The Uji house was in chaos. Ukifune had disappeared, and frantic searching had revealed no trace of her. I need not seek to describe the confusion, for my readers will remember old romances that tell of maidens abducted in the night, and of how it was the next morning.
Her first messenger having failed to return, Ukifune’s mother sent a second. “I left the city while the cocks were still crowing,” he said.
Nurse and the other women made no sense. They had no notion what might have happened, and they moved in utter confusion from one possibility to the next. Ukon and Jijū, the only two among them who had known of the crisis, remembered their lady’s growing moodiness and feared she might have thrown herself into the river. In tears, they opened the mother’s letter.
“My worries have left me quite unable to sleep, and so I suppose I shall not see you tonight even in my dreams. Nightmares, rather; nightmares dominate my life and have driven me to distraction. I am very, very worried and am going to send for you, even though you are so shortly to move to the city. Today, of course, we are likely to have rain.”
Ukon opened the girl’s note to her mother and soon was sobbing helplessly. It had happened. There could be no other explanation for so sad a little poem. And why had she not given Ukon even a hint of it all? They had been such friends since they were little girls. Ukon had not been separated from her for a moment, had not kept the tiniest mote of a secret from her. Why, at the most important time of all, had she given no indication of what was coming? It was too much. Ukon wept like a thwarted child.
They had known that the girl was despondent, but they had not thought her capable of such extraordinary, such frightening resolve. But how, exactly, had she committed the dreadful act?
Nurse was less help than any of them. “What shall we do, what shall we do?” she asked over and over again.
Sensing something out of the ordinary in her last note, Niou immediately dispatched a messenger. She had not found his company distasteful, he was sure. Worried about his well-known fickleness, then, had she hidden herself away? His messenger arrived at a house given over to wailing and lamenting and could find no one to take his letter.
What had happened? he asked a maidservant.
“Our lady died last night. We are stunned, completely stunned. We don’t know where to turn. The gentleman who has been such a help isn’t here to help now.”
Not knowing a great deal about the Uji household, the man did not press the matter. Back in the city he reported to Niou, for whom the news was like a sudden, horrible visitation. She had been indisposed, it was true, but not seriously ill; and that last note had shown a certain flair rather wanting in most of her notes. What could have happened?
He summoned Tokikata. “Go and see what you can find out, please.”
“I don’t know what rumors the general has picked up, but he has reprimanded the guard, and now not even the servants can get in and out of the house without being stopped. If I were suddenly to appear and he were to hear of it, I’m afraid he would guess everything. And of course the place will be in a frightful stir, swarms of people rushing in all directions.”
“Perhaps; but I have to know the truth. You’re a clever fellow. Find a way to see that Jijū. She’ll know everything. I want the truth. We can’t believe what we hear from servants.”
Unable to resist feelings on such open display, Tokikata set out for Uji that evening. He was not of a rank to require a retinue and he wasted no time. Though the rain had stopped, he had dressed as if for a difficult and dangerous journey and he looked more like a foot soldier than an intimate of royalty. The Uji house was, as he had expected, a bedlam.
“We must have the services immediately, tonight,” someone was saying. Startled, he asked for Ukon. She refused to see him.
“I cannot get myself to my feet,” she sent back. “It seems a pity that I cannot even say hello. I don’t suppose that you will be coming this way again.”
“But how can I go back with nothing to report? Let me talk to your friend, then, please.”
He was so insistent that Jijū presently came forward. She was sobbing uncontrollably. “Please tell the prince that it is all too terrible. He cannot possibly have foreseen that she would be capable of such a thing. We are stunned, dazed — no, I can’t think of the right word. When I am a little more myself, I may be able to tell you about her last days, and how sad she was, and how she hated sending him away that night. Come again, please, when I can really talk to you. I would not want to pass the defilement on to you.”
Wails echoed from the inner rooms. He recognized Nurse: “Where are you, my lady? Please come back. You haven’t even let us see you, and why should we want to go on living? I was with you from the start and I still have not seen enough of you. My one thought through all the years was to make you happy. And now you have left me, disappeared, not even told me where you might be going. I can’t believe that you have let a devil take you away. I can’t believe it. And so we must pray. We must pray to Lord Taishakuten. Give her back to us, whoever you are, man or devil or whoever. Let us look at her, even if she is dead.”
There were numerous obscure points in all this. “Tell me the truth. Has someone taken her away? I am here because he wants the facts. There is nothing to be done now, I suppose, whatever has happened, and if he should learn the truth and find it at variance with what I have told him, then he is sure to think me incompetent and irresponsible. You can imagine, can you not, the intensity of feeling that prompted him to send me, hoping against hope that what he had heard would not be true? In other countries even kings have fallen too deeply in love and lost their senses, but I think there can be no other example anywhere of such absolute devotion.”
Yes, thought Jijū, Niou was showing a most laudable concern. And the details of this unusual event would not be kept secret forever. “If there were even the slightest chance that someone had run off with her, do you think we would be carrying on as you see us? She had been in bad spirits for some time, and then there were those unpleasant hints that the general had found out, and her mother and Nurse here — it’s she who is making all the noise — they were all caught up in the excitement of sending her off to the man who seemed to have first claim; and so I would imagine that longing for the prince just drove her out of her mind. It was too much for her. And now she has done away with herself, body and soul, and that is the reason for the sentiments you are getting such an earful of.”
She still had not precisely come out with it. Ambiguities remained. “Well, I’ll come again. Too much is left out when you can’t sit down for a good talk. I rather imagine that the prince will be visiting you.”
“That would be a very great honor. If the world were to learn that he was fond of her, then it would seem that her stars were good to her. But she did keep it a secret, and perhaps she would rest more easily if he were to do the same. We do not mean to tell anyone that she died an unnatural death.” She did not want him to know that the body had not been found. He was clever and would soon guess the truth, and so she hurried him on his way.
Ukifune’s mother, quite beside herself, arrived in a pouring rain. “It is sad enough to have someone die before your eyes. But that is the way of the world. What can have become of her?”
Unaware of the dilemma that had so filled these last days, she had no reason to suspect that the girl had thrown herself into the river. Might some fiend have devoured her? Might a fox spirit, or some equally sinister force, have led her off? There were strange incidents in old romances, and there was one lady in particular whom the girl had cause to fear. Had some malicious nurse, perhaps, resenting the proposed move to the city, been conspiring against her?
The mother’s first thought was of the serving women. “Is there anything suspicious about the new ones?”
“None of them are here, my lady. We are so far away from things that the ones who hadn’t really settled down kept complaining about not being able to get anything done. So they went home, all of them, and took along the things they were getting ready for the move to the city, and said they’d be back.”
The house did seem rather inadequately attended. Even women who had been in service at Uji since the Eighth Prince’s time had gone home. Jijū and the others spoke of the girl’s unhappiness over the days. She had said more than once, weeping, that she wanted to die.
Under an inkstone Jijū found the poem about the “sullied name.” She looked out at the river, and shuddered at the roar of the waters.
She conferred with Ukon. “It is sad to have them go on wondering. The affair with Prince Niou was not her responsibility and there is no reason at all for her mother to feel guilty or ashamed — he is a prince, after all. Suppose we tell her. The suspense must be killing her. We can’t produce a body, and it’s only a matter of time till rumors get out. Yes, we must tell her, and see what we can do then to make things look somewhat respectable.”
