Niou had not for a moment forgotten the dim evening light in which he had seen the girl. She would not appear to have been of the highest rank, and yet her clean grace left him deeply dissatisfied (for he was very susceptible) that he had not had his way. He managed to work up considerable resentment at Nakanokimi.
“I would not have expected it of you,” he said, so frequently that she began to wonder whether she ought not to tell him the whole story.
But no. The girl had attracted the notice of someone who — though he did not, it seemed, mean to make her his principal wife — was so taken with her that he had hidden her away. It was not for Nakanokimi to reveal secrets. Besides, Niou could not be expected to sit idly by once he had learned the truth. Let him embark upon some fleeting dalliance with one of the women around him, and temptation would promptly lead him off to places where a prince ought not to go. The case of the girl who had been so on his mind over the days and weeks was almost certain to be troublesome. Nakanokimi could do nothing, of course, if he were to learn the facts from someone else. It would be sad for both Kaoru and Ukifune, but he would not be held back by the most persuasive arguments. And the effect upon Nakanokimi herself would be far more painful than the effect of all his other intrigues combined. Well, she would in any case make sure that she herself was guilty of no carelessness. This sulking was not easy to live with, but she would say nothing. Incapable of clever fabrication, she kept her peace and let him think her just another jealous woman.
Kaoru’s self-control, meanwhile, approached the unbelievable. The girl would be expecting him, he knew, but a man in his position had to have good excuses for such a journey. The road was more forbidding than if it had been proscribed by the gods. He would in the end do his duty by her. She would be his companion in that mountain village. He would invent some pretext for spending a few quiet days with her, but for the time being she must remain out of sight. When she was somewhat more settled and composed, he would arrange an acceptable sort of liaison, one that would not damage his good name. He did not want people to be asking what this sudden development meant, and who the girl might be, and when it had all begun; his aim in visiting Uji was certainly not to attract attention. And on the other hand he would not wish Nakanokimi to think that he had turned his back on a place so rich in memories and left the past behind. With his usual care and deliberation, he turned the arguments over in his mind.
Not that he was wholly inactive: he had commenced work on the house to which he would presently bring the girl. He was a busy man, but he continued to visit Nakanokimi regularly. Though some of her women thought it all rather odd, Nakanokimi herself, more familiar now with the ways of the world, was much moved. Here was a man who did not forget, whose affections did not wear thin with the passage of time. The years seemed to improve him, even as the hopes the world had for him rose. Seeing, by contrast, how deplorably capricious and unreliable her husband was, she could only sigh at the strange, sad fate that seemed to be hers. Oigimi’s plans for her had come to nothing, and she had found herself married to a man whose chief contribution to her life was gloomy foreboding.
Yet it was difficult to receive Kaoru with the warmth she really felt. The Uji years were receding into the distance. People of the lower classes might presume upon such a relationship, muttered some of her women, unfamiliar with happenings at Uji, but it certainly was most irregular for grandchildren of emperors. In the natural course of events, then, she began to seem more distant, even though her feelings for him were as they had always been. Niou might upset her from time to time with his erratic ways, but the little prince was growing up, more of a delight each day. Thinking it unlikely that another lady would favor him with so pretty a child, he lavished great affection upon her, affection, indeed, such as the lady at Rokujō did not enjoy. In spite of everything, Nakanokimi was feeling more sure of herself.
At about noon one day early in the New Year, when Niou was playing with the child, now in its second year, a little girl came bounding in and handed the princess a rather fat letter in a fine, cream-colored envelope. With it were a small “whiskered basket” attached to an artificial seedling pine, and a second letter, more formally folded.
“And where might they be from?” asked Niou.
“The man said from Uji, for Madame Tayū. I didn’t know what to do with them, and I thought my lady might like to see them. She always does.” The girl was confused. “Just look at this basket, will you. Metal, and it’s colored all over. And look at this pine. Look at the branches. You might think it was real.”
She smiled, and Niou smiled back. “Yes, do let me have a look at it.”
“Take them to Tayū immediately.” Nakanokimi flushed. She did not want him to read the letters.
Would they be from Kaoru? They did look like women’s letters, but he could easily have disguised them, and Uji would have been an apt choice for their source. He took one of them up. But he too was confused. He hoped that his suspicions would not prove correct.
“I’m going to open it. Will you be angry with me?”
“It’s not good manners to look at private notes between women.” Nakanokimi managed to seem unconcerned.
“You really must let me see them. What might it be like, I wonder, a letter from one woman to another?”
“I have been very remiss about writing, and here we are, going into the New Year. Our gloomy mountains offer no break in the winter mists.” The hand was that of a very young woman.” These are cheap trinkets, but give them to the little prince, if you will.”
There was nothing remarkable about the letter. But he was curious to know who the writer might be. He took up the other. It too was, as she had said, in a woman’s hand.
“And how will our lady be, now that the New Year has come? I have no doubt that you yourself have a long list of blessings to count over. This is a beautiful house and we are well taken care of, and yet it seems a pity that the young lady should be shut away in the mountains. I have been telling her that she must stop brooding, that she must pick herself up and visit you from time to time; but she refuses because of that awful thing and goes on brooding. She is sending streamers to decorate the little prince’s room. Please show them to him when his father is away.”
It was not a very pleasing letter. It was wordy and complaining and not at all in keeping with the happy season. Puzzled, he read it again.
“You must tell me everything. Who is it from?”
“I am told that the daughter of a woman who was in service with us at Uji has been obliged to go back there.”
But it did not seem the hand of an ordinary maidservant, and the mention of “that awful thing” was a valuable hint. The streamers were charming, obviously the work of someone with a great deal of spare time, perhaps, indeed, too much. A branch at a fork in the pine had been strung with artificial red berries, and a poem attached to it:
“Our seedling pine has not known many years.
I see for it, withal, a pine’s long life.”
It was not a particularly distinguished poem. Yet he continued to read it over, sensing that it would be from a lady who had been much on his mind.
“Send off an answer. You must not be rude, and I see no need for secrecy.” He turned to go. “I have no choice but to leave you when you are in one of your moods.”
The princess summoned her women. “A great pity,” she said softly. “You had to let them fall into the hands of an infant, did you?”
“You surely don’t think we wanted it that way! No, that child is cheeky and forward and not as bright as she might be. It doesn’t take long to sort out the ones with possibilities. The quiet ones are the ones to watch.”
“Oh, don’t be angry with her,” said Nakanokimi. “She’s so young.”
The child had been put into Nakanokimi’s service the winter before. She was a pretty little thing and Niou was fond of her.
All very strange, thought Niou, back in his own rooms. Having had reports that Kaoru continued to visit Uji, and a further report that he occasionally spent the night there, he had smiled and said to himself that his friend had strange ways, even granting the associations that Uji had for him. So a lady was hidden there!
Niou remembered a certain official, a privy secretary, who had been of service to him in scholarly matters and who had close friends among Niou’s retainers. He asked the man to bring anthologies for a game of rhyme guessing.
“Just leave them in the cabinet over there, if you will. By the way: they tell me that the general is still making trips to Uji. His monastery must be very splendid — I only wish I could go have a look at it.”
“Very splendid indeed, I understand, very dignified. Especially the Chapel of the Holy Name, people tell me. I understand that he has been going more often since last fall, and his men have been spreading rumors about a lady there, someone he does not find at all unattractive, I’m sure. He’s told the people at his manor to do everything they can for her, and they post guards every night, and then he keeps sending out secret supply wagons from town. A very lucky lady — but she must be lonely and bored off there in the mountains. That’s what they say, or were saying along towards the end of last year.”
What a delightful piece of intelligence!” They haven’t said who she might be? I’ve heard that he visits a nun who’s lived there for a very long time.”
“The nun lives in a gallery. The lady herself is in the main hall, the new one. She gets by comfortably, I believe, with acceptable enough women to wait on her.”
“Very, very interesting. What plans might he have for her? And what sort of woman is she? He has his ways, you know, not at all like yours and mine. I hear that his good brother is always after him for overdoing the religious thing and spending his nights off in mountain temples. And people say that he could find plenty of other places to be religious in if he had to, and needn’t go sneaking off to Uji. It has to be because of the late princess, people say. So here we are. Interesting, do you not think? The saint who is so much better than the rest of us does have his little secrets.”
It was very interesting. The secretary was the son-in-law of Kaoru’s steward and so was apprised of very intimate matters. Niou wondered how to go about learning for certain whether it was the girl he had seen at Nijō. She must in any case be unusual if she had caught Kaoru’s eye. And why should she be close to Nakanokimi? It so irritated him that he could think of nothing else, the quite evident fact that Kaoru and Nakanokimi had spirited the girl away.
The archery meet and the literary banquet were over and there were no great demands on his time. The provincial appointments that created such a stir on certain levels were no concern of his. He could think only of slipping off to Uji. The secretary from whom he had learned Kaoru’s secret had certain ambitions, and was adept at currying favor. Niou did nothing to discourage him.
“Suppose I were to ask something really difficult of you,” he said one day. “Would you do it for me?”
The man bowed deeply.
“Well, here we are then, and I hope I won’t shock you. I’ve learned that the lady at Uji might be someone I knew for a very little while a long time ago. She disappeared, and I’ve had reports that the general may have taken her away. I can’t be really sure. I’d like to do a bit of sleuthing. Do you think something might be arranged without attracting notice?”
