NOTHING is more silent than the beginning of a Japanese banquet ; and no one, except a native, who observes the opening scene could possibly imagine the tumultuous ending.
The robed guests take their places, quite noiselessly and without speech, upon the kneeling - cushions. The lacquered services are laid upon the matting before them by maidens whose bare feet make no sound. For a while there are only smiling and flitting, as in dreams. You are not likely to hear any voices from without, as a banqueting-house is usually secluded from the street by Spacious gardens. At last the master of ceremonies, host or provider, breaks the hush with the consecrated formula, “ O-somatsu degozarimasu ga ! — dōzo o-hashi! ” whereat all present bow silently, take up their hashi (chopsticks), and fall to. But hashi, deftly used, cannot be heard at all. The maidens pour warm saké into the cup of each guest without making the least sound; and it is not until several dishes have been emptied, and several cups of saké absorbed, that tongues are loosened.
Then, all at once, with a little burst of laughter, a number of young girls enter, make the customary prostration of greeting, glide into the open space between the ranks of the guests, and begin to serve the wine with a grace and dexterity of which no common maid is capable. They are pretty; they are clad in very costly robes of silk ; they are girdled like queens; and the beautifully dressed hair of each is decked with fresh flowers, with wonderful combs and pins, and with curious ornaments of gold. They greet the stranger as if they had always known him ; they jest, laugh, and utter funny little cries. These are the geisha,1 or dancing-girls, hired for the banquet.
Samisen2 tinkle. The dancers withdraw to a clear space at the farther end of the banqueting-hall, always vast enough to admit of many more guests than ever assemble upon common occasions. Some form the orchestra, under the direction of a woman of uncertain age ; there are several samisen, and a tiny drum played by a child. Others, singly or in pairs, perform the dance. It may be swift and merry, consisting wholly of graceful posturing, — two girls dancing together with such coincidence of step and gesture as only years of training could render possible. But more frequently it is rather like acting than like what we Occidentals call dancing, — acting accompanied with extraordinary waving of sleeves and fans, and with a play of eyes and features, sweet, subtle, subdued, wholly Oriental. There are more voluptuous dances known to geisha, but upon ordinary occasions and before refined audiences they portray beautiful old Japanese traditions, like the legend of the fisher Urashima, beloved by the Sea God’s daughter; and at intervals they sing ancient Chinese poems, expressing a natural emotion with delicious vividness by a few exquisite words. And always they pour the wine, — that warm, pale yellow, sleepy wine which fills the veins with soft contentment, making a faint sense of ecstasy, through which, as through some poppied sleep, the commonplace becomes wondrous and blissful, and the geisha Maids of Paradise, and the world much sweeter than, in the natural order of things, it could ever possibly be.
The banquet, at first so silent, slowly changes to a merry tumult. The company break ranks, form groups; and from group to group the girls pass, laughing, prattling, — still pouring saké into the cups which are being exchanged and emptied with low bows.3 Men begin to sing old samurai songs, old Chinese poems. One or two even dance. A geisha tucks her robe well up to her knees ; and the samisen strike up the quick melody, “ Kompira funé-funé.” As the music plays, she begins to run lightly and swiftly in a figure of 8, and a young man, carrying a saké bottle and cup, also runs in the same figure of 8. If the two meet on a line, the one through whose error the meeting happens must drink a cup of saké. The music becomes quicker and quicker, and the runners run faster and faster, for they must keep time to the melody; and the geisha wins. In another part of the room, guests and geisha are playing ken. They sing as they play, facing each other, and clap their hands, and fling out their fingers at intervals with little cries ; and the samisen keep time.
Choito, — don-don! Otagaidane; Choito, — don-don ! Oidemashitane; Choito, — don-don Shimaimashitane.
Now, to play ken with a geisha requires a perfectly cool head, a quick eye, and much practice. Having been trained from childhood to play all kinds of ken, — and there are many, — she generally loses only for politeness, when she loses at all. The signs of the most common ken are a Man, a Fox, and a Gun. If the geisha make the sign of the Gun, you must instantly, and in exact time to the music, make the sign of the Fox, who cannot use the Gun. For if you make the sign of the Man, then she will answer with the sign of the Fox, who can bewitch the Man, and you lose. And if she make the sign of the Fox first, then you should make the sign of the Gun, by which the Fox can be killed. But all the while you must watch her bright eyes and supple hands. These are pretty; and if you suffer yourself, just for one fraction of a second, to think how pretty they are, you are bewitched and vanquished.