In quiet tones, they told what they knew, and sank back into silent grief. So the child had fallen victim to this awful river, thought the governor’s wife, only half conscious of what she had heard. She had hated it so herself, and now she wanted to jump in after the girl.
“Let’s send people out to look for her, then. Let’s at least find the body and have a decent funeral.”
“There would be no point in it. She will be drifting out to sea by now, and there would be talk.”
The mother had no further suggestions.
Ukon and Jijū ordered a carriage and loaded it with the girl’s cushions and quilts (she had slipped from them the night before) and personal belongings. The monks were summoned who might be expected to preside over services. The nurse’s son was among them, and his uncle the abbot, and various disciples, and other old gentlemen with whom the girl had been on more or less friendly terms. The procession was made to look as if there were a body to escort to a pyre. Mother and nurse were near collapse from grief and (the omens were not good) foreboding.
Udoneri, who had so intimidated them all, stopped by with his son-in-law.” We ought to let the general know of the funeral, and allow time to do it right.”
“We want it to be very quiet, before the night is over.”
The funeral carriage proceeded to the moor at the foot of the mountain. No one was allowed near save the few monks who knew what had happened. In a moment or two the coffin was smoke. Country people tend to be stricter in these matters than city people, and superstitious as well. They had unfriendly comments to make upon what they had seen.
“Pretty strange, I say. Call that a proper funeral? Why, they might as well be taking care of a scrubwoman that died on them.”
“I don’t know. I hear city folk do it without a fuss when brothers are left.”
Even these rustic comments had Ukon and the others on their guard; and they had Niou and Kaoru to worry about. The world kept no secrets. If Kaoru were to learn that there had been no body to cremate, he would draw certain conclusions. He and Niou were close friends. He might suspect for a time that Niou had spirited the girl off, but he would not go on forever in ignorance. He would proceed to suspect other people, to look for other abductors. She had seemed much the pet of fortune while she lived, and now it did indeed seem that a sullied name must live after her.
Given the confusion of the morning, some of the menials might even now be guessing the truth. Strict precautions seemed necessary.
“We will have to let it out someday, bit by bit, I suppose, if we live long enough. But just now I’m afraid I don’t have the strength. He may hear things that will turn him against her, and that will be sad, of course.” Uneasy consciences had given them reason to keep the secret.
His mother having been ill, Kaoru had gone on a pilgrimage to Ishiyama. Uji was much on his mind, but no one informed him of the disaster. At Uji his silence was embarrassing. Then a message came from his manor. He was stunned. Earl y the next morning he sent off a letter.
“I know I should have gone running to you the moment I got this terrible news, but my mother is not well, and I must stay in retreat for some days. About the funeral last night: why did you have to hurry through it in what I am told was such a casual fashion? You should have let me know, and postponed it long enough to make decent arrangements. Nothing is to be done now; but it is sad to learn that even the hill people are talking.”
His messenger was that Nakanobu who had been such a close adviser. At Uji, Nakanobu’s arrival brought new outbursts of grief. The women could think of nothing to say, and made these floods of tears their excuse for not essaying a proper answer.
Kaoru was in despair. He had chosen the wrong place, an abode of devils, perhaps. Why had he left her there all alone? The disaster had occurred because he had in effect made things easy for Niou. He was angry at his own carelessness and his inability to behave like other men. Quite unable to give himself up to his prayers, he went back to the city.
“Though not of great importance,” he sent to his wife, “something distasteful has happened to a person rather close to me; and I shall be in retreat until the shock has passed.”
What a fleeting affair it had been! The pretty face, those winning ways, were gone forever. Why had he been so slow to act while she was alive, why had he not pressed his cause more aggressively? Numberless regrets burned within him, so intense that there was no quenching them. For him, at least, love seemed to be unrelieved torment. Perhaps the powers above were angry that, against his own better impulses, he had remained in the vulgar world. They had a way of hiding their mercy, of subjecting a man to the sorest trials and imposing enlightenment upon him. So the black thoughts ran on. He lost himself in prayer.
Niou’s grief was more open. His household was in great confusion. What sort of malign spirit could have taken possession of him? Presently the tears dried and the anguish subsided; but for him too the memory of her face and her manner brought unquenchable longing. Though he thought of devising clever ways to make it seem that he was genuinely ill, and so to hide these stupidly tear-swollen eyes, everyone guessed the truth. Who, people asked, could have sent him into a despondency so profound that it seemed to threaten his life?
Kaoru of course had full reports. His suspicions were true. Niou and Ukifune had been more than acquaintances who exchanged little notes. She was the sort Niou liked, a girl he would have had to make his own once he had caught a glimpse of her. If she had lived on, she and her friend might have made Kaoru himself look very clownish (for he and the friend were not strangers). He found the thought somehow comforting.
Everyone was talking about Niou’s indisposition. A stream of well-wishers flowed in and out of his rooms. People would think it odd, thought Kaoru, if, in mourning for a woman of no consequence, he failed to call. His uncle Prince Shikibu had recently died, rather opportunely, and Kaoru had put on somber robes. In his own mind he could call them weeds for Ukifune. Loss of weight had if anything improved him.
He made his visit on a melancholy evening after other callers had withdrawn. The illness was not so severe as to keep Niou in bed. He did not, it was true, receive people with whom he was on less than familiar terms, but he turned away no one whom he would in ordinary circumstances have admitted to his inner chambers. But he wished Kaoru had not come. The encounter was sure to bring tears.
“Nothing serious, really,” he said controlling himself for a time, “but I’m told I must be careful. I hate to upset Their Majesties so. I’ve been sitting here thinking how little there really is for us to depend upon.”
He pressed a sleeve to his eyes, able to hold back the tears no longer. All very embarrassing; but of course his friend, unaware of the cause, could tax him with no more than unmanliness.
It was as he had suspected, Kaoru was in fact thinking. And when had they managed to strike up a liaison? How the two of them must have been laughing at him all these months! His grief seemed to vanish quite away.
A very cool sort his friend was, thought Niou; indeed a rather chilly sort. He himself, when his thoughts were too much for him, needed no such disaster — the call of a bird flying over was enough — to bring on waves of sorrow. Kaoru would hardly be repelled by these weak tears, even if he had guessed their source. But perhaps this was the usual way with people who understood the transience of things? Niou was envious, and he was fascinated. Kaoru had known the girl too, had been the cypress pillar on which she had leaned. Niou looked at his friend again, this time more affectionately, as at a memento.
The desultory talk went on. Kaoru began to feel uncomfortable about the significant spot that was being reserved for silence. “When I have something on my mind — it has always been so — I find myself nervous and restless if I go for even a little while without telling you of it. But I have risen now to a modest place in the world, and you of course have far more important matters to occupy you, and so we seldom find a chance for a quiet talk. The days go by and I do not ask for an audience with you unless I have a good reason. But let me come to the point. I recently learned about a relative of the lady who died in that mountain village, you will know the one I am speaking of — I recently learned that she was living in a rather odd place. I thought of helping her, but unfortunately I found myself in circumstances that made me afraid of gossip. So I left her there, and a wretched place it was, too, and scarcely visited her at all. As time went by I came to suspect that I was not the only one she was looking to for support. But I would not want you to think that I was dreadfully upset. I had certainly not thought of her as the love of my life. No one seemed seriously at fault. She was amiable, and she was attractive, and that was all. And then, very suddenly, she died. It is a sad world we live in. But perhaps I am speaking of something you have already been informed of.” He had been dry-eyed until now. He would have preferred not to join his friend in this tasteless weeping, but once they had started the tears were not to be held back.
