tale of Genji 源氏物語

Chapter 42

His Perfumed Highness

The shining Genji was dead, and there was no one quite like him. It would be irreverent to speak of the Reizei emperor. Niou, the third son of the present emperor, and Kaoru, the young son of Genji's Third Princess, had grown up in the same house and were both thought by the world to be uncommonly handsome, but somehow they did not shine with the same radiance. They were but sensitive, cultivated young men, and the fact that they were rather more loudly acclaimed than Genji had been at their age was very probably because they had been so close to him. They were in any event very well thought of indeed. Niou had been reared by Murasaki, her favorite among Genji's grandchildren, and still had her Nijo house for his private residence. If the crown prince was because of his position the most revered of the royal children, Niou was his parents' favorite. They would have liked to have him with them in the palace, but he found life more comfortable in the house of the childhood memories. Upon his initiation he was appointed minister of war.

The First Princess, his sister, lived in the east wing of Murasaki's southeast quarter at Rokujō. It was exactly as it had been at Murasaki's death, and everything about it called up memories. The Second Prince had rooms in the main hall of the same quarter and spent much of his spare time there. The Plum Court was his palace residence. He was married to Yugiri's second daughter and was of such high character and repute that he was widely expected to become crown prince when the next reign began.

Yugiri had numerous daughters. The oldest was married to the crown prince and had no rival for his affections. It had been generally assumed that the younger daughters would be married to royal princes in turn. The Akashi empress, Yugiri's sister, had put in a good word for them. Niou, however, had thoughts of his own. He was a headstrong young man who did exactly what he wanted to do. Yugiri told himself that there were after all no laws in these matters, meanwhile making sure that his daughters had every advantage and letting it be known that princes who came paying court would not be turned away. Princes and high courtiers who flattered themselves that they were among the eligible had very exciting reports about the sixth daughter.

Genji,s various ladies tearfully left Rokujō for the dwellings that would be their last. Genji had given the lady of the orange blossoms the east lodge at Nijo. Kaoru's mother lived in her own Sanjo mansion. With the Akashi empress now in residence at the palace, Rokujō had become a quiet and rather lonely place. Yugiri had observed - it had been true long ago and it was still true - how quickly the mansions of the great fall into ruin. Enormous expense and attention went into them, and one could almost see the beginning of the process when their eminent masters were dead, and so they became the most poignant reminders of evanescence. He did not want anything of the sort to happen at Rokujō. He was determined that there would be life in the mansion and the streets around it while he himself was still alive. He therefore installed Kashiwagi's widow, the Second Princess, in the northeast quarter, where he had lived as the foster son of the lady of the orange blossoms. He was very precise and impartial in his habits, spending alternate nights there and at his Sanjo residence, where Kumoinokari lived.

Genji had polished the Nijo house to perfection, and then the southeast quarter at Rokujō had become the jeweled pavilion, the center of life and excitement. Now it was as if they had been meant all along for one among his ladies and for her grandchildren. There it was that the Akashi lady ministered to the needs of the empress's children. Making no changes in the ordering of the two households, Yugiri treated Genji's several ladies as if he were the son of them all. His strongest regret was that Murasaki had not lived to see evidences of his esteem. After all these years he still grieved for her.

And the whole world still mourned Genji. It was as if a light had gone out. For his ladies, for his grandchildren, for others who had been close to him, the sadness was of course more immediate and intense, and they were constantly being reminded of Murasaki too. It is true, they all thought: the cherry blossoms of spring are loved because they bloom so briefly.

Genji had asked the Reizei emperor to watch over Kaoru. The emperor was faithful to the trust, and his empress, Akikonomu, sad that she had no children of her own, found her greatest pleasure in being of service to him. His initiation ceremonies, when he was fourteen, were held in the Reizei Palace. In the Second Month he was made a chamberlain and in the autumn Captain of the Right Guards. This rapid promotion was at the behest of the Reizei emperor, who seemed to have his own reasons for haste. So it was that Kaoru was a man of importance at a very early age. He was given rooms in the Reizei Palace and the Reizei emperor made it his personal business to see that all the ladies-in-waiting and even the maids and page girls were the prettiest and ablest to be had. Similar attention went into fitting the rooms, which would not have offended the sensibilities of the most refined and demanding princess. Indeed, the Reizei emperor and his empress forwent the services of the most accomplished women in their own retinue, that Kaoru might be more elegantly served. They wanted him to be happy at Reizei and could not have been more attentive to his needs if he had been their son. The Reizei emperor had only one child, a princess by a daughter of Tono Chujo. There was of course nothing that he was not ready and eager to do for her. Perhaps it was because his love for Akikonomu had deepened over the years that he was equally solicitous of Kaoru. There were some, indeed, who did not quite understand this partiality.

