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1.The Paulownia Court
In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of
the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and lesser
ladies were still more resentful. Everything she did offended someone. Probably aware of what
was happening, she fell seriously ill and came to spend more time at home than at court. The
emperor’s pity and affection quite passed bounds. No longer caring what his ladies and courtiers
might say, he behaved as if intent upon stirring gossip.
His court looked with very great misgiving upon what seemed a reckless infatuation. In China just
such an unreasoning passion had been the undoing of an emperor and had spread turmoil through
the land. As the resentment grew, the example of Yang Kuei-fei was the one most frequently cited
against the lady.
She survived despite her troubles, with the help of an unprecedented bounty of love. Her father, a
grand councillor, was no longer living. Her mother, an old-fashioned lady of good lineage, was
determined that mat- ters be no different for her than for ladies who with paternal support were
making careers at court. The mother was attentive to the smallest detail of etiquette and
deportment. Yet there was a limit to what she could do. The sad fact was that the girl was without
strong backing, and each time a new incident arose she was next to defenseless.
It may have been because of a bond in a former life that she bore the emperor a beautiful son, a
jewel beyond compare. The emperor was in a fever of impatience to see the child, still with the
mother’s family; and when, on the earliest day possible, he was brought to court, he did indeed
prove to be a most marvelous babe. The emperor’s eldest son was the grandson of the Minister of
the Right. The world assumed that with this powerful support he would one day be named crown
prince; but the new child was far more beautiful. On public occasions the emperor continued to
favor his eldest son. The new child was a private treasure, so to speak, on which to lav ish
The mother was not of such a low rank as to attend upon the em- peror’s personal needs. In the
general view she belonged to the upper classes. He insisted on having her always beside him,
however, and on nights when there was music or other entertainment he would require that she be
present. Sometimes the two of them would sleep late, and even after they had risen he would not
let her go. Because of his unreasonable demands she was widely held to have fallen into
immoderate habits out of keeping with her rank.
With the birth of the son, it became yet clearer that she was the emperor’s favorite. The mother of
the eldest son began to feel uneasy. If she did not manage carefully, she might see the new son
designated crown prince. She had come to court before the emperor’s other ladies, she had once
been favored over the others, and she had borne several of his chil- dren. However much her
complaining might trouble and annoy him, she was one lady whom he could not ignore.
Though the mother of the new son had the emperor’s love, her detrac- tors were numerous and alert
to the slightest inadvertency. She was in continuous torment, feeling that she had nowhere to turn.
She lived in the paulownia Court. The emperor had to pass the apartments of other ladies to reach
hers, and it must be admitted that their resentment at his constant comings and goings was not
unreasonable. Her visits to the royal chambers were equally frequent. The robes of her women
were in a scandalous state from trash strewn along bridges and galleries. Once some women conspired to have both doors of a gallery she must pass bolted shut, and so she found herself unable to
advance or retreat. Her anguish over the mounting list of insults was presently more than the
emperor could bear. He moved a lady out of rooms adjacent to his own and assigned them to the
lady of the paulownia Court and so, of course, aroused new resent- ment.
When the young prince reached the age of three,* the resources of the treasury and the stewards’
offices were exhausted to make the ceremonial bestow ing of trousers as elaborate as that for the
eldest son. Once more there was malicious talk; but the prince himself, as he grew up, was so
superior of mien and disposition that few could find it in themselves to dislike him. Among the
more discriminating, indeed, were some who mar- veled that such a paragon had been born into
In the summer the boy’s mother, feeling vaguely unwell, asked that she be allowed to go home.
The emperor would not hear of it. Since they were by now used to these indispositions, he begged
her to stay and see what course her health would take. It was steadily worse, and then, sud- denly,
everyone could see that she was failing. Her mother came pleading that he let her go home. At
length he agreed.
