tale of Genji 源氏物語

Chapter 14

Channel Buoys

Unable to forget that almost too vivid dream of his father and wanting somehow to lighten the penance, Genji immediately set about plans for a reading of the Lotus Sutra. It was to be in the Tenth Month. Everyone at court helped with the arrangements. The spirit of cooperation was as before Genji fell into disfavor.

Though seriously ill, Kokiden was still an enemy, angry that she had not succeeded in crushing him completely. The emperor had been convinced that he must pay the penalty for having gone against his father’s wishes. Now that he had had Genji recalled, he was in greatly improved spirits, and the eye ailment that had so troubled him had quite gone away. Melancholy forebodings continued to be with him, however. He frequently sent for Genji, who was now in his complete confidence. Everyone thought it splendid that he was at last having his way.

The day appointed for his abdication drew near. It grieved him to think of the precarious position in which it would leave Oborozukiyo.

“Your father is dead,” he said to her,”and my mother is in worse health all the time. I doubt that I have much longer to live and fear that everything will change once I am gone. I know that there is someone you have long preferred to me; but it has been a way of mine to concentrate upon one object, and I have thought only of you. Even if the man whom you prefer does as you wish him to, I doubt that his affection can match my own. The thought is too much for me.” He was in tears.

She flushed and turned away. An irresistible charm seemed to flow from her, to make him forget his grievances.

“And why have you not had a child? It seems such a pity. No doubt you will shortly have one by the man with whom you seem to have the stronger bond, and that will scarcely be to my taste. He is a commoner, you know, and I suppose the child must be reared as a commoner.”

These remarks about the past and about the future so shamed her that she could not bring herself to look at him. He was a handsome, civil man, and his behavior over the years had told of a deepening affection; and so she had come to understand, as she had become more alive to these subtleties, that Genji, for all his good looks and gallantry, had been less than ideally devoted to her. Why had she surrendered to childish impulses and permitted a scandal which had seriously damaged her name and done no good for his? These reminders of the past brought her untold pain.

In the Second Month of the following year initiation ceremonies were held for the crown prince. He was eleven, tall and mature for his age, and the very image of Genji. The world marveled at the almost blinding radiance, but it was a source of great trepidation for Fujitsubo. Very pleased with his successor, the emperor in a most gentle and friendly way discussed plans for his own abdication.

He abdicated that same month, so suddenly that Kokiden was taken by surprise.

“I know that it will be as a person of no importance,” he said, seeking to calm her,”but I hope that I will see you rather more frequently and at my leisure.”

His son by Lady Shokyoden was made crown prince. Everything had changed overnight, causes for rejoicing were innumerable. Genji was made a minister. As the number of ministers is limited by the legal codes and there were at the time no vacancies, a supernumerary position was created for him. It was assumed that his would be the strongest hand in the direction of public affairs.

“I am not up to it,” he said, deferring to his father-in-law, who was persuaded to come out of retirement and accept appointment as regent.

“I resigned because of poor health,” protested the old man,”and now I am older and even more useless.”

It was pointed out, however, that in foreign countries statesmen who in time of civil disorder have withdrawn to deep mountain retreats have thought it no shame, despite their white beards, to be of service once peace has been restored. Indeed they have been revered as the true saints and sages. The court and the world at large agreed that there need be no obstacle whatever to resuming upon recovery offices resigned because of illness. Unable to persist in his refusal, he was appointed chancellor. He was sixty-three. His retirement had been occasioned in part by the fact that affairs of state were not going as he wished, but now all was in order. His sons, whose careers had been in eclipse, were also brought back. Most striking was the case of Tō no Chūjō, who was made a supernumerary councillor. He had been especially careful about the training of his daughter, now twelve, by Kokiden’s sister, and was hoping to send her to court. The boy who had sung “Takasago” so nicely had come of age and was the sort of son every father wished for. Indeed Tō no Chūjō had a troop of sons by his various ladies which quite filled Genji with envy.

Genji’s own Yūgiri was as handsome a boy as any of them. He served as page for both the emperor and the crown prince. His grandparents, Princess Omiya and the chancellor, continued to grieve for their daughter. But she was gone, and they had Genji’s prosperity to take their minds from their sorrow; and it seemed that the gloomy years of Genji’s exile had vanished without a trace. Genji’s devotion to the family of his late wife was as it had always been. He overlooked no occasion that seemed to call for a visit, or for gifts to the nurse and the others who had remained faithful through the bad years. One may be sure that there were many happy women among them.

