that just being near him, just being one of his servants, would give new meaning to life; and if that is the effect he has upon me, think what he must do to a young girl. But I don’t know — she is such an unattractive little thing — we might just be asking for trouble. Life is not good to us women. All of us, high and low, have to live with unhappiness, in this life and all the others. I want to weep, just thinking about it. But I leave everything to you. I know you will do the right thing.”
“As I have said, he has been honesty itself through the years.” Nakanokimi sighed. This new responsibility was not entirely welcome. “But we can never be sure of the future.” She said no more.
The next morning a carriage came for the governor’s wife, and with it a strongly worded letter. The governor was angry.
“I shouldn’t, I know, but I do leave everything to you. Keep her hidden for a while. She is useless, but keep her with you, and teach her what she needs to know. I’ll be thinking what to do with her, whether to send her oft to some cave among the rocks, or what.” She was in tears as she got into her carriage.
This was Ukifune’s first separation from her mother, and she was of course sad; and yet the prospect of living with her sister for a time in a bright, fashionable house was not unpleasing.
The carriage left at dawn. Niou and his retinue, on their way from court, were just then coming in the gate. Having slipped away for a quiet visit with his son, he had few attendants and his carriage was plainer than his rank called for. The governor’s wife had her carriage pulled aside while his was brought up to a gallery. He glared at the other party suspiciously. And who would they be, sneaking away in the night? So it was, he said to himself, that an adventurer made his escape. He had a not very lovable way of judging others by himself.
One of her attendants identified her as “a noble person from Hitachi.”
“A noble person from Hitachi!” His young men roared with laughter. “Suppose we give them a bit of the real thing for their troubles.”
Yes, sighed the governor’s wife, it had been a poor choice of words; in such company she was scarcely to be called noble. And she so longed to make a decent match for her daughter, who certainly deserved a better than ordinary husband.
Niou made his way inside. “And so you have had a noble person from Hitachi with you? A carriage and guard disappearing in the night — I think most people would find it suspicious.”
He was impossible. She turned away in a show of annoyance which he thought charming.
“It was an old friend of Tayū‘s — no one interesting enough for you to concern yourself with. Why must you always put the wrong meaning on things? You seem absolutely intent on turning people against me.”
He slept on as if the sun had not risen. Presently a party of courtiers arrived, and he went to receive them in the main hall. The empress was better, it seemed, her indisposition not having been serious. Thus relieved of court duties, he passed several pleasant hours with Yūgiri’s sons and others, in such pursuits as Go and rhyme guessing.
In the evening he returned to the princess’s rooms. She was having her hair washed. Most of her women had withdrawn. He sent a little girl in with a message: “A very nice time you have chosen for laundering your hair. I don’t suppose you expect me to watch? And so I am to sit with my boredom?”
“Yes, it is unfortunate,” agreed Tayū. “She usually washes her hair while you are away, but she has been putting it off and putting it off. This is the last good day before the end of the month, and of course she can’t do it next month or the month after. And so I have been at work on it.”
Several women were putting the baby prince to bed. Wandering restlessly here and there, Niou came upon a girl whom he had not seen before, out towards the west veranda. A new maidservant, perhaps? Midway along the partition a door was slightly open. About a foot beyond he saw a screen, and beside it a curtain backed by a blind. One section had been folded over the frame. From beneath protruded the sleeves of a bright lavender robe and a cloak of greenish yellow. He could see without being seen, for one panel of the screen was folded back. He softly opened the door a few inches more and edged closer to the mysterious lady. The garden, enclosed by a gallery, was in the best of taste, a profusion of flowers with high rocks along a brook. The girl was at the edge of the veranda, leaning on an armrest and gazing out. He opened the door yet a little more and peered from behind the screen. She was very pretty indeed as she looked up, thinking that one of the women had come in. Never one to hold back on such occasions, he clutched at her skirt. He pushed the door shut with his other hand and seated himself beside the screen. Aware now that there was something unusual about the visitor, she brought a fan to her face, and, very engaging in her shyness, turned to see who he might be. He took the hand that held the fan.
What was she to do? And who might he be? He had caught her quite unawares. His face averted, he was sitting in the shadow of the screen. The gentleman who had expressed such an improbable interest in her, perhaps? The fragrance suggested as much.
Her nurse, sensing the presence of the invader, pushed aside the screen. “What is going on in here? Something very odd is going on in here.”
But he was not to be put off by so minor a reproof. Though the encounter had been quite unplanned, he was at no loss for words. He talked of this and that, and soon it was evening.