Notwithstanding all this apparent comradeship, a certain rigid decorum between guest and geisha is invaribly preserved at a Japanese banquet. However flushed with wine a guest may have become, you will never see him attempt to caress a girl ; he never forgets that she appears at the festivities only as a human flower, to be looked at, not to be touched. The familiarity which foreign tourists in Japan frequently permit themselves with geisha or with waiter-girls, though endured with smiling patience, is really much disliked, and considered by native observers an evidence of extreme vulgarity.
For a time the merriment grows ; but as midnight draws near, the guests begin to slip away, one by one, unnoticed. Then the din gradually dies down, the music stops ; and at last the geisha, having escorted the latest of the feasters to the door, with laughing cries of Sayōnara, can sit down alone to break their long fast in the deserted hall.
Such is the geisha’s rôle. But what is the mystery of her ? What are her thoughts, her emotions, her secret self ? What is her veritable existence beyond the night circle of the banquet lights, far from the illusion formed around her by the mist of wine? Is she always as mischievous as she seems while her voice ripples out with mocking sweetness the words of the ancient song ?
Kimi to neyaru ka, go sengoku toruka ? Nanno gosengoku kimi to neyo ?4
Or might we think her capable of keeping that passionate promise she utters so deliciously ?
Omae shindaru tera ewa yaranu! Yaete konishite saké de nomu.5
“ Why, as for that,” a friend tells me, “ there was O-Kama of Osaka who realized the song only last year. For she, having collected from the funeral pile the ashes of her lover, mingled them with saké, and at a banquet drank them, in the presence of many guests.” In the presence of many guests ! Alas for romance ! But what may not be expected of one who knows little of the privacy of life !
Always in the dwelling which a band of geisha occupy, there is a strange image placed in the alcove. Sometimes it is of clay, rarely of gold, most commonly of porcelain. It is reverenced : offerings are made to it, sweetmeats and rice-bread and wine ; incense smoulders in front of it, and a lamp is burned before it. It is the image of a kitten erect, one paw outstretched as if inviting, — whence its name, “ the Beckoning Kitten.” It is the genius loci: it brings good fortune, the patronage of the rich, the favor of banquet - givers. Now, they who know the soul of the geisha aver that the semblance of the image is the semblance of herself, — playful and pretty, soft and young, lithe and caressing, and cruel as a devouring fire.
Worse, also, than this they have said of her : that in her shadow treads the God of Poverty, and that the Fox-Women are her sisters; that she is the ruin of youth, the waster of fortunes, the destroyer of families ; that she knows love only as the source of tire follies which are her gain, and grows rich upon the substance of men whose graves she has made; that she is the most consummate of pretty hypocrites, the most dangerous of schemers, the most insatiable of mercenaries, the most pitiless of mistresses. This cannot all be true. Yet thus much is true, — that, like the kitten, the geisha is by profession a creature of prey. There are many really lovable kittens. Even so there must be really delightful dancing-girls.
The geisha is only what she has been made in answer to foolish human desire for the illusion of love mixed with youth and grace, but without regrets or responsibilities: wherefore she has been taught, besides ken, to play at hearts. Now, the eternal law is that people may play with impunity at any game in this unhappy world except three, which are called Life, Love, and Death. Those the gods have reserved to themselves, because nobody else can learn to play them without doing mischief. Therefore, to play with a geisha any game much more serious than ken, or at least go, is displeasing to the gods.
The girl begins her career as a slave, a pretty child bought from miserably poor parents under a contract, according to which her services may be claimed by the purchasers for eighteen, twenty, or even twenty - five years. She is fed, clothed, and trained in a house occupied only by geisha ; and she passes the rest of her childhood under severe discipline. She is taught etiquette, grace, polite speech ; she has daily lessons in dancing ; and she is obliged to learn by heart a multitude of songs with their airs. Also she must learn games, the service of banquets and weddings, the art of dressing and looking beautiful. Whatever physical gifts she may have are carefully cultivated. Afterwards she is taught to handle musical instruments : first, the little drum (tsudzumi), which cannot be sounded at all without considerable practice ; then she learns to play the samisen a little, with a plectrum of tortoise-shell or ivory. At eiglit or nine years of age she attends banquets, chiefly as a drum-player. She is then the most charming little creature imaginable, and already knows how to fill your wine-cup exactly full, with a single toss of the bottle and without spilling a drop, between two taps of her drum.