Fearing that even now she might be the victim of a gratuitous insult, she chose to go off without
ceremony, leaving the boy behind. Everything must have an end, and the emperor could no longer
detain her. It saddened him inexpressibly that he was not even permitted to see her off. A lady of
great charm and beauty, she was sadly emaciated. She was sunk in melancholy thoughts, but when
she tried to put them into words her voice was almost inaudible. The emperor was quite beside
himself, his mind a confusion of things that had been and things that were to come. He wept and
vowed undying love, over and over again. The lady was unable to reply. She seemed listless and
drained of strength, as if she scarcely knew what was happening. Wanting somehow to help, the
emperor ordered that she be given the honor of a hand-drawn carriage. He returned to her
apartments and still could not bring himself to the final parting.
“We vowed that we would go together down the road we all must go. You must not leave me
She looked sadly up at him. “If I had suspected that it would be so–” She was gasping for breath.
“I leave you, to go the road we all must go.
The road I would choose, if only I could, is the other.”
It was evident that she would have liked to say more; but she was so weak that it had been a
struggle to say even this much.
The emperor was wondering again if he might not keep her with him and have her with him to the
But a message came from her mother, asking that she hurry. “We have obtained the agreement of
eminent ascetics to conduct the necessary ser- vices, and I fear that they are to begin this evening.”
So, in desolation, he let her go. He passed a sleepless night.
He sent off a messenger and was beside himself with impatience and apprehension even before
there had been time for the man to reach the lady’s house and return. The man arrived to find the
house echoing with laments. She had died at shortly past midnight. He returned sadly to the palace.
The emperor closed himself up in his private apartments. He would have liked at least to
keep the boy with him, but no precedent could be found for having him away from his mother’s
house through the mourn- ing. The boy looked in bewilderment at the weeping courtiers, at his
father too, the tears streaming over his face. The death of a parent is sad under any circumstances,
and this one was indescribably sad.
But there must be an end to weeping, and orders were given for the funeral. If only she could rise
to the heavens with the smoke from the pyre, said the mother between her sobs. She rode in the
hearse with several attendants, and what must her feelings have been when they reached Mount
Otaki?* It was there that the services were conducted with the utmost solemnity and dignity.
She looked down at the body. “With her before me, I cannot persuade myself that she is dead. At
the sight of her ashes I can perhaps accept what has happened.”
The words were rational enough, but she was so distraught that she seemed about to fall from the
carriage. The women had known that it would be so and did what they could for her.
A messenger came from the palace with the news that the lady had been raised to the Third Rank,
and presently a nunciary arrived to read the official order. For the emperor, the regret was scarcely
bearable that he had not had the courage of his resolve to appoint her an imperial consort, and he
wished to make amends by promoting her one rank. There were many who resented even this
favor. Others, however, of a more sensitive nature, saw more than ever what a dear lady she had
been, simple and gentle and difficult to find fault with. It was because she had been excessively
favored by the emperor that she had been the victim of such malice. The grand ladies were now
reminded of how sympathetic and unassuming she had been. It was for just such an occasion, they
remarked to one another, that the phrase “how well one knows” * had been invented.
The days went dully by. The emperor was careful to send offerings for the weekly memorial
services. His grief was unabated and he spent his nights in tears, refusing to summon his other
ladies. His serving women were plunged into dew-drenched autumn.
There was one lady, however, who refused to be placated. “How ridiculous,” said the lady of the
Kokiden pavilion, mother of his eldest son, “that the infatuation should continue even now.”
The emperor’s thoughts were on his youngest son even when he was with his eldest. He sent off
intelligent nurses and serving women to the house of the boy’s grandmother, where he was still in
residence, and made constant inquiry after him.
The autumn tempests blew and suddenly the evenings were chilly. Lost in his grief, the emperor
sent off a note to the grandmother. His messenger was a woman of middle rank called Myo~bu,
whose father was a guards officer. It was on a beautiful moonlit night that he dispatched her, a
night that brought memories. On such nights he and the dead lady had played the koto for each
other. Her koto had somehow had overtones lacking in other instruments, and when she would
interrupt the music to speak, the words too carried echoes of their own. Her face, her manner–
they seemed to cling to him, but with “no more substance than the lucent dream.”