“What is your name? I won’t let you go till you tell me.”
He stretched out familiarly beside her. The nurse was horrified, for she had at length guessed who he was.
Lamps were being lighted at the eaves. The maids announced that Nakanokimi’s toilet was finished and that she had returned to the main room. From other parts of the hall came the sound of shutters being closed. Ukifune’s quarters, in a remote corner, were furnished with but a pair of highboys. Crated screens lay about in much disorder. A door had been left open for routine comings and goings. Ukon, a daughter of Tayū also in Nakanokimi’s service, was closing the shutters, gradually nearer.
“My, but it’s dark in here. No one has brought you a light? Well just look at this, will you. I’ve been in such a rush getting these things shut that I don’t even know where I am.” She opened a shutter she had just closed. Niou was mildly disconcerted.
“Come here and listen to what I have to tell you.” The nurse was an emphatic woman. “The most dreadful thing has been going on in here. I’ve worn myself out keeping watch. I haven’t been able to budge from this spot.”
Ukon groped her way through the darkness, and came upon a fragrantly reclining figure in a man’s singlet. So he was at it again! She knew immediately that he did not have Ukifune’s permission.
“It most certainly is dreadful. What shall I do? Go this minute and tell our lady?”
She started off. No, said the other, that would hardly be the proper thing to do. Niou was not in the least worried. But he was puzzled. Here was this wonderfully attractive girl, and he could tell from Ukon’s manner that she was more than a new maidservant. At great length, he tried to coax her from her silence. There was nothing ill-natured or disagreeable about it, but he could see that she was near distraction. He was genuinely sorry and put much feeling into his efforts to comfort her. Ukon hurried off to tell Nakanokimi. “Very sad, very sad,” she said. “I can imagine how the poor girl feels.”
“That awful habit of his. Her mother will think it very careless of us. I don’t know how many times she told me to take care of the child.”
But what was she to do? He had a remarkable way of spying out everyone in the household who was even moderately young and attractive. How had he learned that the girl was here? She fell into an outraged silence.
Ukon had gone on to take a woman named Shōshō into her confidence.
“Usually when he’s at games with those fine gentlemen they play on into the night. And so he caught us off guard. There we were, sprawled all over the house. But the question is what to do now.”
“That nurse of hers is quite a woman. Nothing could make her budge an inch. I almost thought she was going to separate them by main force.”
Just then a messenger arrived from court with the news that the empress had suffered a relapse. She had been in great pain since earlier in the evening.
“How very inconsiderate of her, when he was having such a good time.” Ukon started in with the message.
“What’s done is done,” said Shōshō. “Don’t go scolding him and making yourself look silly.”
“But I doubt if it is quite done.”
They were whispering busily to each other. And what would all the rest be thinking? sighed Nakanokimi. People with an ordinary sense of propriety would be reproving her as well as Niou.
Ukon relayed the message, embroidering upon it somewhat.
“And who was the august messenger?” he asked, showing no disposition to move. “I’m sure he overdid it.”
“A chamberlain to Her Majesty who announced himself as Taira no Shigetsune.”
He was in no hurry to go, whatever all the others might be thinking. Ukon went for the messenger, who came to the west veranda. With him was the man who had earlier brought in his message.
“Prince Nakatsukasa is already at court, and I saw Her Majesty’s chamberlain leaving his house.”
She did from time to time have these seizures. He started out, leaving behind many complaints and promises. It would not do to be thought unfilial.
Soaked in perspiration, Ukifune sat with bowed head. It was as if she had awakened from a nightmare. Her nurse was beside her, wielding a fan as she offered her views in the matter.
“This place is not for us. We have no defenses, none at all, and it will be even worse now that he knows you are here. I’m terrified. He may be a royal highness and all that sort of thing, but his conduct is inexcusable. No — you must find someone outside the family. Your own brother-in-law — why the shame of it had me glowering at him like a proper devil. I can’t have been a pretty sight, and I think I possibly had him a little frightened. He gave my hand a playful little tweak. I almost had to laugh at that.
“There was a battle at the other house today. His Honor the governor said your mother only cared about you and had as good as abandoned all the others. It was a complete disgrace for her to be out of the house, he said, just when they had this new bridegroom coming in. For a minute or so they thought he might hit her. They heard it all, and they were all on her side. It was that lieutenant’s fault, they said. If it hadn’t been for him and his grand ideas, they said, well, there might have been a little fighting in the family from time to time, but things would have gone on pretty much the same.”