Kaoru's mother had quite given herself up to her devotions. She spared herself no expense in arranging the monthly invocation of the holy name and the semiannual reading of the Lotus Sutra and all the other prescribed rites. Her son's visits were her chief pleasure. Sometimes he almost seemed more like a father than a son - a fact which he was aware of and though rather sad. He was a constant companion of both the reigning emperor and the retired emperor, and was much sought after by the crown prince and other princes too, until he sometimes wished that he could be in two places at once. From his childhood there had been things, chance remarks, brief snatches of an overheard conversation, that had upset him and made him wish that there were someone to whom he could go for an explanation. There was no one. His mother would be distressed at any hint that he had even these vague suspicions. He could only brood in solitude and ask what missteps in a former life might explain the painful doubts with which he had grown up - and wish that he had the clairvoyance of a Prince Rahula, who instinctively knew the truth about his own birth.

“Whom might I ask? Why must it be
That I do not know the beginning or the end?”

But of course there was no one he could go to for an answer.

These doubts were with him most persistently when he was unwell. His mother, taking the nun's habit when still in the flush of girlhood - had it been from a real and thorough conversion? He suspected rather that some horrible surprise had overtaken her, something that had shaken her to the roots of her being. People must surely have heard about it in the course of everyday events, and for some reason had felt constrained to keep it from him.

His mother was at her devotions, morning and night, but he thought it unlikely that the efforts of a weak and vacillating woman could transform the dew upon the lotus into the bright jewel of the law. A woman labors under five hindrances, after all. He wanted somehow to help her towards a new start in another life.

He thought too of the gentleman who had died so young. His soul must still be wandering lost, unable to free itself of regrets for this world. How he wished that they could meet - there would be other lives in which it might be possible.

His own initiation ceremonies interested him not in the least, but he had to go through with them. Suddenly he found himself a rather conspicuous young man, indeed the cynosure of all eyes. This new eminence only made him withdraw more resolutely into himself.

The emperor favored him because they were so closely related, but a quite genuine regard had perhaps more to do with the matter. As for the empress, her children had grown up with him and he still seemed almost one of them. She remembered how Genji had sighed at the unlikelihood that he would live to see this child of his late years grown into a man, and felt that Genji's worries had added to her own responsibilities. Yugiri was more attentive to Kaoru than to his own sons.

The shining Genji had been his father's favorite child, and there had been jealousy. He had not had the backing of powerful maternal relatives, but, blessed with a cool head and mature judgment, he had seen the advantages of keeping his radiance somewhat dimmed, and so had made his way safely through a crisis that might have been disastrous for the whole nation. So it had been too with preparations for the world to come: everything in its proper time, he had said, going about the matter carefully and unobtrusively. Kaoru had received too much attention while still a boy, and it may have been charged against him that he was not sufficiently aware of his limitations. Something about him did make people think of avatars and suspect that perhaps a special bounty of grace set him apart from the ordinary run of men. There was nothing in his face or manner, to be sure, that brought people up short, but there was a compelling gentleness that was unique and suggested limitless depths.

And there was the fragrance he gave off, quite unlike anything else in this world. Let him make the slightest motion and it had a mysterious power to trail behind him like a “hundred-pace incense.” One did not expect young aristocrats to affect the plain and certainly not the shabby. The elegance that is the result of a careful toilet was the proper thing. Kaoru, however, wished often enough that he might be free of this particular mark of distinction. He could not hide. Let him step behind something in hopes of going unobserved, and that scent would announce his presence. He used no perfume, nor did he scent his robes, but somehow a fragrance that had been sealed deep inside a Chinese chest would emerge the more ravishing for his presence. He would brush a spray of plum blossoms below the veranda and the spring rain dripping from it would become a perfume for others who passed. The masterless purple trousers would reject their own perfume for his.

Niou was his rival in everything and especially in the competition to be pleasantly scented. The blending of perfumes would become his work for days on end. In the spring he would gaze inquiringly up at the blossoming plum, and in the autumn he would neglect the maiden flower of which poets have made so much and the _hagi_ beloved of the stag, and instead keep beside him, all withered and unsightly, the chrysanthemum “heedless of age“ and purple trousers, also sadly faded, and the burnet that has so little to recommend it in the first place. Perfumes were central to his pursuit of good taste. There were those who accused him of a certain preciosity. Genji, they said, had managed to avoid seeming uneven.

Kaoru was always in Niou's apartments, and music echoed through the halls and galleries as their rivalry moved on to flute and koto. They were rivals but they were also the best of friends. Everyone called them (sometimes it was a little tiresome) “his perfumed highness” and “the fragrant captain.” No father of a pretty and nubile daughter was unaware of their existence or lost an opportunity to remind them that there were young ladies to be had. Niou would get off notes to such of them as seemed worthy of his attention and gather pertinent information about them, but no lady could thus far have been said to excite him unduly. Or rather, there was one: the Reizei princess, who aroused thoughts of eventual marriage. Her maternal grandfather had been a very important man, and she was reputed to be something of a treasure. Women who had been briefly in her service would add to his store of information, until presently he was very excited indeed.