This would be difficult, thought the man. Still he could not refuse. “The road leads through wild mountains, but not so very far, really. If you leave in the evening you should be there by a little after ten. And it might be best to be home by dawn. No one needs to know except the men who go with you, and not even they need to know everything.
“My feelings exactly. I’ve made the trip before — but do try to keep it secret. There are always gossips who seem to think that people like me should stay at home.”
Though he knew that he was being reckless, it was now too late to withdraw. He took along two or three men who had been with him on other trips to Uji, this secretary, and the son of his old nurse, a young man who had just been promoted to the Fifth Rank for his work as a privy secretary. They were all among his closer confidants. The secretary had orders to inquire carefully into comings and goings at Sanjō, and was certain that Kaoru would not be visiting Uji in the next day or two.
Memories came flooding back. Niou found himself pulled in several directions at once. In the old days he had felt remarkably close to Kaoru, who had taken him by the hand and led him off to Uji. It bothered him a little to think what he was now doing to his good friend, and he was a little frightened too, for he was a prince, and even in the city his adventures were never secrets. Such were his thoughts as, in drab incognito, he mounted his horse; but he was of an impressionable, eagerly responsive nature. His heart rose as they pushed deeper into the mountains. Would it be much longer? Would she let him see her? A tragedy indeed if he were denied even a glimpse of her!
He had come by carriage as far as the Hōshōji Temple and from there on horseback. Making very good time, he was in Uji by perhaps eight in the evening. The secretary having questioned an attendant of Kaoru’s who was familiar with the arrangements at Uji, they were able to pull up at an unguarded spot to the west of the house. Breaking through the reed fence, they slipped inside. The secretary himself was somewhat uncertain, not really knowing his way about, but the grounds did not seem to be heavily guarded. He saw a dim light and heard a rustling of garments at the south front of the house.
“There still seem to be people up. Come this way, please, if you will.”
Niou made his way softly up the stairs and leaned forward to take advantage of a crack he had found in a shutter. The rustling of an Iyo blind gave him brief pause. The house was new and clean, and but roughly furnished. As if in confidence that no one would be looking in on them, the women inside had not bothered to cover the openings. The curtain beyond the shutter had been lifted back across its frame. In the bright light, three or four women were sewing. A pretty little maidservant was spinning thread. It was a face he had had a glimpse of in the torchlight at Nijō. Or was he perhaps mistaken? Then he saw the young woman who had announced herself as Ukon. Ukifune herself lay gazing into the light, her head pillowed on her arm. Her eyes, charmingly girlish and not without a certain dignity, and her forehead, thick hair spilling down over it, reminded him astonishingly of his princess at Nijō.
“But if you do go, I don’t imagine you’ll be coming back very soon.” It was Ukon, busy creasing a robe. “We had that messenger from the general yesterday, you know. The general will be coming on about the first of the month, we can be sure of it, once the business of the provincial appointments is out of the way. What has he said in his letters?”
Evidently sunk in thoughts of her own, the girl did not answer.
“It won’t look at all good, running off when you know he’ll be coming.”
“I think you ought to let him know about your plans,” said the woman facing Ukon. “It won’t seem very nice to go dashing off without a word to him. And I think you ought to come back as soon as you’ve had time for a prayer or two. I know this is a lonely place, but it’s a safe, quiet place too. Once you’re used to it you’ll feel more at home than you ever did in the city.”
“Don’t you think the polite thing,” said another woman, whom he could not see, “would be to wait a little while? After you’re in the city you can have a good visit with your mother. The old woman here is much too quick with her good ideas. Careful plans turn out best in the end. It is true now and it has always been true.”
“Why didn’t you stop her? Old people are such a nuisance.” These reproaches seemed to be directed at Ukifune’s nurse.
Yes, to be sure, thought Niou: there had. been a troublesome old woman with the girl. The memory of that evening had a misty, spectral quality about it.
The talk went on, so open that he was almost embarrassed. “I say the lucky one is our lady in the city. The minister throws his weight about and makes a big thing of having royalty for a son-in-law, but since our little master was born our side has had the better of it. And there aren’t any nasty, pushy old women at Nijō, and our lady can do very much as she pleases.”
“Oh, but our own lady will be doing just as well if the general keeps his promises. She’ll be there with the best of them.”
“There with the best of them!” Ukifune raised herself on an elbow. “Did you have to say that? You know I don’t want you comparing me with the lady at Nijō. What if she were to hear?”
How might the two of them be related, this girl and his own lady? There was an unmistakable resemblance. The girl was no match for the other in proud, cool elegance. She was winsome and pretty, no more, and her features were delicately formed. A suggestion of less than the rarest refinement, however, was not enough to make him withdraw when he had before his eyes a girl who had been so long and persistently on his mind.
This first good look at her left him in an agony of impatience to make her his own. It would appear that she was going on a journey. And she seemed to have parents. When would he have another such chance? What might he hope to accomplish in the course of the night?
He gazed on and on, in growing agitation.
“I’m very sleepy,” said Ukon, gathering up half-sewn garments and hanging them over the curtain rack. “I don’t know why, but I hardly slept at all last night. I can finish tomorrow morning. Even if your mother gets an earl y start it will be noon by the time she gets here.” Leaning on an armrest, she seemed about to doze off. The girl retired somewhat farther into the room and lay down. After disappearing into a back room for a time, Ukon reappeared and lay down at her feet. Soon she was fast asleep.
At a loss for other devices, Niou tapped on the shutter.
“Who is it?” asked Ukon.
He cleared his throat. A most genteel sound, thought Ukon. It would be Kaoru. She came to the shutter.
“Raise it, if you will, please.”
“You’ve chosen a strange hour. It must be very late.”
“I heard from Nakanobu that your lady would be going away, and I came running. It was a terrible trip, terrible. Do raise the shutter, please.” She obeyed, not guessing who it would be. He spoke in undertones and skillfully imitated his friend’s mannerisms. “I’m all in tatters. Something really frightful happened along the way.”
“It must have been, I’m sure.” Uncertain what to do, she put the light at a distance.
“I don’t want anyone to see me. Please don’t wake them.”
He was a clever mimic. Since their voices were similar, he was able to give a convincing enough imitation of Kaoru that he was shown to the rear of the hall. How trying for the poor man, thought Ukon, withdrawing behind a curtain. Under rough travel guise he wore robes of a fine, soft weave. His fragrance scarcely if at all inferior to Kaoru’s, he undressed as if he were in his own private rooms and lay down beside Ukifune.
“Why not where you usually sleep?”
He did not answer. Ukon spread a coverlet over her mistress, and, arousing the women nearby, asked them to lie down some slight distance away. Since it was the practice for Kaoru’s men to be accommodated elsewhere, no one sensed what was happening.
“How very sweet of him, so late at night. Doesn’t she understand?”
“Oh, do be quiet.” Some people understand too well, thought Ukon. “A whisper in the middle of the night can be worse than a scream.”
Ukifune was stunned. She knew that it was not Kaoru; but whoever it was had put his hand over her mouth. (If he was capable of such excesses at home, with everyone watching, what would he not be capable of here?) Had she known immediately that it was not Kaoru, she might have resisted, even a little; but now she was paralyzed. She had hurt him on an earlier occasion, he said, and she had been on his mind ever since; and so she quickly guessed who he was. Hideously embarrassed, horrified at the thought of what was being done to her sister, she could only weep. Niou too was in tears. It would not be easy to see her again. Might it have been better not to come at all?
And so the night sped past. Outside, an attendant coughed to warn of the approach of dawn. Ukon came out. Niou did not want to leave, for he had had far from enough of the girl’s company — and it would be difficult to come again. Very well: let them raise any sort of commotion they wished. He would not go back today. One loved while one lived. Why go back and die of longing?
He summoned Ukon. “You will think it unwise, I am sure, but I propose to spend the day here. Have my men hide somewhere not too far away, and send Tokikata to the city with good excuses — maybe he can say I’m busy praying at a mountain temple.”
Ukon was aghast. Why had she not been more careful? But she was soon in control of herself once more. What was done was done, and there was no point in antagonizing him. Call it fate, that he should have gone on thinking about Ukifune after that strange, fleeting encounter. No one was to blame.
“Her mother is sending for her today. What do you intend to do? I know that some things have to be, and there is nothing anyone can do about them; but you’ve really picked a very bad day. Suppose you come again, if you still feel in the mood.”
An able woman, thought he. “No, I’ve been wandering around in a daze all these weeks. I haven’t cared what they might be saying about me. A man in my position doesn’t go sneaking off into the night, you know, if he’s still worried about appearances. Just tell her mother there’s been a very unfortunate defilement, and send them back again. Don’t give them a hint that I’m here. For her sake and for mine. I don’t think that’s asking a great deal, and I won’t settle for less.”
He did seem so infatuated with the girl that he no longer worried about the reproaches he might call down upon himself.
Ukon went out to a man who had been nervously seeking to get Niou on his way, and informed him of these new intentions. “Go tell him, please, that this will not do. He is behaving outrageously. I don’t care what he may be thinking, what your men are thinking is more important. Are you children, bringing him out into these wilds? Country people can be unruly, you know, and they don’t always respect rank.”
The secretary had to agree that things might be difficult.
“And which of you is Tokikata?” She passed on Niou’s orders.