Thereafter her discipline becomes more cruel. Her voice may be flexible enough, but lacks the requisite strength. In the iciest hours of winter nights, she must ascend to the roof of her dwelling-house, and there sing and play till the blood oozes from her fingers and the voice dies in her throat. The desired result is an atrocious cold. After a period of hoarse whispering, her voice changes its tone and strengthens. She is ready to become a public singer and dancer.
In this capacity she usually makes her first appearance at the age of twelve or thirteen. If pretty and skillful, her services will be much in demand, and her time paid for at the rate of twenty to twenty-five sen per hour. Then only do her purchasers begin to reimburse themselves for the time, expense, and trouble of her training; and they are not apt to be generous. For many years more all that she earns must pass into their hands. She can own nothing, not even her clothes.
At seventeen or eighteen she has made her artistic reputation. She has been at many hundreds of entertainments, and knows by sight all the important personages of her city, the character of each, the history of all. Her life has been chiefly a night life ; rarely has she seen the sun rise since she became a dancer. She has learned to drink wine without ever losing her bead, and to fast for seven or eight hours without ever feeling the worse. She has had many lovers. To a certain extent she is free to smile upon whom she pleases ; but she has been well taught, above all else, to use her power of charm for her own advantage. She hopes to find somebody able and willing to buy her freedom, — which somebody would almost certainly thereafter discover many new and excellent meanings in those Buddhist texts which tell about the foolishness of love and the impermanency of all human relationships.
At this point of her career we may leave the geisha: thereafter her story is apt to prove unpleasant, unless she die young. Should that happen, she will have the obsequies of her class, and her memory will be preserved by divers curious rites.
Some time, perhaps, while wandering through Japanese streets at night, you hear sounds of music, a tinkling of samisen floating through the great gateway of a Buddhist temple, together with shrill voices of singing girls; which may seem to you a strange happening. And the deep court is thronged with people looking and listening. Then, making your way through the press to the temple steps, you see two geisha seated upon the matting within, playing and singing, and a third dancing before a little table. Upon the table is an ihai, or mortuary tablet; in front of the tablet burns a little lamp, and incense in a cup of bronze ; a small repast has been placed there, fruits and dainties, — such a repast as, upon festival occasions, it is the custom to offer to the dead. You learn that the kaimyō upon the tablet is that of a geisha ; and that the comrades of the dead girl assemble in the temple on certain days to gladden her spirit with songs and dances. Then whosoever pleases may attend the ceremony free of charge.
But the dancing-girls of ancient times were not as the geisha of to-day. Some of them were called shirabyōshi ; and their hearts were not extremely hard. They were beautiful ; they wore queerly shaped caps bedecked with gold; they were clad in splendid attire, and danced with swords in the dwellings of princes. And there is an old story about one of them which I think it worth while to tell.
It was formerly, and indeed still is, a custom with young Japanese artists to travel on foot through various parts of the empire, in order to see and sketch the most celebrated scenery as well as to study famous art objects preserved in Buddhist temples, many of which occupy sites of extraordinary picturesqueness. It is to such wanderings, chiefly, that we owe the existence of those beautiful books of landscape views and life studies which are now so curious and rare, and which teach better than aught else that only the Japanese can paint Japanese scenery. After you have become acquainted with their methods of interpreting their own nature, foreign attempts in the same line will seem to you strangely flat and soulless. The foreign artist will give you realistic reflections of what he sees ; but he will give you nothing more. The Japanese artist gives you that which he feels, — the mood of a season, the precise sensation of an hour and place ; his work is qualified by a power of suggestiveness rarely found in the art of the West. The Occidental painter renders minute detail ; he satisfies the imagination he evokes. But his Oriental brother either suppresses or idealizes detail, — steeps his distances in mist, bands his landscapes with cloud, makes of his experience a memory in which only the strange and the beautiful survive, with their sensations. He surpasses imagination, excites it, leaves it hungry with the hunger of charm perceived in glimpses only. Nevertheless, in such glimpses he is able to convey the feeling of a time, the character of a place, after a fashion that seems magical. He is a painter of recollections and of sensations rather than of clear-cut realities ; and in this lies the secret of his amazing power, — a power not to be appreciated by those who have never witnessed the scenes of his inspiration. He is above all things impersonal. His human figures are devoid of all individuality ; yet they have inimitable merit as types embodying the characteristics of a class : the childish curiosity of the peasant, the shyness of the maiden, the fascination of the jōro, the self - consciousness of the samurai, the funny, placid prettiness of the child, the resigned gentleness of age. Travel and observation were the influences which developed this art ; it was never a growth of studios.