But the girl was beyond worrying about her mother. Added to tenor such as she had not known before was concern for Nakanokimi’s feelings. She sat weeping, her head bowed.
The nurse now commenced painting a brighter picture. “Oh, come now — there’s no need for all these tears. It’s all so much sadder for a girl who has no mother. People may have a way of looking down on a girl with no father, but there’s nothing worse, let me tell you, than a nasty step-mother. You have your mother to look after you, and she’ll do it too, somehow. So stop this carrying on. You’ve been to Hatsuse time after time and you’re not used to traveling, and the Blessed One is sure to have noticed. People may be mean to you now, but I’m praying for the day when you’ll make a marriage that will startle them all. You’ll have the last laugh, I know you will.”
Niou hurried out. As he went through this west gate, which seemed to be nearer the palace, he was singing some of his favorites from the anthologies. He had an uncommonly good voice, but it did not please her. His retinue was simple, some ten guardsmen on plainly fitted horses.
Nakanokimi guessed what Ukifune would be going through and sent for her as if nothing had happened. “The prince has gone to inquire after Her Majesty and will probably not be back tonight. Washing my hair somehow depresses me and I am still up. Do come over and keep me company. You must be bored.?”
Ukifune sent her nurse with a reply. “I am not feeling well myself. I think I should rest for a while.”
Another message came immediately. “And what will the trouble be?”
“Nothing in particular, really. It is just that I am not quite myself.”
Ukon and Shōshō exchanged glances. They knew what was the matter, and the fact that all the others knew too did not help.
It was really too sad for the poor girl, Nakanokimi was thinking. Kaoru had indicated an interest in her, and he would have little admiration for her failure to defend herself. As for Niou, he was outrageous, always sniffing out scandals in her life when his own was riddled with them, always making baseless charges while conveniently overlooking his own vulnerability. And Kaoru, keeping his bitter counsels, of such gravity and restraint as to make one despair of ever reaching a similar level — he now had Ukifune to worry about. She and Ukifune had lived apart over the years, but now that they had met nothing must separate them. Yes, it was all very sad. The world was full of the most remarkable complications. She had her own troubles, but she must count herself among the lucky ones. She had seemed destined for just such misfortunes, but something had kept her from falling the whole distance. If she could but see that infatuation of Kaoru’s smoothly transferred elsewhere, her troubles would be over. Her hair, thick and long, was very slow to dry. She had lain down, a winsome, delicate figure in a white singlet.
Ukifune was still in a daze. Her nurse, though sympathetic, urged her to action. “This will not do at all. She will think that something really happened. Pull yourself together, do, and go in to her. I will tell Ukon everything.” She went to the door. “I would like to speak to Ukon, please.”
“This horrible affair has left her running a fever,” she continued when Ukon had come out,” and she is in a bad state. Have your lady comfort her, please, if you will. She has not done a thing to apologize for, and here she is all guilt and regrets. That’s how she is — a little more experience and she would think nothing of it.” She went on fussing over the girl and presently saw her to the princess’s rooms.
Ukifune was in an agony of embarrassment. What would they all be thinking? Almost too docile and yielding, she allowed herself to be led off.
She sat turned away from the light, lest they see that her hair was wet from tears. The women had thought their mistress unique, but here was her match. She could not very well hide herself from her own sister, and the two women, Ukon and Shōshō, were able to have a good look at her. They shuddered to think what would happen if Niou were to give her his full attention. He was always being attracted to new women who had far less to recommend them.
“You are to think of this as your own house, and you are not to be forever on your guard,” said Nakanokimi in intimate, affectionate tones. “I have not for one moment stopped mourning for my sister, and I have been angry at myself for living on without her. You are a great joy and comfort — you do so look like her. There is no one who really cares for me. It would please me enormously if you could learn to think of me as she did.”
Ukifune was shy and still somewhat countrified, and had trouble finding an answer. Finally she said in an almost childlike voice: “All those years I thought of you, miles and miles away. It is a great comfort for me too, seeing you after so long.”