At Nijō too there were women who had awaited his return. He wished to do everything possible to make up for the sorrows that must have been theirs, and upon such women as Chūjō and Nakatsukasa, appropriately to their station in life, he bestowed a share of his affection. This left him no time for women outside the house. He had most splendidly remodeled the lodge to the east of his mansion. He had inherited it from his father, and his plan was that it be home for the lady of the orange blossoms and other neglected favorites.

I have said nothing about the Akashi lady, whom he had left in such uncertainty. Busy with public and private affairs, he had not been able to inquire after her as he would have wished. From about the beginning of the Third Month, though he told no one, she was much on his mind, for her time must be approaching. He sent off a messenger, who very soon returned.

“A girl was safely delivered on the sixteenth.”

It was his first daughter. He was delighted ‒ but why had he not brought the lady to have her child in the capital?

“You will have three children,” a fortuneteller had once told him. “Two of them are certain to become emperor and empress. The least of the three will become chancellor, the most powerful man in the land.” The whole of the oracle seemed by way of coming true.

He had consulted physiognomists in large numbers and they had been unanimous in telling him that he would rise to grand heights and have the world to do with as he wished; but through the unhappy days he had dismissed them from his thoughts. With the commencement of the new reign it seemed that his most extravagant hopes were being realized. The throne itself lay beyond his reach. He had been his father’s favorite over his many brothers, but his father had determined to reduce him to common status, and that fact made it apparent that the throne must not be among his ambitions. Although the reasons were of course secret, the accession of the new emperor seemed evidence enough that the fortuneteller had not deceived him. As for future prospects, he thought that he could see the god of Sumiyoshi at work. Had it been foreordained that someone from Akashi was meant for remarkable things, and was it for that reason that her eccentric father had had what had seemed preposterous plans? Genji had done badly in letting his daughter be born in a comer of the provinces. He must send for mother and daughter as soon as the proprieties allowed, and he gave orders that the remodeling of the east lodge be hurried.

Capable nurses would be difficult to find, he was afraid, in Akashi. He remembered having heard the sad story of a woman whose mother had been among the old emperor’s private secretaries and whose father had been a chamberlain and councillor. The parents both dead and the lady herself in straitened circumstances, she had struck up an unworthy liaison and had a child as a result. She was young and her prospects were poor, and she did not hesitate at the invitation to quit a deserted and ruinous mansion, and so the contract was made. By way of some errand or other, in the greatest secrecy, Genji visited her. Though she had made the commitment, she had been having second thoughts. The honor of the visit quite removed her doubts.

“I shall do entirely as you wish.”

Since it was a propitious day, he sent her off immediately.

“You will think it selfish and unfeeling of me, I am sure; but I have rather special plans. Tell yourself that there is a precedent for being sent off to a hard life in a strange land, and put up with it for a time.” And he told her in detail of her duties.

Since she had been at court, he had occasionally had a glimpse of her. She was thinner now. Her once fine mansion was sadly neglected, and the plantings in the garden were rank and overgrown. How, he wondered, had she endured such a life?

“Suppose we call it off,” he said jokingly, “and keep you here.” She was such a pretty young woman that he could not take his eyes from her.

She could not help thinking that, if it was all the same, she would prefer serving him from somewhat nearer at hand.

“I have not, it is true, been so fortunate as to know you,
But sad it is to end the briefest friendship.

“And so perhaps I should go with you.”

She smiled.

“I do not trust regrets at so quick a farewell.
The truth has to do with someone you wish to visit.”

It was nicely done.

She left the city by carriage. He assigned as escort men whom he trusted implicitly and enjoined them to the strictest secrecy. He sent with her a sword for the little girl and other appropriate gifts and provisions, in such quantities that the procession was in danger of falling behind schedule. His attentions to the newly appointed nurse could not have been more elaborate.

He smiled to think what this first grandchild would mean to the old man, how busy and self-important he would be. No doubt it told of events in a former life (and the thought brought twinges of conscience), that she meant so much to Genji himself. Over and over again he told the nurse that he would not be quick to forgive lapses and oversights.