“Oh, but of course,” laughed Tokikata. “Any excuse to get away from that tongue of yours. But seriously: he seems very fond of her, and I intend to do what I can, even if it means, as you say, taking childish risks. Well, I’m off. They’ll soon be changing the guard.”
Ukon was in a quandary. How was she to keep Niou’s presence a secret?
“The general seems to have had reasons for coming incognito,” she said when the others were up. “Something rather awful happened to him along the way. He’s having fresh clothes sent out tonight.”
“Mount Kohata is a dreadful place. That’s what happens when you go around without a decent guard. How really dreadful.”
“Don’t shout about it, if you please. Give the servants a hint and they’ll guess everything.”
Ukon did not like it at all. She was not a natural liar. And what would she find to say if a messenger were to come from Kaoru?” Please,” she prayed, bowing in the direction of Hatsuse. “Please let this day pass like all the others.”
Ukifune and her mother were to go on a pilgrimage to Ishiyama. The women had been through all the necessary fasting and purification. For nothing, it now became apparent. How very unfortunate!
The sun had risen, the shutters were open. Ukon stayed near her mistress. Blinds were lowered to darken the main hall and bills posted announcing a retreat. Should Ukifune’s mother ask to come in, Ukon would have to say that there had been forbidding dreams in the night. She brought water to Niou and her mistress. The morning ablutions were in no way out of the ordinary, but it seemed infinitely strange to him that this new girl should be waiting on him. He invited her to wash first. Used to Kaoru’s quiet ways, she now found herself with a gentleman who proclaimed himself incapable of tolerating a moment’s separation. This must be the sort of thing people meant when they spoke of love. But what if word of this new shift in her destinies — strangest of destinies — were to get abroad? What, before anything, of Nakanokimi?
He still did not know who she was. “You are being very unkind, and I can tell you that I am not at all happy. Tell me everything, everything. There’s no need to be shy. I’ll only like you better, I vow it, whatever you tell me. Tell me your family doesn’t amount to a thing, and I’ll still like you better.”
She remained silent despite his importunings, but on other subjects she answered with a pleasing openness. He was delighted to see that she was not ill disposed toward him.
The sun was high when a retinue from the city — two carriages, seven or eight mounted warriors, rough East Country people, as always, and numbers of foot soldiers as well — arrived to escort her back. Embarrassed at their uncouth speech and manners, the women of the house shooed them out of earshot. What could she possibly say to them? Ukon was asking herself. That Kaoru was on the premises? But the lie would be transparent. Everyone knew the whereabouts of someone so prominent.
Confiding in none of the other women, she got off a letter to the girl’s mother: “Night before last her monthly defilement came on, and, to compound her unhappiness at having to cancel the pilgrimage, she had a bad dream last night. Complete retirement has seemed necessary. We are very sorry indeed — no doubt some evil spirit has been at work.”
She fed the guards and sent them on their way, and, again offering the monthly defilement as her excuse, informed the nun that they would not after all be going to Ishiyama.
Ukifune had been living in unrelieved gloom and boredom, such as to make her wonder, looking moodily out into the mist that clung to the mountains, how she could go on; but today she had interesting company, and begrudged the passage of each moment. The day sped by, a calm spring day. There was nothing to distract Niou from present delights. Her face, at which he gazed and did not tire, was pretty and gentle, and free of anything that could be counted a blemish. She was not, to be sure, the equal of his princess at Nijō, nor was she to be compared to his lady at Rokujō, now in the finest glow of youth. But there did come these occasions when the moment seemed sufficient unto itself, and he thought her the most charming creature he had ever seen. She, for her part, had thought Kaoru the handsomest of men, but here was a luster, a glow, with which he could not compete.
Niou sent for an inkstone. He wrote beautifully, even though for his own amusement, and he drew interesting pictures. What young person could have resisted him?
“You must look at this and think of me when I am not able to visit you.” He sketched a most handsome couple leaning towards each other. “If only we could be together always.” And he shed a tear.
“The promise is made for all the ages to come,
But in these our lives we cannot be sure of the morrow.
“No. I am inviting bad luck. I must control myself. It will not be easy to visit you, my dear, and the thought of not seeing you makes me want to die. Why do you suppose I have gone to all this trouble when you were not at all kind to me the last time we met?”
She took up the brush, still inked, and jotted down a poem of her own:
“Were life alone uncertain of the morrow,
Then might we count upon the heart of a man.”
It amused him that she should be reproving him for future infidelities. “And whose heart is it that you have found so undependable?” He smiled, and pressed her to tell of her arrival at Uji and of the days that had followed.
“Why must you keep asking questions that I cannot answer?” There was an open, childlike quality about the reproach that he found enchanting. He knew that the whole story would presently come out. Why then must he have it from her lips?
Tokikata returned in the evening. “There was a message from Her Majesty,” he said to Ukon. “She is very angry, and so is the minister. These secret expeditions of his suggest very bad judgment, she said, and could have embarrassing consequences. And she said — it was quite a scolding — that her own position would be impossible if His Majesty were to hear of them. I said he had gone off to visit a learned, learned man in the eastern hills.” And he added: “Women are the root of it all. Here we are, the merest bystanders, and we get pulled in, and end up telling lies.”
“How kind of you to make my lady a learned, learned man. A good deed, surely, that wipes out whatever may have been marked against you for lying. But where did he pick up his bad habits? If he had let us know in advance, well, he is a very well-placed young gentleman, and we could have arranged something. But she is right. He shows bad judgment.”
She went to transmit Tokikata’s report. True, thought Niou: they would be worried. “It is no fun,” he said to Ukifune,” living in shackles. I wish I could run about like all the others, just for a little while. But what do you think? People will find out, whatever we do. And how will my friend Kaoru take it? We have been close friends. That is only natural. But actually we have been closer than close, and I hate to think what the discovery will do to him. As they say, he may forget that he has kept you waiting and blame you for everything. I wish I could hide you somewhere from the whole world.”
He could not possibly stay another day. “My soul,” he whispered as he made ready to go, “does it linger on in your sleeve?”
Wishing to be back in the city before daylight, his men were coughing nervously. She saw him to the door, and still he could not leave her.
“What shall I do? These tears run on ahead
And plunge the road I must go into utter darkness.”
She was touched.
“So narrow my sleeves, they cannot take my tears.
How then shall I make bold to keep you with me?”
A high wind roared through the trees and the dawn was heavy with frost. Even the touch of their robes, in the moment of parting, seemed co1d. He was smitten afresh as he mounted his horse, and turned back to her; but his men were not prepared to wait longer. In a daze of longing, he at length set out. The two courtiers of the Fifth Rank who had come with him led his horse through the mountains and mounted their own only when they had come to open country. Everything, even the clattering of hoofs on the icy riverbank, brought melancholy thoughts. The pull of Uji and love, and that alone, now and in the old days, had the power to bring him through wild mountains. What strange ties he did seem to have with that remote mountain village!
Back at Nijō, he went to his own rooms, hoping to rest for a time. He had another reason for wanting to be away from Nakanokimi: he was still annoyed at her for having concealed the other girl’s whereabouts. But he could not sleep. He was lonely, and his thoughts were too much for him. Presently he gave up and went to her wing of the house. Innocent of what had happened, she was at her most beautiful. She was more beautiful than the one who had made the night before such an unmixed delight. The closeness of the resemblance brought back the full flood of his longing. Pensively, he went into her boudoir and lay down. She followed.
“I am not feeling well. I wonder if it might be something serious. I have been fond of you, and I am sure that if I were to disappear you would find a replacement in no time. He will win out in the end, I am sure.”
What a terrible thing to say — and he was not joking. “How do you suppose he will feel if he hears of these snide insinuations?” She turned away. “I have worries enough without having to defend myself against completely groundless charges.”
He looked at her solemnly. “And how will you feel if you find that I am really angry with you? I have done rather a great deal for you, I think. There are those who say I have done too much. You obviously rank me several grades below him. Well, that I can accept as fate. But it hurts me that you should seem so bent on keeping secrets from me.”
All the while he was marveling upon the forces of destiny that had made him seek the girl out. Tears came to his eyes. Moved to pity, Nakanokimi wondered what sort of rumors he could have picked up. She fell silent. His first visit to her had been the merest prank, and he could not have come away with any high regard for her determination to guard her honor. The mistake had been in admitting and indeed in feeling grateful for the services of a gentleman who, though without close ties to the Uji family, had chosen to act as intermediary. It was because of the initial mistake that she must put up with these insults. She presented a charming and pathetic figure as she lay sunk in her worries. Not wanting her to know for a time that he had found Ukifune, he sought to make her think he had good reasons for berating her. She concluded that her apparent flirtation with Kaoru lay at the heart of the matter. Someone had been talking. Unable to guess what exactly he might be charging her with, she wanted to run and hide.
An unexpected letter came from the empress. Careful to go on looking displeased, Niou withdrew to his own rooms. It said in part: “His Majesty was much upset at your absence yesterday. Unless you are indisposed, please do come today. It has been rather a long time since I last saw you myself.”
He was sorry to discommode his parents, but he really was not feeling well. He did not go to court. Large numbers of high-ranking courtiers came by but he stayed behind blinds the whole day. In the evening Kaoru called. Asking that he be shown in, Niou received him in dishabille.
“Her Majesty was terribly alarmed when she heard that you had not been well. What might the trouble be?”