The princess took out illustrations to old romances, which they examined while Ukon read from the texts. Absorbed now in the pictures and facing her sister in the lamplight, Ukifune had a delicate, girlish beauty that was perfection of its kind. The quiet elegance of the face, with a slight glow about the eyes and at the forehead, was so like Oigimi that Nakanokimi herself was paying little attention to the pictures. A longing for the past flooded over her. She compared the two in her mind. How could they be so alike? No doubt the girl took after their father. Old women long in the Eighth Prince’s service had said that Oigimi looked like her father, Nakanokimi herself like her mother. What affection and yearning she did call up, this girl so like the two now gone! Nakanokimi felt tears coming to her eyes. Oigimi had been a lady of cold, proud nobility, but she had had an affectionate strain and could be docile and accommodating to excess. Ukifune still had not outgrown a certain childish awkwardness, and perhaps because of it and because of her shyness one would have had to put her down as rather inferior to Oigimi in the sort of undeniable beauty that immediately catches the eye. Given a certain mellowing and deepening, however, she would not seem in any degree a mismatch for Kaoru. Nakanokimi was beginning to behave like an elder sister.
They talked until dawn, when they lay down side by side to sleep. Nakanokimi spoke of her father, though at no great length, and of the life they had lived at Uji. Ukifune sighed that she had not been allowed to share it.
Meanwhile others who knew something of what had happened were also talking.
“How far do you suppose it went? She really is very pretty — and what horrid luck! Our lady may be fond of her, but small good that will do her now.”
“Oh, I don’t think it went far at all,” replied Ukon. They were conversing in whispers.” That nurse of hers pulled me in and had a few things to say, but she didn’t make it sound as if she had allowed much to happen. And then the prince was reciting the poem about’meeting and not meeting’ when he went out. But I don’t know — maybe he did it to put me off the track. You never can tell. But remember how calm and cool she was when she was sitting with our lady? She certainly didn’t look like someone with a great deal to hide.”
The nurse borrowed a carriage and went to the governor’s house. The governor’s wife was stunned. The whole Nijō house would be scandalized — and what of Nakanokimi herself? jealousy favored no particular rank, she knew from her own experience. She rushed off to Nijō that night. It was a great relief to find Niou away.
“She is still a child. I thought she would be safe here. But with the cat away, as they say. All those silly people at home are at me day and night.”
“Oh, she’s not all that much of a child,” laughed Nakanokimi. “The trouble is having you off there watching us, like the cat you say is away.”
This calm beauty only stirred new doubts. What would she really be thinking? The governor’s wife could not of course ask.
“I thought I had finally found what I had been hunting for all these years, and told myself that no one would ever look down on us again.” She was weeping. “I see now that I should not have come to you. I was right the first time. She must go into a nunnery.”
“What is it that worries you so?” Nakanokimi was deeply moved. “You would have cause to object if I seemed not to want her here. Yes, I know there is a man who is not as much in control of himself as he might be and who occasionally misbehaves; but everyone knows about him and keeps watch. I will see to it myself that nothing happens to her. What can have turned you against me?”
“I certainly do not accuse you of behaving as if you did not want her. Why should I hold you responsible for the way your father treated us? No, I turned to you not because of him but because of that other bond between
us.” There was deep urgency in her voice. “In any case, she must be in retreat tomorrow and the next day. She must see no one. I have a very quiet place in mind for her. I will bring her again one day soon.”
And she took the girl off with her.
All most unfortunate, thought Nakanokimi, seeking to detain her no further. The governor’s wife was so badly shaken that she rushed out with scarcely a word of farewell.
She had a cottage for use when the stars demanded a change of direction. It was a tasteful place, modestly furnished and still in process of construction.
“What a time I do have trying to find you a home. It is better for a woman to die young, when the whole world seems against her. I would not mind the worst sort of loneliness and humiliation and degradation if I had only myself to think of; but here we are friends again after all the years of bitterness. The world would roar with laughter if anything were to go wrong. It’s all very sad, but anyway —” She was picking herself up to depart. “This isn’t a very elegant place, I know, but bear with it for a while, and don’t let anyone see you. I’ll think of something else one of these days, I promise you.”
The girl was a sad little figure, weeping tears of utter dejection, sorry even to be alive. Matters were no better with the governor’s wife. It would be a shame to waste such beauty, she had told herself. She had hoped that the girl, seen safely to womanhood, might make a good marriage for herself. And now they had the scorn of the world to look forward to, and must face charges of rashness and frivolity. She was not an insensitive woman, but she tended to be headstrong and somewhat erratic. Though it would not have been impossible to hide Ukifune in a corner of the governor’s mansion, she had dismissed the thought as too unfeeling. They had always been together and the separation was cruel for both of them.
“This place won’t be really safe either until it is finished. Do be careful. I’ve sent some women to look after you and given orders to the guards. But I know I’ll go on worrying — and everyone at the other house is furious.”
The governor had gained in the lieutenant what was for him a priceless jewel. He was still out of sorts. His wife might be a little more helpful, he complained.