“One day this sleeve of mine shall be her shelter
Whose years shall be as the years of the angel’s rock.”

They hurried to the Harima border by boat and thence by horse. The old man was overjoyed and there was no end to his awed gratitude. He made obeisance in the direction of the capital. At this evidence that the little girl was important to Genji he began to feel rather in awe of her too. She had an unearthly, almost ominous sort of beauty, to make the nurse see that the fuss and bother had not after all been overdone. There had been something horrible about this sudden removal to the countryside, but now it was as if she were awakening from a nightmare into broad sunlight. She already adored the little girl.

The Akashi lady had been in despair. She had decided as the months went by that life was without meaning. This evidence of Genji’s good intentions was comforting. She bestirred herself to make the guests from the city feel welcome.

The escort was in a hurry to return. She set down something of her feelings in a letter to Genji, to which she added this poem:

“These sleeves are much too narrow to offer protection.
The blossom awaits those all-encompassing ones.”

Genji was astonished at himself, that his daughter should be so much on his mind and that he should so long to see her.

He had said little to Murasaki of the events at Akashi, but he feared that she might have the story from someone else. “And that would seem to be the situation,” he said, concluding his account. “Somehow everything has gone wrong. I don’t have children where I really want them, and now there is a child in a very unlikely place. And it is a girl. I could of course simply disown her, but that is the sort of thing I do not seem capable of. I will bring her here one of these days and let you have a look at her. You are not to be jealous, now.”

Murasaki flushed. “How strange you are. You make me dislike myself, constantly assigning traits which are not mine at all. When and by whom, I wonder, shall I begin to have lessons in jealousy?”

Genji smiled, and tears came to his eyes. “When indeed, pray. You are very odd, my dear. Things come into your mind that would not occur to anyone else.”

She thought of their longing for each other through the years apart, of letters back and forth, and his delinquencies and her resentment seemed like a silly joke.

“There are very special reasons for it all,” he continued, “that she should be so much on my mind, and that I should be so diligent in my inquiries. But I fear that it is too soon to tell you of them. You would not understand. I think that the setting may have been partly responsible.”

He had told of her of the lines of smoke across the Akashi sky that last evening, and, though with some understatement, perhaps, of the lady’s appearance and of her skill on the koto. And so while she herself had been lost in infinite sadness, thought Murasaki, he had managed to keep himself entertained. It did not seem right that he should have allowed himself even a playful glance at another woman.

If he had his ways, she would have hers. She looked aside, whispering as if to herself: “There was a time when we seemed rather a nicely matched couple.

“I think I shall be the first to rise as smoke,
And it may not go the direction of that other.”

“What a very unpleasant thing to say.

“For whom, in mountains, upon unfriendly seas,
Has the flow of my tears been such as to sweep me under?

“I wish you could understand me, but of course it is not the way of this world that we are ever completely understood. I would not care or complain except for the fact that I do so love you.”

He took out a koto and tuned it and pushed it towards her; but, perhaps somewhat displeased at his account of the other lady’s talents, she refused to touch it. She was a calmly, delightfully gentle lady, and these small outbursts of jealousy were interesting, these occasional shows of anger charming. Yes, he thought, she was someone he could be with always.

His daughter would be fifty days old on the fifth of the Fifth Month. He longed more than ever to see her. What a splendid affair the fiftieth-day celebrations would be if they might take place in the city! Why had he allowed the child to be born in so unseemly a place? If it had been a boy he would not have been so concerned, but for a girl it was a very great disability not to be born in the city. And she seemed especially important because his unhappiness had had so much to do with her destinies.

He sent off messengers with the strictest orders to arrive on that day and no other. They took with them all the gifts which the most fertile imagination could have thought of for such an occasion, and practical everyday supplies as well.

This was Genji’s note:

“The sea grass, hidden among the rocks, unchanging,
Competes this day for attention with the iris.

“I am quite consumed with longing. You must be prepared to leave Akashi. It cannot be otherwise. I promise you that you have not the smallest thing to worry about.”

The old man’s face was a twisted shell once more, this time, most properly, with joy. Very elaborate preparations had been made for the fiftieth-day ceremonies, but had these envoys not come from Genji they would have been like brocades worn in the night.