The sight of him made Niou’s breath come more rapidly. Here I am in the presence of our resident saint, he was thinking; but he smells a little of the vagrant saint, I fear. Such a sweet girl, and he keeps her off in the mountains all for himself, and leaves her waiting week after week. Niou thought his friend sanctimonious, giving assurances of his sincerity when nothing in the conversation seemed to call for them. Always assiduous in his search for openings, was he not to take delicious advantage of this new secret? But sarcasm did not fit his mood. He wished that Kaoru would go away.
“This will not do,” said Kaoru most solicitously as he got up to leave. “You may think it is nothing at all, but when these little complaints refuse to clear up after a few days they can be dangerous. You must take care of yourself.”
The man had a remarkable way of making one feel defeated, thought Niou. And how would the girl at Uji be rating them against each other, Kaoru and himself? So each passing incident brought her back — not that she was ever far away.
At Uji the days went by in dull procession, now that the trip to Ishiyama no longer offered relief. Niou wrote at almost tedious length of his impatience and frustration. Knowing that he could not be too careful, he chose for his messenger a man of Tokikata’s who knew little of the situation at Uji. The man always went to Ukon.
“We were very fond of each other, once upon a time,” said Ukon to her fellows. “He discovered me here when he came with the general, and now he wants to be friends again.” She had become adept at lying.
The First Month passed. A trip to Uji was for Niou almost an impossibility, however restless he might be. He was sure that this new obsession was taking years from his life; and so there came thoughts of death to intensify the gloom.
Kaoru, meanwhile, having a brief respite from his duties, set off in his usual quiet way for Uji. He went first to pay his respects and offer a prayer at the monastery. In the evening, after distributing gifts to the monks whom he had put to invoking the holy name, he went on to the Uji villa. Though incognito might have been appropriate, he had made no attempt to hide his rank. In informal but careful court dress, he was the embodiment of calm nobility. How could she possibly receive him? thought Ukifune, in near panic. The very skies seemed to reproach her. The dashing figure of his rival came back to her. Could she see him again? Niou had said that she had every chance of driving all his other ladies away and capturing his affections for herself alone. She had heard that he was ill and had sharply curtailed his affairs, and that his house echoed with services for his recovery. How hurt he would be when he learned of this visit! Kaoru was very different. He had an air as of unsounded depths and a quiet, meditative dignity. He used few words as he apologized for his remissness and he said almost nothing that suggested loneliness and deprivation. Yet he did say, choosing his words most carefully, that he had wanted to see her, and his controlled earnestness moved her more than any number of passionate avowals could have. He was very handsome; but that aside, she was sure that he would be a more reliable support, over long years, than Niou. It would be a great loss if he were to catch word of the strange turn her affections had taken. Niou’s improbable behavior had left its mark, and she had to thank him for it; but he was altogether too impetuous. She could expect nothing of an enduring nature from him. She would be very sad indeed if Kaoru were to fling her away in anger.
She was a sad little figure, lost in the turmoil of her thoughts. She had matured, acquired new composure, over the months. No doubt, in the boredom of country life, she had had time for meditation.
“The house I am building is almost finished.” His tone was more intimate and affectionate than usual. “I went to see it the other day. The waters are gentle, as different as they can be from this wild river, and the garden has all the flowers of the city. It is very near my Sanjō place. Nothing need keep us from seeing each other every day. I’d like to move you there in the spring, I think, if you don’t mind.”
Niou could scarcely have known of his friend’s plans when, in a letter the day before, he had spoken of finding a quiet place for her. She was very sorry, but she should not yield further, she knew, to his advances. And yet his image did keep floating before her eyes. What a wretched predicament to be in!
“Life was much easier and much pleasanter,” said Kaoru, “back in the days when you were not quite so given to tears. Has someone been talking about me? Would a person in my position come over such a long and difficult road if he had less than the best intentions?”
He went to the veranda railing and sat gazing at the new moon. They were both lost in thoughts, he of the past, of days and people now gone, she of the future and her growing troubles. The scene was perfection: the hills were veiled in a mist, and crested herons had gathered at a point along the frozen strand. Far down the river, where the Uji bridge cut its dim arc, faggot-laden boats were weaving in and out. All the details peculiar to the place were brought together. When he looked out upon the scene it was always as if events of old were fresh before his eyes. Even had he been with someone for whom he cared nothing, the air of Uji would have brought on strange feelings of intimacy. How much more so in the company of a not unworthy substitute for Oigimi. Ukifune was gaining all the while in assurance and discernment, in her awareness of how city people behaved, and she was more beautiful each time he saw her. At a loss to console her, for it seemed that her tears were about to spill over, he offered a poem:
“No need to grieve. The Uji bridge stands firm.
They too stand firm, the promises I have made you.
“I am sure that you know what I mean.”
“The bridge has gaps, one crosses gingerly.
Can one be sure it will not rot away?”
He found it more difficult than ever to leave her. But people talked, and he would have his fill of her company once he had moved her to the city. He left at dawn. These evidences of improvement added to the sorrow of parting.
Toward the middle of the Second Month the court assembled to compose Chinese poety. Both Niou and Kaoru were present. The music was appropriate to the season, and Niou was in fine voice as he sang “A Branch of Plum.” Yes, he was the most accomplished of them all, everyone said. His one failing, not an easy one to forgive, was a tendency to lose himself in amorous dalliance of an unworthy sort.
It began to snow and a wind had come up. The festivities were quickly halted and everyone withdrew to Niou’s rooms, where a light repast was served. Kaoru was called out to receive a message. The snow, now deeper, was dimly lit by the stars. The fragrance which he sent back into the room made one think how uselessly “the spring night’s darkness” was laboring to blot it out.
“Does she await me?” he said to himself, able somehow to infuse even such tiny, disjointed fragments of poetry with sudden life.
Of all the poems he could have picked, thought Niou. His heart racing, he pretended to be asleep. Clearly his friend’s feelings for Ukifune passed the ordinary. He had hoped that the lady at the bridge had spread her cloak for him alone, and it was sad and annoying that Kaoru should have similar hopes. Drawn to such a man, could the girl possibly shift her affections to a trifler like himself?
The next day, with snow drifted high outside, the courtiers appeared in the imperial presence to read their poems. Niou was very handsome, indeed at his youthful best. Kaoru, perhaps because he was two or three years o1der, seemed the calmer and more mature of the two, the model of the personable, cultivated young aristocrat. Everyone agreed that the emperor could not have found a better son-in-law. He had unusual literary abilities and a good head for practical matters as well. Their poems read, the courtiers withdrew. The assembly was loud in proclaiming the superiority of Niou’s, but he was not pleased. How easygoing they were, he said to himself, how fortunate to have room in their heads for such trivia.
Some days later, unsettled still at Kaoru’s behavior that snowy evening, Niou made elaborate excuses and set out for Uji. In the capital only traces of snow remained, as if awaiting a companion, but in the moun- tains the drifts were gradually deeper. The road was even more difficult than he had remembered it. His men were near tears from apprehension and fatigue. The secretary who had been his guide to Uji was also vice-minister of rites. Both positions carried heavy responsibilities, and it was ridiculous to see him hitching up his trousers like any ordinary foot soldier.
The people at Uji had been warned, but were sure that he would not brave the snow. Then, late in the night, word was brought in to Ukon of his arrival. So he really was fond of her, thought Ukifune. Ukon’s worries — how would it all end? she had been asking herself — dropped away, at least for the night. There was no way of turning him back, and she concluded that someone else must now be made a partner in the conspiracy. She chose the woman Jijū, who was another of Ukifune’s special favorites, and who could be trusted not to talk.
“It is most improper, I know,” said Ukon, “but we must stand together and keep it from the others.”
They led him inside. The perfume from his wet robes, flooding into the deepest corners of the hall, could have been troublesome; but they told everyone, convincingly enough, that their visitor was Kaoru. To go back before dawn would be worse than not to have come at all; yet someone was certain to spy him out in the morning light. He had therefore asked Tokikata to have a certain house beyond the river made ready. Tokikata, who had gone on ahead to see to the arrangements, returned late in the night and reported that everything was in the best of order. Ukon too was wondering how he meant to keep the escapade a secret. She had been awakened from deep slumber and she was trembling like a child lost in the snow.
Without a word, he took Ukifune up in his arms and carried her off. Jijū followed after and Ukon was left to watch the house. Soon they were aboard one of the boats that had seemed so fragile out on the river. As they rowed into the stream, she clung to Niou, frightened as an exile to some hopelessly distant shore. He was delighted. The moon in the early-morning sky shone cloudless upon the waters. They were at the Islet of the Oranges said the boatman, pulling up at a large rock over which ever-greens trailed long branches.
“See,” said Niou, “they are fragile pines, no more, but their green is so rich and deep that it lasts a thousand years.
“A thousand years may pass, it will not waver,
This vow I make in the lee of the Islet of Oranges.”
What a very strange place to be, thought the girl.
“The colors remain, here on the Islet of Oranges.
But where go I, a boat upon the waters?”
The time was right, and so was the girl, and so was her poem: for him, at least, things could not have been more pleasingly arranged.
They reached the far bank of the river. An attendant helped him ashore, the girl still in his arms. No one else was to touch her, he insisted.