A great many years ago, a young art student was traveling on foot from Saikyō to Yedo, over the mountains. The roads then were few and bad, and travel was so difficult compared to what it is now that a proverb was current, Kawai ko wa, tabi wo sasé (A pet child should be made to travel). But the land was what it is to-day. There were the same forests of cedar and of pine, the same groves of bamboo, the same peaked villages with roofs of thatch, the same terraced ricefields dotted with the great yellow straw hats of peasants bending in the slime. From the wayside, the same statues of Jizō smiled upon the same pilgrim figures passing to the same temples ; and then, as now, of summer days, one might see naked brown children laughing in all the shallow rivers, and all the rivers laughing to the sun.
The young art student, however, was no kawai ko: he had already traveled a great deal, was inured to hard fare and rough lodging, and accustomed to make the best of every situation. But upon this journey be found himself, one evening after sunset, in a region where it seemed possible to obtain neither fare nor lodging of any sort, — out of sight of cultivated land. While attempting a short cut over a range to reach some village, he had lost his way.
There was no moon, and pine shadows made blackness all around him. The district into which he had wandered seemed utterly wild ; there were no sounds but the humming of the wind in the pine needles, and an infinite tinkling of bellinsects. He stumbled on, hoping to gain some river bank, which he could follow to a settlement. At last a stream abruptly crossed his way ; but it proved to be a swift torrent pouring into a gorge between precipices. Obliged to retrace his steps, he resolved to climb to the nearest summit, whence he might be able to discern some sign of human life ; but on reaching it he could see about him only a heaping of hills.
He had almost resigned himself to passing the night under the stars, when he perceived, at some distance down the further slope of the hill he had ascended, a single thin yellow ray of light, evidently issuing from some dwelling. He made his way towards it, and soon discerned a small cottage, apparently a peasant’s home. The light he had seen still streamed from it, through a chink in the closed storm - doors. He hastened forward, and knocked at the entrance.
Not until he had knocked and called several times did he hear any stir within ; then a woman’s voice asked what was wanted. The voice was remarkably sweet, and the speech of the unseen questioner surprised him ; for she spoke in the cultivated idiom of the capital. He responded that he was a student, who had lost his way in the mountains ; that he wished, if possible, to obtain food and lodging for the night; and that if this could not be given, he would feel very grateful for information how to reach the nearest village, — adding that he had means enough to pay for the services of a guide. The voice, in return, asked several other questions, indicating extreme surprise that any one could have reached the dwelling from the direction he had taken. But his answers evidently allayed suspicion ; for the inmate exclaimed, “ I will come in a moment. It would be difficult for you to reach any village tonight; and the path is dangerous.”
After a brief delay, the storm-doors were pushed open, and a woman appeared with a paper lantern, which she so held as to illuminate the stranger’s face, while her own remained in shadow. She scrutinized him in silence ; then said briefly,
“ Wait; I will bring water.”She fetched a wash-basin, set it upon the doorstep, and offered the guest a towel. He removed his sandals, washed from his feet the dust of travel, and was shown into a neat room which appeared to occupy the whole interior, except a small boarded space at the rear, used as a kitchen. A cotton rug was laid for him to kneel upon, and a brazier set before him.
It was only then that he had a good opportunity of observing his hostess ; and he was startled by the delicacy and beauty of her features. She might have been three or four years older than he, but was still in the bloom of youth. Certainly she was not a peasant girl. In the same singularly sweet voice she said to him, “ I am now alone, and I never receive guests here. But I am sure it would be dangerous for you to travel further tonight. There are some peasants in the neighborhood ; but you cannot find your way to them in the dark without a guide. So I can let you stay here until morning. You will not he comfortable ; but I can give you a bed. And I suppose you are hungry. There is only some shōjin-ryōri,6 — not at all good, but you are welcome to it.”
The traveler was quite hungry, and only too glad of the offer. The young woman kindled a little fire, prepared a few dishes in silence, — stewed leaves of na, some aburagé, some kampyō, and a bowl of coarse rice, — and quickly set, the meal before him, apologizing for its quality. But during his repast she spoke scarcely at all; and her reserved manner embarrassed him. As she answered the few questions he ventured upon merely by a bow or by a solitary word, he soon refrained from attempting to press the conversation. Meanwhile, he had observed that the small house was spotlessly clean, and the utensils in which his food was served were immaculate. The few cheap objects in the apartment were pretty. The fusuma of the oshiire and zendana7 were of white paper only, but had been decorated with large Chinese characters exquisitely written, characters suggesting, according to the law of such decoration, the favorite themes of the poet and artist: Spring Flowers, Mountain and Sea, Summer Rain, Sky and Stars, Autumn Moon, River Water, Autumn Breeze. At one side of the apartment stood a kind of low altar, supporting a butsudan, whose tiny lacquered doors, left open, showed a mortuary tablet within, before which a lamp was burning between offerings of wild flowers. And above this household shrine hung a picture of more than common merit, representing the Goddess of Mercy, wearing the moon for her aureole.