The nurse had found the Akashi lady to her liking, a pleasant companion in a gloomy world. Among the women whom the lady’s parents, through family connections, had brought from the city were several of no lower standing than the nurse; but they were all aged, tottering people who could no longer be used at court and who had in effect chanced upon Akashi in their search for a retreat among the crags. The nurse was at her elegant best. She gave this and that account, as her feminine sensibilities led her, of the great world, and she spoke too of Genji and how everyone admired him. The Akashi lady began to think herself important for having had something to do with the little memento he had left behind. The nurse saw Genji’s letter. What extraordinary good fortune the lady did have, she had been thinking, and how unlucky she had been herself; and Genji’s inquiries made her feel important too.

The lady’s reply was honest and unaffected.

“The crane is lost on an insignificant isle.
Not even today do you come to seek it out.

“I cannot be sure how long a life darkened by lonely reveries and brightened by occasional messages from outside can be expected to continue, and must beg of you that the child be freed of uncertainty the earliest day possible.”

Genji read the letter over and over again, and sighed.

“The distant boat more distant.” Murasaki looked away as she spoke, as if to herself, and said no more.

“You do make a large thing of it. Myself, I make no more of it than this: sometimes a picture of that seacoast comes into my mind, and memories come back, and I sigh. You are very attentive, not to miss the sigh.”

He let her see only the address. The hand would have done honor to the proudest lady at court. She could see why the Akashi lady had done so well.

It was sad that his preoccupation with Murasaki had left him no time for the lady of the orange blossoms. There were public affairs as well, and he was now too important to wander about as he would wish. It seemed that all was quiet in that sector, and so he gave little thought to it. Then came the long rains of early summer to lay a pall over things and bring a respite from his duties. He roused himself for a visit.

Though she saw little of him, the lady was completely dependent on him; but she was not of the modern sort, given to outpourings of resentment. He knew that she would not make him uncomfortable. Long neglected, her house now wore a weirdly ruinous aspect. As usual, he first looked in on her sister, and late in the night moved on to the lady’s own rooms. He was himself weirdly beautiful in the misty moonlight. She felt very inadequate, but she was waiting for him out near the veranda, in meditative contemplation of the night. Her refusal to let anything upset her was remarkable.

From nearby there came the metallic cry of a water rail.

“Did not this bird come knocking at my door,
What pretext would I find to admit the moon?”

Her soft voice, trailing off into silence, was very pleasing. He sighed, almost wishing it were not the case that each of his ladies had something to recommend her. It made for a most complicated life.

“You respond to the call of every water rail?
You must find yourself admitting peculiar moons.

“I am worried.”

Not of course that he really suspected her of indiscretion. She had waited for him and she was very dear to him.

She reminded him of his farewell admonition not to look at the cloudy moon. “And why,” she said, gently as always, “should I have thought then that I was unhappy? It is no better now.”

He made the usual points (one wondered that they came so effortlessly) as he sought to comfort her.

He had not forgotten the Kyushu Gosechi dancer. He would have liked to see her again, but a clandestine meeting was altogether too difficult to arrange. He dominated her thoughts, so much so that she had turned away all the prospective bridegrooms who interested her father and had decided that she would not marry. Genji’s plans were that once his east lodge had been redone, all cheerfully and pleasantly, he would gather just such ladies there, and, should a child be born who required careful upbringing, ask them to take charge of it. The new house compared very well indeed with the old, for he had assigned officials of intelligence and good taste to the work of remodeling.

He had not forgotten Oborozukiyo. He let her know that that unfortunate event had not stilled his ardor. She had learned her lesson, however, and so for Genji an affair that had never been really successful had become a complete failure.

Life was pleasant for the retired emperor, who had taken up residence in the Suzaku Palace. He had parties and concerts as the seasons went by and was in generally good spirits. Various ladies were still with him. The mother of the crown prince was the exception. Not especially conspicuous among them, she had been no match for Oborozukiyo. Now she had come into her own. She left the emperor’s side to manage the crown prince’s affairs. Genji now occupied his mother’s rooms at the palace. The crown prince was in the Pear Pavilion, which adjoined them, and Genji was his companion and servant.