Niou found this break in the calm touching and at the same time threatening. He chose to feign ignorance. “Very sad, very sad. I did hear something about it, just yesterday. I wanted to offer condolences, but I heard that you were avoiding publicity.” He stopped short. Under the cool surface were complex and powerful emotions.
“That is the story. I hoped there might sometime be a chance to introduce you. Or perhaps you happened to run into her somewhere? Perhaps she visited Nijō? She was of course related to your princess.” The innuendos were becoming broader. “But I forget myself. I should not be bothering you with these trivia when you are not feeling well. Do please be careful.” And he went out.
So Niou had been genuinely in love with her, he was thinking. Her life had been a short one, but her destinies had borne her to high places. Here was Niou: the pet of Their Majesties, the handsomest and stateliest of men, with two noble beauties for wives. And he had pushed them aside to make room for her! Was not this illness, on which so many scriptures and ceremonies were being concentrated, the result of an uncontrollable love? And Kaoru could point to himself too, not immodestly: high position, a royal bride, everything; and the girl had bewitched him even as she had bewitched Niou. And in death she seemed to have a stronger hold on him than in life.
What utter folly! He would think of it no more. But he was dizzy with memory and longing. “We are not sticks and stones, we all have hearts,” he whispered to himself as he lay down.
And how, he wondered, sadness giving way to irritation, had Nakanokimi responded to news of that hasty funeral? He was not at all happy with it himself. Possibly the mother, a common sort of woman, had dispensed with ceremony on the theory that the grand ones do so out of deference to surviving brothers and sisters.
Faced with so many obscure points, he would have liked to run off to Uji and ask about Ukifune’s last days; but were he to make serious inquiries he would have a long purification to look forward to, and on the other hand he would not wish to go such a distance and turn back immediately.
The Fourth Month came. The evening of the day appointed for her move to the city was especially difficult. The scent of the orange blossoms near the veranda brought memories. A cuckoo called and called a second time as it flew overhead. “Should you stop by her dwelling, O cuckoo.” His heart heavy with memory and yearning, he broke off a sprig of orange blossom and sent it with a poem to Nijō, where Niou was spending the night.
“It sings in the fields its muted song of the dead.
Your muted sobs may have joined it — to no avail.”
The poem found Niou and his princess sunk in thoughts of the dead girl. How very much the sisters had resembled each other, he was thinking — and did his friend have to hint so broadly at what had happened?
This was his answer:
“Where orange blossoms summon memories
The cuckoo now should sing most cautiously.
“A very great trial, I am sure.”
Nakanokimi was by now familiar with the whole story. Her sisters had died so young, no doubt because they had both of them been of a too introspective nature. She, the one without worries, had lived on. And how long would it be until she joined them?
Since she obviously knew everything, the pretense at concealment was becoming awkward. Arranging matters somewhat to his own advantage, now laughing and now weeping, he made his confession. “I was very annoyed at you for hiding her,” he concluded. How very affecting it was to have the girl’s own sister for his audience!
He was more comfortable here at Nijō. At Rokujō everything was so grand and ceremonious. When he was indisposed they all fussed over him so. He had no defenses against well-wishers, and Yūgiri and his sons made genuine nuisances of themselves.
But everything still seemed so vague and dreamlike. Her sudden death had not been properly explained. He sent for Ukon.
At Uji, the roar of the waters stirred the governor’s wife to thoughts of suicide. There could be no rest from her grief. Sadly, she returned to the city. The Uji house settled into near silence, the monks its chief source of strength and cheer. This time the troublesome guards made no attempt to challenge Niou’s emissaries. How sad, the latter were thinking, that what had proved to be their lord’s last chance for a meeting had come to nothing. It had not been pleasant to watch the effects of his clandestine love, and now the memory of those nocturnal visits, and of the girl too, so fragile and so beautiful on the night of the river crossing, was enough to dissolve the least sensitive of them in tears.
They told Ukon why they had come.
“It would not do to stir up gossip at this late date,” she said, “and I doubt that any explanations I might make would satisfy him. I shall think up a good excuse to visit him once we are out of mourning. I can tell people that I have business to discuss with him. It is true that I do not want to outlive my own grief, but if someday I manage to pull myself together, I shall call on him, you may be sure, whether he sends for me or not, and describe this nightmare to him.” They could not persuade her to go with them.
“I did not have all the details and was not in a good position to judge?” said Tokikata, “but I did sense something very unusual in his feelings for her. I looked forward to the day when I might myself be of service to you, and saw no need to rush things; and this sudden disaster has only strengthened my good intentions. We seem to have this carriage, and I would hate to take it back empty. What about the other lady?”
“Yes, by all means.” Ukon summoned Jijū. “You go.”
“But I would have even less to tell him than you. And we are in mourning, you know. I wouldn’t want to pass the defilement on.”
“He is being careful of his health, but I doubt if that would worry him. He has been so upset by it all that I rather imagine he would welcome a few days’ retreat. And you won’t be in mourning much longer in any case. Come along, now, one or the other of you.”
Jijū agreed to go. She did want to see Niou again, and when could she hope for another chance? She was a handsome figure herself when she had put her somber robes in order. Because formal dress could be dispensed with in the absence of one’s lady, she had not been wearing formal trains, and she had none dyed in the proper hues of mourning. A lavender one was the best she could find. Thinking of her lady’s secret but triumphal progress along this same road had she but lived, she wept the whole of the way into the city.
She had always been partial towards Niou, and he was pleased and touched that she had come. Wishing to avoid a scene, he did not tell Nakanokimi of the visit. He went to the main hall and asked Jijū to alight at a gallery adjoining it.
She told him in great detail of Ukifune’s last days. “My lady had been in low spirits for some time and she was weeping when she went to bed that night. She seemed so wrapped up in herself, she had even less to say than usual. She was not a lady to complain about her troubles, you will remember, and that may be why she didn’t leave a proper letter behind. It hadn’t occurred to us in our wildest dreams that she would be capable of such a thing.”
All the sadness of those days came back. One somehow manages to accept a natural death — but to throw herself into those savage waters! What could account for such resolve? If only he had been there himself. He pictured himself on the spot, pulling her from the river, and regret attacked him more fiercely, to no purpose, of course.
“What fools we were not to guess when she burned her letters.”
They talked the night through. She told him too of the poem they had found in the tree. He had not paid much attention to her until now, and she interested him.
“Would you think of joining us here at Nijō? You and the lady in the other wing are not strangers, after all.”
“No, it would be too sad. Let me at least wait until we are out of mourning.”
“Do come again.” He was sorry to see her go.
As she left in the dawn, he gave her a comb box and a clothespress he had had made for Ukifune. Though he had in fact put together a considerable collection of boxes and chests, he gave her only what she could take with her. She had not expected such largesse, and was a little embarrassed at the thought of displaying it to her fellows. There being little relief these days from the tedium, however, she did show Ukon her new treasures when no one else was near. The designs were most elegant, the workmanship was superb — and this and much more their lady had thrown away! The contents of the clothespress quite dazzled them, but of course women in mourning had no use for such finery.