As the student ended his little meal, the young woman observed, “ I cannot offer you a good bed, and there is only a paper mosquito curtain. The bed and the curtain are mine, but to-night I have many things to do, and will have no time to sleep; therefore I beg you will try to rest, though I am not able to make you comfortable.”
He then understood that she was, for some strange reason, entirely alone, and was voluntarily giving up her only bed to him upon a kindly pretext. He protested honestly against such an excess ot hospitality, and assured her that he could sleep quite soundly anywhere on the floor, and did not care about the mosquitoes. But she replied, in the tone of an elder sister, that he must do as she wished. She really had something to do, and she desired to be left by herself as soon as possible ; therefore, understanding him to be a gentleman, she expected he would suffer her to arrange matters in her own way. To this he could offer no objection, as there was but one room. She spread the mattress on the floor, fetched a wooden pillow, suspended her paper mosquito curtain, unfolded a large screen on the side of the bed toward the butsudan, and then bade him good-night in a manner that assured him she wished him to retire at once; which he did, not without some reluctance at the thought of all the trouble he had unintentionally caused her.
Unwilling as the young traveler felt to accept a kindness involving the sacrifice of another’s repose, he found the bed more than comfortable. He was very tired, and had scarcely laid his head upon the wooden pillow before he forgot everything in sleep.
Yet only a little while seemed to have passed when he was awakened by a singular sound. It was certainly the sound of feet, but not of feet walking softly. It seemed rather the sound of feet in rapid motion, as of excitement. Then it occurred to him that robbers might have entered the house. As for himself, he had little to fear because he had little to lose. His anxiety was chiefly for the kind person who had granted him hospitality. Into each side of the paper mosquito curtain a small square of brown netting had been fitted, like a little window, and through one of these he tried to look ; but the high screen stood between him and whatever was going on. He thought of calling, but this impulse was checked by the reflection that in case of real danger it would be both useless and imprudent to announce his presence before understanding the situation. The sounds which had made him uneasy continued, and were more and more mysterious. He resolved to prepare for the worst, and to risk his life, if necessary, in order to defend his young hostess. Hastily girding up his robes, he slipped noiselessly from under the paper curtain, crept to the edge of the screen, and peeped. What he saw astonished him extremely.
Before her illuminated butsudan the young woman, magnificently attired, was dancing all alone. Her costume he recognized as that of a shirabyōshi, though much richer than any he had ever seen worn by a professional dancer. Marvelously enhanced by it, her beauty, in that lonely time and place, appeared almost supernatural ; but what seemed to him even more wonderful was her dancing. For an instant he felt the tingling of a weird doubt. The superstitions of peasants, the legends of Fox-Women, flashed before his imagination ; but the sight of the Buddhist shrine, of the sacred picture, dissipated the fancy, and shamed him for the folly of it. At the same time he became conscious that he was watching something she had not wished him to see, and that it was his duty, as her guest, to return at once behind the screen; but the spectacle fascinated him. He felt, with not less pleasure than amazement, that he was looking upon the most accomplished dancer he had ever seen ; and the more he watched, the more the witchery of her grace grew upon him. Suddenly she paused, panting, unfastened her girdle, turned in the act of doffing her upper robe, and started violently as her eyes encountered his own.
He tried at once to excuse himself to her. He said he had been suddenly awakened by the sound of quick feet, which sound had caused him some uneasiness, chiefly for her sake, because of the lateness of the hour and the lonesomeness of the place. Then he confessed his surprise at what he had seen, and spoke of the manner in which it had attracted him. “ I beg you,” he continued, “ to forgive my curiosity, for I cannot help wondering who you are, and how you could have become so marvelous a dancer. All the dancers of Saikyō I have seen, yet I have never seen among the most celebrated of them a girl who could dance like you; and once I had begun to watch you, I could not take away my eyes.”
At first she had seemed angry, but before he had ceased to speak her expression changed. She smiled, and seated herself before him. “ No, I am not angry with you,” she said. " I am only sorry that you should have watched me, for I am sure you must have thought me mad when you saw me dancing that way, all by myself; and now I must tell you the meaning of what you have seen.