Though Fujitsubo could not resume her former titles, she was given the emoluments of a retired emperor. She maintained a full household and pursued her religious vocation with solemn grandeur. Factional politics had in recent years made it difficult for her to visit the palace, and she had grieved at not being able to see her son. Now everything was as she would have wished it, and the time had come for Kokiden to be unhappy with the world. Genji was scrupulously attentive to Kokiden’s needs. This fact did nothing to change her feelings towards him, which were the subject of unfriendly criticism.

Prince Hyōbu, Murasaki’s father, had sought during the bad years to please the dominant faction. Genji had not forgotten. Genji’s conduct was on the whole not vengeful, but he was sometimes openly unfriendly to the prince. Fujitsubo saw and was unhappy.

The conduct of public affairs was now divided between Genji and his father-in-law, to pursue as they wished. The ceremonies when Tō no Chūjō’s daughter entered court in the Eighth Month were magnificent, under the energetic direction of the chancellor himself. It was known that Prince Hyōbu had been putting all his time and wealth into preparing his second daughter for court service. Genji made it clear that the girl was not to be so honored, and what was the prince to do?

In the autumn Genji made a pilgrimage to Sumiyoshi. It was a brilliant progress, in thanks for the granting of his prayers. By the merest chance, it came on the day the Akashi lady had chosen for her own pilgrimage, a semiannual observance which this time had a special purpose, to apologize for her not having been able to present herself the year before or earlier this year. She came by ship. As the ship pulled in, a gorgeous array of offerings was being laid out on the beach. The shrine precincts rang with the shouts of bearers and there were uniformed dancers, all very goodlooking.

“And whose party might it be?“ asked one of her men.

The very inferior footman to whom the query was made laughed heartily. “You mean there is someone who does not know that the Genji minister has come because of his vows?”

The lady was stunned. To have chosen this day of all days, to be among the distant onlookers ‒ her own inferiority could not have been emphasized more painfully. She was, in spite of it, tied to him by some bond or other, and here were these underlings, completely pleased with themselves, reflecting his glory. Why, because of what crimes and sins, should she, who never ceased thinking of him, have made this journey to Sumiyoshi on this day without catching an echo of it all? She could only turn away and try to hide her sorrow.

Genji’s attendants were numberless, their robes of deep hues and brilliant hues like maple leaves and cherry blossoms against the deep green of the pine groves. Among the courtiers of the Sixth Rank, the yellowgreen of the imperial secretariat stood out. The man who had on an earlier day had bitter words for the sacred fence of Kamo was among them. Also holding a guards commission, he had an imposing retinue of his own. Yoshikiyo too was a guards officer. He seemed especially proud of himself, and indeed his scarlet robe was very grand. All the men she had known at Akashi were scattered among the crowds, almost unrecognizable in their finery, the picture of prosperity. The young courtiers had even sought to outdo one another in caparisoning their horses, and for the rustics from Akashi it was a very fine show.

For the lady it was torment to see all the splendor and not to see Genji himself. Like the Kawara minister, he had been granted a special honor guard of page boys, ten of them, all very pretty, of uniform height, and resplendently decked out, the cords that bound up their hair in the pageboy style a most elegant blending from white to deep purple. Yūgiri, whom Genji denied nothing, had put even his stableboys into livery.

The Akashi lady felt as if she were gazing at a realm beyond the clouds. Her own child seemed so utterly insignificant. She bowed to the shrine and prayed more fervently.

The governor of the province came to greet Genji, and no doubt the repast he had made ready was finer than for most ministers.

The lady could bear no more. “If I were to go up with my miserable little offerings, the god would scarcely notice, and would not think I had done much by way of keeping my promises. But the whole trip would be pointless if we were to turn and go home.” She suggested that they put in at Naniwa and there commission lustration ceremonies.

Not dreaming what had happened, Genji passed the night in entertainments sure to please the god. He went beyond all his promises in the novelty and ingenuity of the dances. His nearest retainers, men like Koremitsu, knew how much the god had done for them. As Genji came unannounced from the shrine, Koremitsu handed him a poem:

“These pines of Sumiyoshi make me think
Of days when we were neighbors to this god.”

Very apt, thought Genji.

“Remembering those fearful winds and waves,
Am I to forget the god of Sumiyoshi?

