Kano drew a long sigh. He could not blind himself to Tatsu's savagery. This was not the sort of husband that Ume had a right to expect from her father's choice,—a youth not only penniless, and without family name, but in himself unusual, strange, with look, voice, gesture, coloring each a clear contrast to the men that Ume-ko had seen. He could not bear the thought of her unhappiness, and yet, at any sacrifice, Tatsu must be kept an inmate of their home.
The girl had stopped beside the sunlit pond, leaning far over. She did not seem to note the clustering carp at all, but rather dwell upon her own image, twisted and shot through with the gold of their darting bodies. Now, with dragging feet she went to the moon-viewing hill, remaining in the shadow of it, and pausing for long thought. Her eyes were on the cliff, now raised to the camphor tree. Suddenly she shivered and hid her face. What was the tumult of that ignorant young breast?
The old man rose and went to an inner room where hung the Butsudan, the shrine. He stood gazing upon the ihai of his wife. His lips moved, but the breath so lightly issued that the flame on the altar did not stir. "She, our one child, has come now to the borders of that woman-land where I cannot go with her," he was saying. "Thou art the soul to guide, and give her happiness, thou, the dear one of my life,—the dead young mother who has never really died!" He folded his hands now, and bowed his head. The small flame leaned to him. "Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amid a Butsu," murmured the old man.
Out by the hill, a butterfly, snow white, rested a moment on the young girl's hair. She was again looking at the cliff, and did not notice it.
Ando Uchida, from his green seclusion among the bamboo groves of Meguro, sent, from time to time, a scout into the city. First an ordinary hotel kotsukai or man-servant was employed. This experiment proved costly as well as futile. The kotsukai demanded large payment; and then the creature's questions to Mata were of a nature so crude and undiplomatic that they aroused instant suspicion, causing, indeed, the threat of a dipper of scalding water.
The next messenger was an insect peddler, Katsuo Takanaka by name. It was the part of this youth to search daily among the bamboo stems and hillside grasses of Meguro for the musical suzu-mushi, the hataori, and the kirigirisu. These he incarcerated in fairy cages of plaited straw, threaded the cages into great hornets' nests that dangled from the two ends of his creaking shoulder-pole, and started toward the city in a perfect storm of insect music. The noise moved with him like a cloud. It formed, as it were, a penumbra of fine shrilling, and could be heard for many streets in advance. This itinerant merchant was commissioned to haunt the Kano gate until impatience or curiosity should fling it wide for him. Then, after having coaxed old Mata into making a purchase, he was to engage her in conversation, and extract all the domestic information he could. Unfortunately for the acquisition of paltry news, it was Ume-ko, not Mata, who came out to purchase. The seller, watching those slim, white fingers as they fluttered among his cages, the delicate ear bent to mark some special chime, forgot the words of Ando Uchida, otherwise, Mr. S. Yetan, of Chikuzen, forgot everything, indeed, but the beauty of the girlish face near him.
He left the house in a dream more dense than the multitudinous clamor of his burden. "Alas!" thought Katsuo, as he stumbled along, unheeding the beckoning hands of mothers, or the arresting cries of children in many gateways, "Had I been born a samurai of old, and she an humble maiden! Even as an Eta, an outcast, would I have loved and sought her. Now in this life I am doomed to catch insects and to sell them. Perhaps in my coming rebirth, if I am honest and do not tell to the ignorant that a common mimi is a silver-voiced hataorimushi,—perhaps——"
Ando's third envoy was chosen with more thoughtful care. This time it was none other than a young priest from the temple of Fudo-Bosatsu in Meguro. He was an acolyte sent forth with bowl and staff to beg for aid in certain temple repairs. Ando promised a generous donation in return for information concerning the Kano family. Being assured that the motive for this curiosity was benevolent rather than mischievous, the priest consented to make the attempt. He reached the Kano gate at noon, within a few days after Tatsu's arrival. Mata opened to his call. Being herself a Protestant, opposed to the ancient orders and their methods, she gave him but a chilly welcome. Her interest was aroused, however, in spite of herself, by the fact that he neither chanted his refrain of supplication nor extended the round wooden bowl.
"I shall not entreat alms of money in this place," he said, as if in answer to her look of surprise, "I am weary, and ask but to rest for a while in the pleasant shade of your roof."
Without waiting for Mata's rejoinder, Ume-ko, who had heard the words of the priest, now came swiftly to the veranda. "Our home is honored, holy youth, by your coming," she said to him. "Enter now, I pray, into the main guest-room, where I and my father may serve you."
The priest refused this homage (much to Mata's inward satisfaction), saying that he desired only the stone ledge of the kitchen entrance and a cup of cold water.
After his first swift upward look he dared not raise his eyes again. The sweetness of her young voice thrilled and troubled him. But for his promise to Uchida he would have fled at once, as from temptation. Ume-ko, seeing his embarrassment, withdrew, but not until she had made an imperious gesture to old Mata, commanding her to serve him with rice and tea.
After a short struggle with himself the priest decided to accept the offer of food. Old Mata, he knew, was to be his source of information. The old dame served him in conscious silence. Her lips were compressed to wrinkled metal. The visitor, more accustomed to old women than to young, smiled at the rigid countenance, knowing that a loquacity requiring so obvious a latch is the more easily freed. He planned his first question with some care.
"Is this not the home of an artist, Kano by name?"
Mata tossed her gray hair. "Of the only Kano," she replied, and shut her lips with a snap.
"The only Kano, the only Kano," mused the acolyte over his tea.
"So I said, young sir. Is it that your hearing is honorably non-existent?"
"Then I presume he is without a son," said the priest as if to himself, and stirred the surmise into his rice with the two long wooden chopsticks Mata had provided.
The old dame's muscles worked, but she kept silence.
Ume-ko, now in her little chamber across the narrow passage, with a bit of bright-colored sewing on her knees, could hear each word of the dialogue. Mata's shrill voice and the priest's deep tones each carried well. The girl smiled to herself, realizing as she did the conflict between love of gossip and disapproval of Shingon priests that now made a paltry battlefield of the old dame's mind. The former was almost sure to win. The priest must have thought this, too, for he finished his rice in maddening tranquillity, and then stirred slightly as if to go. Mata's speech flowed forth in a torrent.
"My poor master has no son indeed, no true son of his house; but lately,—within this very week——" She caught herself back as with a rein, snatched up the empty tea-pot, hurried to the kitchen and returned partly self-conquered, if not content. She told herself that she must not gossip about the master's affairs with a beggarly priest. Determination hardened the wrinkles of her face.
If the priest perceived these new signs of taciturnity, he ignored them. "Your master being verily the great artist that you say, it is a thing doubly to be regretted that he is without an heir," persisted the visitor, with kind, boyish eyes upon old Mata's face. The old woman blinked nervously and began to examine her fingernails. "Alas!" sighed he, "I fear it is because this Mr. Kano is no true believer, that he has not prayed or made offerings to the gods."
Mata had a momentary convulsion upon the kitchen floor, and was still.
The priest kept gravity upon his mouth, but needed lowered lids to hide the twinkles in his eyes. "True religion is the greatest boon," he droned sententiously. "Would that your poor master had reached enlightenment!"
Ume-ko in her room forgot her sewing, and leaned a delicate ear closer to the shoji.
Old Mata's wall of reserve went down with a crash. "He believes as you believe!" she cried out shrilly. "All your Shingon chants and invocations and miracles he has faith in. Is that not what you call enlightenment? He and Miss Ume worship together almost daily at the great temple above us on the hill. The two finest stone lanterns there are given in the name of my master's dead young wife. Her ihai is in this house, and an altar, and they are well tended, I assure you! My master is a true believer, poor man, and what has his belief brought him? Ma-a-a! all this mummery and service and what has come of it?"
"I perceive with regret that you are not of the Shingon sect," remarked the priest.
"Me? I should say not!" snorted Mata. "I am a Protestant, a good Shinshu woman,—that's what I am, and I tell you so to your face! When I pray, I know what I am praying for. I trust to my own good deeds and the intercession of Amida Butsu. No muttering and mummery for me!"
"Ah!" said the priest, a most alluring note of interest now audible in his voice, "your master has so zealously importuned the gods, and, you say, with no result?"
"Ay, a result has come," answered the old dame, sullenly. "Within this week the gods—or the demons—have heard my master, for a wild thing from the hills is with us!"
"Wild thing? Do you mean a man?"
"A semblance of a man, though none such will you see in the streets of a respectable town."
"But does your master——" began the priest, in some perplexity.
Mata cut him short. "Because he can smear ink on paper with a brush, my master dotes on him and says he will adopt him!"
The woman's fierce sincerity transmitted vague alarm. Slipping his hands within his gray sleeves, the acolyte began fingering his short rosary as he asked, "Is the—wild man now under this very roof?"