So she related her story. Her name lie remembered to have heard as a boy, _her professional name, the name of the most famous of shirabyoshi, the darling of the capital, who, in the zenith of her fame and beauty, had suddenly vanished from public life, none knew whither or why. She had fled from wealth and fortune with a youth who loved her. He was poor, but between them they possessed enough means to live simply and happily in the country. They built a little house in the mountains, and there for a number of years they existed only for each other. He adored her. One of his greatest pleasures was to see her dance. Each evening he would play some favorite melody, and she would dance for him. But one long cold winter he fell sick, and, in spite of her tender nursing, died. Since then she had lived alone with the memory of him, performing all those small rites of love and homage with which the dead are honored. Daily before his tablet she placed the customary offerings, and nightly danced to please him, as of old. And this was the explanation of what the young traveler had seen. It was indeed rude, she continued, to have awakened her tired guest; but she had waited until she thought him soundly sleeping, and then she had tried to dan t. very, very lightly. So she hoped he would pardon her for having unintentionally disturbed him.
When she had told him all, she made ready a little tea, which they drank together ; then she entreated him so plaintively to please her by trying to sleep again that he found himself obliged to go back, with many sincere apologies, under the paper mosquito curtain.
He slept well and long; the sun was high before he woke. On rising, he found prepared for him a meal as simple as that of the evening before, and he felt hungry. Nevertheless he ate sparingly, fearing the young woman might have stinted herself in thus providing for him ; and then he made ready to depart. But when he wanted to pay her for what he had received, and for all the trouble he had given her, she refused to take anything from him, saying, " What I had to give was not worth money, and what I did was done for kindness alone. So I pray that you will try to forget the discomfort you suffered here, and will remember only the good will of one who had nothing to offer.”
He still endeavored to induce her to accept something; but at last, finding that his insistence only gave her pain, he took leave of her with such words as he could find to express his gratitude, and not without a secret regret, for her beauty and her gentleness had charmed him more than he would have liked to acknowledge to any but herself. She indicated to him the path to follow, and watched him descend the mountain until he had passed from sight. An hour later he found himself upon a highway with which he was familiar. Then a sudden remorse touched him : he had forgotten to tell her his name ! For an instant he hesitated ; then said to himself, " What matters it?
I shall he always poor.” And he went on.
Many years passed by, and many fashions with them ; and the painter became old. But ere becoming old he had become famous. Princes, charmed by the wonder of his work, had vied with one another in giving him patronage ; so that he grew rich, and possessed a beautiful dwelling of his own in the City of the Emperors. Young artists from many provinces were his pupils, and lived with him, serving him in all things while receiving his instruction ; and his name was known through all the land.
Now, there came one day to his house an old woman, who asked to speak with him. The servants, seeing that she was meanly dressed and of miserable appearance, took her to be some common beggar, and questioned her roughly. But when she answered, “ I can tell to no one except your master why I have come,” they believed her mad, and deceived her, saying, “ He is not now in Saikyō, nor do we know how soon he will return.”
But the old woman came again and again, — day after day, and week after week, — each time being told something that was not true : “ To-day he is ill,” or, " To-day he is very busy,” or, “ Today he has much company, and therefore cannot see you.” Nevertheless she continued to come, always at the same hour each day, and always carrying a bundle wrapped in a ragged covering; and the servants at last thought it were best to speak to their master about her. So they said to him, “ There is a very old woman, whom we take to be a beggar, at our lord’s door. More than fifty times she has come, asking to see our lord, and refusing to tell us why, —saying that she can tell her wishes only to our lord. And we have tried to discourage her, as she seemed to be mad ; but she always comes. Therefore we have presumed to mention the matter to our lord, in order that we may learn what is to be done hereafter.”
Then the master answered sharply, “ Why did none of you tell me of this before ? ” and went out himself to the gate, and spoke very kindly to the woman, remembering how he also had been poor. And he asked her if she desired alms of him.
But she answered that she had no need of money or of food, and only desired that he would paint for her a picture. He wondered at her wish, and bade her entci his house. So she entered into the Vestibule, and, kneeling there, began to untie the knots of the bundle she had brought with her. When she had unwrapped it, the painter perceived curious rich quaint garments of silk broidered with designs in gold, yet much frayed and discolored by wear and time, — the wreck of a wonderful costume of other days, the attire of a shirabyōshi.
