Kōbai, the oldest surviving son of the late Tō no Chūjō, was now Lord Inspector. He was an energetic, clever, open man who from his boyhood had shown great promise. He had reached considerable eminence, of course, and was well thought of and a great favorite with the emperor. Upon his first wife’s death he married Makibashira, daughter of Higekuro, the chancellor. It was she who had such strong regrets for the cypress pillar when her mother left her father’s house. Her grandfather had arranged for her to marry Prince Hotaru, who had left her a widow. The inspector favored her with clandestine attentions after Prince Hotaru’s death, and would seem to have concluded that it was a sufficiently distinguished liaison to be made public. Having been left with two children, both daughters, he prayed to the gods native and foreign that his second wife bear him a son. The prayer was soon granted. Makibashira had brought with her a daughter by Prince Hotaru.
Kōbai was scrupulously impartial in his treatment of the three girls, but malicious, troublemaking women are to be found in most important households and his was no exception. There were unpleasant incidents, most of which, however, Makibashira, a cheerful, amiable lady, managed to smooth over so that no one was left feeling aggrieved. She did not let the princess’s claims influence her unduly, and it was on the whole a harmonious household over which she presided.
In rapid succession there were initiation ceremonies for the three girls. Kōbai built a spacious new hall, a beam span wider in either direction than most. To his older daughter he assigned the south rooms, to his younger the west, and to the prince’s daughter the east. The outsider is likely to pity the fatherless daughter among stepsisters but the princess had come into a good inheritance from both sides of her family and was able to indulge her tastes and interests quite as she wished, on festive occasions and at ordinary times as well.
Young ladies who enjoy such advantages are certain to be noticed, and as each of the girls reached maturity she was noticed by even the emperor and the crown prince, who sent inquiries. The empress so dominated court life, however, that Kōbai was uncertain how to reply. Presently he was able to persuade himself that a refusal to face competition is the worst possible thing for a young lady’s prospects. Yūgiri’s daughter, already married to the crown prince, would be the most formidable of competition, but the superior man did not let such difficulties control his life. An attractive young lady should not be wasted at home. So he gave his older daughter to the crown prince. She was seventeen or eighteen, very pretty and vivacious.
The second girl had, it was reported, a graver, deeper sort of beauty. Kōbai was most reluctant to give her in marriage to a commoner. Might Prince Niou perhaps be interested?
Niou was fond of joking with Kōbai’s young son when the two of them were at court together. The boy had artistic talents and a countenance that suggested considerable intellectual endowments as well.
“Tell your father,” said Niou, “that I am annoyed with him for keeping the rest of the family out of sight. You are surely not its most interesting member?”
The boy passed the remark on, and Kōbai was all smiles. There were times when it was good to have a daughter or two.
“It might not be a bad idea, you know. The competition at court is fierce, and a pretty daughter could do worse than marry one of the younger princes. The idea is rather exciting, now that I give it a little thought.”
This happened while he was getting his older daughter ready for presentation at court. He had been reminding the god of Kasuga that empresses were supposed to come from the Fujiwara family. It was the god’s own promise, and Tō no Chūjō had been badly used in the days when the Reizei emperor was preparing to name his consort. Perhaps something might be done now to make amends.
Court gossip had it that the older daughter was doing well in the competition for the crown prince’s affection.
Knowing how strange and difficult court life can be, Kōbai sent Makibashira to be with her. Makibashira was a most admirable guardian and adviser, but Kōbai was bored without her, and the younger daughter was very much at loose ends. Prince Hotaru’s daughter did not choose, in this difficult time, to stand on her dignity, and the two girls often spent the night together, passing the time at music and more frivolous pursuits. Kōbai’s daughter accepted the other as her mentor and they got on very well together. The princess was an extremely retiring young lady, not completely open even with her own mother. It was indeed a degree of reserve that attracted unfavorable comment, though it stopped short of positive eccentricity. She was, as a matter of fact, a rather charming girl in her way, far better favored, certainly, than most.
Kōbai was feeling guilty about his stepdaughter, left out of all the excitement.
“You must make certain decisions,” he said to Makibashira. “I will do everything for her that I would do for one of my own daughters.”
“She seems to be completely without the hopes and plans one expects a young girl to have,” said Makibashira, brushing away a tear. “I certainly would not want to insist upon them. I suppose I must call it fate and keep her with me. She will have problems when I am gone, I am afraid, but perhaps people won’t laugh at her if she becomes a nun.” And she added that in spite of everything the girl had a great deal to recommend her.
Kōbai was determined to be a good father, and he wished that the girl would cooperate at least to the extent of letting him see her.
“It is not kind of you to insist upon hiding yourself.” He had taken to stealing up to her curtains and searching for a hole or a gap, but he always went away disappointed.