"Not under a roof when he can escape it, you may be sure! He comes to us only when driven by hunger of the stomach or the eyes. Doubtless at this moment he wallows among the ferns and sa-sa grass of the mountain side, or lies face down in the cemetery near my mistress' grave. He is mad, my master is mad, and Miss Ume, if she really gives herself in marriage to the mountain lion, madder than all the rest!"
"That beautiful maiden whom I saw will be given to such a one?" asked the priest, in a startled way.
"Such are the present plans," said the other in deep despair, and huddled herself together on the floor.
Ume-ko, in her room across the hallway, had half risen. It really was time to check the old servant's vulgar garrulity. But the silence that followed the last remark checked her impulse. After all, what did it matter? No one could understand or needed to understand.
Meanwhile Mata, at first unconscious of anything but her own dark thoughts, became gradually aware of a strange look in the face of the priest. He, on his part, was wondering whether, indeed, the beauty of Ume-ko were not the sole cause of his patron's interest in the Kano family. After watching him intently for a few moments the old woman wriggled nearer and whispered in a tone so low that Ume could not catch the words, "Perhaps, after all, Sir Priest, you, being of their belief, perceive this to be a case where charms and spells are advisable. I am convinced that this house is bewitched, that the Dragon Painter has a train of elementals in attendance. Now, if we could only drive him forever from the place. Have you, by any chance, a powder, or an amulet, or a magic invocation you could give me?"
"No, no! I dare not!" said the other, in an agitated voice. He reached out for his bowl and, with a single leap, was down upon the earth. Mata caught him by his flying skirts. "See here," she entreated, "I will make it worth your while, young sir, I will give donations to your temple——"
"I dare not. I have no instructions to meddle with such things. Let me now give the house a blessing, and withdraw. But I can tell you for your comfort," he added, seeing the disappointment in her wrinkled face, "if, as you assure me, this is a house of faith, no presence entirely evil could dwell within it."
He got away before she could repeat her importunities; and the old dame returned to the kitchen, muttering anathemas against the mystic powers she had just attempted to invoke.
On the priest's return, Ando questioned him eagerly. He gained, almost with the first words, certainty of his own freedom. With Tatsu safely arrived, and the betrothal to Kano Ume-ko an outspoken affair, then had the time come for him—Ando Uchida—to reassume the pleasant role of friend and benefactor.
He moved into Yeddo before nightfall. His first visit was, of course, to Kano. Elaborately he explained to the sympathetic old man how he had been summoned by telegram into a distant province to attend the supposed death-bed of a relative, how that relative had, by a miracle, recovered. "So now," he remarked in conclusion, "I am again at your service, and shall take the part not only of nakodo in the coming marriage, but of temporary father and social sponsor to our unsophisticated bridegroom."
Certainly nothing could have been more opportune than Uchida's reappearance, or more welcome than his proposed assistance. Mata, indeed, hastened to give a whole koku of rice to the poor in thank-offering that one sensible person besides herself was now implicated in the wedding preparations.
Uchida justified, many times over, her belief in him. In the district near the Kano home he rented, in Tatsu's name, a small cottage, paying for it by the month, in advance. With Mata's assistance, not to mention a small colony of hirelings, the floors were fitted with new mats, the woodwork of the walls, the posts, and veranda floors polished to a mirror-like brightness, and even the tiny garden set with new turf and flowering plants. Tatsu was lured down from the mountain side and persuaded to remain at night and part, at least, of each day, in this little haven of coming joy.
A secluded room was fitted up as a studio, for his sole use. Here were great rectangles of paper, rolls of thin silk, stretching frames, water holders, multitudinous brushes, and all the exquisite pigment that Japanese love of beauty has drawn from water, earth, and air; delicate infusions of sea-moss, roots, and leaves, saucers of warm earth ground to a paste, precious vessels of powdered malachite, porphyry, and lapis lazuli. But the boy looked askance upon the expensive outlay. His wild nature resented so obvious a lure. It seemed unworthy of a Dragon Painter to accept this multitude of material devices. He had painted on flakes of inner bark, still quivering with the life from which he had rudely torn them. Visions limned on rock and sand had been the more precious for their impermanence. Here, every stroke was to be recorded, each passing whim and mood registered, as in a book of fate.
For days the little workroom remained immaculate. Kano began to fret. Ando Uchida, the wise, said, "Wait." It was Mata who finally precipitated the crisis. One rainy morning, being already in an ill humor over some trifling household affair, she was startled and annoyed by the sudden vision of Tatsu's head thrust noiselessly into her kitchen. Rudely she had slammed the shoji together, calling out to him that he had better be off doing the one thing he was fit to do, rather than to be skulking around her special domain. Tatsu had, as rudely, reopened the shoji panels, tearing a large hole in the translucent paper. "He had come merely for a glimpse of the Dragon Maid," he told the angry dame. "In a few days more she was to be his wife, and this maddening convention of keeping him always from her was eating out his vitals with red fire," so declared Tatsu, and let the consuming passion blaze in his sunken eyes.
But Mata, undismayed, stood up in scornful silence. She was gathering herself together like a storm, and in an instant more had hurled upon him the full terror of her vocabulary. She called him a barbarian, a mountain goat,—a Tengu,—better mated to a fox spirit or a she-demon than to a decent girl like her young mistress. She denounced her erstwhile beloved master as a blind old dotard, and the idolized Ume, she declared a weak and yielding idiot. Tatsu's attempts at retort were swept away with a hiss. For a while he raged like a flame upon the doorstep, but he was no match for his vigorous opponent. It was something to realize his own defeat. Gasping, he turned to the friendly rain and would have darted from the gate when, with a swoop like a falcon, Mata was bodily upon him. He threw his right arm upward as if to escape a blow, but the old dame did not belabor him. She was trying to thrust something hard and strange into his other hand. He glanced toward it. The last indignity of an umbrella! "Open it, madman!" she cried shrilly after him, "and hold your robe up; it is one of your new silk ones!"
Tatsu had never used an umbrella in his life. Now he opened it eagerly. Anything to escape that frightful voice! In the windy street he clutched at his fluttering skirts as he had seen other men do, and, with a last terrified backward glance, ran breathlessly toward the haven of his temporary home.
The little house was empty. Tatsu was thankful for so much. The rooms were already pre-haunted by dreams of Ume-ko. Tatsu felt the peace of it sink deep into his soul. Instinctively his wandering feet led him into the little painting room. As usual, the elaborate display of artist materials chilled him. After his recent exasperation he longed to ease his heart of a sketch, but obstinacy held him back. He sat down in the centre of the space. A bevy of small, squeaking sounds seemed to enclose him. It took him some moments to recognize them as the irritating rustling of his silken dress. He sprang to his feet, tore off the new and expensive girdle of brocade, flung it into one corner and the offending robe into another, and remained standing in the centre of the small space clad only in his short white linen under-robe.
He looked about, now, for a more congenial sheathing. If he could but find the tattered blue kimono worn during that upward journey from Kiu Shiu! Stained by berries and green leaves, torn by a thousand graceful vines,—for laundering only a few vigorous swirls in a running stream with a quick sun-drying on the river stones,—yet how comfortable, how companionable it was! There had been a blue something folded on the shelf of his closet. He found it, opened it wide in the air and would have uttered a cry of joy but for the changed look of it. Even this had not escaped Mata's desecrating hands! It was mended everywhere. The white darning threads grinned at him like teeth. Also it was washed and ironed, and smelled of foreign soap. For an instant he tore at it angrily, and was minded to destroy it, but the sense of familiarity held him. He wrapped it about him slowly and, with bent head, again seated himself upon the floor.
The rain now fell in quivering wires of dull light. The world was strung with them like a harp, and upon them the wind played a monotonous refrain. Against the wall near Tatsu stood a light framework of wood with the silk already stretched and dried for painting. At his other hand a brush slanted sidewise from a bowl of liquid ink. The boy's pulses leaped toward these things even while his lips curled in disdain at the shallow decoy. "So they expect to trap me, these geese and jailers who have temporary dominance over my life," thought he, in scorn. No, even though he now desired it of himself, he would not paint! Let him but gain his bride—then nothing should have power to sting or fret him. But, oh, these endless days and hours of waiting! They corroded his very thought as acid corrodes new metal. He felt the eating of it now.
A spasm of pain and anger distorted his face. He gave a cry, caught up suddenly the thick hake brush, and hurled it across the room toward the upright frame of silk. It struck the surface midway, a little to the left; pressed and worked against it as though held by a ghost, and then, falling, dragged lessening echoes of stain.
Tatsu's mirthless laugh rang out against the sound of dripping rain. The childish outburst had been of some relief. He looked defiantly toward the white rectangle he had just defaced. Defaced? The boy caught in his breath. He thrust his head forward, leaning on one hand to stare. That bold and unpremeditated stroke had become a shadowed peak; the trailing marks of ink a splendid slope. Had he not seen just such a one in Kiu Shiu,—had he not scaled it, crying aloud upon its summit to the gods to yield him there his bride?