While the old woman unfolded the garments one by one, and tried to smooth them with her trembling fingers, a memory stirred in the Master’s brain, thrilled dimly there a little space, then suddenly lighted up. In that soft shock of recollection, he saw again the lonely mountain dwelling in which he had received unremunerated hospitality, — the tiny room prepared for his rest, the paper mosquito curtain, the faintly burning lamp before the Buddhist shrine, the strange beauty of one dancing there alone in the dead of the night. Then, to the astonishment of the aged visitor, he, the favored of princes, bowed low before her, and said, “ Pardon my rudeness in having forgotten your face for a moment; but it is more than forty years since we last saw each other. Now I remember you well. You received me once at your house. You gave up to me the only bed you had. I saw you dance, and you told me all your story. You had been a shirabyōshi, and I have not forgotten your name.”
He uttered it. She, astonished and confused, could not at first reply to him, for she was old and had suffered much, and her memory had begun to fail. But he spoke more and more kindly to her, and reminded her of many things which she had told him, and described to her the house in which she had lived alone, so that at last she also remembered ; and she answered, with tears of pleasure, “ Surely the Divine One who looketh down above the sound of prayer has guided me. But when my unworthy home was honored by the visit of the august Master, I was not as I now am. And it seems to me like a miracle of our Lord Buddha that the Master should remember me.”
Then she related the rest of her simple story. In the course of years, she had become, through poverty, obliged to part with her little house; and in her old age she had returned alone to the great city, in which her name had long been forgotten. It had caused her much pain to lose her home ; but it grieved her still more that, in becoming weak and old, she could no longer dance each evening before the butsudan, to please the spirit of the dead whom she had loved. Therefore she wanted to have a picture of herself painted, in the costume and the attitude of the dance, that she might suspend it before the butsudan, to serve instead of her, as she could not dance any more. For this she had prayed earnestly to Kwannon. And she had sought out the Master because of his fame as a painter, since she desired, for the sake of the dead, no common work, but a picture painted with great skill; and she had brought her dancing attire, hoping that the Master might be willing to paint her therein.
He listened to all with a kindly smile, and answered her, “ It will be only a pleasure for me to paint the picture which you want. This day I have something to finish which cannot be delayed. But if you will come here to-morrow, I will paint you exactly as you wish, and as well as I am able.”
But she said, “ I have not yet told to the Master the thing which most troubles me. And it is this, — that I can offer in return for so great a favor nothing except these dancer’s clothes; and they are of no value in themselves, though they were costly once. Still, I hoped the Master might be willing to take them, seeing they have become curious ; for there are no more shirabyōshi, and the maiko of these times wear no such robes.”
“ Of that matter,” the good painter exclaimed, “ you must not think at all! No: I am glad to have this present chance of paying a small part of my old debt to you. So to-morrow I will paint you just as you wish.”
She prostrated herself thrice before him, uttering thanks, and then said, “ Let my lord pardon, though I have yet something more to say. For I do not wish that he should paint me as I now am, but only as I used to be when I was young, as my lord knew me.”
“ He said, “ I remember well. You were very beautiful.”
Her wrinkled features lighted up with pleasure, as she bowed her thanks to him for those words. And she exclaimed, “Then indeed all that I hoped and prayed for may be done ! Since he thus remembers my poor youth, I beseech my lord to paint me, not as I now am, but as he saw me when I was not old and, as it has pleased him generously to say, not uncomely. O Master, make me young again ! Make me seem beautiful that I may seem beautiful to the soul of him for whose sake I, the unworthy, beseech this! He will see the Master’s work : he will forgive me that I can no longer dance.”
Then the Master bade her have no anxiety, and again said, “ Come to-morrow, and I will paint you. I will make a picture of you just as you were when I saw you, a young and beautiful shirabyōshi, and I will paint it as carefully and as skillfully as if I were painting the picture of the richest person in the land. Never doubt, but come.”
So the aged dancer came at the appointed hour ; and upon soft white silk the artist painted a picture of her. Yet not a picture of her as she seemed to the Master’s pupils, but the memory of her as she had been in the days of her youth, bright-eyed as a bird, lithe as a bamboo, dazzling as an angel in her raiment of silk and gold. Under the magic of the Master’s brush, the vanished grace returned, the faded beauty bloomed again. When the kakemono had been finished, and stamped with his seal, he mounted it richly upon silken cloth, and fixed to it rollers of cedar with ivory weights, and a silken cord by which to hang it ; and he placed it in a little box of white wood, and so gave it to the shirabyōshi. And he would also have presented her with a gift of money. But though he pressed her earnestly, he could not persuade her to accept his help. “Nay,” she made answer, with tears, “ indeed I need nothing. The picture only J desired. For that I prayed; and now my prayer has been answered, and I know that I never can wish for anything more in this life, and that if I come to die thus desiring nothing, to enter upon the way of Buddha will not be difficult. One thought alone causes me sorrow, — that I have nothing to offer to the Master but this dancer’s apparel, which is indeed of little worth, though I beseech him to accept it; and I will pray each day that his future life may be a life of happiness, because of the wondrous kindness which he has done me.”