Numerous questions still on his mind, Kaoru paid a visit. His thoughts on the road were of long ago. What strange legacy had brought him and the Eighth Prince together? A bond from an earlier life, surely, had tied him to this family and its sad affairs, and made him see to the needs of this last sad foundling, even. He had first sought an audience with the prince in hopes of divine revelation. His mind had been on the next world; and in the end he had wandered back to this. Perhaps it was the Buddha’s way of making him see his own inadequacies.
“I still do not know what happened,” he said to Ukon. “I am in such a state of shock that I can’t somehow make myself believe it all. You will soon be out of mourning, I have told myself, and it would be better to wait; but I found that I could wait no longer. What exactly was it that took her so suddenly?”
The nun Bennokimi would have guessed the truth, thought Ukon, and if she herself sought to dissemble, the combined result would be impossible confusion. Though she had grown used to lying, this solemn honesty made her forget the several stories she had put together. She told him a good part of the truth.
For a time he said nothing. It could not be. A girl so quiet, so sparing even of commonplaces — how could she have done it? No — these women had conspired to deceive him. For a moment he was furious. But Niou’s grief seemed genuine, and here they all were, down to the lowest maid-servant, wailing and lamenting.
“Did anyone else disappear? Tell me more precisely, if you can, what happened. I cannot believe that anything I myself did can have turned her against the world. Was there a crisis, something that left her with nowhere to go? I do find it hard to believe.”
Ukon was sad for him, and at the same time troubled. She was afraid that he had guessed more of the truth than she had told him.
“You will have heard all about it, I am sure. She was unlucky from the beginning, and after she came here to live, so far away from everyone, she seemed to slip deeper and deeper into herself. But she did look forward to your visits. They were a consolation, you may be sure. She did not actually say so, but she also looked forward, I know she did, to the time when you could be together. We were delighted when we began to find reason for hoping that it might actually come. I can’t tell you how relieved and how pleased her mother was. Those were happy days for us all, her mother too, when we were busy getting her ready. And then that odd note came from you, and those awful guards — how they did frighten us — started saying you had given them a dressing down, and after that they were so strict that we could only think there had been a misunderstanding. And there was no word from you for so long. Over the years she had come to think that she was just unlucky, and she was sad for her poor mother too, who only wanted her to live a decent, respectable life. It would be too awful, she thought, after all your kindness, if some scandal were to ruin everything and make a laughingstock of them. I can think of nothing else that can have had her in such a state. Some say that this house is cursed. I’ve always thought myself that if it is then the devils ought to make themselves more evident.”
He understood everything. He too was in tears.
“I am not able to do exactly as I would wish, and so I lived with my worries, sure that I would soon have her near me, where I could protect her and see to her needs. She thought me cold and distant, it seems, and I can’t help suspecting that she preferred someone else. Well, let me say it. I would far rather not, but while no one is listening — the affair with Prince Niou. When did it begin? He is very good at ruining women’s lives. Wasn’t he responsible, wasn’t it that she wanted to see more of him? Tell me everything, please. I do not want you to leave anything out.”
So he knew. How sad for her poor lady! “You ask very difficult questions. I never once left her side.” She fell silent for a time. “You will have heard of it. One day when my lady was in hiding at her sister’s, the prince stole in upon her in a way that seemed to us shockingly improper. We would have none of it, and he left. My lady was terrified and moved into the queer little house where you found her. We tried to keep our move here a secret, but — I can’t think where he might have found out — letters started coming late last spring, a considerable number of them. She refused to look at them. We told her that she should feel honored, and that he would think her rude, and so she did answer once or twice. And that is all I know.”
Just what he might have expected. It seemed pointless and even cruel to inquire further. He lapsed into his own thoughts. The girl had fallen victim to Niou’s charms, but she had not found Kaoru’s own advances distasteful. And so she had been caught in an impossible dilemma, and here was the river, beckoning, and she had given in to it. If he had not left her in this wilderness, she might have found life difficult, but she would hardly have sought a “bottomless chasm.” How sinister his ties had been with this river, how deep its hostility flowed! Drawn by the Eighth Prince’s daughters, he had come the steep mountain road all these years, and now he could scarcely endure the sound of those two syllables “Uji.” There had been bad omens, he now saw, from the start: in that “image,” for instance, of which Nakanokimi had first spoken, an image to float down a river. At fault himself all along, he had been unhappy with the girl’s mother for the almost casual simplicity of the funeral services. He had attributed it to bad breeding. Now that he knew the facts he wondered what the unfortunate woman would be thinking of him. The girl had been well favored for one of her station in life. Unaware of the liaison with Niou, the mother would no doubt have thought the tragedy somehow related to Kaoru himself. Suddenly he was very sad for her.
There had been no remains and so there could be no pollution. Wishing to maintain appearances before his men, he stayed on a side veranda all the same, not far from his carriage. After a time it came to seem a not very dignified position, and so he went to sit in the garden, deep-shaded moss for his cushion. He did not think that he would again be visiting this ill-starred house.
“Should even I, sad house, abandon you,
Who then will remember the ivy that offered shelter?”
The abbot had recently become an archdeacon. Kaoru summoned him, gave instructions for memorial services, asked that several more priests be set to invoking the holy name, and specified the images and scriptures to be dedicated each week. Suicide was a grave sin. He wished to leave out nothing that might lessen the burden of guilt. It was dark when he set out for the city. If Ukifune were still alive, he thought, sending for the nun, he would not be leaving at such an hour.
She refused to see him and he did not press the matter. “Alone with my own ugliness,” she sent back, “I have thoughts of nothing else. You would see me sunk in abysmal dotage.”
All the way back he cursed himself for his neglect. Why had he not called Ukifune to the city earlier? The sound of the river, while he was still within earshot, seemed to pound and flail at him. There could have been no sadder an ending to it all. Even the earthly remains had disappeared. Among what empty shells, under what waters?
Ukifune’s mother had not been allowed to go home. The governor made a serious issue of the defilement, the younger daughter still not having had her child. The mother spent comfortless days in unfriendly wayside lodgings. The other girl was a worry of sorts; but presently the child was delivered. Still kept at a distance, the governor’s wife had no further room in her thoughts for her surviving daughters.
A courteous and friendly note came from Kaoru. It aroused her from the lethargy and brought new twinges of sorrow.
“My first thought was to send condolences in this horrible affair; but I have been very upset, and my eyes have been dark with tears. How much more impenetrable the darkness must be for you. After that first thought it came to me that I should allow you time to recover somewhat, and so the days have slipped aimlessly by. How is one to describe the evanescence of it all? If I should survive this most difficult of times, and I sometimes think I shall not, please look upon me as a memento of sorts, and come to me when you think I might be of assistance.”
Nakanobu, his emissary, had another message, which had not been committed to writing. “I had thought that there was no hurry, and so the months went by. You may have had doubts about my intentions. I hereby make solemn vow that in everything I am at your service. Always remember, if you will, that I have said so. I have heard that you have several other youngsters, and I shall consider it my duty to watch over them when the time comes for them to seek positions.”
The governor’s wife insisted that Nakanobu come inside. It had not been the sort of pollution, she said, that was likely to rub off on others. She wept as she composed her answer.