Trembling now, and weak, he crawled on hands and knees toward the frame. He had forgotten Kano, Uchida, Mata,—forgotten even Ume-ko. Fingers not his own lifted the fallen brush. The wonderful cold wind of a dawning frenzy swept clean his soul. He shivered; then a sirocco of fire followed the void of the wind. The spot where his random blow had struck still gleamed transparent jet. He dragged the blackened brush through a vessel of clear water, then brandished it like the madman Mata thought him. With the soft tuft of camel hair he blurred against the peak pale, luminous vapor of new cloud. Turning, twisting sidewise, this way, then that, the yielding implement, he seemed to carve upon the silk broad silver planes of rock, until there rose up a self-revealing vision, the granite cliff from which a thin, white waterfall leaps out.
But this one swift achievement only whetted the famished appetite to more creative ardor. Sketch after sketch he made, some to tear at once into strips, others to fling carelessly aside to any corner where they might chance to fall, others, again, to be stored cunningly upon some remote shelf to which old Kano and Uchida and Mata could not reach, but whence he, Tatsu, the Dragon Painter, should, in a few days more, withdraw them and show them to his bride. The purple dusk brimmed his tiny garden, and yet he could not stop. Art had seized him by the throat, and shook him, as a prey. Uchida, peering at him from between the fusuma, perceived the glory and turned away in silence; nor for that day nor the next would he allow any one to approach the frenzied boy. The elder man had, himself in youth, fared along the valleys of art, and knew the signals on the peaks.
Tatsu, unconscious that the house was not still empty, painted on. Sometimes he sobbed. Again an ague of beauty caught him, and he needed to hurl himself full length upon the mats until the ecstacy was past. Just as the daylight went he saw, upon the one great glimmering square of silk as yet immaculate, a dream of Ume-ko, the Dragon Maiden, who had danced before him. This was an apparition too holy to be limned in artificial light. When the sun came, next day, he knew well what there was for him to do. He placed the frame upright, where the first pink beam would find it. Brushes, water vessels, and paints were placed in readiness, with such neatness and precision that old Kano's heart would have laughed in pleasure. That night the shoji and amado were not closed. Tatsu did not sleep. It was a night of consecration. He walked up and down, sometimes in the narrow room, sometimes in the garden. Often he prayed. Again he sat in the soft darkness, before the ghostly glimmer of the silk, tracing upon it visions of ethereal light. When, at last, the dawn came in, Tatsu bowed to the east, with his usual prayer of thankful piety, then, with the exaltation still upon him, lifted the silver thread of a brush and drew his first conscious outline of the woman soon to be his wife.
Through all these busy days Ume-ko moved as one but little interested. Kano and Uchida noticed nothing unusual. To them she was merely the conventional nonenity of maidenhood that Japanese etiquette demanded. It never entered their heads that she would not have agreed with equal readiness to any other husband of their choosing.
Mata knew her idol and nursling better. Hints of character and of deep-sea passion had risen now and again to the surface of the girl's placid life. There were currents underneath that the father did not suspect. Once, during her childhood, a pet bird had been injured in a fit of anger by old Kano. Ume-ko, with her ashen face under perfect control, had killed the suffering creature and carried it, wrapped in white paper, to her own room. The father, ashamed now, and filled with genuine remorse, had stormed up and down the garden paths, reviling himself for an impatient ogre, and promising more restraint in future. Mata, silent for once, had crept to her child-mistress' close-shut walls, heard the last sobbing words of a Buddhist prayer for the dead, and burst through the shoji in scant time to catch back the stroke of a dagger from the girl's slim, upraised throat. Her terrified screams summoned Kano and the neighbors as well. A priest hurried down from the temple on the hill. In time the culprit was reduced to a condition of tearful penitence, and gave her promise never again to attempt so cowardly and wicked a thing as self-destruction, unless it were for some noble and impersonal end.
The good old priest, to comfort her, chanted a sutra over the bier of her lost playmate, and bestowed upon it a high-sounding Buddhist kaimyo which Kano carved, in his finest manner, upon a wooden grave post. In time, the artist forgot the episode. Mata never forgot. Often in the long hours she thought of it now as she watched the girl's face bent always so silently above the bridal sewing. No impatience or regret were visible in her. Yet, thought Mata, surely no maiden in her senses could really wish to become the wife of an ill-mannered, untamed mountain sprite! Could Death be the secret of this pale tranquillity? Was Ume-ko to cheat them all, at the last, by self-destruction?
In such wise did the old servant fret and ponder, but no assurance came. A true insight into art might have opened many doors to her. Yet, through a life devoted to the externals of it, Mata had been tolerant of beauty, rather than at one with it. The impractical view of life which art seemed to demand of its devotees was enough to arouse suspicion, if not her actual dislike. Uchida was a hero because he had been bold enough to shake himself free from lethargic influences, and achieve a shining and substantial success.
But even had the key of art been thrust into the old dame's groping hand, and even had her master guided her, there was an inner chamber of Ume's heart which they could not have found. Ume herself had not known of it until that first instant when, now three weeks ago, a strange young face, hung about with shadows, had peered into her father's gate. With the first sound of his voice, she had entered in, had knelt before a shrine whereon, wrapped in fire, a Secret lay. Ever since she had needed to guard that shrine, not, indeed, for fear that the light would falter, but rather that it might not leap up, and lay waste her being. As one guards a flame, so Ume-ko, with silence and prayer and self-enforced tranquillity, guarded the sacred spark from winds of passion. Each day at dawn, and again at twilight of each day, it flamed high and was hard to conquer, for with dawn a letter was hers—held in the night-wet branches of her dragon-plum, and each night when Mata and her father thought her sleeping, an answer was written, and committed to the keeping of the tree.
When Tatsu did not paint, or rest from sheer exhaustion, he was writing. Ume, bending above his words, shivering at times, or weeping, marvelled that the tissue had not charred beneath the thoughts burned into it. Tatsu's phrases were like his paintings, unusual, vital, almost demoniac in force, shot through and through at times with the bolt of an almost unbearable beauty. Her own words answered his, as the tree-tops answer storm, with music. Verse alone could ease the girl of her ecstacy, and each recorded and triumphed in the demolition of yet another day. "Another stone, beloved, thrust down from the dungeon wall that severs us!"
Swiftly the heap of wedding garments grew. There were delicate kimonos, as thin and gray as mist, with sunset-colored inner robes of silk; gowns of linen and cotton for indoor wear; bath and sleeping robes with great designs of flowers, birds, or landscapes; silken bed-quilts and bright floor cushions; great sashes crusted like bark with patternings of gold; dainty toilet accessories of hairpins, girdles, collarettes, shopping-bags, purses, jewel-cases,—and new sandals of various sorts, each with velvet thongs of some delicate hue.
The sewing was, of course, done at home. Mata would have trusted this sacred rite to no domination but her own. She worked incessantly, planning, cutting, scolding,—hurrying off to the shopping district for some forgotten item, conferring with Ando Uchida about the details of Tatsu's outfit, then returning, flushed with success and importance, to new home triumphs.
Ume sewed steadily all day. Her painting materials had been put meekly aside, and, as a further precaution at old Mata's hands, hidden under the kitchen flooring. Toward the last it was found necessary to employ an assistant, a seamstress, known of old to Mata. Her companionship, as well as her sewing, proved a boon. Seated upon the springy matting, with waves of shimmering silk tumultuous about them, the old dames chatted incessantly of other brides and other wedding outfits they had known. Marvellous were their tales of married life, some of them designed to cheer, others to warn the silent little third figure, that of the bride-to-be. As a matter of fact, Ume never listened. The noise and buzz of incessant conversation affected her pleasantly, but remotely, as the chatter of distant sparrows. The girl had too much within herself to think of.
"May Kwannon have mercy upon my young mistress," sighed the nurse, one day, as Ume left the room.
"Does she require mercy? I thought—she appears to me honorably—er—undisturbed," ventured the seamstress, with one swift upward look of interest.
"Yes, she appears,—many of us appear,—but can she be happy? That is what I wish to know. The creature she is being forced to marry is more like a mountain-lion than a man!"
"Ma-a-a! Is he dangerous? Will he bite her?" questioned the other, hopefully.
"Amida alone knows what he will do with her," croaked Mata, in a sepulchral voice.
The subject was one not to be readily relinquished. "The facts being honorably as you relate," began the hired seamstress, her needle held carefully against the light for threading, "how is it that the august father of the illustrious young lady permits such a marriage?"
Mata's eyes gleamed sharp and bright as the needle. "Because he is as mad as the wild man, and all for pictures! They would strip their own skins off if that made better parchment. Miss Ume has been influenced by them, and now is to be sacrificed. Alas! the evil day!" and Mata wiped away some genuine tears on the hem of a night-robe she had finished.
"O kinodoku Sama, my spirit is poisoned by your grief," murmured the other, sympathetically. "Yet, in your place, I should find great comfort in the outfit of your mistress. Never, even in the sewing halls of princes, could more beautiful silks be gathered." She looked about slowly, with the air of a professional who sees something really worthy of regard.