“Yes, it has without question been through his intervention.” There was solemn gratitude in the words.

Genji was greatly upset when Koremitsu told him that a boat had come from Akashi and been turned away by the crowds on the beach. Again the god of Sumiyoshi seemed to be at work. The lady would surely regret having chosen this day. He must at least get off a note. Leaving Sumiyoshi, he made excursions to other famous places in the region and had grand and solemn lustrations performed on the seven strands of Naniwa. “The waves of Naniwa,” he said to himself (though with no real thought, one may imagine, of throwing himself in) as he looked out over the buoys that marked the Horie channel.

Koremitsu, who was among his mounted attendants, overheard. Always prepared for such an exigency, he took out a short writing brush and handed it to Genji.

A most estimable servant, thought Genji, jotting down a poem on a sheet of paper he had at hand.

“Firm the bond that brings us to Naniwa,
Whose channel buoys invite me to throw myself in.”

Koremitsu sent it to the lady by a messenger who was familiar with the events at Akashi. She wept tears of joy at even so small a favor. A line of horsemen was just then passing by.

This was her reply, to which she tied sacred cords for the lustration at Tamino:

“A lowly one whose place is not to demand,
To what purpose, at Naniwa, should I cast myself in?”

It was evening, and the scene was a lovely one, with the tide flooding in and cranes calling ceaselessly from the shallows. He longed to see her, whatever these crowds might think.

“My sleeves are wet as when I wandered these shores.
The Isle of the Raincoat does not fend off the dews.”

To joyous music, he continued his round of the famous places, but his thoughts were with the Akashi lady.

Women of pleasure were in evidence. It would seem that there were susceptible young men even among the highest ranks. Genji looked resolutely away. It was his view that one should be moved only by adequate forces, and that frivolous claims were to be rejected even in the most ordinary affairs. Their most seductive and studied poses had no effect upon him.

His party moved on. The next day being a propitious one, the Akashi lady made offerings at Sumiyoshi, and so, in keeping with her more modest station, acquitted herself of her vows. The incident had only served to intensify her gloom. A messenger came from Genji even before he could have returned to the city. He meant very shortly to send for her, he said. She was glad, and yet she hesitated, fearing the uncertainties of sailing off beyond the islands to a place she could not call home. Her father too was uneasy. But life in Akashi would be even more difficult than in earlier years. Her reply was obedient but indecisive.

I had forgotten: a new high priestess had been appointed for the Ise Shrine, and the Rokujo lady had returned to the city with her daughter. Genji’s attentions, his inquiries as to her needs, were as always very thorough, but she remembered his coldness in other years and had no wish to call back the old sorrow and regret. She would treat him as a distant friend, no more. For his part, he made no special effort to see her. The truth was that he could not be sure of his own feelings, and his station in life was now such that he could not pursue sundry love affairs as he once had. He had no heart for importuning the lady. He would have liked all the same to see what the years had done to her daughter, the high priestess. The Rokujo house had been kept in good repair. As always, she selected only ladies of the finest taste and endowments to be with her, and the house was once more a literary and artistic salon. Though her life was in many ways lonely, there were ample pleasures and distractions.

Suddenly she fell ill. Troubled by feelings of guilt that she had spent those years in Ise, so remote from the Good Law, she became a nun.

Genji canceled all his appointments and rushed to her side. The old passion had departed, but she had been important to him. His commiserations were endless. She had had a place set out for him near her pillows. Raising herself to an armrest, she essayed her own answers. She seemed very weak, and he wept to think that she might die before he was able to let her know how fond he had been of her. It moved her deeply to think that now, when everything else seemed to be going, he should still care.

She spoke to him of her daughter. “She will have no one to turn to when I am gone. Please do count her among those who are important to you. She has been the unluckiest of girls, poor dear. I am a useless person and I have done her no good, but I tell myself that if my health will only hold out a little longer I may look after her until she is better able to look after herself.” She was weeping, and life did indeed seem to be leaving her.

“You speak as if we might become strangers. It could not have happened, it would have been quite impossible, even if you had not said this to me. I mean to do everything I can for her. You must not worry.”