“I wanted nothing more than to die, and perhaps I have lived on that I might have these kind words from you. I blamed her loneliness over the years upon my own insignificance. Then came the great honor of your acquaintance and your undertakings, and I looked forward to seeing her finally in honorable circumstances. And nothing came of my hopes. Yes, Uji is a gloomy village, and our bonds with it were as gloomy. If a few more years are granted me, I shall remember your good offer of support. I am blind with tears at the moment, and can say no more.”
It was hardly a time for gifts. Yet she was uncomfortable at sending Nakanobu away empty-handed. She took out a sword and a belt, both beautifully wrought, the latter inlaid with mottled sections of rhinoceros horn. She had meant them to go one day to Kaoru. She ordered that they be put in a pouch, which she sent out to Nakanobu as he was getting into his carriage.
“In memory of my daughter.”
Kaoru too thought it an odd time to be giving gifts.
“She made me come in,” said Nakanobu, “and between her sobs she told me among other things how grateful she was for what you had said about the other children. She was so unimportant herself, she said, that she could not do very much, but she would ask you to find something for them when the time came. Though of course they were such poor things, she said, that she couldn’t expect too much. And she said she wouldn’t breathe a word about your reasons for being interested in them.”
It was true, thought Kaoru, that the bond between them was not cause for pride; but had not emperors, even, taken women of low status? Such matches seemed dictated by fate and no one called them in question. Among commoners the precedents were legion for taking lowborn women and women who had been married before. Let people say that he had become son-in-law to His Eminence of Hitachi — well, never from the outset had his intentions for the girl been such as to demean him. The governor’s wife had lost one child, and he only meant to let her know that the loss would bring profit to the others.
The governor came briefly to see his wife. He was very angry. Why had she left home at such a time? She had not informed him of Ukifune’s whereabouts, and he had assumed that the girl had fallen upon hard times, and asked no questions. The mother had been saving her news for the girl’s removal to the city, but there was no longer any point in secrecy. Weeping, she told him everything. She showed him Kaoru’s letter. In growing wonderment, he read and reread it, for he was well provided with a certain rustic snobbishness.
“So she died on us just when she was having all this good luck? I was with his family for a while, but he was way up there on top, and I didn’t really know him. So he’s thinking of the others, is he?”
The mother lay sobbing. Such cause for joy, and Ukifune was not here to partake of it.
The governor managed a tear or two of his own. He thought it unlikely, however, that Kaoru would have paid much attention to them if the girl had lived. He had been wrong and he wanted to make amends, that was all, and, within these limits, he was prepared to put up with a little gossip.
The time came, on the forty-ninth day after her disappearance, for the most elaborate of the memorial rites. Kaoru was not entirely sure that she was dead, but rites could do her no harm, living or dead. He made arrangements in secret with the Uji monastery, sending rich offerings to the sixty priests who were to read the sutras. The governor’s wife visited Uji and made arrangements of her own. Niou sent Ukon a silver bowl filled with pieces of gold. Since he naturally wanted to stay in the background, Ukon made the offering as if it were her own. Those of her comrades who were not privy to the secret wondered how she could have come by so much. Kaoru asked all his particular intimates to be in attendance.
All rather astonishing, said the general public. “Why, we never even heard of her, and now such a stir. Whoever can she have been?”
The astonishment mounted when His Eminence put in an appearance at Uji and grandly took over the house. He had meant to outdo himself in honor of his new grandchild, and his own house was jammed with ritual utensils and trappings, Chinese and Korean hangings and the like; but there was a limit to what a provincial governor could do. And here were these ceremonies — secret, if you please, and just look at them! The girl would have done all right for herself if she had lived. His Eminence would have had a hard time getting an audience with her.
Nakanokimi also sent offerings, as well as food for the seven monks whose services she herself had commissioned. The emperor, learning for the first time of the girl’s existence, was sad that Kaoru should have been so fond of her and yet should have felt constrained, out of deference to the Second Princess, to keep her in hiding.
Niou and Kaoru continued to grieve, but Niou was recovering. The loss had been particularly affecting because it had come just at the climax of a love that should not have been. Soon he was looking here and there for consolation. The heavier duties were passed on to Kaoru, who meant to leave nothing undone. The sorrow still lay too deep for words.
The empress was in provisional mourning at Rokujō. Her second son had become minister of rites and seldom found time to visit. Niou came often, seeking to beguile his sorrows in the apartments of his sister, the First Princess. It annoyed him that so many of the beauties surrounding her should be so skillful at concealing themselves. Among them was one Kosaishō, famous for her elegance and grace, of whom Kaoru had with some difficulty made the secret acquaintance. He admired her for her artistic accomplishments. When she struck up a melody on koto or lute the sound was somehow different, and she had her own style too when she jotted down a poem or granted an interview. Niou had not failed to make note of the name she was acquiring for herself, and once again he considered devices for thwarting his friend. Kosaishō had turned him coldly away. She was not among those who came running, she let it be known. Yes, thought Kaoru, she was unusual.
Unable to remain silent in the face of such grief, she wrote to him on paper that only a lady of great refinement could have selected.
“Pray think me not less feeling than the others.
But I am no one. Silent pass my days.
“And were I she, would sorrow then . . .?”
She had somehow known that it would be for him an evening of unusual melancholy.
“Yes, I know the sadness that all is fleeting.
But I did not mean that you should hear my sighs.”
And immediately he went to see her, to tell her how much her delicate sense of timing had meant to him. He was so solemn and withdrawn, and her rooms were not meant for receiving men of rank; and indeed he did seem ridiculously confined, over in a corner by the door. There was no suggestion of obsequiousness, however, in her answers. She did have something, a certain depth and gravity, that one seldom found in serving women. He wondered why she had gone into the service of even a princess. He did not know, but he wished that something more appropriate might be arranged. No hint of these thoughts was allowed to slip into the conversation.
When the lotuses were at their best, the empress ordered a solemn reading of the Lotus Sutra. Images and scriptures were consecrated to the memory of her father and of Murasaki, who had reared her. The services were extraordinarily beautiful and dignified, reaching a climax with the fifth of the eight books, and concluding on the morning of the fifth day. The assembly was large and varied, for everyone who knew a lady in the household managed an invitation. The partition between the main hall and the north rooms had been taken down, and as serving women swarmed in and out removing the votive decorations and otherwise restoring the hall to its normal state, the First Princess withdrew with her retinue to the west gallery. In the evening most of her women, fatigued after the long services, went off to their own rooms.
Having changed to an informal court robe, Kaoru strolled down to the angling pavilion. There were certain monks with whom he had matters to discuss, but unfortunately they had all left. He went on to take the evening cool by the lake. That gallery, it came to him, would provide withdrawing rooms for the First Princess and her few attendants, Kosaishō among them, and there would be only curtains to conceal them. He caught a rustling of silk. A sliding door above a board walk happened to be open a crack. Looking in, he saw that, for such secluded precincts, it offered a remarkably bright and unobstructed view. The curtains were somewhat disordered, permitting him to see far inside. Three women and a little girl who had removed their cloaks were chipping busily at a large block of ice on a tray of some description. They could scarcely be in the royal presence — but there the princess was, marvelously beautiful in a robe of white gossamer (she had evidently changed since the services), ice in hand, half smiling at the labors in progress before her. He had seen beautiful ladies, but none, he thought, as beautiful as she. The day being a warm one, her hair, indescribably rich and lustrous, had been pushed to one side, revealing her full profile. By comparison her women seemed rather plain. But then, collecting himself for a better look, he saw that there was another worth making note of: in a yellow singlet of raw silk and a lavender train, she sat quietly fanning herself. Yes, she had a certain manner.