Mata's face cleared. "Since the gods allow it, I should not complain," she admitted. "Indeed, Mr. Uchida and I are doing well by the young couple in the matter of silks and house furnishings. And—whisper this not—no one but he and I dream from what source these splendid fabrics come!"
Mata had thrust a poisoned arrow of curiosity into her listener, and knew it. Some day, perhaps the very day before the wedding, she might reveal it. For the present, as she said, no one but herself and Uchida knew.
More than once during sewing hours, Ume-ko herself had wondered how her father was able to give her silks of such beauty and variety. With the unthrift of the true artist, Kano was always poor. The old man would have been as surprised and far angrier than his daughter, had he known that Tatsu's pictures, stolen craftily by the confederates, Uchida and Mata, and sold in Yokohama for about a tenth of their true value, were the source of this sudden affluence. Tatsu remained ignorant, also. But, provided they took no image of Ume's face, he would not have cared at all. New garments, new mats, dainty household furnishings, were showered upon him, too; but they might have been autumn leaves, for all the interest he showed.
To gain his Dragon Maid,—to know that in this life she was irrevocably his,—that was Tatsu's one conscious thought.
The wedding day came at last. Ume-ko had written no letter on the eve of it, but all night long she felt that he was near her, leaning on the breast of the plum tree, scaling the steeps above her, wandering, a restless ghost of joy, about the moon-silvered cemetery, speaking perhaps, as equal, to his primeval gods. So close, already were these two, that even in absence, each felt always something of the other's mood. It was a sleepless night to the girl, also. She cowered close about the Secret, until its fierce light scorched her. She pressed down her lids with strong, white fingers, but the glory streamed through. So, tortured by intolerable bliss, she suffered, until the dawn came in.
Quite early in the day the bride's trousseau and gifts were sent to Tatsu's home. They made a train that filled the neighbors' eyes with wonder and Mata's swelling heart with pride. There were lacquered chests and cases of drawers, all filled with clothing. Each great square package was covered with a decorated cloth, and swung from a gilded staff borne on the shoulders of two stout coolies. There were boxes of cakes, fruit, and eggs; and jinrikishas piled with a medley of gifts. Even Kano was impressed. Uchida rubbed his two fat hands together and laughed at everything. Ume-ko, watching the moving shadows pass under her father's gate-roof, closed her eyes quickly and caught her breath. The next gift from the Kano home was to be herself.
By this time autumn was upon the year. A few early chrysanthemums opened small golden suns in the garden. Dodan bushes and maples hinted at a crimson splendor soon to follow. The icho trees stood like pyramids of gold; and suzuki grass upon the hillsides brushed a cloudless blue sky with silken fingers. In the garden, autumn insects sang. Ume-ko's kirigirisu which, some weeks before, she had released from its cage, had, as if in gratitude made a home among the lichens of the big plum tree. Ume believed that she always knew its voice from among the rest, no matter how full the chorus of silver chiming.
She had gone back to her room, and sat now, in the centre of it, staring toward the garden. Noon had crept upon it, devouring all shadow. Her eyes saw little but the golden blur. A fusuma opened softly, and two women, Mata and the attendant seamstress, came mincing and smirking toward her, each with an armful of white silk. Ume rose like an automaton. They began her toilet, talking the while in low voices. They robed her in white with a thin lining-edge of crimson, and threw over her shining hair a veil of tissue. Some one outside called that the bride's kuruma was at the gate. Old Kano entered the room, smiling. His steps creaked and rustled with new silk. Ume turned for one fleeting glimpse of her plum tree. It seemed to stir and wave green leaves toward her. With head down-bent, the girl followed her father through the house.
Mata helped them into the two new, shining jinrikishas, a dragon-crest blazoned on the one for Ume's use. She scolded the kuruma men in her shrill voice, giving a dozen instructions in one sentence, and pretending anger at their answering jests. On the doorstep stood the little seamstress ready to cast a handful of dried peas. When Kano and Ume-ko were off, Mata scrambled excitedly into her own vehicle. Her human steed, turning round for an impudent and good-natured stare, drawled out an unprintable remark. The seamstress shrieked "sayonara" and pelted space with the peas. Afterward she ran on foot down the slope of the hill and joined the smiling crowd of lookers-on. Soon it was over. The peddler picked up his pack, and the children their toys. Gates opened or slid aside in panels to receive their owners. The jangling of small gate-bells made the hillside merry for an instant, then busy silence again took possession.
No one at all was left in the Kano home. The little cottage of Ume's birth, of her short, happy life and dawning fame, drew itself together in the unusual silence. Sunshine fell thick upon the garden, and warmed even the lazy gold-fish in their pigmy lake. In the plum-tree branch that touched Ume-ko's abandoned chamber, the cricket chirped softly to himself. He knew the Secret!
Six days were gone. The marriage was a thing accomplished, yet old Kano sat, lean, dispirited, drowned apparently in depths of fathomless despair, in the centre of his corner room. Mata, busy about her household tasks, sometimes passed across the matting, or flaunted a dusting-cloth within a partly opened shoji. At such moments her look and gesture were eloquent of disdain. Her patience, long tried by the kindly irritable master, was about at an end. Surely a spoiled old man-child like the crouching figure yonder would exhaust the forbearance of Jizo Sama himself!
Six days ago he had been happy,—indeed, too happy! for he and Uchida had drunk themselves into a condition of giggling bliss, and had needed to be taken away bodily from the bridal bower, hoisted into a double jinrikisha, and driven off ignominiously, still embracing, still pledging with tears an eternity of brotherhood. Yes, on that day Kano had hailed the earth as one broad, enamelled sake-cup, the air, a new infusion of heavenly brew. But now——
"Mata!" the thin voice came, "are you certain that this is but the sixth day of my son's wedding?"
"It is but the sixth day, indeed, since your daughter's sacrifice to a barbarian, if that is what you mean," returned Mata, with a belligerent flourish of her paper duster.
"That is what I meant," said the other, passively. "Then the week is not to be finished until to-morrow at noon. Twenty-four hours of torture to me! I suppose that the ingrates will count time to the last shadow! Oh, Mata, Mata, you once were a faithful servant! Why did you let me make that foolish promise of giving them an entire week? A day would have been ample, then Tatsu and I could have begun to paint."
"Ara!" said Mata, uttering a sound more forcible than respectful. "Had it been a decent person thus married to my young mistress, instead of a mountain sprite, they should have had a month together!"
Kano groaned under the suggestion. "Then, heartless woman, at the end of the month you would have been without a master; for surely my sufferings would, in a month, have shrunk me to an insect gaki chirping from a tree."
"It is to me a matter of honorable amazement that in one week you are not already a gaki, with your incessant complaints," retorted the old dame, still unrelenting.
"If I could be sure he is painting all this interminable time," said Kano to himself, wringing the nervous hands together.
"You may be augustly sure he is not," chuckled the cruel Mata.
The old man got hastily to his feet. "Mata, Mata, your tongue is that of a viper,—a green viper, with stripes. I will go from its reach into the highway. Of course my son is painting. What else could he be doing?"
The old dame's laugh fell like salt upon a wound. Kano caught up a bamboo cane and, hatless, went into the street. It was odd, how often during this week he found need of walking; still stranger, how often his wanderings led him to the dodan hedge enclosing Tatsu's cottage. He paused at the gate now, tormented by the reflection that he himself had drawn the bolt. How still it was in there! Not even a sparrow chirped. Could something be wrong? Suddenly a laugh rang out,—the low spontaneous laugh of a happy girl. Kano clutched the gate-post. It was not the sort of laugh that one gives at sight of a splendid painting. It had too intimate, too personal, a ring. But surely Tatsu was painting! What else did he live for, if not to paint? The old man bore a heavy homeward heart.
Next day, exactly at the hour of noon, the culprits tapped upon Kano's wooden gate. During the morning the old man had been in a condition of feverish excitement, but now that the agony of waiting had forever ceased, he assumed a pose of indifference.
Tatsu entered first, as a husband should. In mounting the stone which served as step to the railless veranda, he shook off, carelessly, his wooden shoes. Ume-ko lifted them, dusted the velvet thongs, and placed them with mathematical precision side by side upon the flat stone. She then entered, placing her small lacquered clogs beside those of her husband.
Kano, from the tail of his eye, marked with approval these tokens of wifely submission. From a small aperture in the kitchen shoji, however (a peephole commanding a full view of the house), dour mutterings might have been heard, and a whispered lament that "she should have lived to see her young mistress wipe a Tengu's shoes!"
When the various genuflections and phrases of ceremonial greeting were at last accomplished, the old artist broke forth, "Well, well, son Tatsu, how many paintings in all this time?"
Tatsu looked up startled, first at the questioner, then at his wife. She gave a little, convulsive giggle, and bent her shining eyes to the floor.
"I have not painted," said Tatsu, bluntly.