“I want to be father and mother to you,” he continued, having posted himself firmly before her curtains, “and I am hurt that you should treat me like a stranger.”
Her answers, in very soft tones, suggested great elegance, as indeed did everything about her. He wanted more than ever to see her. He was not prepared to admit that his own daughters were not the finest young ladies in the land, but he suspected that the princess might outshine them. The world was too wide and varied, that was the trouble. A man might think he had a peerless daughter, and somewhere a lovelier lady was almost certain to appear. Yes, he really must have a look at the princess.
“It has been a month and more since I last had the pleasure of hearing you play. Things have been in such a frightful stir. The girl in the west rooms is absolutely mad about the lute, you know. Do you think she has possibilities? The lute should be left alone unless it is played well. Give her a lesson or two, please, if you have nothing better to do. I am not the man I once was, and I never had regular lessons, but I was a passable musician in my day. I can still tell good from bad on almost any instrument. You are very parsimonious with your playing, but I do occasionally catch an echo, and it brings back old memories. Lord Yūgiri is still with us, of course, to keep the Rokujo tradition alive. Then there is his brother, the middle councillor, and there is Prince Niou. I am sure that they could have held their own against the best of the old masters. I am told that they are very serious about their music, though they may not have quite Yūgiri’s confident touch. Each time I hear your own lute I think how much it resembles his. People are always saying that the most important thing is tact and forbearance in the use of the left hand. That is important, of course, but a misplaced bridge can be a disaster, and for a lady a gentle touch with the right hand is very important too. Come, now, let me hear you play. A lute, someone!“
Her women were on the whole much less reticent than she, though one of them, very young and from a very good family, had annoyed him by withdrawing to a distant corner.
“Just see my lady, will you, way off over there. Who has she been led to think she is?”
His son came in, wearing casual court dress, more becoming, Kōbai thought, than full regalia.
He gave the boy a message for the daughter at court. “I cannot be with you this evening. You must do without me. Perhaps you can say that I am not feeling well.” That business out of the way, he smiled and turned to other business.” Bring your flute with you one of these days. It may be what your sister here needs to encourage her. Do you ever play for His Majesty? And do you please him, in your infantile way?”
He set the boy to a strain in the sojo mode, which he managed very commendably.
“Good, very good. I can see that you have profited from our little musicales. And now you must join him,” he said to the princess.
She played with obvious reluctance and declined to use a plectrum, but the brief duo was very pleasing indeed. Kōbai whistled an accompaniment, rich and full.
He looked out at a rose plum in full bloom just below this east veranda.
“Magnificent. Am I right in thinking that Prince Niou is living in the palace these days? Take him a branch - the one who knows best knows best. How well I remember the days when Genji was young. They called him’the shining one.’ It would have been when he was a guards commander, and I was a page, as you are now. I was lucky enough to attract his attention, and I never shall forget the pleasure it gave me. They talk about Prince Niou and his good friend Kaoru, and indeed they have become very fine young gentlemen. I may have been heard to say that they are not like Genji, really not like him at all, but that is because for me there can never be another Genji. I find myself choking up at the thought that I once stood there beside him. And I was never so very close to him. For those that were it must seem as if something had gone very wrong, that they should be here without him.” His voice had become somewhat husky. Seeking to control himself, he broke off a plum branch and, handing it to the boy, pushed him towards the door.” Prince Niou is the only one left who reminds me of him. When the Blessed One died his disciples thought they saw something of his radiance in Prince Ananda, and ventured to hope that he had come back. For me Prince Niou is the light in all the darkness.”
Full of youthful good spirits once more, he dashed off a poem on a bit of scarlet paper and folded it inside a sheet of notepaper the boy chanced to have with him.
“A purposeful breeze wafts forth the scent of our plum.
Will not the warbler be first to heed the summons?”
The boy rushed off to the palace, delighted at the prospect of seeing Niou, whom he found emerging from the empress’s audience chamber. Niou singled him out among the throngs in her anterooms.
“Why did you have to run off in such a hurry last night? How long have you been here this evening?”
“I was sorry I had to go. I came earl y this evening because they said you might still be here.” He spoke as one man to another.
“You must come and see me at Nijō sometime. It is a more comfortable sort of place, and it seems to attract young people, I don’t really know why.”
The stir had subsided. Sensing an intimate tete-a-tete, the throngs were withdrawing.
“So my brother, the crown prince, is letting you have a little time of your own for a change? It used to be that he had to have you with him every moment of the day. Does it make you a little jealous, that your sister is occupying so much of his attention?”
“You are not to think I wanted it that way. If it had been you, now- Confidently he took a seat beside the prince.