“You’ll only wear yourselves out. Just take it as it is.” The smile was charming, and he recognized the voice of the lady he had called upon.
The others were at length having some success with the ice. They would probably not have put chunks of it quite so indiscriminately to foreheads and bosoms had they known that they were being observed. Kosaishō wrapped ice in paper for herself and for the princess. The hands the princess held out were white and delicately modeled.
“I think not, thank you. See how I’m dripping already.”
So low that he almost failed to catch it, her voice excited him enormously. He had seen her once before, when they were both children, and been delighted with her. Since then he had not been admitted to her presence. What supernatural powers, he wondered, would have arranged this secret audience? Or might it be only for purposes of adding to his torments?
Just then a servant who had been cooling herself on the north veranda came scampering back. She evidently remembered that, having slid the door open for some momentarily urgent reason, she had forgotten to close it again. She would be taken to task if someone were to notice and make use of it. And, dear me, there was a man in casual court dress! She ran down the veranda, oblivious to the fact that she was quite exposed herself. Somewhat guiltily Kaoru slipped out of sight. How embarrassing, thought the woman. He had been able to look past the curtains, almost any distance! Who might he have been? One of Yūgiri’s sons, probably. Strangers would hardly have penetrated to these forbidden corners. She must not let her dereliction be found out, for there would be reprisals. The man’s robe and trousers had been of raw silk, it seemed, and she could be fairly certain that no one had heard.
Kaoru fled the scene in great disquiet. Headed resolutely down the road to enlightenment, he had gone astray, and now woman after woman made demands upon his attention. If he had renounced the world when the thought had first come to him, he would now be off in some deep mountain retreat, away from all this torment. Why had he so longed over the years for another glimpse of the First Princess? Well, now he had seen her, and found for himself further pain and frustration.
The Second Princess was looking unusually fresh and radiant when she arose the next morning. She would have been by no means out of place in a contest with her sister, and yet despite a certain family resemblance they did not really look alike. For clean beauty and elegance, no one, he was sure, could quite match the princess he had seen so briefly at Rokujō; but perhaps he had so idealized her over the years that his eyes had played him false, and perhaps the moment had been right.
“It is very warm,” he said to the Second Princess. “Suppose you put on something lighter. Something you don’t ordinarily wear. It can make things more interesting, you know.” And to one of the women: “Go have Daini do up something in gossamer.”
Her women were pleased. She was at her best, and gossamer would surely become her.
It was his usual practice to retire late in the morning for prayers. When he appeared again at noon, the gossamer robe was hanging over a curtain rack.
“Do try it on. You will feel half undressed, I know, with all these ladies around, but don’t let them worry you.”
He held the new robe for her to slip into. Her trousers were scarlet, as her sister’s had been, and, like her sister’s, her hair fell in long, thick cascades. But not one of us is like any other. The effect was very different. Still not ready to admit defeat, he sent for ice. Some men find comfort in pictures, and his princess should have afforded far more comfort than any picture. He permitted himself a sigh. How he would have liked to join that party yesterday, and gaze on and on, quite openly, at the First Princess.
“Are you in correspondence with your sister?”
“I wrote occasionally when I was in the palace. His Majesty said I should. But I haven’t now in a very long time.”
“Do you suppose she has stopped writing because you married a commoner? That would make me unhappy. I shall tell Her Majesty you resent it very much.”
“Resent it? What is there to resent? No, please don’t.”
“I shall tell her that your sister is arrogant. I shall say that she treats you like an underling.”
He stayed at home that day and the next morning went again to be in attendance upon the empress. Niou was also at Rokujō. He had on a thin saffron singlet and over it an informal blue robe, in the very best of taste. No less well favored than his sister, he was handsomer for the pallor and loss of weight. Yes, the resemblance was extraordinary, sighed Kaoru. Remembering himself, he sought to control these wayward thoughts, and found the effort very considerable. Niou had brought along a number of pictures, most of which he sent off to his sister’s quarters. He followed shortly himself. Kaoru congratulated the empress upon the faultless handling of the ceremonies, and they exchanged reminiscences of old times.
“My princess at Sanjō,” he said, taking up the pictures that had been left behind, “is rather despondent at having, as they say, descended from the clouds. I feel very sorry for her. She thinks her sister has dropped her now that things have been arranged so unsatisfactorily for her. It would be nice if she had pictures to look at from time to time, but of course it would not be the same if I were to take them to her myself.”
“Why should her sister do any such thing? They had rooms very near each other in the palace, and I believe they exchanged notes. No, it is just that they live farther apart now. I shall see that she writes. And there is no need for your own princess to hold back.”
“No, I suppose not. You have not been very friendly yourself, you know, but after all she is now your own sister-in-law, and it would please me enormously if you might find it possible to favor her with a little of your attention. The two of them were once so close. It would be a pity if they were to drift apart.”
The empress did not guess his motives.
He passed in front of the main hall and went on to the west wing, thinking to call on Kosaishō. Hidden behind blinds, the women looked out upon a most stately and graceful figure. Even the gallery walls, he was thinking, might somehow bring comfort.
Yūgiri’s sons seemed to be in possession of the gallery. Kaoru came up to a side door.
“I am of course often in attendance upon Her Majesty,” he said to the women, looking off towards the assembly of nephews. “But it seems that I do not see you as often as I would like. And so time has gone by, and here I am feeling like an old man. I thought this might be a good chance for a talk, though I’m sure you are wishing the old man would go away.”
“Oh, we’ll take years off your age, just give us a chance.” Even when they were far from serious, they did not take leave of the peculiar refinement that was their lady’s. Talking of this and that (he had no real business), he began to feel rather close to them, and stayed longer than he had planned.
The First Princess had gone to her mother.
“But the general seems to be over in your wing,” said Her Majesty.
“I think Kosaishō will keep him entertained,” said one Dainagon, a lady-in-waiting to the princess.
“A woman has to know what she is doing,” replied the empress, “when a solemn and resolute young man takes up the pursuit. He will see through all her pertness if she isn’t careful. But I think that Kosaishō can take care of herself.”
Though they were brother and sister, she did not feel at ease with Kaoru, and evidently she was warning her women against any appearance of impropriety.
“It’s always Kosaishō‘s room that he goes to. They talk on and on, all by themselves, and sometimes he is there till very late. But it doesn’t seem to be what one might expect. She has a low opinion of Prince Niou, and won’t even answer his letters.” Dainagon laughed. “Believe me, I wouldn’t be wasting such an opportunity.”
The empress too was amused. “Yes, she can be relied upon to take care of herself if she sees what is wrong with my good son. Is there no way to reform him? You must know, I am sure, how uncomfortable it makes me to have him come into the conversation.”