"Not painted? Impossible! What then have you done with all the golden hours of these interminable days?"
A sullen look crept into the boy's face. Again he turned questioning eyes upon his wife. From the troubled silence her sweet voice reached like a caress: "Dear father, the autumn days, though golden, have held unusual heat."
"Heat! What are cold and heat to a true artist? Did he not paint in August? I am old, yet I have been painting!"
Again fell the silence.
"I said that I had been painting," repeated the old man, angrily.
Ume-ko recovered herself with a start. "I am—er—we are truly overjoyed to hear it. Shall you deign to honor us with a sight of your illustrious work?"
"No, I shall not deign!" snapped the old man. "It is his work that you now are concerned with." Here he pointed to the scowling Tatsu. "Why have you not influenced him as you should? He must paint! It is what you married him for."
Ume-ko caught her breath. A flush of embarrassment dyed her face, and she threw a half-frightened look towards Tatsu. Answering her father's unrelenting frown, she murmured, timidly, "To-morrow, if the gods will, my dear husband shall paint."
Tatsu's steady gaze drew her. "Your eyes, Ume-ko. Is it true that for this—to make me paint—you consented to become my wife?"
Ume tried in vain to resist the look he gave her. Close at her other hand, she knew, her father hung upon her face and listened, trembling, for her words. To him, art was all. But to her and Tatsu, who had found each other,—ah! She tried to speak but words refused to form themselves. She tried to turn a docile face toward old Kano; but the deepening glory of her husband's look drew her as light draws a flower. Sullenness and anger fell from him like a cloth. His countenance gave out the fire of an inward passion; his eyes—deep, strange, strong, magnetic—mastered and compelled her.
"No, no, beloved," she whispered. "I cannot say,—you alone know the soul of me."
A fierce triumph flared into his look. He leaned nearer, with a smile that was almost cruel in its consciousness of power. Under it her eyes drooped, her head fell forward in a sudden faintness, her whole lithe body huddled into one gracious, yielding outline. Even while Kano gasped, doubting his eyes and his hearing, Tatsu sprang to his feet, went to his wife, caught her up rudely by one arm, and crushed her against his side, while he blazed defiant scorn upon Kano. "Come Dragon Wife," he said, in a voice that echoed through the space; "come back to our little home. No stupid old ones there, no prattle about painting. Only you and I and love."
Now in Japan nothing is more indelicate, more unpardonable, or more insulting to the listener than any reference to the personal love between man and wife. At Tatsu's terrible speech, Ume-ko, unconscious of further cause of offense, hid her face against his sleeve, and clung to him, that her trembling might not cast her to the floor. Kano, at first, was unable to speak. He grew slowly the hue of death. His brief words, when at last they came, were in convulsive spasms of sound. "Go to your rooms,—both. Are you mad, indeed,—this immodesty, this disrespect to me. Mata was right,—a Tengu, a barbarian. Go, go, ere I rise to slay you both!"
The utterance choked him, and died away in a gasping silence. He clutched at his lean chest. Ume would have sped to him, but Tatsu held her fast. His young face flamed with an answering rage. "Do you use that tone to me—old man—to me, and this, my wife," he was beginning, but Ume put frantic hands upon his lips.
"Master, beloved!" she sobbed. "You shall not speak thus to our father,—you do not understand. For love of me, then, be patient. Even the crows on the hilltops revere their parents. Come there, to the hills, with me, now, now—oh, my soul's beloved—before you speak again. Wait there, in the inner room, while I kneel a moment before our father. Oh, Tatsu, if you love me——"
The agony of her face and voice swept from Tatsu's mind all other feeling. He stood in the doorway, silent, as she threw herself before old Kano, praying to him as to an offended god: "Father, father, do not hold hatred against us! Tatsu has been without kindred,—he knows not yet the sacred duties of filial love. We will go from your presence now until your just anger against us shall have cooled. With the night we shall return and plead for mercy and forgiveness. No, no, do not speak again, just yet. We are going, now, now. Oh, my dear father, the agony and the shame of it! Sayonara, until the twilight." She hurried back to Tatsu, seized his clenched hand with her small, icy fingers, and almost dragged him from the room.
Kano sat as she had left him, motionless, now, as the white jade vase within the tokonoma. His anger, crimson, blinding at the first possession, had heated by now into a slow, white rage. All at once he began to tremble. He struck himself violently upon one knee, crying aloud, "So thus love influences him! Ara! My Dragon Painter! Other methods may be tried. Such words and looks before me, me,—Kano Indara! And Ume's eyes set upon him as in blinding worship. Could I have seen aright? He caught my child up like a common street wench, a thing of sale and barter. And she,—she did not scorn, but trembled and clung to him. Is the whole world on its head? I will teach them, I will teach them."
"Have my young mistress and her august spouse already taken leave?" asked Mata at a crack of the door.
"Either they or some demon changelings," answered the old man, rocking to and fro upon the mats.
The old servant had, of course, heard everything. Feigning now, for her own purposes, a soothing air of ignorance, she glided into the room, lifted the tiny tea-pot, shook it from side to side, and then cocked her bright eyes upon her master. "The tea-pot. It is honorably empty. Shall I fill it?"
"Yes, yes; replenish it at once. I need hot tea. Shameless, incredible; he has, indeed, the manners of a wild boar."
"Ma-a-a!" exclaimed the old woman. "Now of whom can my master be speaking?"
"You know very well of whom I am speaking, goblin! Do you not always listen at the shoji? Go, fill the pot!"
Mata glided from the room with the quickness of light and in an instant had returned. Replacing the smoking vessel and maintaining a face of decorous interest, she asked, hypocritically, "And was my poor Miss Ume mortified?"
"Mortified?" echoed the artist with an angry laugh; "she admired him! She clung to him as a creature tamed by enchantment. My daughter! Never did I expect to look upon so gross a sight! Why, Mata——"
"Yes, dear master," purred the old dame encouragingly as she seated herself on the floor near the tea-pot. "One moment, while I brew you a cup of fresh, sweet tea. It is good to quiet the honorable nerves. I can scarcely believe what you tell me of our Ume-ko, so modest a young lady, so well brought up!"
"I tell you what these old eyes saw," repeated Kano. Once more he described the harrowing sight, adding more details. Mata, well used to his outbursts of anger, though indeed she had seldom seen him in his present condition of indignant excitement, drew him on by degrees. She well knew that an anger put into lucid words soon begins to cool. Some of her remarks were in the nature of small, kindly goads.
"Remember, master, the poor creatures are married but a week to-day."
"Had I dreamed of such low conduct, they should never have been married at all!"
"Of course he is n't worthy of her," sighed the other, one eye on Kano's face.
"Nonsense! He is more than worthy of any woman upon earth if he could but learn to conduct himself like a human being."
"That would take a long schooling."
"He is the greatest artist since Sesshu!" cried the old man, vehemently.
Mata bowed over to the tea-pot. "You recognize artists, master; I recognize fools."
"Do you call my son a fool?"
"If that wild man is still to be considered your son, then have I called your son a fool," answered Mata, imperturbably.
The new flush left the old man's face as quickly as it had come. "Mata, Mata," he groaned, too spent now for further vehemence, "you are an old cat,—an old she-cat. You cannot dream what it is to be an artist! What one will endure for art; what one will sacrifice, and joy in the giving! Why, woman, if with one's shed blood, with the barter of one's soul, a single supreme vision could be realized, no true artist would hesitate. Yes, if even wife, child, and kindred were to be joined in a common destruction for art's sake, the artist must not hesitate. At the thought of one's parents, the ancestors of one's house, it might be admissible to pause, but at nothing else, nothing else, whatever! Life is a mere bubble on the stream of art, fame is a bubble—riches, happiness, Death itself! Would that I could tear these old limbs into a bleeding frenzy as I paint, if by doing so one little line may swerve the nearer to perfection! Often have I thought of this and prayed for the opportunity, but such madness does not benefit. Only the torn anguish of a soul may sometimes help. And with old souls, like old trees, they do not bleed, but are snapped to earth, and lie there rotting. He, Tatsu, the son of my adoption, could with one strong sweep of his arm make the gods stare, and he spends his hours fondling the perishable object of a woman, while I, who would give all, all,—give my own child that he loves,—I remain impotent! Alas! So topsy-turvy a world are we born in!"
He bowed his head in a misery so abject that Mata forbore to jibe. She tried to speak again, to comfort him, but he motioned her away, and sat, scarcely moving in his place, until the night brought Tatsu and his young wife home again.
Thus under, as it were, a double ban of displeasure, did the new generation of Kano, Tatsu and Ume-ko, begin life in the little cottage beneath the hill. They were given Ume's chamber near which the plum tree grew, an adjoining room having been previously fitted up for Tatsu's painting. As in the other cottage, inviting rectangles of silk, already stretched and sized, stood in blank rows against the walls. Even the fusuma were of new paper, offering, it would seem, to any inspired young artist, a surface of alluring possibilities. Paints, brushes, and vessels without number made an array to tempt, if only the tempting were not so obvious.