But it was because of the man’s callousness that all the trouble had arisen, that the daughter she so doted upon had fallen into disgrace. She would have nothing to do with him. The poor figure he had cut in Niou’s presence had so filled her with contempt that she had no wish to wait upon him as a mother-in-law might be expected to. Still she was curious. She had not yet had a good look at him. It was high noon of a day when she knew he would be at his ease in the west wing. She hurried over and took up a position behind a screen. He was near the edge of the veranda, looking out at the garden. He had on a singlet of soft white brocade and a robe of
deep pink beaten to a rich glow on the fulling blocks. He did not seem so inferior after all. Indeed, he was rather handsome. Her daughter, leaning on an armrest beside him, was a mere child. They could hardly have competed with Niou and his Uji princess, and yet as he exchanged quips with the women he was not at all the colorless figure she had seen at Nijō. Might it have been another lieutenant?
“The hagi at Prince Niou’s is especially good,” he was saying. “I wonder where he found the seeds. It comes in the usual shapes, but somehow it seems more graceful. I happened to be there just as he was going out the other day, and I didn’t have a chance to break off a branch. He recited the poem about the fading hagi. I just wish you could have seen him. You know the one.” And he recited it himself.
“The beast, the craven beast,” she muttered. “And what a cheap article he did look beside the prince. I wonder how he is as a poet.”
He did not seem to be wholly without accomplishments. She thought she would put him to the test.
This was the poem she sent out:
“Of the plighted hagi, the upper leaves seem quiet.
What will have caused a change in the underleaves?”
It seemed to make him feel a little guilty.
“Had I known it to be of the meadow of Miyagi,
With the fragile hagi I would have kept my faith.
“Perhaps we can discuss the matter sometime.”
So he had learned who the girl’s father was. All the old yearning to make a decent life for her, to give her the security that was Nakanokimi’s, came back. The governor’s wife wished she were not always thinking of Kaoru. Though both of them, Niou and Kaoru, were magnificent men, she was not so foolish as to think that Niou took her daughter seriously. And she was incensed at what he had done. Kaoru had indicated an interest in the girl and even made inquiries, and yet, curiously, he remained silent. If he was so much on her mind, how much more must he be on her daughter’s. Yes, she had been stupid to let her thoughts dwell upon the lieutenant. They were now upon Ukifune as she examined this and that pleasant prospect for the future. None seemed quite within reach. The princess who was already married to this uniquely eminent and well-favored young man must herself be superior; and truly superior another girl would have to be to catch his fancy. It had been her experience that one’s station in life made all the difference in matters of comportment and sensibility. Not one of her other daughters could stand comparison with Ukifune. She herself had seen how the lieutenant, who cut such a swath in this house, shriveled to nothing in the presence of Niou. What then of Ukifune in the presence of a gentleman who had taken for his bride a treasured daughter of the emperor? Her thoughts were beginning to blur and waver.
Meanwhile the girl passed monotonous days in her temporary and unfinished lodgings. Even the grasses seemed oppressive. She heard only coarse East Country voices and there were no flowers to comfort her. As the days went by in a dreary procession, her thoughts turned with intense nostalgia to Nakanokimi. She thought too of Niou. His behavior had been deplorable and the memory of it still filled her with tenor; and yet, whatever he may have meant by them, he had said many charming things. It seemed to her that, faintly, his fragrance was still with her.
An affectionate letter came from the governor’s wife, alive to her maternal duties as never before. The girl was sad for her mother too. She had tried so hard, and in vain. The letter said in part: “I can imagine how unhappy you must be in a strange house, but you must try to bear it for a time.”
“No, I am not at all unhappy,” the girl sent back. “Indeed I am having a very pleasant time.
“If I could think it a place apart from the world,
In happy procession then might pass the days.”
The childlike innocence brought tears to the mother’s eyes. How cruel it was that the girl should be driven from home, robbed of all security!
“Though it be in a house apart from this gloomy world,
I pray that the best may yet be mine to see.”
And so they exchanged simple, straightforward poems.
It was Kaoru’s practice to visit Uji in late autumn. Every morning he awoke to sad thoughts of Oigimi. He set out one day to inspect the new hall, having been informed that it was finished. Many weeks had passed since his last visit. The autumn leaves were at their best. There the new hall was, all bright and shining, where the villa had stood. It had been a simple place, a veritable hermitage. The thought of it brought poignant memories. Almost regretful that he had had it moved, he was plunged into deeper melancholy than usual. The prince’s rooms had been appointed with stern solemnity, while his daughters’ had shown remarkable grace and delicacy. Now the plaited screens and all the other austere furnishings had been sent off to fit out cells at the monastery. No expense had been spared to see that the new house was appointed as a mountain villa should be, and the results were most satisfying.