“Nay,”protested the painter, smiling, “ what is it that I have done ? Truly nothing. As for the dancer’s garments, I will accept them, if that can make you more happy. They will bring back pleasant memories of the night I passed in your home, when you gave up all your comforts for my unworthy sake, and yet would not suffer me to pay for that which I used; and for that kindness I hold myself to be still in your debt. But now tell me where you live, so that I may see the picture in its place.” For he had resolved within himself to place her beyond the reach of want.
But she excused herself with humble words, and would not tell him, saying that her dwelling-place was too mean to be looked upon by such as he ; and then, with many prostrations, she thanked him again and again, and went away with her treasure, weeping for joy.
Then the Master called to one of his pupils, “ Go quickly after that woman, but so that she does not know herself followed, and bring me word where she lives.” So the young man followed her, unperceived.
He remained long away, and when he returned he laughed in the manner of one obliged to say something which it is not pleasant to hear, and he said, “That woman, O Master, I followed out of the city to the dry bed of the river, near to the place where criminals are executed. There I saw a hut such as a pariah might dwell in, and that is where she lives. A forsaken and filthy place, O Master! ”
“Nevertheless,” the painter replied, “ to-morrow you will take me to that forsaken and filthy place. What time I live she shall not suffer for food or clothing or comfort.”
As all wondered at his words, he told them the story of the shirabyōshi, after which it did not seem to them that his words were strange.
On the morning of the day following, an hour after sunrise, the Master and his pupil took their way to the dry bed of the river, beyond the verge of the city, to the place of outcasts.
The entrance of the little dwelling they found closed by a single shutter, upon which the Master tapped many times without evoking a response. Then, finding the shutter unfastened from within, he pushed it slightly aside, and called through the aperture. None replied, and he decided to enter. Simultaneously, with extraordinary vividness, there thrilled back to him the sensation of the very instant when, as a tired lad, he stood pleading for admission to the lonesome little cottage among the hills.
Entering alone softly, he perceived that the woman was lying there, wrapped m a single thin and tattered futon, seemingly asleep. On a rude shelf he recognized the butsudan of forty years before, with its tablet, and now, as then, a tiny lamp was burning in front of the kaimyō. The kakemono of the Goddess of Mercy with her lunar aureole was gone, but on the wall facing the shrine he beheld his own exquisite gift suspended, and an o-fuda beneath it, — an o-fuda of Hitokoto-Kwannon, whose shrine is at Nara, not far from the temple of the giant Buddha; that Kwannon unto whom it is unlawful to pray more than once, as she answers but a single prayer. There was little else in the desolate dwelling ; only the garments of a female pilgrim, and a mendicant’s staff and bowl.
But the Master did not pause to look at these things, for he desired to awaken and to gladden the sleeper, and he called her name cheerily twice and thrice.
Then suddenly he saw that she was dead, and he wondered while he gazed upon her face, for it seemed less old. A vague sweetness, like a ghost of youth, had returned to it; the lines of sorrow had been softened, the wrinkles strangely smoothed by the touch of a phantom Master mightier than he.
- The Kyōtō word is maiko.↩
- Guitars of three strings.↩
- It is sometimes customary for guests to exchange cups, after duly rinsing them. It is always a compliment to ask for your friend’s cup.↩
- “ Once more to rest beside her, or keep five thousand koku ? What care I for koku ? Let me be with her ! ”↩
- There lived in ancient times a hatamoto called Fuji-eda Geki, a vassal of the Shōgun. He had an income of five thousand koku of rice, — a great income in those days. But he fell in love with an inmate of the Yoshiwara, named Avaginu, and wished to marry her. When his master bade the vassal choose between his fortune and his passion, the lovers fled secretly to a farmer’s house, and there committed suicide together. And the above song was made about them. It is still sung.↩
- “ Thee, shouldst thou die, graveyard shall hold never! I thy body’s ashes, mixed with wine, will drink! ”↩
- Buddhist food, containing no animal substance. Some kinds of shōjin-ryōri are quite appetizing.↩
- The termsoshiire and zendana might be partly rendered by “wardrobe" and " cupboard.”The fusuma are sliding screens serving as doors.↩