Ume-ko, watching closely the expression of her husband's face as he was first led into this room, drew old Kano aside, and urged that more tact and delicacy be used in leading Tatsu back to a desire for creative work. She herself, she hinted with deprecating sweetness, might do much if only allowed to follow her own loving instincts. But Kano had lost confidence in his daughter and bluntly told her so. Tatsu had been adopted and married in order to make him paint, and paint he should! Also it was Ume-ko's duty to influence him in whatever way and method her father thought best. Let her succeed,—that was her sole responsibility. So blustered Kano to himself and Mata, and not even the malicious twinkle of the old servant's eye pointed the way to wisdom.
Naturally Ume-ko did not succeed. Tatsu merely laughed at her flagrant efforts at duplicity. He felt no need of painting, no desire to paint. He had won the Dragon Maiden. Life could give him no more! There was no anger or resentment in his feeling toward Kano, or even the old scourge Mata. No, he was too happy! To lie dreaming on the fragrant, matted floor near Ume, where he could listen to her soft breathing and at times pull her closer by a silken sleeve,—this was enough for Tatsu. Nothing had power to arouse in him a sense of duty, of obligation to himself, or to his adopted father. He would not argue about it, and could scarcely be said to listen. He lived and moved and breathed in love as in a fourth dimension. To the old man's frequent remonstrances he would turn a gentle, deprecating face. He had promised Ume-ko never again to speak rudely to their father. Besides, why should he? The outer world was all so beautiful and sad and unimportant. A sunset cloud, or a bird swinging from a hagi spray could bring sharp, swift tears to his eyes. Beauty could move him, but not old Kano's genuine sufferings. Yet, the old man, bleating from the arid rocks of age, was doubtless a pathetic spectacle, and must be listened to kindly.
Finding the boy thus obdurate, Kano turned the full force of his discontent on Ume-ko. She endured in silence the incessant railing. Each new device urged by the distracted Kano she carried out with scrupulous care, though even with the performance of it she knew hopelessness to be involved. For hours she remained away from home, hidden in a neighbor's house or in the temple on the hill, it being Kano's thought that perhaps, in this temporary loss of his idol, Tatsu might seek solace in the paint room. But Tatsu, raging against the conditions which made such tyranny possible, stormed, on such occasions, through the little house, and up and down the garden, pelting the terrified gold-fish in their caves, stripping leaves and tips from Kano's favorite pine-shrubs, or standing, long intervals of time, on the crest of the moon-viewing hillock, from which he could command vistas of the street below.
"There 's your jewel of a painter," old Mata, indoors, would say. "Look at him, master,—a noble figure, indeed, standing on one leg like a love-sick stork!" And Kano, helpless before his own misery and the old dame's acrid triumph, would keep silence, only muttering invocations to the gods for self-control.
Often the young wife pretended a sudden desire for her own artistic work. She would go hurriedly to the little painting chamber, gather complex paraphernalia, and assume the pose of eager effort. Tatsu always followed her but, once within the room, bent such laughing eyes of comprehension that she dared not look into his face. Nevertheless she would paint; tracing, mechanically, the bird and flower studies in which she had once taken delight. Just in the midst of some specially delicate stroke, Tatsu would snatch her hands away, press them against his lips, his eyes, his throat, hurl the painting things to the four corners of the room, drag her down to his strong embrace, and triumph openly in the victory of love. The young wife, longing from the first to yield, attempted always to repel him, protesting in the words her father had bade her use, and urging him to rouse himself and paint, as she was doing. Then the young god would laugh magnificent music, drowning the last pathetic echo of old Kano's remembered voice. Catching her anew he would crush her against his breast, fondling her with that tempestuous gentleness that surely no mere man of earth could know, would drag up her faint soul to him through eyes and lips until she felt herself but a shred of ecstacy caught in a whirlwind of immortal love.
"So that we be together, Even the Hell of the Blood Lake, Even the Mountain of Swords, Mean nothing to us at all!"
He would sing, in the words of an old Buddhist folk-song. At such supreme heights of emotion she knew, consciously, that Kano's grief and disappointment were nothing. She did not really care whether Tatsu ever touched a brush again,—whether, indeed, the whole visible world fretted itself into dust. She and Tatsu had found each other! The rest meant nothing at all!
Such moments were, however, the isolated and the exceptional. As the days went by they became less frequent, and, by a strange law of contrasts, with diminution exacted a heavier toll. The strain of antagonisms within the little home became almost unbearable. Neither Kano nor Tatsu would yield an inch, and between them, like a white flower between stones, little Ume-ko was crushed. A new and threatening trouble was that of poverty. Tatsu would not paint; Kano, in his wretchedness could not.
The young wife went often now to the temple on the hill. Tatsu generally went with her, remaining outside in the courtyard or at the edge of the cliff, under the camphor tree, while she was praying within. Her entreaties were all for divine guidance. She implored of the gods a deeper insight into the cause of this strange trouble now upon them, and besought, too, that in her husband, Tatsu, should be awakened a recognition of his duties, and of the household needs. Kano visited the temple, also, and spent long hours in conference with his personal friend, the abbot. Even old Mata, abandoning for the moment her Protestantism and reverting to the yearning (never entirely stifled) for mystic practises, went to an old charlatan of a fortune-teller, and purchased various charms and powders for driving the demons from the unconscious Tatsu. Ume-ko soon discovered this, and the fear that Tatsu would be poisoned added to a load of anxiety already formidable.
By the end of October, Yeddo's most golden and most perfect month, no hours brought happiness to the little bride but those stolen ones in which she and her husband were wont to take long walks together, sometimes into the country, again through the mazes of the great capital. Even at these times of respite she was only too well aware how Kano and the old nurse sat together at home, lamenting the gross selfishness of the young,—deciding, perhaps, upon the next loved painting or household treasure to be sold for buying rice. Tatsu, now as unreasonable and obstinate as Kano himself, still refused to admit unhappiness or threatened destitution. He and Ume-ko could go to the mountains, he said. "The mountains were, after all, their true home. Once there the Sennin and the deities of cloud would see that they did not suffer."
On an afternoon very near the end of the month the young couple took such a walk together. Their course lay eastward, crossing at right angles the main streets of the great city, until they reached the shores of the Sumida River, winding down like a road of glass. They had emerged into the famous district of Asakusa, where the great temple of Kwannon the Merciful attracts daily its thousands of worshippers. Here the water course is bounded by fashionable tea-houses, many stories high, and here the great arched bridges are always crowded. Leaving this busy heart of things, they sauntered northward, finding lonelier shores, and soon wide fields of green, until they reached a bank whereon grew a single leaning willow. The body of this tree, bending outward, sent its long, nerveless leaves in a perpetual green rain to the surface of the stream, where sudden swarms of minnows, like shivers in a glass, assailed the deceptive bait. The roots of the tree—great yellowish, twisted ropes of roots—clutched air, earth, and water in their convolutions. Among them the current, swifter here than in mid-stream, uttered at times a guttural, uncanny sound as of spectral laughter.
Ume-ko stood, one slender arm about the trunk, looking out, with mournful eyes, upon the passing river show. On the farther bank grew a continuous wall of cherry trees in yellowing leaf, and above them glowed the first hint of the coming sunset. Rising against the sky a temple roof, tilted like the keel of a sunken vessel, cut sharp lines into the crimson light.
Tatsu flung himself full length upon the bank. He patted the soil with its springing grasses, and felt his heart flow out in love to it. Then he reached up, caught at the drifting gauze of Ume's sleeve, and made as if to pull her down. Ume clasped the tree more tightly.
"Tatsu," she said, "I implore you not to think always of me. Look, beloved, the thin white sails of the rice-boats pass, and, over yonder, children in scarlet petticoats dance beneath the trees."
"I have eyes but for my wife," said wilful Tatsu.
Ume-ko drew the sleeve away. She would not meet his smile. "Alas, shall I forever obscure beauty!"
"There is no beauty now but in you! You are the sacred mirror which reflects for me all loveliness."
"Dear lord, those words are almost blasphemy," said Ume, in a frightened whisper. "Look, now, beloved, the light of the sun sinks down. Soon the great moon will come to us."
"What care I for a distant moon, oh, Dragon Maid," laughed Tatsu.
Ume's outstretched arm fell heavily to her side. "Alas!" she said again. "From deepest happiness may come the deepest pain. You dream not of the hurt you give."
"I give no hurt at all that I cannot more than heal," cried Tatsu, in his masterful way. But Ume's lips still quivered, and she turned her face from him.
In the silence that followed, the water among the willow roots gave out a rush and gurgle, a sound of liquid merriment,—perhaps the laugh of a "Kappa" or river sprite, mocking the perplexities of men. Ume-ko leaned over instantly, staring down into the stream.
"How deep it is, and strong," she whispered, as if to her own thought "That which fell in here would be carried very swiftly out to sea."