He went into the garden and sat on a rock by the brook. The scene was not an easy one to pull himself away from.
“They still flow on, these waters clear and clean.
Can they not reflect the image of those now gone?”
Brushing away a tear, he went to look in upon the nun. His sorrow was so apparent that she too was moved to tears. He sat in the doorway and raised the blind a few inches. She was seated behind a curtain.
“I heard the other day that the young lady was staying in Nijō.” The conversation had taken a turn that accommodated the interesting subject. “But it had seemed rather awkward to think of visiting. Perhaps you would tell her of my feelings.”
“I had a letter from the governor’s wife not long ago. It seems that she has the girl moving from house to house, trying to avoid unlucky directions. At the moment she is hidden in a shabby little cottage somewhere. The best thing would be to leave her here with me — but the mountain roads seem to frighten her.”
“And here I am. All these years I have been coming over the roads that frighten them so. Why should it be? What have we inherited from other lives to account for it?” As was so often the case, there were tears in his voice. “Send off a message, if you will, to wherever it is that she seems to think so safe. Or might I ask you to go yourself?”
“It would be very easy to pass on a message, but I am afraid I am no longer up to going into the city. I do not even think of visiting my lady.”
“You must be bolder. If we see that no one knows, then no one will talk. After all, even the hermits on Atago went to the city occasionally. And you know it is a good thing to break the most solemn vow if it means making someone else happy.”
“I am not all that holy — no bridge to see the others across.” She was genuinely perplexed. “But there is sure to be unpleasant talk.”
“This is the best chance you will ever have.” It was not like him to be so insistent. “I will send a carriage day after tomorrow. In the meantime please find out where she is staying. You know very well,” he concluded with a smile,” that I would not dream of making complications.”
She was not so sure. What would be on his mind? He was not a reckless or thoughtless man, however, and he had his own name to think of.
“Very well,” she finally answered. “I will do as you say. The house is very near your own, and possibly it would be a good idea if you were to get off a note. I wouldn’t want to seem like a busybody. I am too old to be playing the wise fox.”
“I could very easily do that. But people do talk, and it will be noised around that I have my eye on the daughter of His Eminence the governor of Hitachi. I understand he is a very rough fellow.”
She was both touched and amused.
It was dark when he left. He broke off some flowers from under the trees and some autumn branches, which he took to his wife, the Second Princess. She could not have been described as unhappy with her marriage, but Kaoru seemed remote and somehow ill at ease. Out of the concern any father would feel, the emperor had written to his sister, the nun at Sanjō, of what he sensed to be the situation. For his part, Kaoru paid his wife the respect her place demanded; but life was complicated. To see to the needs of a lady so doted upon by his mother and the emperor himself was no easy task, and now had come a new affair.
Early on the morning of the appointed day he sent off a carriage, escorted by a rather obscure courtier in whom he had great confidence and another minor functionary. He instructed them to fill out the guard with men from his Uji estate.
He had said that she must come, and so, bracing herself, the nun finished her toilet and got into the carriage. The mountain scenery brought memories. She was sunk in thought the whole of the journey. The cottage, when she arrived, was quiet and next to deserted, and her carriage attracted no notice. She sent in to explain why she had come. Young women whom she recognized from Ukifune’s pilgrimages came to help her in. Ukifune, for whom the days had been an uninterrupted passage of gloom and boredom — and it was a wretched little house — was delighted that she now had someone with whom she could exchange reminiscences. She felt especially close to this woman who had served her father.
“You have been on my mind constantly. I have cut myself off from the world and do not even visit my lady, but he was more stubborn than I have ever seen him, and I knew that I would have to come.”
The girl and her nurse had been pleased that Kaoru, such a fine gentleman, should not have forgotten them; but they had not dreamed that he would so quickly contrive to be in communication with them.
Late in the night there came a soft knocking at the gate. “Someone from Uji,” it was announced. One of Kaoru’s men, thought the nun, ordering the gate opened. She was startled to see a carriage being pulled in.
“Show us to the nun,” said a man who announced himself as the superintendent of Kaoru’s Uji manor. She went to the door. A gentle rain was falling and a remarkable fragrance came in on the cool breeze to tell them who in fact their visitor was, so stately a visitor that he both delighted and upset them. The cottage was a poor one and he had caught them unprepared. What could it possibly mean? they asked one another, bustling about to receive him.