Myo~bu reached the grandmother’s house. Her carriage was drawn through the gate–and what a
lonely place it was! The old lady had of course lived in widowed retirement, but, not wishing to
distress her only daughter, she had managed to keep the place in repair. Now all was plunged into
darkness. The weeds grew ever higher and the autumn winds tore threateningly at the garden. Only
the rays of the moon managed to make their way through the tangles.
The carriage was pulled up and Myo~bu alighted.
The grandmother was at first unable to speak. “It has been a trial for me to go on living, and now
to have one such as you come through the dews of this wild garden–I cannot tell you how much it
“A lady who visited your house the other day told us that she had to see with her own eyes before
she could really understand your loneliness and sorrow. I am not at all a sensitive person, and yet I
am unable to control these tears.”
After a pause she delivered a message from the emperor. “He has said that for a time it all seemed
as if he were wandering in a nightmare, and then when his agitation subsided he came to see that
the nightmare would not end. If only he had a companion in his grief, he thought–and it occurred
to him that you, my lady, might be persuaded to come unobtru- sively to court. He cannot bear to
think of the child languishing in this house of tears, and hopes that you will come quickly and
bring him with you. He was more than once interrupted by sobs as he spoke, and It was apparent to
all of us that he feared having us think him inexcusably weak. I came away without hearing him to
“I cannot see for tears,” said the old lady. “Let these sublime words bring me light.”
This was the emperor’s letter: “It seems impossibly cruel that although I had hoped for comfort
with the passage of time my grief should only be worse. I am particularly grieved that I do not
have the boy with me, to watch him grow and mature. Will you not bring him to me? We shall
think of him as a memento.”
There could be no doubting the sincerity of the royal petition. A poem was appended to the letter,
but when she had come to it the old lady was no longer able to see through her tears:
“At the sound of the wind, bringing dews to Miyagi plain, I think of the tender hagi* upon the
“Tell His Majesty,” said the grandmother after a time, “that it has been a great trial for me to live
so long.’Ashamed before the Takasago pines + I think that it is not for me to be seen at court. Even
if the august invitation is repeated, I shall not find it possible to accept. As for the boy, I do not
know what his wishes are. The indications are that he is eager to go. It is sad for me, but as it
should be. please tell His Majesty of these thoughts, secret until now. I fear that I bear a curse from
a previous existence and that it would be wrong and even terrible to keep the child with me.”
“It would have given me great pleasure to look in upon him,” said Myo~bu, getting up to leave.
The child was asleep. “I should have liked to report to his royal father. But he will be waiting up
for me, and it must be very late.”
“May I not ask you to come in private from time to time? The heart of a bereaved parent may not
be darkness, perhaps, but a quiet talk from time to time would do much to bring light.# You have
done honor to this house on so many happy occasions, and now circumstances have required that
you come with a sad message. The fates have not been kind. All of our hopes were on the girl, I
must say again, from the day she was born, and until he died her father did not let me forget that
she must go to court, that his own death, if it came early, should not deter me. I knew that another
sort of life would be happier for a girl without strong backing, but I could not forget his wishes and
sent her to court as I had promised. Blessed with favors beyond her station, she was the object of
insults such as no one can be asked to endure. Yet endure them she did until finally the strain and
the resentment were too much for her. And so, as I look back upon them, I know that those favors
should never have been. Well, put these down, if you will, as the mad wanderings of a heart that is
dark- ness.” * She was unable to go on.
It was late.
“His Majesty says much the same thing,” replied Myo~bu. “it was, he says, an intensity of passion
such as to startle the world, and perhaps for that very reason it was fated to be brief. He cannot
think of anything he has done to arouse such resentment, he says, and so he must live with
resentment which seems without proper cause. Alone and utterly desolate, he finds it impossible to
face the world. He fears that he must seem dreadfully eccentric. How very great–he has said it
over and over again –how very great his burden of guilt must be. One scarcely ever sees him that
he is not weeping.” Myo~bu too was in tears. “It is very late. I must get back before the night is
quite over and tell him what I have seen.” The moon was sinking over the hills, the air was crystal
clear, the wind was cool, and the songs of the insects among the autumn grasses would by
themselves have brought tears. It was a scene from which Myo~bu could not easily pull herself.