Kaoru was a different sort of young man. He already knew what an empty, purposeless world it is, and was reluctant to commit himself any more firmly than seemed quite necessary. He did not want the final renunciation to be difficult. Some thought him rather ostentatiously enlightened in his disdain for amorous things, and it seemed wholly unlikely that he would ever urge himself upon a lady against her wishes.

He held the Third Rank and a seat on the council, still keeping his guards commission, when he was only nineteen. The esteem of the emperor and empress had already made him an extraordinary sort of commoner; but the old doubts persisted, and with them a strain of melancholy that kept him from losing himself in romantic dalliance. Nothing seemed capable of penetrating his reserve. To some, his precocious maturity seemed a little daunting.

He had rooms in the Reizei Palace of the princess who so interested Niou and had no trouble gathering intelligence about her. All of it suggested that she was a very unusual lady, indeed a lady in whom, were he interested in marriage himself, he might find the most fascinating possibilities. In all else completely open and unreserved, the Reizei emperor chose to surround his daughter with stern barriers. Kaoru thought this not at all unreasonable of him, and made no effort to force his way through. He was a very prudent young man who did not choose to risk unpleasantness for himself or for a lady.

Because he was so universally admired, ladies were not on the whole disposed to ignore his notes. Indeed, the response was usually immediate, and so he had in the course of time had numerous little affairs, all of them very fleeting. He always managed to seem interested but not fascinated. Perversely, any suggestion that he was not wholly indifferent had a most heady effect, and so his mother's Sanjo mansion swarmed with comely young serving women. His aloofness did not please them, of course, but the prospect of removing themselves from his presence was far worse. Numbers of ladies whom one would have thought too good for domestic service had come to put their trust in a rather improbable relationship. He was not very cooperative, perhaps, but there was no denying that he was a courteous gentleman of more than ordinary good looks. Ladies who had had a glimpse of him seemed to make careers of deceiving themselves.

It would be his first duty for so long as his royal mother lived, he often said, to be her servant and protector.

Though Yugiri went on thinking how fine it would be to offer a daughter to Niou and another to Kaoru, he kept his own counsel. Marriage to a near relative is not usually held to be very interesting, but he did not think he would find more desirable sons-in-law if he searched through the whole court. His sixth daughter, a grandchild of Koremitsu, was more beautiful than any of Kumoinokari's daughters, and she had outdistanced them too in the polite accomplishments. He was determined to make up for the fact that the world seemed to look down upon her because of her mother, and so he had made her the ward of the Second Princess, Kashiwagi's widow, lonely and bored with no children of her own. A casual hint to Niou or Kaoru was not likely to go unnoticed, he thought - for she was a young lady of remarkable endowments. He had chosen not to keep her behind the deepest of curtains, but had encouraged her to maintain a bright and lively salon, echoes of which were certain to reach the ear of an alert young gentleman.

The victory banquet following the New Year's archery meet was to be at Rokujō this year. The preparations were elaborate, for it was assumed that the royal princes would all attend. And indeed those among them who had come of age did accept the invitation. Niou was the handsomest of the empress's sons, all of whom were handsome. Hitachi, the Fourth Prince, was the son of a lesser concubine, and it may have been for that reason that people thought him rather ill favored. The Left Guards won easily, as usual, and the meet was over early in the day. Starting back for Rokujō, Yugiri invited Niou, Hitachi, and the Fifth Prince, also a son of the empress, to ride with him. Kaoru, who had been on the losing side, was making a quiet departure when Yugiri asked him to join them. It was a large procession, including numbers of high courtiers and several of Yugiri's sons - a guards officer, a councillor of the middle order, a moderator of the first order - that set off for Rokujō. The way was a long one, made more beautiful by flurries of snow. Soon the high, clear tone of a flute was echoing through Rokujō, that place of delights for the four seasons, outdoing, one sometimes thought, all the many paradises.

As protocol required, the victorious guards officers were assigned places facing south in the main hall, and the princes and important civil officials sat opposite them facing north. Cups were filled and the party became noisier, and several guards officers danced “The One I Seek“. Their long, flowing sleeves brought the scent of plum blossoms in from the veranda, and as always it took on a kind of mysterious depth as it drifted past Kaoru.

“The darkness may try to keep us from seeing,” said one of the women lucky enough to have a good view of the proceedings, “but it can't keep the scent away. And I must say there is nothing quite like it.”

Yugiri was thinking how difficult it would be to find fault with Kaoru's looks and manners.

“And now you must sing it for us,” he said. “Remember that you are a host and not a guest, and it is your duty to be entertaining.”

Kaoru obeyed, but not as if to join in the roistering. “Where dwell the gods“ - they were the grandest words of his song, but what went before had the same quiet dignity.


The Rose Plum