“May I perhaps speak to the lady in private?” he sent in. “I should like to tell her of certain feelings I have scarcely been able to keep to myself these last months.”
The girl was perplexed for an answer.
“He’s here, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said her nurse impatiently. “You can at least ask him to sit down. We can have someone slip out and tell your mother. She’s so near.”
“Don’t be silly — there’s no need to tell her,” said the nun. “A couple of young people want to speak to each other, and you assume they’re going to fall in love on the spot? He is a quiet, thoughtful young man, not at all the sort to force himself on a lady.”
It was raining harder. The watchmen on their rounds called out in strange East Country accents. “That spot over by the southeast corner, you have to keep an eye on it. Get that wagon inside and close the gate. They don’t have common sense, these people.”
It was all very strange and rather forbidding. Seated at the edge of a veranda as of a rustic cottage, he whispered to himself:
“And there is no shelter at Sano.
“Are there tangles of grass to hold me back, that I wait
So long in the rain at the eaves of your eastern cottage?”
No doubt the perfume that came in on the breeze was a source of great wonderment to the eastern rustics.
Concluding at length that it would be impossible to turn him away, the girl had a cushion set out in the south room. Urged on by her women she slid the door open a crack.
“I am not used to looking at doors and I resent even the carpenter who makes them.” And he pushed his way inside.
He did not mean, it would seem, to describe his thoughts about having her as a substitute for her sister. “You will not have been aware of it, I am sure, but I once had a glimpse of you through a crack in a door. You have been very much on my mind ever since. I suppose it was meant to be, but you have been so much on my mind that I find it a little odd.”
Small and pretty, very much in control of herself, she quite lived up to his expectations. Indeed, he was delighted with her.
Though it would soon be morning, no cocks were crowing. From the main street, very near at hand, came the sleepy voices of peddlers offering wares with which he was quite unfamiliar. The women among them, he had heard, could look like veritable demons as they strode about in the dawn with their wares balanced on their heads. It was a new experience, passing the night in a tangle of wormwood, and he was not at all bored. At length he heard the guards going off duty.
Ordering his carriage brought to a hinged door at a corner of the house, he took the girl up in his arms and carried her out.
The women were in a panic. And here it was the inauspicious Ninth Month. What could he be thinking of?
Bennokimi was as startled as the rest, and as concerned for the girl; but she also saw the need to be calm. “Don’t worry. He knows what he is doing. You say it is a bad month — but if I’m not mistaken tomorrow will be the first day of winter.”
It was the thirteenth of the month.
“This time I cannot go with you,” she continued. “It will not do if my lady hears that I have slipped into town and gone back without seeing her.”
But Kaoru wanted to keep word of the escapade from Nakanokimi as long as he could.” You can apologize later. You must be my guide. And we will need another one too.”
Bennokimi got into the carriage with Jijū. The nurse and the girl who had been Bennokimi’s companion were left behind in a daze.
They would not be going far, thought Bennokimi; but in fact they were taken to Uji. Kaoru had arranged for a change of oxen. It was day-break when they crossed the Kamo River and passed the Hōshōji Temple. Jijū could now see his face, albeit dimly, and it so excited her that she was gaping openly. Ukifune sat with bowed head, too stunned to look about her. The rocky stretches might be difficult, he said, and took her in his arms. A thin curtain hung between the two of them and the women behind. Bennokimi wished that he had had the consideration not to drag her out in broad daylight. And how it would have pleased her, she sighed, to have seen her lady going off with him thus. One was witness to strange, sad happenings when one lived too long. Try though she might to control herself, her face was presently contorted with grief. What a silly old woman, thought Jijū. A nun was not in any case the sort of chaperone a person wanted on such a happy excursion, and why did she have to add nasty tears to her own nasty presence? Well, old people cried a great deal, and that was that.
Kaoru had not been disappointed in the girl, but something about the sky and the day brought back all of his longing for Oigimi. As they entered the mountains he too found his eyes clouding over. He sat leaning against an armrest, deep in memories. He noticed, as a wheel of the carriage pulled out of a rut, that his sleeves were hanging far beneath the blind, and, in the river mist, the red of a singlet and the blue of the robe over it had come together. A poem formed in his mind:
“I think to find her equal, and my sleeves
Are deep in tears as the land in morning mist.”