The custodian of the house was wondering what sort of woman could have produced such an uncourtly uproar. It was a temporary house, rough and unfinished, which Tokikata’s uncle, the governor of Inaba, had put up on one of his manors. Crude plaited screens such as Niou had not seen before offered almost no resistance to the wind. There were patches of snow at the fence, clouds had come up, bringing new flurries of snow, and icicles glistened at the eaves. In the daylight the girl seemed even prettier than by candlelight. Niou was dressed simply, against the rigors of the journey. A fragile little figure sat huddled before him, for he had slipped off her outer robe. And so here she was, she said to herself, not even properly dressed, before a royal prince. There was nothing, nothing at all, to protect her from his gaze. She was wearing five or six white singlets, somewhat rumpled, soft and lustrous to the hems of the sleeves and skirts, more pleasing, he thought, than any number of colors piled one upon another. He seldom saw women with whom he kept constant company in quite such informal dress. He was enchanted.
And so Jijū too (a pretty young woman) was witness to the scene. Who might she be? Niou had asked when he saw her climbing uninvited into the boat. She must not be told his name. Jijū, for her part, was dazzled. She had not been in the company of such a fine gentleman before.
The custodian made a great fuss over Tokikata, thinking him to be the leader of the party. Tokikata, who had appropriated the next room for himself, was in good form. He made an amusing game of evading the questions the custodian kept putting in reverent tones.
“There have been bad omens, very bad, and I must stay away from the city for a while. No one is to see me.”
And so Niou and Ukifune passed pleasant hours with no fear of being observed. No doubt, thought Niou, once more in the clutches of jealousy, she was equally amiable when she received Kaoru. He let it be known that Kaoru had taken the emperor’s own daughter for his bride and seemed devoted to her. He declined (let us say out of charity) to mention the snatch of poetry he had overheard that snowy evening.
“You seem to be cock of the walk,” he said when Tokikata came with towels and refreshments.” But keep out of sight while you’re about it. Someone might want to imitate you.”
Jijū, a susceptible young lady, was having such a good time. She spent the whole day with Tokikata.
Looking towards the city over the drifting snow, Niou saw forests emerging from and sinking back into the clouds. The mountain above caught the evening glow as in a minor. He described, with some embroidering, the horror of last night’s journey. A crude rustic inkstone having been brought to him, he set down a poem as if in practice:
“I pushed through snowy peaks, past icy shores,
Dauntless all the way — O daunting one!
“It is true, of course, that I had a horse at Kohata.”
In her answering poem she ventured an objection:
“The snow that blows to the shore remains there, frozen.
Yet worse my fate: I am caught, dissolve in midair.”
This image of fading in midair rather annoyed him. Yes, she was being difficult, she had to agree, tearing the paper to bits. He was always charming, and he was quite irresistible when he was trying to please.
He had said that he would be in retreat for two days. Each unhurried hour seemed to bring new intimacy. The clever Ukon contrived pretexts for sending over fresh clothes. Jijū smoothed her mistress’s hair and helped her into a robe of deep purple and a cloak of figured magenta lined also with magenta — an unexceptionable combination. Taking up Jijū‘s apron, he had Ukifune try it on as she ladled water for him. Yes, his sister the First Princess would be very pleased to take such a girl into her service. Her ladies-in-waiting were numerous and wellborn, but he could think of none among them capable of putting the girl to shame.
But let us not look in too closely upon their dalliance.
He told her again and again how he wanted to hide her away, and he tried to extract unreasonable promises from her. “You are not to see him, understand, until everything is arranged.”
That was too much to ask of her. She shed a few silent tears. He, for his part, was almost strangled with jealousy. Even now she was unable to forget Kaoru! He talked on and on, now weeping, now reproaching her.
Late in the night, again in a warm embrace, they started back across the river.
“I doubt if the man to whom you seem to give the top ranking can be expected to treat you as well. You will know what I mean, I trust.”
It was true, she thought, nodding. He was delighted.
Ukon opened the side door and the girl went in, and he was left feeling utterly desolate.
As usual after such expeditions, he returned to Nijō. His appetite quite left him and he grew paler and thinner by the day, to the consternation of the whole court. In the stir that ensued he was unable to get a decent letter off to Uji.
That officious nurse of Ukifune’s had been with her daughter, who was in confinement; but now that she was back Ukifune was scarcely able to glance at such letters as did come. Her mother hated having her off in the wilderness, but consoled herself with the thought that Kaoru would make a dependable patron and guardian. The indications were that he would soon, albeit in secret, move her to a place near his Sanjō mansion. Then they would be able to look the world square in the face! The mother began seeking out accomplished serving women and pretty little girls and sending them off to her daughter. All this was as it should be, Ukifune knew; yet the image of the dashing, impetuous Niou, now reproaching her, now wheedling and cajoling, insisted upon coming back. When she dozed off for a moment, there he would be in her dreams. How much easier for everyone if he would go away!
The rains continued, day after day. Chafing at his inability to travel that mountain road, Niou thought how constricting was “the cocoon one’s parents weave about one” — and that was scarcely a kind way to characterize the concern his royal parents felt for him. He sent off a long letter in which he set down his thoughts as they came to him.
“I gaze your way in search of the clouds above you.
I see but darkness, so dreary these days of rain.”
His hand was if anything more interesting the less care he took with it. She was still young and rather flighty, and these avowals of love set up increasingly strong tremors in response. Yet she could not forget the other gentleman, a gentleman of undoubted depth and nobility, perhaps because it was he who had first made her feel wanted. Where would she turn if he were to hear of this sordid affair and abandon her? And her mother, who lived for the day when he would give her a home, would certainly be upset, and very angry too. Prince Niou, judging from his letters, burned with impatience; but she had heard a great deal about his volatility and feared that his fondness for her was a matter of the passing moment. Supposing he were indeed to hide her away and number her among his enduring loves — how could she then face Nakanokimi, her own sister? The world kept no secrets, as his success in searching her out after that strange, fleeting encounter in the dusk had demonstrated. Kaoru might bring her into the city, but was it possible that his rival would fail to seek her out there too? And if Kaoru were to turn against her, she knew that she would have herself to blame.
Her thoughts had reached this impasse when a second letter came, this one from Kaoru. Ranged side by side, the two letters seemed to reproach her. She went off and lay down with Niou’s, the longer of the two. Ukon and Jijū exchanged glances: so the game was over, and Niou had won.
“Perfectly natural,” said Jijū. “I really thought I had never seen a finer man than the general, but the prince is so handsome, especially when he’s just being himself. If he ever paid that much attention to me, I can tell you, I’d be making my plans right now. I’d be looking for a place with Her Majesty, and then I could see him every day of the week.”
“I can see that you bear watching. But I don’t agree. The general is the finest of them all. I don’t care about looks. Manners and disposition, those are the things that count. But she has worked herself into a fine predicament, on that I think we can agree. Whatever will become of her?”
Life was easier for Ukon, however. It was easier to tell lies and invent excuses now that there were two of them.
“I have been very remiss,” said Kaoru’s letter in part, “though you may be sure that you have been constantly on my mind. I would be very pleased indeed if I might have a note from you now and then. Can you have led yourself to believe that I do not care for you?
“The long, dark rains go on, one’s heart is dark.
Will it be so in yon village of rising waters?
“My longing to see you is greater with each passing day.”
It was on prim white paper in a formal envelope. The writing lacked subtlety, perhaps, but suggested breeding and sensitivity.
Niou’s letter was interesting too. Long and detailed and intricately folded, it was as different from Kaoru’s as a letter could possibly be. She must answer it first, while no one else was with her, said one of the two women. She took up her brush — but no, she could not possibly. As if by way of practice, she set down a poem:
“‘Gloom’ is the name of Uji in Yamashiro.
It speaks of the lives of us who dwell in its compass.”
Sometimes she would take out the sketch Niou had made for her, and weep. His love would not last, it could not, she told herself, wishing that quiet resignation would come to her. But she wept more bitterly at the thought that she might one day be torn from him.
At length she sent an answer. He wept quite unapologetically as he read it:
“I wish to be as the cloud that darkens the peak.
Better so than aimlessly drifting through life.
“Were I to join them . . . ”
She did, after all, seem fond of him. He thought again of that pathetic little figure, huddled up as if in defense against its own thoughts.
And the more proper of the two suitors was meanwhile reading his note over and over. He deeply sympathized, and wanted very much to see her. This was her poem:
“The tedious days of rain, incessant rain,
They speak to me of me. Yet wetter my sleeves.”
“I have hesitated to mention it, not for the world wanting to offend you,” he said to his wife; “but the truth is that I have left an old friend out in the country, and she is so unhappy there that I am thinking of bringing her into town. I have always been an odd sort of man, reconciled to living an odd life; but you have made me see that I am not capable of running away from the world. And so it makes me feel sad and guilty to have these little secrets.”
“I see no reason at all to be jealous,” she replied.
“But what will people say to your father? They will talk, you know, and gossip can be a nuisance. Not that she is important enough to produce a really good scandal.”
He had a house for the girl, but he squirmed at the thought of having it said that he was readying himself a pleasant trysting place. In the greatest secrecy he commissioned paintings for the doors. And the man whom he chose to make his special confidant was the father-in-law of the secretary who had taken Niou to Uji. The news, nothing omitted, was promptly relayed to Niou.
“He has the services of artists whom he trusts completely. It is an out-of-the-way little place, but he doesn’t seem to care a thing about the expense.”
Niou saw that he must act quickly. He remembered that his old nurse had a house in the lower reaches of the city and that she would shortly be going to a remote province with her husband, who was to be governor.
“I have someone whom it seems important to keep out of sight,” he said to her.