“I heard something interesting the other day. The lady who died at Uji seems to have been the younger sister of his princess at Nijō. A half sister, actually. Some say that the wife of a governor of Hitachi is her mother, some say that she’s an aunt. I don’t know which to believe. Prince Niou visited the girl secretly, very secretly, they say. The general seems to have had thoughts of his own, and he learned of the prince’s visits. He had plans for bringing her to the city. So he posted guards and gave them very strict orders. The prince went off on another of his secret visits, and they kept him outside on his horse (I can’t imagine that it was very dignified) and then trundled him back to the city. And very suddenly she disappeared. It may be that she died of longing. Her nurse and the others think she may have thrown herself into the river. I am told that they are quite out of their minds, the poor dears.”
The empress was scandalized. “Wherever did you hear such a thing? It is sad and it is horrible. But perhaps it isn’t true. Word of anything so unusual is bound to get out, and I would have expected my brother to say something. But he just goes on mooning about how things change, and says what a pity it is that people seem to live such short lives at Uj?”
“You can’t really believe servants. But a little girl who was in service at Uji has been with Kosaishō‘s family, and she spoke of it as solid fact. The Uji lady picked such a strange way to disappear that I gather they don’t want people to know. It all sounded like a curse, really, and I can believe that they would want it kept secret. It may be that they did not even tell the general.”
“That girl is not to say another word about it.” The empress was openly perturbed. “A foolish boy who ruined himself over women — that’s what the talk will be, you can be sure.”
The Second Princess had a note from her sister. The hand, delicate but sure, delighted Kaoru. He should have thought of this device sooner. The empress sent interesting paintings to the Second Princess and Kaoru gathered even finer ones for the First Princess. One of the finest called to mind his own situation: consumed with desire for the First Princess, the son of the Serikawa general is out walking of an autumn evening. If only the real princess might be as generous as the princess in the story.
“The autumn wind that brings the dew to the rushes,
It chills, it saddens most when evening comes.”
He would have like to jot down his poem beside the painting, but it would not do to give the smallest hint of his feelings. Always he came to the same useless conclusion: Oigimi would have had the whole of his affection. He would not have taken a royal princess for his bride. Indeed, if the emperor had heard of the events at Uji he would probably not have wanted Kaoru for a son-in-law. She was the source of all his sorrow, the lady at the bridge!
His thoughts jumped to Nakanokimi, and presently the jumble of longing and resentment and frustration began to seem ridiculous even to him; and so he moved on to the third Uji sister, who had died such a terrible death. She was to be taxed with a kind of childishness, with rashness and indiscretion, but she had suffered. Sensing a change in Kaoru’s own feelings, she had had a very bad conscience to live with. He thought of her last days. A lovable sort of companion she might have been, someone not to be taken very seriously or offered too exalted a place. He no longer felt angry with Niou, and he could no longer reprove the girl. He had only his own erratic ways to blame.
Such thoughts occupied much of his time.
If they could prey upon a man so carefully in control of himself, they found a far easier victim in Niou, who had no one to share his memories with, no one to tell of his quest for solace. Nakanokimi did speak now and then of Ukifune’s sad lot; but the sisters had not grown up together, and their acquaintance had been short. There was a limit to the grief one might expect from her. Besides, the affair that was the source of his loneliness rested uncomfortably between them.
He sent again for Jijū.
The Uji house was by now almost deserted. Nurse and Ukon and Jijū, who had been especially close to the dead girl, were reluctant to leave her last dwelling behind. Though the outsider, Jijū remained a part of the company even when most of the others had left. But that savage river, which she had somehow lived with while there had been a prospect of happier shoals, had at last become unendurable. She had recently moved to a shabby little place in the city. Niou searched her out and once again offered her a position at Nijō, but again she declined. She was grateful for the invitation, but there would be gossip if she took service in the house that had been at the beginning of the whole sad story. She said that she would prefer a position with Her Majesty.
“Splendid. We needn’t tell anyone our little secret.”
And so, in her loneliness and the insecurity of her life, Jijū went through an intermediary, as custom demanded, and obtained a place with Her Majesty. Of inconspicuous rank and good appearance, she had no enemies. She frequently saw Kaoru, who was in and out of the empress’s apartments and the sight of whom stirred powerful and conflicting emotions. She found no one in the empress’s retinue who seemed a match for her dead mistress, and this despite the fact that the empress took in only ladies of unexceptionable breeding.
The daughter of that Prince Shikibu who had died in the spring was meanwhile having difficulties with her stepmother. The stepmother’s brother, an undistinguished cavalry captain, had for some time had his eye on her, and it had been decided (for the stepmother wasted no affection upon the girl) that he should be her husband.
The empress had heard of it all. “What a pity, and what a waste. Her father was so fond of her.”
The girl’s brother, a chamberlain, had taken the empress at her kind word, and so the princess, known as Miyanokimi, had recently come into the royal service. She was singled out for special favors, since she was, after all, the granddaughter of an emperor. She remained a lady-in-waiting all the same, and one was touched and saddened to see her wearing the train which the royal presence required, although she was granted a dispensation in certain other matters of ceremony.
Niou was greatly excited. Might she resemble Ukifune? Quite possibly, since their fathers were brothers. It will be seen that volatility continued to be among his more striking traits: one moment he would be lost in thoughts of his dead love, and the next he would be desperately impatient to meet her cousin.
Kaoru thought it all very sad. Until yesterday Miyanokimi’s father had considered marrying her to the crown prince, and he had hinted that Kaoru himself might be an acceptable son-in-law. How very uncertain were the destinies of even a princess. One could understand why Ukifune had thrown herself into the river. Kaoru more than anyone sensed what Miyanokimi would be going through.
The empress had more spacious and comfortable apartments at Rokujō than in the palace, and the people who tended to be somewhat lazy about waiting upon her were with her now. Indeed, the wings and galleries that wandered over the wide grounds were packed with them. Yūgiri was as lavish in seeing to their needs and whims as his father would have been — more so, it might almost have been said, for the house was if anything more prosperous. The fun Niou might have had if he had been more his usual self rather defies the imagination. He was so subdued and withdrawn that people began to suspect an unlikely regeneration. But he was returning to form, and had dedicated himself to the pursuit of Miyanokimi.
The weather being somewhat cooler, the empress thought of removing to the palace.
But her younger women objected. “This is the place for autumn colors. Do let us stay and see them.”
They were all of them gathered at Rokujō. They went boating on the lake and they enjoyed the moonlight. Day and night, song to koto and lute floated over the grounds. Niou was not one to overlook such excitement. To the ladies, even those who saw him morning and night, he was like a fresh flower upon each appearance. Kaoru visited less frequently and they found him forbidding and unapproachable. One day Jijū chanced to look out from behind a screen and saw the two of them side by side. If only her lady had lived, become the bride of the one or the other, and reaped blessings (people would have said) from former lives! How utterly forlorn was the reality of her passing compared with the possibilities she had thrown away. But no one must be vouchsafed the smallest hint of the truth. Jijū must evince no more than any girl’s interest in the two men.
Niou was transmitting all the court gossip to his mother. Kaoru got up to leave and Jijū slipped out of sight. She did not want him to know that she had taken service again before even the year of mourning was over. He would think her lacking in steadfastness and dedication.
He went to the east galleries, where numbers of women were whispering to one another just inside an open door.
“How pleasant if we could all be friends. You can trust me, you know, just as you trust one another, and it is possible that I might have a thing or two to teach you. Do you know what I mean? Yes, I rather think you do, and I am pleased.”