Tatsu smiled dreamily upon her. In his delight at her beauty, the delicate poise of body with its long, gray drifting sleeves, he did not realize the meaning of her words. One little foot in its lacquered shoe and rose-velvet thong, crushed the grasses at the very edge of the bank. Suddenly the earth beneath her shivered. It parted in a long black fissure, and then sank, with sob and splash, into the hurrying water. Ume tottered and clung to the tree. Tatsu, springing up at a single bound, caught her back into safety. The very branches above them shook as if in sentient fear. Ume felt herself pressed,—welded against her husband's side in such an agony of strength that his beating heart seemed to be in her own body. She heard the breath rasp upward in his throat and catch there, inarticulate. He began dragging her backward, foot by foot. At a safe distance he suddenly sank—rather fell—to earth bearing her with him, and began moaning over her, caressing and fondling her as a tiger might a rescued cub.
"Never go near that stream again!" he said hoarsely, as soon as he could speak at all. "Hear me, Ume-ko, it is my command! Never again approach that tree. It is a goblin tree. Some dead, unhappy woman, drowned here in the self-death, must inhabit it and would entice you to destruction. Oh, Ume, my wife,—my wife! I saw the black earth grinning beneath your feet. I cannot bear it! Come away from this place at once,—at once! The river itself may reach out snares to us."
"Yes, lord, I will come," she panted, trying to loosen the rigid arms, "but I am faint. This high bank is safe, now. And, lord, when you so embrace and crush me my strength does not return."
Tatsu grudgingly relaxed his hold. "Rest here then, close beside me," he said. "I shall not trust you, even an inch from me."
The river current in the tree roots laughed aloud.
Across and beyond the road of glass, the sky grew cold now and blue, like the side of a dead fish. A glow subtle and unmistakable as perfume tingled up through the dusk.
"The Lady Moon," whispered Ume, softly. Freeing her little hands she joined them, bent her head, and gave the prayer of welcome to O Tsuki Sama.
Tatsu watched her gloomily. "I pray to no moon," he said. "I pray to nothing in this place."
A huge coal barge on its way to the Yokohama harbor glided close to them along the dark surface of the tide. At the far end of the barge a fire was burning, and above it, from a round black cauldron, boiling rice sent up puffs of white, fragrant steam. The red light fell upon a ring of faces, evidently a mother and her children; and on the broad, naked back of the father who leaned far outward on his guiding pole. Ume turned her eyes away. "I think I can walk now," she said.
Tatsu rose instantly, and drew her upward by the hands. A shudder of remembered horror caught him. He pressed her once more tightly to his heart. "Ume-ko, Ume-ko, my wife,—my Dragon Wife!" he cried aloud in a voice of love and anguish. "I have sought you through the torments of a thousand lives. Shall anything have power to separate us now?"
"Nothing can part us now, but—death," said Ume-ko, and glanced, for an instant, backward to the river.
Tatsu winced. "Use not the word! It attracts evil."
"It is a word that all must some day use," persisted the young wife, gently. "Tell me, beloved, if death indeed should come—?"
"It would be for both. It could not be for one alone."
"No, no!" she cried aloud, lifting her white face as if in appeal to heaven. "Do not say that, lord! Do not think it! If I, the lesser one, should be chosen of death, surely you would live for our father,—for the sake of art!"
"I would kill myself just as quickly as I could!" said Tatsu, doggedly. "What comfort would painting be? I painted because I had you not."
"Because—you—had—me—not," mused little Ume-ko, her eyes fixed strangely upon the river.
"Come," said Tatsu, rudely, "did I not forbid you to speak of death? Too much has been said. Besides, the fate of ordinary mortals should have no potency for such as we. When our time comes for pause before rebirth we shall climb together some high mountain peak, lifting our arms and voices to our true parents, the gods of storm and wind. They will lean to us, beloved,—they will rush downward in a great passion of joy, catching us and straining us to immortality!"
By this they were from sight and hearing of the river, and had begun to thread the maze of narrow city streets in which now lamps and tiny electric bulbs and the bobbing lanterns of hurrying jinrikisha men had begun to twinkle. In the darker alleys the couple walked side by side. Ume, at times, even rested a small hand on her husband's sleeve. In the broad, well-lighted thoroughfares he strode on some paces in advance while Ume followed, in decorous humility, as a good wife should. Few words passed between them. The incident at the willow tree had left a gloomy aftermath of thought.
In the Kano home the simple night meal of rice, tea, soup, and pickled vegetables was already prepared. Mata motioned them to their places in the main room where old Kano was already seated, and served them in the gloomy silence which was part of the general strain. Throughout the whole place reproach hung like a miasma.
This evening, almost for the first time, Tatsu reflected, in full measure, the despondency of his companions. The elder man, glancing now and again toward him, evidently restrained with difficulty a flow of bitter words. Once he spoke to his daughter, fixing sunken eyes upon her. "The crimson lacquered wedding-chest that was your mother's, to-day has been sold to buy us food." Ume clenched her little hands together, then bowed far over, in token that she had heard. There were no words to say. For weeks now they had lived upon such money as this,—namida-kane,—"tear-money" the Japanese call it.
Tatsu, helpless in his place, scowled and muttered for a moment, then rose and hurried out, leaving the meal unfinished. Ume watched him sadly, but did not follow. This was so unusual a thing that Tatsu, alone in their chamber, was at first astonished, then alarmed. For ten minutes or more he paced up and down the narrow space, pride urging him to await his wife's dutiful appearance. In a short while more he felt the tension to be unbearable. A sinister silence flooded the house. He hurried back to the main room to find that Ume and old Kano were not there. He began searching the house, all but the kitchen. Instinctively he avoided old Mata's domain, knowing it to be the lair of an enemy. At last necessity drove him to it also. Her face leered at him through a parted shoji. He gave a bound in her direction. Instantly she had slammed the panels together; and before he could reopen them had armed herself with a huge, glittering fish-knife. "None of your mountain wild-cat ways for me!" she screamed.
In spite of wretchedness and alarm the boy laughed aloud. "I wish not to hurt you, old fool," he said. "I desire nothing but to know where my wife is."
"With her father," snapped the other.
"Yes, but where,—where? And why did she go without telling me? Where did he take her? Answer quickly. I must follow them."
"I have no answers for you," said Mata. "And even if I had you would not get them. Go, go, out of my sight, you Bearer of Discord!" she railed, feeling that at last an opportunity for plain speaking had arrived. "This was a happy house until your evil presence sought it. Don't glare at me, and take postures. I care neither for your tall figure nor your flashing eyes. You may bewitch the others, but not old Mata! Oh, Dragon Painter! Oh, Dragon Painter! The greatest since Sesshu!" she mimicked, "show me a few of the wonderful things you were to paint us when once you were Kano's son! Bah! you were given my nursling, as a wolf is given a young fawn,—that was all you wanted. You will never paint!"
"Tell me where she is or I'll—" began the boy, raving.
"No you won't," jeered Mata, now in a transport of fury. "Back, back, out of my kitchen and my presence or this knife will plunge its way into you as into a devil-fish. Oh, it would be a sight! I have no love for you!"
"I care not for your love, old Baba, old fiend, nor for your knife. Where did my Ume go? You grin like an old she-ape! Never, upon my mountains did I see so vicious a beast."
"Then go back to your mountains! You are useless here. You will not even paint. Go where you belong!"
"The mountains,—the mountains!" sobbed the boy, under his breath. "Yes, I must go to them or my soul will go without me! Perhaps the kindlier spirits of the air will tell me where she is!" With a last distracted gesture he fled from the house and out into the street. Mata listened with satisfaction as she heard him racing up the slope toward the hillside. "I wish it were indeed a Kiu Shiu peak he climbed, instead of a decent Yeddo cliff," she muttered to herself, as she tied on her apron and began to wash the supper dishes. "But, alas, he will be back all too soon, perhaps before my master and Miss Ume come down from the temple."
In this surmise the old dame was, for once, at fault. Tatsu did not return until full daylight of the next morning. He had been wandering, evidently, all night long among the chill and dew-wet branches of the mountain shrubs. His silken robe was torn and stained as had been the blue cotton dress, that first day of his coming. At sight of his sunken eyes and haggard look Ume-ko's heart cried out to him, and it was with difficulty that she restrained her tears. But she still had a last appeal to make, and this was to be the hour.
In response to his angry questions, she would answer nothing but that she and her father had business at the temple. More than this, she would not say. As he persisted, pleading for her motives in so leaving him, and heaping her with the reproaches of tortured love, she suddenly threw herself on the mat before him, in a passion of grief such as he had not believed possible to her. She clasped his knees, his feet, and besought him, with all the strength and pathos of her soul, to make at least one more attempt to paint. He, now in equal torment, with tears running along his bronzed face, confessed to her that the power seemed to have gone from him. Some demon, he said, must have stolen it from him while he slept, for now the very touch of a brush, the look of paint, frenzied him.