“They insist on treating me like a child. If that is their view of me, there is not much that I can do about it. Yet I cannot help being annoyed. Perhaps you might remind another sister, the one whose rooms face east, I am told, that we come from the same worn-out old family, and so perhaps we might be friends.”
It was the boy’s opportunity to present the plum branch.
Niou smiled.” I am glad it is not a peace offering.” He was delighted with it. The scent and color and the distribution of the blossoms surpassed anything he had seen in the palace gardens.
“I’ve heard it said that the rose plum puts everything into its color and lets the white plum have all the perfume, but here we have color and perfume all in the same blossoms.”
The plum blossom had always been among his favorites. The boy was delighted to have brought such pleasure.
“You are on duty this evening, I believe? Why don’t you stay here with me?”
And so the boy was not after all able to call on the crown prince. The scent of the plum blossoms was rather overwhelmed by the scent from Niou’s robes. Lying beside him, the boy thought he had never met a more charming gentleman.
“And my cousin, the mistress of your plums? Was she not invited to come into the crown prince’s service?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone mention it - but I did hear my father say that the one who knows best knows best.”
Niou’s informants had apprised him of the fact that Kōbai was more concerned about his own daughter than Prince Hotaru’s. Since she did not happen to be Niou’s favorite, he did not immediately answer Kōbai’s poem.
Early the next morning he did have a poem ready for the boy to take with him. It was not perhaps a very warm one.
“If I were one who followed inviting scents
Perhaps I might be summoned by the wind.”
“Do not let yourself become involved in talks with the aged,” he said more than once to the boy.” Have a quiet talk with someone nearer your own age.”
These remarks had the effect of making the boy feel responsible for his royal sister. His father’s daughters were more open with him and seemed more like sisters, and his childish view of the princess was almost worshipful. Yes, he must find her a good husband. He wished well for all his sisters, and the tasteful gaiety of the crown prince’s household made him think that the royal one among them had had very bad luck. How good it would be to see her at Niou’s side! The branch of plum blossoms had produced most encouraging hints.
He delivered Niou’s poem to his father.
“Not very friendly, I must say. But it is amusing to see what a prim and proper face he is putting on for us. I suppose he is aware that Yūgiri and all the rest of us think him a little too much of a ladies’ man. The primness does not accord very well with his talents in that direction.”
If he was annoyed he quickly recovered, and today again got off a friendly note:
“Ever fragrant, the royal sleeves touch the blossoms
And bring them into higher and higher repute.
“I must ask to be forgiven if I seem frivolous.”
Perhaps, thought Niou, it was worth taking seriously. He answered:
“Were I to follow the fragrance of the blossoms,
Might I not be accused of wantonness?”
Kōbai thought it a bit stiff, when things had been going so well.
Makibashira came home from court.” The boy seems to have spent a night at the palace not long ago. When he left the next morning everyone was admiring the marvelous perfume. ‘Aha,’ said the crown prince, ‘he has been with my brother Niou.’ The crown prince is very quick in these things. And that, he said, was why he was being neglected himself. We all thought it very amusing. Had you written to Prince Niou? Somehow it didn’t seem as if you had.”
“I had indeed. He has always been fond of plum blossoms, and the rose plum is so unusually fine this year that I could not let the opportunity pass. I broke off a branch and sent it to him. He gives off such an extraordinary scent himself. I doubt that you could find in all the wardrobes of all the grand ladies a robe with a finer scent burnt into it. With Lord Kaoru it all comes naturally. He seems to have no interest at all in perfumes. It is very curious, really - what do you suppose he has been up to in other lives? One plum blossom may go by the same name as another, but it’s the roots that make all the difference. Prince Niou was kind enough to praise this one of ours, and I must say that it deserves to be praised.” So the plum became his excuse for discussing Niou.
Prince Hotaru’s daughter was old enough to know what was expected of young ladies, and she took careful note of what went on around her. She had evidently concluded with some firmness that marriage was not for her. Men are easily swayed by power and prestige, and Kōbai’s daughters, with their influential father behind them, had already had many earnest proposals. The princess had lived a quiet, withdrawn sort of life by comparison. But Niou seemed to have decided that she was the one for him. Kōbai’s son, now among his regular attendants, was kept busy delivering secret notes.
Kōbai had hopes of his own and watched for evidence that they had been noticed. Indeed he was already making plans.
Makibashira thought him rather pathetic. “He has it all wrong. This stream of letters might have some point if the prince were even a little interested.”
Niou was spurred to new efforts by the silence with which his notes were greeted. Makibashira occasionally sought to coax an answer from her daughter. Niou’s prospects were bright and a girl could certainly do worse. But the princess found it hard to believe that he was serious. He was known to be keeping up numerous clandestine liaisons, and his trips to Uji did not seem merely frivolous.
Makibashira got off a quiet letter from time to time. A prince was, after all, a prince.