The poor girl s were at a loss for an answer. Presently an older and very experienced woman named Ben spoke up. “I fear that the ones who have no good cause to answer are the ones with all the answers. Isn’t that the unfortunate way of the world? You are not to understand, of course, that good cause makes a girl speak up in response to just any passing query; and on the other hand it would be odd for us brazen ones to sit here like lumps.”
“So those who have good cause to be friendly tend to be shy, and you are not such a one? How very sad for both of us.”
She seemed to have slipped off her cloak and pushed it away, and, in dishabille, to be at practice on her calligraphy. It seemed too that she had been toying with flowers, for several delicate sprays lay on the lid of her writing box. He was treated to an elegant array of ladies, though some had slipped behind curtains and the others had turned so that their faces could not be seen through the open door.
He pulled the inkstone nearer.
“Now through a field of riotous maiden flowers
I go, untouched by any drop of dew.
“Do you still not trust me?”
He handed it to a lady who sat turned away from him, very near the door. Calmly, quickly, with scarcely a motion, she set down an answering poem.
“A flower whose name may suggest a want of judgment,
It does not bend for every passing dew.”
It was a tiny sample to go by, but he found the hand pleasing and distinguished. Perhaps en route to the royal audience chamber she had found him blocking the way.
“Well,” resumed Ben, “I must say that you make yourself very clear, and you do, as you have indicated, show signs of senility.
“Suppose you too have a nap among the flowers.
Then may we see how well you resist their hues.
“And then we will be in a position to make up our minds about you.”
Kaoru was ready with another poem:
“I shall stay the night, if I have your invitation,
Though common hues, I warn you, tempt me not.”
“That was not kind. I spoke in generalities.”
He had said little, but it had interested them.
“Well, I see that I am in the way. I shall leave it unobstructed. And I seem to have come at a time that calls for unusual reticence.”
They only hoped, thought some of the women as he turned to leave, that he had not taken Ben for their spokesman.
He leaned against the east railing and as the color of evening came over the sky gazed at the flower beds before the empress’s apartments. Lost again in sad thoughts, he whispered to himself: “The autumn skies are the cruelest of all.”
There was a rustling of silk as the woman who had answered his poem slipped inside the main hall.
Niou had come up beside him. “Who was that?”
“Chūjō,” replied a second woman. “She is with your royal sister.
She should not have said it, thought Kaoru. Ladies were not supposed to offer up the names of other ladies in response to any chance question. And along with distaste at this impropriety he felt a twinge of jealousy. Niou’s presence seemed to offer no cause for shyness. Niou was so impetuous, so direct — no doubt he swept them all before him. Kaoru’s own friendship with the prince had brought mainly sorrow. He played with the possibility of reprisal. If Niou was after one of these beauties, then there might be ways to make him sip of his own medicine. Women of true discernment should prefer Kaoru to Niou — but where were they? His thoughts moved to Nakanokimi and the unhappiness Niou’s various activities had brought. Yet she kept up the appearances demanded of her as Niou’s wife. Kaoru thought it all very touching, and very admirable too. Would there be such women here? No frequenter of the women’s quarters, he did not know. He might have enjoyed a try at nocturnal wandering himself, to beguile the long, sleepless hours; but such adventures were alien to his nature.
He had, however — and it seemed odd — acquired a liking for that west gallery, where he had espied the First Princess. Though she spent her nights with her mother, her women were assembled there, enjoying music and gossip. He interrupted a gentle strain upon a koto.
“Such music makes me impatient to see the musician.”
He had caught them by surprise, but they left the blinds slightly raised. One of them came forward.
“And is there an elder brother for one to resemble?” It was Chūjō‘s voice.
“That I do not know,” he answered brightly, “but there is a maternal uncle loitering about. Your lady is with her mother, I suppose? And how does she spend these days of freedom from palace restraints?” He was disappointed to find her away.
“Oh, she’s not so very busy whether she is here or whether she is there. You have caught us at the sort of thing we do.”
For them life seemed to be very interesting. He sighed. Then, fearing that the sigh might have been detected, he pulled a Japanese koto towards him, and, making use of the scale on which one of the women had been at practice, played the opening bars of a song. It was not unsuccessful, since minor scales are thought especially suited to the moods of autumn; but he broke off before he had finished. The women had been listening with great interest and half wished he had not begun at all.
His mother was a princess too, and was she so inferior to Niou’s eldest sister? The First Princess’s mother had been named empress, and his own grandmother had not been so honored, and that was the whole of the difference. Both of them, his mother and the princess, were the much-loved daughters of emperors. Yet there was something ineffably different about the princess. A remarkable place, that Akashi coast, where her mother had been born. He must go someday for a look at it. He could hardly say that fate had slighted him, for the Second Princess was his. Yet how much kinder if it had given him the First Princess too! He was of course asking the impossible.
Miyanokimi had rooms in the west wing. Numerous other young women had gathered to enjoy the moonlight. She too was a princess, he thought, and sighed again, this time at the uncertainty of human destinies. He started toward her rooms, remembering that he had been among the tentative candidates for her hand. Two or three little girl s, very pretty in formal livery, had been strolling up and down the veranda. They retreated at his approach. There was nothing to be shy about, thought he, but such was the way with little girls. He stopped before the south door and coughed to attract attention. An elderly woman came out.
“I might say that I have had secret thoughts about your lady, but I fear I would sound altogether too gauche and unimaginative. So here I am, seeking as best I can to describe ‘what lies beyond mere thoughts.’”
A forward sort, the woman chose to make reply in her mistress’s stead. “In the rather unexpected pass we have arrived at, the views of my lady’s royal father come frequently to mind. I have more than once heard her speak of them. I feel sure that these indirections of yours would give her much pleasure.”
He was being put off like any wayward young man. He had failed to make his point.
“I have never been one to abandon people near me, and now more than ever, in this ‘unexpected pass,’ it would please me if she might find cause to look to me for support. But one is not always delighted to be confronted with an intermediary, you may perhaps have guessed, when one wishes to address a lady.”
Somewhat discommoded, she seems to have stirred her lady to action.
“I have ‘not even the aged pines of Takasago’ for comrades.” This time it was Miyanokimi’s own voice, gentle and youthful. “Your assurance that you have not forgotten gives me comfort.”
Though the remark was acceptable enough in itself, he was of two minds about it. Here was a princess of the blood reduced to addressing a man, albeit briefly, as if she were an ordinary lady-in-waiting. He longed for a glimpse of her, since there could be no doubt about her grace and distinction; and then a flicker of wry amusement crossed his mind. Niou would be ill again!
One could go searching a very long while for a perfect woman. He had been idealizing this royal princess. No rule of nature dictated that princesses be without equals.
The truly remarkable thing was that a hermit who had reared his two daughters like mountain rustics should have produced two such paragons. And the other girl, whom he had taxed with flightiness and poor judgment, of whom he had really seen so little: she too had delighted him.
So his thoughts returned always to the same family. As he sank deeper in memories of Uji, of his strange, cruel ties with the Uji family, drake flies, than which no creatures are more fragile and insubstantial, were flitting back and forth in the evening light.
“I see the drake fly, take it up in my hand.
Ah, here it is, I say — and it is gone.”
And he added softly, as always: “Here, and perhaps not here at all.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57