“The autumn night is too short to contain my tears
Though songs of bell cricket weary, fall into silence.”
This was her farewell poem. Still she hesitated, on the point of getting into her carriage.
The old lady sent a reply:
“Sad are the insect songs among the reeds. More sadly yet falls the dew from above the clouds.
“I seem to be in a complaining mood.”
Though gifts would have been out of place, she sent as a trifling memento of her daughter a set of
robes, left for just such an occasion, and with them an assortment of bodkins and combs.
The young women who had come from court with the little prince still mourned their lady, but
those of them who had acquired a taste for court life yearned to be back. The memory of the
emperor made them join their own to the royal petitions.
But no–a crone like herself would repel all the fine ladies and gentle- men, said the grandmother,
while on the other hand she could not bear the thought of having the child out of her sight for even
Myo~bu was much moved to find the emperor waiting up for her. Making it seem that his attention
was on the small and beautifully plant garden before him, now in full autumn bloom, he was
talking quietly with four or five women, among the most sensitive of his attendants. He had
become addicted to illustrations by the emperor Uda for “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow” * and
to poems by Ise and Tsurayuki on that subject, and to Chinese poems as well.
He listened attentively as Myo~bu described the scene she had found so affecting. He took up the
letter she had brought from the grandmother. “I am so awed by this august message that I would
run away and hide; and so violent are the emotions it gives rise to that I scarcely know what to say.
“The tree that gave them shelter has withered and died. One fears for the plight of the hagi shoots
A strange way to put the matter, thought the emperor; but the lady must still be dazed with grief.
He chose to overlook the suggestion that he himself could not help the child.
He sought to hide his sorrow, not wanting these women to see him in such poor control of himself.
But it was no use. He reviewed his memories over and over again, from his very earliest days with
the dead lady. He had scarcely been able to bear a moment away from her while she lived. How
strange that he had been able to survive the days and months since on memories alone. He had
hoped to reward the grandmother’s sturdy devotion, and his hopes had come to nothing.
“Well,” he sighed, “she may look forward to having her day, if she will only live to see the boy
Looking at the keepsakes Myo~bu had brought back, he thought what a comfort it would be if
some wizard were to bring him, like that Chinese emperor, a comb from the world where his lost
love was dwelling. He whispered:
“And will no wizard search her out for me,
That even he may tell me where she is?”
There are limits to the powers of the most gifted artist. The Chinese lady in the paintings did not
have the luster of life. Yang Kuei-fei was said to have resembled the lotus of the Sublime Pond,
the willows of the Timeless Hall. No doubt she was very beautiful in her Chinese finery.
When he tried to remember the quiet charm of his lost lady, he found that there was no color of
flower, no song of bird, to summon her up. Morning and night, over and over again, they had
repeated to each other the lines from “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow” :
“In the sky, as birds that share a wing.
On earth, as trees that share a branch.”
It had been their vow, and the shortness of her life had made it an empty dream.
Everything, the moaning of the wind, the humming of autumn in- sects, added to the sadness. But
in the apartments of the Kokiden lady matters were different. It had been some time since she had
last waited upon the emperor. The moonlight being so beautiful, she saw no reason not to have
music deep into the night. The emperor muttered something about the bad taste of such a
performance at such a time, and those who saw his distress agreed that it was an unnecessary
injury. Kokiden was of an arrogant and intractable nature and her behavior suggested that to her
the emperor’s grief was of no importance.
The moon set. The wicks in the lamps had been trimmed more than once and presently the oil was
gone. Still he showed no sign of retiring. His mind on the boy and the old lady, he jo …
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