The nurse and her family had misgivings. What sort of woman would he be after this time? But it was not theirs to refuse what seemed important to him. Something would be arranged, they sent back, and his spirits revived. The governor was to leave towards the end of the month. Niou decided to move the girl into the house on the very day of his departure. Word was sent to Uji, with emphasis on the need for secrecy. It would of course be out of the question for Niou to go there himself, and word came back that there might be complications because of that overzealous nurse.
Kaoru was meanwhile making his own plans: he would send for Ukifune on the tenth day of the Fourth Month. Though Ukifune was not disposed to follow “whatever waters beckon,” she could not imagine what else she was to do with herself. Utterly distraught, she wanted only to go home, there to spend a few days in quiet thought. But the governor’s house would be overrun with priests and noisy with prayers and incantations, for the sister, the lieutenant’s wife, was in confinement. Nor would it be possible, in the circumstances, to think of a trip to Ishiyama.
One day her mother came calling.
The nurse bustled about playing the good hostess. “The general has been so nice about clothes and all. I would have been very glad, I’m sure, to do it all myself, but of course I’m just a woman. We women do make the worst bungle of things.”
Faced with all this joy, the giri could only think of impending disaster. The whole world would be laughing at them.
There had come yet another letter from the importunate Niou. He would seek her out, he declared, even if she hid behind the eightfold mountain mists. The two of them would then have no recourse but to die. Far better to slip off somewhere together.
What was she to do? In hopeless indecision, she lay down again.
“My, but you do look pale.” Her mother was openly surprised. “And I think you’ve lost weight.”
“She hasn’t been herself for days and days. She won’t eat a bite, and she seems so tired and mopish all the time.”
“Something has gotten at her. Oh, my! Could it be that, I wonder. But of course we did have to cancel the trip to Ishiyama.”
The girl looked away.
In the evening the moon was bright. She was on the edge of tears as she thought of the moon in the dawn that other night. But she must drive it from her mind.
The governor’s wife invited Bennokimi over to exchange memories of days long past. The nun spoke of Oigimi, of what a sober, deliberate lady she had been and of how, in her worries, she had faded away before their eyes.
“And if she had lived, she too would have had your daughter to share her thoughts with. What a consolation that would have been for them.”
What right had they to look down upon her daughter? the governor’s wife was muttering to herself. Was she not one of them? Well, if fate proved as kind as they now had reason to expect, she would be one of them.
“Over the years she has been my great worry, and now things seem to be going a little better. Once she’s moved into town I don’t suppose I’ll have much reason to come all these miles out into the country. But don’t think I haven’t enjoyed it. So nice to have a good, quiet talk now and then about old times.”
“I seem to bring people bad luck, and so I’ve kept my distance. I haven’t really had a decent talk with her yet. I’ll be lonely all the same when she leaves me. But this is no place for a young girl. It’s best that she go. I’ve said that the general isn’t one for quick, easy flirtations, and that only a very unusual attraction could bring him all this way; and I haven’t lied to you.”
“A person can never tell, of course, what will happen over the years; but at the moment he does seem pleased with her. I’m sure I have you to thank for it. Her sister at Nijō was far kinder to her than she had any right to expect, but there was that unfortunate incident, you know, and where was I to leave her?”
The nun smiled. “Yes, he is a troublemaker, a young gentleman of affairs, altogether too many of them. Sensible women think several times before they go to work in that house. Tayū‘s daughter Ukon says he’s a very attractive young man, but he has his ways, and they are always holding their breath, wondering what might happen next to upset their lady.”
Ukifune listened in silence. Serving women, thought she, mere serving women; and what of her, Nakanokimi’s own sister?
“Disgusting. But the general now. He’s married a royal princess but I say — it may not be my place, but I say — it doesn’t matter a bit who he takes in now and whether it works or not. You may tell me it’s not my place to say so, but that’s what I think. But if something were to happen, something to set tongues to wagging, well, I would be very sorry, of course, but that would be that. She wouldn’t be my daughter any more.”
The girl felt as if she were being cut to shreds. She wanted to die. It could only be a matter of time before word reached her mother.
And outside the river roared. “There are gentler rivers,” said her mother, somewhat absentmindedly.” I’m sure the general feels guilty about leaving her all this time in this godforsaken place.”
Yes, it was a terrible river, swift and treacherous, said one of the women. “Why, just the other day the ferryman’s little grandson slipped on his oar and fell in. Any number of people have drowned in it.”
If she herself were to disappear, thought Ukifune, people would grieve for a while, but only for a time; and if she were to live on, an object of ridicule, there would be no end to her woes. Death would cancel out the accounts, nothing seemed to stand in the way. But no — that would be too cruel to her mother. Her thoughts in a turmoil, she pretended to be asleep, and before her was a vision of her bereaved mother, wailing and lamenting.
They must arrange for invocations to the Blessed One, said the governor’s wife, remarking again upon these alarming evidences of decline, and there must be lustrations and propitiatory rites to the native gods as well.
She rambled on, quite unaware of what these “lustrations” of hers might mean to her daughter, of the stain the girl would want to wash away in the river Mitarashi.
“You don’t have enough people here,” continued the mother, over-looking nothing. “Hunt up people you can trust and leave these new ones out. She may think it’s easy enough to rub elbows with the great ones, but if things go a little wrong there’s bound to be fighting. Be careful, and don’t let anyone know what you’re up to. Well, I must be off. I am a little worried about the other girl, you know.”
Utterly helpless in the face of disaster, half convinced that they would not meet again, the girl clung to her mother. “I am not at all well, and I hate being alone. Let me come with you, just for a few days.”
“I wish it were possible, really I do. But the house is so small, and you can’t imagine what it’s like now. And you do have to get ready, you know. Your girls couldn’t get the tiniest thing done there.” She was weeping. “I’d find ways to see you, believe me I would, even if you were to go off to Takefu. But you know how it is. There’s very little I can do for you.”
Kaoru wrote asking after her health, for she had told him that she was not well. “I wish I could see you, but I am quite buried in trivial paperwork. We do not have much longer to wait — and the result is that waiting becomes more difficult each day.”
And another letter came from Niou. “What are you worried about this time? I wonder. I too am worried, indeed beside myself with worry. Might something have led the smoke’in a rather surprising direction’?” This was far from all. His letters tended to be much longer than Kaoru’s.
The two messengers had crossed paths that rainy day and today they met again. Kaoru’s messenger, a guardsman, had occasionally seen the other, a groom, in the house of that accommodating secretary.
“And what brings your honorable self out into the country so often?” he asked.
“Well, you see, there’s someone here I write little notes to.”
“Come, now. You deliver your own notes? I suspect you’re not telling me everything.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, the governor, you see, is in touch with someone here.”
It all seemed very odd, very improbable. This was not, however, the time to press the matter, and they went their separate ways. Kaoru’s man, who had a good head, turned to the boy with him.
“Trail him and see if he goes to the governor’s house.”
“He went to Prince Niou’s,” reported the lad, “and gave the letter to the vice-minister of rites.”
Niou’s man, less intelligent, had not guessed that they would take the trouble to follow him, and in any case (sad but true) he did not really know what he had been up to.
The guardsman arrived back at Sanjō just as Kaoru, in casual court dress, was setting out for Rokujō, where the empress was in residence. His retinue was modest.
“I’m a little late,” said the man, handing his note to someone in the retinue,” because I’ve been looking into something very odd.”
Kaoru overheard. “And what was it?” he asked, coming out.
But the man only bowed, not wanting the other to hear. Kaoru understood and started on his way.
The empress again being indisposed, though lightly, all her sons were with her, and the Rokujō house swarmed with high-ranking courtiers. The secretary, a very busy man (he was also vice-minister of rites, as we have seen), was late in making his appearance. Niou took Ukifune’s note, along with several others, at the doorway to one of the withdrawing rooms. On his way from an interview with the empress, Kaoru sensed something furtive in the meeting and stopped to watch. Niou opened the most important letter first. It seemed to be in a delicate hand on fine red paper. Engrossed, Niou did not look Kaoru’s way. Just then Yūgiri passed on his way from the royal bedchamber. Stepping from behind a door, Kaoru coughed to warn his friend. Niou shoved the letter out of sight as Yūgiri moved on, and, in confusion, redid his blouse strings.
“I think I will go too,” said Kaoru, bowing deeply and hurrying after Yūgiri. “Itmakes you wonder, when she hasn’t had one of these spells in such a long time. Maybe we should send off to Hiei for the abbot.”
It was late in the night when the last of the courtiers left the empress. Yūgiri, with Niou leading the way and his sons of various ranks trooped around him, went off to his own quarter. Kaoru started for home a few minutes later. Curious about the man who had been to Uji, he took advantage of a moment when his attendants were down in the garden readying torches.
“What were you talking about?”
“At Uji this morning there was a man who works for Lord Tokikata, the governor of Izumo. He had a very interesting letter, on purple tissue paper, tied to a cherry branch, and he gave it to a woman at the west door. When I asked him about it afterwards, his answers didn’t make much sense. I was sure he was lying. I couldn’t imagine why he would want to lie to me and so I had the boy trail him. He went to Prince Niou’s and gave the answer from Uji to Lord Michisada.”
Very odd indeed. “What was the answer like, and who gave it to him?”
“It was handed out from another door and I didn’t see it myself. But the boy said it was a very elegant note on red paper.”