“It is all so difficult. Even when a girl has a father to whom she can look with complete confidence, the worst thing is to lose her mother. Life can be dreadfully complicated when her guardian is found to have thoughts not becoming a parent. Unfortunate suspicions are sure to arise, and other women will see their chance to be ugly. These are distasteful forebodings, I know. But please do not let anything of the sort come into your relations with her. My life has been an object lesson in uncertainty, and my only hope now is that she be spared it all.”

She need not be quite so outspoken, thought Genji; but he replied calmly enough. “I am a steadier and soberer person than I used to be, and it astonishes me that you still think me a trifler. One of these days the true state of affairs will be apparent even to you.”

It was dark outside her curtains, through which came suggestions of lamplight. Was it just possible? He slid forward and looked through an opening in the curtains. He saw her dimly, leaning against an armrest, so beauriful with her hair cut short that he wished he might ask someone to do her likeness. And the one beyond, to the east of the bed curtains, would be the priestess. Her curtain frames had been pushed casually to one side. She sat chin in hand, in an attitude of utter despondency. Though he could not see her well, she seemed very beautiful. There was great dignity in the flow of her hair down over her shoulders and in the shape of her head, and he could see that, for all the nobility, it was also a winsome and delicate sort of beauty. He felt certain stirrings of the heart, and remembered her mother’s worries.

“I am feeling much worse,” said the lady, “and fear I may be guilty of rudeness if you stay longer.” A woman helped her into bed.

“How happy I would be if this visit might bring some sign of improvement. What exactly is the nature of the illness?”

She had sensed that she was being seen. “I must look like a witch. There is a very strong bond between us ‒ it must be so ‒ that you should have come to me now. I have been able to tell you a little of what has been on my mind, and I am no longer afraid to die.”

“It moves me deeply that you should have thought me worthy. I have many brothers, but I have never felt close to them. My father looked upon the high priestess as one of his daughters, and to me she shall be a sister. I have no daughters of my own. She will fill an emptiness in my life.”

His inquiries were warm and frequent, but a week or so later she died. Aware all over again of the uncertainty of life, Genji gave orders for the funeral and went into retreat. The priestess’s stewards could have seen to them after a fashion, but he was her chief support.

He paid a visit. She replied, through her lady of honor, that she was feeling utterly lost and helpless.

“Your mother spoke about you, and left instructions, and it would be a great satisfaction if I might have your complete confidence.”

Her women found him such a source of strength and comfort that they thought he could be forgiven earlier derelictions.

The services were very grand, with numerous people from Genji’s house to help.

Still in retreat, he sent frequently to inquire after her. When presently she had regained a measure of composure, she sent her own replies. She was far from easy about being in correspondence with him, but her nurse and others insisted that it would be rude to use an intermediary.

It was a day of high winds and driving snow and sleet. He thought how much more miserable the weather must seem to her.

“I can imagine,” he wrote, “what these hostile skies must do to you, and yet-

“From skies of wild, unceasing snow and sleet
Her spirit watches over a house of sorrow.”

He had chosen paper of a cloudy azure, and taken pains with all the details which he thought might interest a young girl.

She was hard put to reply, but her women again insisted that secretaries should have no part in these matters. She finally set down a poem on a richly perfumed gray paper, relying on the somber texture to modulate the shadings of her ink.

“I wish to go, but, blind with tears, am helpless
As snows which were not asked where they would fall.”

It was a calm, reserved hand, not remarkably skilled, but with a pleasantly youthful quality about it and much that told of good breeding. She had had a particular place in his thoughts ever since her departure for Ise, and now of course nothing stood in his way. But, as before, he reconsidered. Her mother had had good reason for her fears, which worried him less, it must be added, than the rumors that were even now going the rounds. He would behave in quite the opposite manner. He would be a model of propriety and parental solicitude, and when the emperor was a little older and better equipped to understand, he would bring her to court. With no daughters on hand to make life interesting, he would look after her as if she were his daughter. He was most attentive to her needs and, choosing his occasions well, sometimes visited her.

“You will think it forward of me to say so, but I would like nothing better than to be thought a substitute for your mother. Every sign that you trust me will please me enormously.”