The nun heard him, and would have liked to wring her own sleeves dry. All very odd, and not very pretty, thought Jijū. Such a jolly outing — and these people seemed determined to spoil the fun. The nun’s sobs were coaxing sniffles from Kaoru.
But he had to think of the girl beside him. “It is just that memories come back of all the times I have been over this road. Do look at the colors in the hills. You have not said a word to me.”
He forced her to look up. Her face shyly hidden by a fan, she was remarkably like Oigimi. But there was something too docile and passive about her. It made him uneasy. Oigimi had been similarly fragile and childlike, but she had also been of a solemn, meditative turn. His longing seemed to fill the very skies.
They had arrived at Uji. And would Oigimi even now call it home? Here he was, lost in aimless wandering — and because of whom? He left Ukifune for a time, that he might be with the other.
Ukifune was as upset for her mother as for herself, but she had the memory of his soft words to console her. Bennokimi had insisted on being let out near her own rooms, though such reticence hardly seemed called for. Farmers came from his manor, as usual, in noisy troops. Bennokimi brought lunch. The road had been heavily overgrown, and here the prospect was bright and open. The house had been planned to take advantage of the river and the colors in the hills. Ukifune felt the gloom of the recent days leave her. Yet great uncertainty remained. What plans would he have for her?
He sent off notes to his mother and his wife in the city. “I had had decorations commissioned for the chapel. Today being a lucky day, I rushed off to inspect them. I am not feeling well and have just remembered that I should be in retreat. So I shall stay on through today and tomorrow.”
Ukifune found him even handsomer in casual dress. She still felt shy before him, but no longer thought it necessary to hide her face. Though great attention had gone into her clothes, they still had a certain rustic plainness about them. He remembered how elegant Oigimi had managed to look even in old clothes, and had to conclude that Ukifune was not quite her equal. She did have beautiful hair, however, thick and smooth to the very ends. The Second Princess had unusually fine hair, but this was perhaps even lovelier.
And what now? There would be talk if they received her openly at Sanjō. Yet something more than ordinary treatment was surely called for. He would leave her at Uji for a time. Knowing how lonely she would be, he talked affectionately with her until evening. He spoke in fascinating detail of her father and of events long ago, and he essayed an occasional pleasantry. Her shyness seemed excessive, but it offered possibilities of its own. There was hope for such a girl, even if an occasional mistake was made in her training. He would be her teacher. Had she been the loud, garrulous sort of provincial, he would have had to give up all thought of making her a substitute for Oigimi.
He had kotos brought out. She would be less adept at music, he feared, than at the other polite accomplishments. Sadness for the past flooded over him as he began to play. He had not touched a koto in the Uji house since the prince’s death, he did not himself know why. He played on, sunk in thought, and the moon came out. There had been nothing insistent about the prince’s koto, but it had, in its quiet way, had a strange power to move.
“If you had grown up here I think you might have had a rather different feeling for things. We were no kin to each other, but the prince had a strong hold on my affections. It is a pity that you spent so many years so far away.”
She was toying shyly with a fan. Her profile was an unblemished white, and her forehead, between the rich strands of hair, brought memories of her sister. He must give her music lessons and otherwise make her a lady for whom he need not apologize.
“Have you had a try at the koto? Perhaps you have had lessons on the East Country koto?”
“I do not even speak the language of the capital. Should you expect me to play a capital koto?”
She was clever. He was already sad at the thought of having her at Uji and seeing her only rarely. It was not often that he felt such regrets.
“The voice of’the koto in the night, on the terrace of the king of Ch’u,’” he whispered to himself.
Daughter of a region where one heard only the twang of the bow, Jijū was entranced. It was the mark of her want of culture that her delight should be so unconditional, and take no account of such matters as the proper color of a fan, and what it told of a noble lady’s boudoir. But why, he was asking himself, had he chosen that particular poem from all the poems he knew?
Refreshments were brought from the nun’s rooms. Sprigs of ivy and maple had been laid out tastefully on the lid of the box, and on the paper beneath (one may imagine that he was hungry) he caught a glimpse, in the bright moonlight, of a poem in a shaky old hand:
“Autumn has come, the leaves of the ivy change;
And bright as of old, the moon of memories.”
The hand was an old-fashioned one, but it made him feel somehow inadequate. He softly intoned a poem of his own, though not as if by way of answer:
“The village still calls itself Uji, and here in my rooms
The moon streams in upon another face.”
It would seem that Jijū took the poem to the nun.
Last updated Sunday, March 1, 2015 at 21:07