Ume-ko went again to her father, saying that she again had failed. The strain was now, indeed, past all human endurance. The little home became a charged battery of tragic possibilities. Each moment was a separate menace, and the hours heaped up a structure already tottering.
At dawn of the next day, Tatsu, who after a restless and unhappy night had fallen into heavy slumber, awoke, with a start, alone. A pink light glowed upon his paper shoji; the plum tree, now entirely leafless, threw a splendid shadow-silhouette. At the eaves, sparrows chattered merrily. It was to be a fair day: yet instantly, even before he had sprung, cruelly awake, to his knees, he knew that the dreaded Something was upon him.
On the silken head-rest of Ume's pillow was fastened a long, slender envelope, such as Japanese women use for letters. Tatsu recoiled from it as from a venomous reptile. Throwing himself face down upon the floor he groaned aloud, praying his mountain gods to sweep away from his soul the black mist of despair that now crawled, cold, toward it. Why should Ume-ko have left him again, and at such an hour? Why should she have pinned to her pillow a slip of written paper? He would not read it! Yes, yes,—he must,—he must read instantly. Perhaps the Something was still to be prevented! He caught the letter up, held it as best he could in quivering hands, and read:
Because of my unworthiness, O master, my heart's beloved, I have been allowed to come between you and the work you were given of the gods to do. The fault is all mine, and must come from my evil deeds in a previous life. By sacrifice of joy and life I now attempt to expiate it. I go to the leaning willow where the water speaks. One thing only I shall ask of you,—that you admit to your mind no thought of self-destruction, for this would heavily burden my poor soul, far off in the Meido-land. Oh, live, my beloved, that I, in spirit, may still be near you. I will come. You shall know that I am near,—only, as the petals of the plum tree fall in the wind of spring, so must my earthly joy depart from me. Farewell, O thou who art loved as no mortal was ever loved before thee.
Your erring wife, Ume-ko.
* * * * * *
In his fantastic night-robe with its design of a huge fish, ungirdled and wild of eyes, Tatsu rushed through the drowsy streets of Yeddo. The few pedestrians, catching sight of him, withdrew, with cries of fear, into gateways and alleys.
At the leaning willow he paused, threw an arm about it, and swayed far over like a drunkard, his eyes blinking down upon the stream. Ume-ko's words, at the time of their utterance scarcely noted, came now as an echo, hideously clear. "That which fell here would be carried very swiftly out to sea." His nails broke against the bark. She,—his wife,—must have been thinking of it even then, while he,—he,—blind brute and dotard—sprawled upon the earth feeding his eyes of flesh upon the sight of her. But, after all, could she have really done it? Surely the gods, by miracle, must have checked so disproportionate a sacrifice! Suddenly his wandering gaze was caught and held by a little shoe among the willow roots. It was of black lacquer, with a thong of rose-colored velvet. With one cry, that seemed to tear asunder the physical walls of his body, he loosed his arm and fell.
His body was found some moments later by old Kano and a bridge keeper. It was caught among the pilings of a boat-landing several hundred feet farther down the tide. A thin, sluggish stream of blood followed it like a clue, and, when he was dragged up upon the bank, gushed out terribly from a wound near his temple. He had seized, in falling, Ume-ko's lacquered geta, and his fingers could not be unclasped. In spite of the early hour (across the river the sun still peered through folds of shimmering mist) quite a crowd of people gathered.
"It is the newly adopted son of Kano Indara," they whispered, one to another. "He is but a few weeks married to Kano's daughter, and is called 'The Dragon Painter.'"
The efficient river-police summoned an ambulance, and had him taken to the nearest hospital. Here, during an entire day, every art was employed to restore him to consciousness, but without success. Life, indeed, remained. The flow of blood was stopped, and the wound bandaged, but no sign of intelligence awoke.
"It is to be an illness of many weeks, and of great peril," answered the chief physician that night to Kano's whispered question. The old man turned sorrowfully away and crept home, wondering whether now, at this extremity, the gods would utterly desert him.
Mata, prostrated at first by the loss of her nursling, soon rallied her practical old wits. She went, in secret, to the hospital, demanded audience of the house physician, and gave to him all details of the strange situation which had culminated in Ume's desperate act of self-renunciation, and induced Tatsu's subsequent madness. She did not ask for a glimpse of the sick man. Indeed she made no pretence of kindly feeling toward him, for, in conclusion, she said, "Now, August Sir, if, with your great skill in such matters, you succeed in giving back to this young wild man the small amount of intelligence he was born with, I caution you, above all things, keep from his reach such implements of self-destruction as ropes, knives, and poisons. Oh, he is an untamed beast, Doctor San. His love for my poor young mistress was that of a lion and a demon in one. He will certainly slay himself when he has the strength. Not that I care! His death would bring relief to me, for in our little home he is like the spirit of storm caged in a flower. Would I had never seen him, or felt the influence of his evil karma! But my poor old master still dotes on him, and, with Miss Ume vanished, if this Dragon Painter, too, should die at once, Kano could not endure the double blow!" The old woman began to sob in her upraised sleeve, apologizing through her tears for the discourtesy. The physician comforted her with kind words, and thanked her very sincerely for the visit. Her disclosures did, indeed, throw light upon a difficult situation.
From the hospital the old servant made her way to Uchida's hotel, to learn that he had gone the day before to Kiu Shiu. With this tower of strength removed Mata felt, more than ever, that Kano's sole friend was herself. The loss of Ume was still to her a horror and a shock. The eating loneliness of long, empty days at home had not yet begun; but Mata was to know them, also.
Kano, during the first precarious days of his son's illness, practically deserted the cottage, and lived, day and night, in the hospital. His pathetic old figure became habitual to the halls and gardens near his son. The physicians and nurses treated him with delicate kindness, forcing food and drink upon him, and urging him to rest himself in one of the untenanted rooms. They believed the deepening lines of grief to be traced by the loss of an only daughter, rather than by this illness of a newly adopted son. In truth the old man seldom thought of Ume-ko. He was watching the life that flickered in Tatsu's prostrate body as a lost, starving traveller watches a lantern approaching over the moor. "The gods preserve him,—the gods grant his life to the Kano name, to art, and the glory of Nippon," so prayed the old man's shrivelled lips a hundred times each day.
After a stupor of a week, fever laid hold of Tatsu, bringing delirium, delusion, and mad raving. At times he believed himself already dead, and in the heavenly isle of Ho-rai with Ume. His gestures, his whispered words of tenderness, brought tears to the eyes of those who listened. Again he lived through that terrible dawn when first he had read her letter of farewell. Each word was bitten with acid into his mind. Again and again he repeated the phrases, now dully, as a wearied beast goes round a treadmill, now with weeping, and in convulsions of a grief so fierce that the merciful opiate alone could still it.
The fever slowly began to ebb. For him the shores of conscious thought lay scorched and blackened by memory. More unwillingly than he had been dragged up from the river's cold embrace was he now held back from death. His first lucid words were a petition. "Do not keep me alive. In the name of Kwannon the Merciful, to whom my Ume used to pray, do not bind me again upon the wheel of life!" Although he fought against it with all the will power left to him, strength brightened in his veins. Stung into new anguish he prayed more fervently, "Let me pass now! I cannot bear more pain. I 'll die in spite of you. Oh, icy men of science, you but give me the means with which to slay myself! I warn you, at the first chance I shall escape you all!"
"Mad youth, it is my duty to give you back your life even though you are to use it as a coward," said the chief physician.
Once when his suffering had passed beyond the power of all earthly alleviation, and it seemed as if each moment would fling the shuddering victim into the dark land of perpetual madness, Kano urged that the venerable abbot from the Shingon temple on the hill be summoned. He came in full regalia of office,—splendid in crimson and gold. With him were two acolytes, young and slender figures, also in brocade, but with hoods of a sort of golden gauze drawn forward so as to conceal the faces within. They bore incense burners, sets of the mystic vagra, and other implements of esoteric ceremony. The high priest carried only his tall staff of polished wood, tipped with brass, and surmounted by a glittering, symbolic design, the "Wheel of the Law," the hub of which is a lotos flower.
Tatsu, at sight of them, tossed angrily on his bed, railing aloud, in his thin, querulous voice, and scoffing at any power of theirs to comfort, until, in spite of himself, a strange calm seemed to move about him and encircle him. He listened to the chanted words, and the splendid invocations, spoken in a tongue older than the very gods of his own land, wondering, the while, at his own acquiescence. Surely there was a sweet presence in the room that held him as a smile of love might hold. He was sorry when the ceremony came to an end. The abbot, whispering to the others, sent all from the room but himself, Tatsu, and the smaller of the acolytes, who still knelt motionless at the head of the sick man's couch, holding upward an incense burner in the shape of a lotos seed-pod. The blue incense smoke breathed upward, sank again as if heavy with its own delight, encircling, almost as if with conscious intention, the kneeling figure, and then moved outward to Tatsu and the enclosing walls.