Without doubt the note that had so enthralled Niou. Kaoru was much impressed with the man’s perspicacity, but he was not as lavish with his praise as he would have wished to be. People might be listening.
His thoughts on the way home were far from pleasant. What a very clever fellow his friend was! How had he learned that the girl was at Uji? How had he arranged to be in communication with her? Kaoru had thought that so far from the city she would be in no danger. He had been naïve. Niou could have as many ladies as he wished if they were his alone; but how could he be so unfeeling towards the friend who had been so close to him, who had acted as guide and intermediary, indeed almost as procurer, in the Uji days? Kaoru had kept his longing for Nakanokimi under tight control, and now his forbearance seemed merely stupid. His feelings for her went far beyond a passing attachment of yesterday and today. There was that bond between them over so many years. He had controlled himself, wanting to spare her pain, and wanting to have nothing on his own conscience; and he had been very stupid indeed. With all those hordes of people around the empress, how had Niou managed to get a letter off to distant Uji? Had he already seen the girl? Love did have a way of keeping one on the road. And Niou’s whereabouts had given cause for speculation and inquiry these last days, and he had been vaguely unwell, and his ailments could frequently be traced to amatory sources. Kaoru thought of Niou’s distress — everyone had been so sorry for him — at being unable to see Nakanokimi. Ukifune’s moodiness on their last meeting no longer puzzled him.
Such was the human heart. So charming and quiet on the surface, she was a good match for Niou. They were meant for each other. Perhaps he should withdraw in Niou’s favor. But he had never, not in his most sentimental moments, thought her the only one for him. He would leave her to other affairs as she chose to have them, and take her for what she was. He knew that a decision to send her away would not come easily.
His men could see all too clearly that he was lost in a black reverie.
If in his anger he were to abandon her, Niou would no doubt take her in; but Niou was not one to dwell carefully and compassionately upon the distant future. There were already two or three women of whom he had wearied and whom he had put in the service of the First Princess. Kaoru did not want to hear that Ukifune had joined the company. He would not, he concluded once again, find it easy to dismiss her.
He wrote inquiring after her health. Choosing a moment when there was no danger of being overheard, he summoned that astute guardsman.
“Is Lord Michisada still with Nakanobu’s daughter?”
“Yes, my lord, it seems that he is.”
“And does he make it a practice to send that man to Uji? There is a lonely lady there and he may have his eye on her.” He sighed. “Well, see that no one goes trailing you. We’d look very silly.”
The man bowed. He remembered that Michisada was always prying into Kaoru’s affairs and had asked about the situation at Uji, but it seemed wise not to tell unsolicited tales. Kaoru questioned him no further. Too much had been spied out already, he feared.
At Uji, the increasing frequency of his messages was a new worry. The latest said only:
“It yet stands firm, the pineclad mount of Su?”
Thought I. And even then the waves engulfed it!
Do not, I pray, make us an object of unkind laughter.”
An odd thing to say — what could he mean? She did not wish to make it seem that he had scored a hit, and it was always possible that there had been a mistake.
She refolded the note and added a note of her own: “This seems to have been missent. I am not at all well, and am sure that you will forgive me for not writing a decent letter.”
He smiled as he read it. This talent for evasion had not been apparent earlier. He could not really be angry with her.
She was in despair. He had not exactly said so, but he had hinted rather broadly that he knew. The strangest, unhappiest of fates was pressing down upon her.
“Why are you sending the general’s letter back?” Ukon had come in. “That’s as good as inviting bad luck.”
“It doesn’t seem to be for me. The address must be wrong.”
Ukon thought her mistress’s behavior very odd, and (knowing perfectly well that good servants should be more reticent) unfolded the note as she took it back to the messenger.
“Very sad,” she said to Ukifune, not letting it be known that she had seen the letter. “For you, for me, for all of us. The general seems to have guessed.”
Ukifune flushed and did not answer. She concluded that someone had been talking. She did not ask who it might be. How would she seem to her women, what would be on their minds? She had not asked for these complications. Her hapless destiny was working itself out.
“Let me tell you about my sister,” Ukon was saying to Jijū. “It was when we were off in Hitachi. This sort of thing can happen to the likes of us too, you know. She had two men after her, and she just couldn’t make up her mind, they both seemed so fond of her. Then she began edging toward the new one and the other up and killed him. And never spoke to her again. So we lost a good soldier, and the other one, the one who did the murdering, he was a good man too, but naturally he couldn’t be kept on. So he was ordered to leave Hitachi, and my sister was let go from the governor’s house, because, after all, nothing would have happened if it hadn’t been for her and her bad habits. She stayed on in the east and (more’s the sin) Nurse goes on weeping for her to this very day. You may think I’m asking for trouble when I say so, but it’s just not the sort of thing people do. I don’t care what sort of families they come from, a muddle is a muddle. It doesn’t always end up in bloodshed, of course, but things every bit as bad can happen, I don’t care whether you’re a princess or a laundress. I don’t know, maybe it’s even worse for a princess. Maybe she’d be better off dead than in a predicament like my sister’s. Well, my lady. Make up your mind. If the prince seems so fond of you, just panting after you, then go to him, and stop moping. There’s no point at all in letting yourself waste away. Your mother is so worried, and Nurse is all in a dither about the general and his plans for you. Myself, I wish the prince would just go away and stop trying to snatch you from under the general’s nose.”
“You’re dreadful.” Jijū preferred Niou and did not hesitate to say so. “No one can fight his destiny, my lady, and yours is to go to the one you’re even a little fonder of. And really, the prince is so warm about it all, so sincere, why, my lady, you couldn’t think of throwing it all away. I can see that you’re not happy about these people trying to rush you off into the general’s arms. You may have to hide yourself for a little while, but I say you should go to the one you like best.”
“I don’t care which one she goes to. I just want her to go safely, and I’ve said my prayers at Hatsuse and at Ishiyama too. The people on the general’s land are thugs, there’s no other way to describe them, and this town is swarming with them, all related to each other. Everyone here in Yamashiro and over in Yamato is related to Udoneri and that Ukonnodaibu, you know, his son-in-law, the ones the general left to look after us. I’m not saying, mind you, that a fine gentleman like the general himself would order any rough business, but you can’t tell about country people, and they’re the ones who take turns guarding the house. Every last one of them is determined that nothing will go wrong while he is on duty — it’s a point of honor — and, why, anything could happen. It was very foolish and very careless of the prince to do what he did the other night. He’s so bent on secrecy that he comes incognito with no guard to speak of at all. Anything could happen, I tell you, if one of those men were to catch him.”
Ukifune listened in an agony of embarrassment. It was clear that they had guessed everything, even her feelings toward Niou. She had not decided upon either of the two. Niou’s ardor quite dizzied her, and left her incredulous that she should be its cause and object; and on the other hand she could not bring herself to say her final farewells to the man who had so long been her chief source of strength. Hence her agony and the paralyzing indecision. And how awful if Niou’s heedlessness really were to invite “rough business.”
“Leave me alone, please. Please — just let me die.” She lay with her face pressed against a cushion. “Has anyone, the lowest beggar, ever had more to worry about than I have?”
“You are not to say so. I was only flying to make things a little easier for you. You used to throw off worries as if they weren’t there, and now you fret and fret. I really don’t understand you.”
For the two women who knew the truth, the tension mounted. Nurse, meanwhile, hummed a happy song as she went on with her preparations, dyeing this piece of cloth, cutting that. “Now here’s someone who might amuse you,” she said, calling to Ukifune’s side a pretty little girl who had just come into their service. “Do you have to lie around the house all day long when there’s nothing in the world the matter with you? I wonder if someone might be trying to get at you and spoil everything.”
The days went by and there was no answer from Kaoru. One afternoon that Udoneri whom Ukon had described as so menacing came to the house. He was an old man with a rough growl, not at all refined; yet something in his manner commanded respect.
“I want to speak to one of the ladies.” Ukon came out. “The general sent for me and I went to town this morning. I’ve just come back. He gave me a long list of orders. He’d trusted us to keep guard all night and hadn’t sent guards from town. Now he’s heard that men with no business here have been seen around the place. Our fault, nobody else’s, he said. We might try keeping our eyes open. If we weren’t up to it, well, he’d have to think of something else, and it might not be good for us. He sent out a man with his orders and that’s what he told the man to tell me. I told the man to tell him I’d been sick myself and off duty, and wouldn’t know what might be going on. They had been told to keep their eyes and ears open, I said, and they’d have told me if they’d seen any prowlers. The general said he’d know what to do with us if it happened again. What was he talking about? It didn’t make me feel very good, you can guess.”
An owl hooting beside her pillow could not have given Ukon a more unpleasant start. Silently, she went back into the house. “I was right. The general knows everything. That’s why he’s stopped writing.”
Nurse had overheard only a part of Udoneri’s remarks. “Good. He needed a dressing down. They’ve been careless and there are robbers all over the place. He sends plowboys to keep watch. Nobody really keeps watch at all.”