She was of a very shy and introspective nature, reluctant even to let him hear her voice. Her women were helpless to overcome this extreme reticence. She had in her service several minor princesses whose breeding and taste were such, he was sure, that she need not feel at all uncomfortable or awkward at court. He wanted very much to have a look at her and see whether his plans were well grounded ‒ evidence, perhaps, that his fatherly impulses were not unmixed. He could not himself be sure when his feelings would change, and he let fall no hint of his plans. The princess’s household felt greatly in his debt for his careful attention to the funeral and memorial services.

The days went by in dark procession. Her retainers began to take their leave. Her house, near the lower eastern limits of the city, was in a lonely district of fields and temples where the vesper bells often rang an accompaniment to her sobs. She and her mother had been close as parent and child seldom are. They had not been separated even briefly, and it had been without precedent for a mother to accompany a high priestess to Ise. She would have begged to be taken on this last journey as well, had it been possible.

There were men of various ranks who sought to pay court through her women. Quite as if he were her father, Genji told the women that none of them, not even the nurse, should presume to take matters into her own hands. They were very careful, for they would not want damaging reports to reach the ears of so grand a gentleman.

The Suzaku emperor still had vivid memories of the rites in the Grand Hall upon her departure for Ise, and of a beauty that had seemed almost frightening.

“Have her come to me,” he had said to her mother. “She shall live exactly as my sisters, the high priestess of Kamo and the others.”

But the Rokujo lady had misgivings and managed to evade the august invitation. The Suzaku emperor already had several wellborn consorts, and her daughter would be without strong backing. He was not in good health, moreover, and she feared that to her own misfortune might be added her daughter’s. With the Rokujo lady gone, the priestess’s women were more acutely aware than ever of the need for strong backing. The Suzaku emperor repeated his invitation.

Genji learned of his brother’s hopes. It would be altogether too highhanded to spirit the princess away, and on the other hand Genji would have strong regrets at letting such a beautiful lady go. He decided that he must consult Fujitsubo, the mother of the new emperor.

He told her of all that was troubling him. “Her mother was a careful, thoughtful lady. My loose ways were responsible for all the trouble. I cannot tell you how it hurts me to think that she came to hate me. She died hating me; but as she lay dying she spoke to me about her daughter. Enough had been said about me, I gather, to convince her that I was the one to turn to, and so she controlled her anger and confided in me. The thought of it makes me want to start weeping again. I would find it difficult to ignore such a sad case even if it were not my personal concern, and I want to do all I can to put the poor lady’s soul at rest and persuade her to forgive me. His Majesty is mature for his age, but he is still very young, and I often think how good it would be if he had someone with him who knew a little about the world. But of course the decision must be yours.”

“This is very thoughtful and understanding of you. One does not wish to be unkind to the Suzaku emperor, of course, but perhaps, taking advantage of the Rokujo lady’s instructions, you could pretend to be unaware of his wishes. He seems in any case to have given himself over to his prayers, and such concerns can scarcely matter very much any more. I am sure that you explain the situation to him he will not harbor any deep resentment.”

“If you agree, then, and are kind enough to number her among the acceptable candidates, I shall say a word to her of your decision. I have thought a great deal about her interests and have at length come to the conclusion I have just described to you. The gossips do upset me, of course.”

He would do as she suggested. Pretending to be unaware of the Suzaku emperor’s hopes, he would take the girl into the Nijō mansion.

He told Murasaki of this decision. “And,” he added, “she is just the right age to be a good companion.”

She was delighted. He pushed ahead with his plans.

Fujitsubo was concerned about her brother, Prince Hyōbu, who was in a fever, it seemed, to have his own daughter received at court. He and Genji were not on good terms. What did Genji propose to do in the matter?

Tō no Chūjō’s daughter, now a royal consort, occupied the Kokiden apartments, and made a good playmate for the emperor. She had been adopted by her grandfather, the chancellor, who denied her nothing. Prince Hyōbu s daughter was about the same age as the emperor, and Fujitsubo feared that they would make a rather ridiculous couple, as if they were playing house together. She was delighted at the prospect of having an older lady with him, and she said as much. Genji was untiring in his services, advising him in public matters, of course, to the great satisfaction of Fujitsubo, and managing his private life as well. Fujitsubo was ill much of the time. Even when she was at the palace she found it difficult to be with her son as much as she wished. It was quite imperative that he have an older lady to look after him.


The Wormwood Patch