Ukifune saw doom approaching. Niou wrote asking over and over again to be kept abreast of the preparations, and pleading the unhappiness of “waiting, as the moss beneath the pines.” Doom seemed to come yet a few steps closer. One or the other of the two men was certain to be made desperately unhappy, and the obvious solution was for her to disappear. Long ago there had been a maiden who drowned herself for no greater cause than that two men seemed equally fond of her. Why should she have regrets for a world that promised only torment? Her mother would grieve for a time; but she had all those other children and would presently gather grasses of forgetfulness. Death would bring less lingering sorrow than disgrace. Ukifune was on the surface a gentle, docile, obedient girl, but perhaps because she had been reared on the outer edges of society, she was capable of sudden, impulsive action. Unobtrusively, she began tearing up suggestive papers, burning them in her lamp and sending the ashes down the river. Women not in her confidence assumed that she was destroying fugitive notes written to beguile the tedium and not worth taking to the city.
But Jijū too saw what was happening. “My lady! Whatever are you doing? I can understand not wanting people to see your little love notes, but the day will come when you will regret burning them. The thing to do — they all do it, princesses and servants too — is put them away in a corner of some box and take them out from time to time. He does express himself so beautifully, and his letters even look beautiful. How can you be so heartless?”
“Heartless? I do not have long to live, I’m afraid, and I wouldn’t want to leave them behind. For his sake, really. Think what people would say. She wanted us to know all about it — that’s what they would say.”
She remembered having heard, back before she knew much of the world, that to die in advance of one’s parents is a grave sin — but she had reached something like a decision, and, so paralyzing were the thoughts that trailed one another through her mind, she feared she would not have the strength to reach another.
The end of the month approached. The house to which Niou proposed moving her was to be vacated on the twenty-eighth.
“I will send for you that night, I promise you,” wrote Niou. “Do not let your women know what is happening. I will not breathe a word of it myself.”
If he were to come in the usual incognito, she would have to turn him away, and be resigned to not seeing him again. She could not invite him into the house, even to rest a moment for the return journey. His image (so tenacious, that image), defeated and going off angry, came before her again and would not leave. She pressed his letter to her forehead, trying to control herself; but soon she was weeping bitterly.
“Please, my lady, please,” said Ukon. “These people will guess what has happened. I’m afraid that some of them are suspicious already. You must make up your mind. Tell him you will go to him, if that is what you want. I will not leave you. I am ready for anything, even if he carries you off through the skies, tiny little thing that you are.”
The girl managed to control her sobs for a time. “I’m sure you want to help, but you don’t understand. It would be so easy if that seemed the right thing to do. He makes it seem that I am begging him to come for me. What will he do next? It is all too awful.”
She did not answer the letter.
Niou had his own worries. She gave no sign of surrender, and he seldom even heard from her any more. Kaoru’s reasonable arguments had no doubt led her in the safer direction. He could not deny their justice. Yet he boiled with resentment and jealousy. She had been fond of him and he had been defeated by the women around her. His gloom and longing seemed to spread until the heavens offered them no further refuge.
Impulsively, as always, he rushed off to Uji.
He tried the reed fence that had admitted him before, but the guards were more alert.
“Who’s there?” came voices.
He withdrew and this time sent a man who knew the precincts well. Again came the challenge. Matters were not as simple as they had been.
“An emergency message from the city,” said the man, asking for one of Ukon’s maids.
Ukon was in consternation. “It will be quite impossible for him to disturb her tonight. I am very sorry indeed that he should have come all this way for nothing.”
Niou was wringing his hands. How could they be so unfeeling?
He called Tokikata. “Go and arrange something with Jijū.”
A devious fellow, Tokikata contrived an interview.
“It will be difficult.” Jijū could only second Ukon. “The guards have had some special order from the general, I don’t know what or why. It touched their pride and they are being careful. My lady has been very upset to think that the prince might come all this way for nothing, but if they catch you things will only be worse. Suppose you tell him that we are making our plans and not letting anyone know, and we will be ready when the night he has spoken of comes.” And she added that Nurse was even jumpier than usual.
“You know of course that he can’t run off on these trips every day. If you make me go slinking back to tell him she just won’t see him, he’ll think I’m not worth my keep. Come with me, and the two of us can fly to explain.”
Out of the question, completely out of the question. And as they argued the night wore on.
Still on his horse, Niou waited some distance away. Numbers of dogs had come bounding up and were barking most inelegantly. His men were in the cruelest apprehension. There were very few of them and they were far from help. What would they do if someone were to leap out from the underbrush?
“Enough of this.” Tokikata dragged the protesting Jijū after him. Her long hair under her arm, she was very pretty even in this extremity. Since she quite refused to get on his horse, he walked beside her, helping with her skirts. He appropriated the rough clogs of a guardsman for himself and let her have his shoes.
It did not seem prudent to confer in an exposed position. Tokikata spread a saddle blanket at a spot backed by a woodcutter’s fence and protected by brambles and matted grasses. Niou dismounted.
What a queer fix to be in, he was thinking, told of what had happened. Suppose he really were to take a bad fall on this road he had chosen and lame himself for life? He was in tears, and to the susceptible Jijū his plight seemed even sadder. Had he been a veritable fiend of an enemy, his powers of persuasion would still have had their way.
“Can’t I have a single word with her?” He struggled to control his tears. “Why have things come to this, after all that has happened? You people have turned her against me.”
She explained recent events as carefully as she could. “Don’t let anyone know what day you have decided on. You have been very good to come all this way, and I will do everything I can, even if it means ruining myself.”
Terrified of being found out, he could not reprove her for this caution. His men chased the dogs away repeatedly but still they barked. From the villa came the twang of bowstrings and the rough voices of the guard alerting the house to the danger of fire.
We need not seek words to describe Niou’s feelings as Jijū hurried him on his way.
“I weep, I go — to lose myself! — where soar
No mountains but know the white of clinging clouds.
“Hurry home yourself.”
Jijū wept the whole of the way back. There was nothing in the world to compare with his gentle persuasions and the perfume from his robes, drenched in the late-night dew.
Hopelessly, Ukifune listened to Ukon’s story. Then Jijū came in with hers. Ukifune made no comment. She wished they would go away and let her weep unobserved.
Ashamed of her swollen eyes, she was late in arising the next morning. She put her dress in a semblance of order and took up a sutra. Let my sin be light, she prayed, for going ahead of my mother. She took out the sketch Niou had made for her, and there he was beside her again, handsome, confident, courtly. The sorrow was more intense, she was sure, than if she had seen him the night before. And she was sad too for the other gentleman, the one who had vowed unshakable fidelity, who had said that they would go off to some place of quiet retirement. To be laughed at, called a shallow, frivolous little wench, would be worse than to die and bring sorrow to such an estimable gentleman.
“If in torment I cast myself away,
My sullied name will drift on after me.”
She longed to see her mother again, and even her ill-favored brothers and sisters, who were seldom on her mind. And she thought of Nakanokimi. Suddenly, indeed, the people she would like to see once more seemed to form in troops and battalions. Her women, caught up in preparations for the move, dyeing new robes and the like, would pass by with this and that remark, but she paid no attention. She sat up through the night, ill and half distraught, wondering how she might steal into the darkness unobserved. Looking out over the river in the morning, she felt nearer death than a lamb on its way to the slaughter.
A note came from Niou, telling once more of his unhappiness. Not wishing to compromise herself at this very late date, she sent back only a poem:
“Should I leave no trace behind in this gloomy world,
What target then would you have for your complaints?”
She wanted also to tell Kaoru of her last hours; but the two men were very close friends and the thought of their comparing notes revolted her. It would be better to speak openly of her decision to neither.
A letter came from her mother: “I had a most ominous dream of you last night, and am having scriptures read in several temples. Perhaps because I had trouble getting back to sleep, I have been napping today, and I have had another dream, equally frightening. I waste no time, therefore, in getting off this letter. Do be careful. You are so far away from all of us, the wife of the gentleman who visits you is a disturbingly strong-minded lady, and it worries me terribly that I should have had such a dream at a time when you are not well. I really am very worried. I would like to visit you, but your sister goes on having a difficult time of it. We wonder if she might be in the clutches of some evil spirit, and I have the strictest orders from the governor not to leave the house for a moment. Have scriptures read in your monastery there, please, if you will.”
With the letter were offerings of cloth and a request to the abbot that sutras be read. How sad, thought the girl, that her mother should go to such trouble when it was already too late. She composed her answer while the messenger was off at the monastery. Though there was a great deal that she would have liked to say, she set down only this poem:
“We shall think of meeting in another world
And not confuse ourselves with dreams of this.”
She lay listening to the monastery bells as they rang an accompaniment to the sutras, and wrote down another poem, this one at the end of the list that had come back from the monastery of the sutras to be read:
“Join my sobs to the fading toll of the bell,
To let her know that the end of my life has come.”
The messenger had decided not to return that night. She tied her last poem to a tree in the garden.
“Here I am having palpitations,” said Nurse, “and she says she’s been having bad dreams. Tell the guards to be extra careful. Why will you not have something to eat? Come, a cup of this nice gruel.”
Do please be quiet, Ukifune was thinking. The woman was still alert and perceptive enough, but she was old and hideously wrinkled. Yet another one who should have been allowed to die first — and where would she go now? Ukifune wanted to offer at least a hint of what was about to happen, but she knew that the old woman would shoot bolt upright and begin shrieking to the heavens.
“When you let your worries get the best of you,” sighed Ukon, asking to lie down near her mistress, “they say your soul sometimes leaves your body and goes wandering. I imagine that’s why she has these dreams. Please, my lady, I ask you again: make up your mind one way or the other, and call it fate, whatever happens.”
The girl lay in silence, her soft sleeve pressed to her face.
Last updated Sunday, March 1, 2015 at 21:07