The Book Lover

The Usurper by Judit Gautier

The Usurper by Judit Gautier.jpg

CHAPTER I.

THE LEMON GROVE.


Night was nearly gone. All slept in the beautiful bright city of Osaka. The harsh cry of the sentinels, calling one to another on the ramparts, broke the silence, unruffled otherwise save for the distant murmur of the sea as it swept into the bay.

Above the great dark mass formed by the palace and gardens of the Shogun[1] a star was fading slowly. Dawn trembled in the air, and the tree-tops were more plainly outlined against the sky, which grew bluer every moment. Soon a pale glimmer touched the highest branches, slipped between the boughs and their leaves, and filtered downward to the ground. Then, in the gardens of the Prince, alleys thick with brambles displayed their dim perspective; the grass resumed its emerald hue; a tuft of poppies renewed the splendor of its sumptuous flowers, and a snowy flight of steps was faintly visible through the mist, down a distant avenue.

At last, suddenly, the sky grew purple; arrows of light athwart the bushes made every drop of water on the leaves sparkle. A pheasant alighted heavily; a crane shook her white wings, and with a long cry flew slowly upwards; while the earth smoked like a caldron, and the birds loudly hailed the rising sun.

As soon as the divine luminary rose from the horizon, the sound of a gong was heard. It was struck with a monotonous rhythm of overpowering melancholy,—four heavy strokes, four light strokes; four heavy strokes, and so on. It was the salute to the coming day, and the call to morning prayers.

A hearty youthful peal of laughter, which broke forth suddenly, drowned these pious sounds for an instant; and two men appeared, dark against the clear sky, at the top of the snowy staircase. They paused a moment, on the uppermost step, to admire the lovely mass of brambles, ferns, and flowering shrubs which wreathed the balustrade of the staircase. Then they descended slowly through the fantastic shadows cast across the steps by the branches. Reaching the foot of the stairs, they moved quickly aside, that they might not upset a tortoise creeping leisurely along the last step. This tortoise’s shell had been gilded, but the gilding was somewhat tarnished by the dampness of the grass. The two men moved down the avenue.

The younger of the pair was scarcely twenty years old, but would have passed for more, from the proud expression of his face, and the easy confidence of his glance. Still, when he laughed, he seemed a child; but he laughed seldom, and a sort of haughty gloom darkened his noble brow. His costume was very simple. Over a robe of gray crape he wore a mantle of blue satin, without any embroidery. He carried an open fan in his hand.

His comrade’s dress was, on the contrary, very elegant. His robe was made of a soft white silk, just tinged with blue, suggestive of reflected moonlight. It fell in fine folds to his feet, and was confined at the waist by a girdle of black velvet. The wearer was twenty-four years old; he was a specimen of perfect beauty. The warm pallor of his face, his mockingly sweet eyes, and, above all, the scornful indifference apparent in his whole person, exercised a strange charm. His hand rested on the richly wrought hilt of one of the two swords whose points lifted up the folds of his black velvet cloak, the loose hanging sleeves of which were thrown back over his shoulders.

The two friends were bare-headed; their hair, twisted like a rope, was knotted around the top of their heads.

“But where are you taking me, gracious master?” suddenly cried the older of the two young men.

“This is the third time you have asked that question since we left the palace, Iwakura.”

“But you have not answered once, light of my eyes!”

“Well! I want to surprise you. Shut your eyes and give me your hand.”

Iwakura obeyed, and his companion led him a few steps across the grass.

“Now look,” he said.

Iwakura opened his eyes, and uttered a low cry of astonishment.

Before him stretched a lemon grove in full bloom. Every tree and every shrub seemed covered with hoar-frost; on the topmost twigs the dawn cast tints of rose and gold. Every branch bent beneath its perfumed load; the clusters of flowers hung to the ground, upon which the overburdened boughs trailed. Amid this white wealth which gave forth a delicious odor, a few tender green leaves were occasionally visible.

“See,” said the younger man with a smile, “I wanted to share with you, my favorite friend, the pleasure of this marvellous sight before any other eye rested on it. I was here yesterday: the grove was like a thicket of pearls; to-day all the flowers are open.”

“These trees remind me of what the poet says of peach-blossoms,” said Iwakura; “only here the snow-flakes of butterflies’ wings with which the trees are covered have not turned rose-colored in their descent from heaven.”

“Ah!” cried the younger man sighing, “would I might plunge into the midst of those flowers as into a bath, and intoxicate myself even unto death with their strong perfume!”

Iwakura, having admired them, made a slightly disappointed grimace.

“Far more beautiful blossoms were about to open in my dream,” said he, stifling a yawn. “Master, why did you make me get up so early?”

“Come, Prince of Nagato,” said the young man, laying his hand on his comrade’s shoulder, “confess. I did not make you get up, for you did not go to bed last night.”

“What?” cried Iwakura; “what makes you think so!”

“Your pallor, friend, and your haggard eyes.”

“Am I not always so?”

“The dress you wear would be far too elegant for the hour of the cock.[2] And see! the sun has scarcely risen; we have only reached the hour of the rabbit.”[3]

“To honor such a master as you, no hour is too early.”

“Is it also in my honor, faithless subject, that you appear before me armed? Those two swords, forgotten in your sash, condemn you; you had just returned to the palace when I summoned you.”

The guilty youth hung his head, not attempting to defend himself.

“But what ails your arm?” suddenly cried the other, noticing a thin white bandage wound about Iwakura’s sleeve.

The latter hid his arm behind him, and held out the other hand.

“Nothing,” he said.

But his companion grasped the arm which he concealed. The Prince of Nagato uttered an exclamation of pain.

“You are wounded, eh? One of these days I shall hear that Nagato has been killed in some foolish brawl. What have you been doing now, incorrigible and imprudent fellow?”

“When Hieyas, the regent, comes before you, you will know only too much about it,” said the Prince; “you will hear fine things, O illustrious friend, in regard to your unworthy favorite. Methinks I already hear the sound of the terrible voice of the man from whom nothing is hid: ‘Fide-Yori, ruler of Japan, son of the great Taiko-Sama, whose memory I revere! grave disorders have this night troubled Osaka.'”

The Prince of Nagato mimicked the voice of Hieyas so well that the young Shogun could not repress a smile.

‘And what are these disorders?’ you will say. ‘Doors broken open, blows, tumults, scandals.’ ‘Are the authors of these misdeeds known?’ ‘The leader of the riot is the true criminal, and I know him well.’ ‘Who is he?’ ‘Who should it be but the man who takes a share in every adventure, every nocturnal brawl; who, but the Prince of Nagato, the terror of honest families, the dread of peaceful men?’ And then you will pardon me, O too merciful man! Hieyas will reproach you with your weakness, dwelling upon it, that this weakness may redound to the injury of the Shogun and the profit of the Regent.”

“What if I lose patience at last, Nagato,” said the Shogun; “what if I exile you to your own province for a year?”

“I should go, master, without a murmur.”

“Yes; and who would be left to love me?” said Fide-Yori, sadly. “I am surrounded by devotion, not by affection like yours. But perhaps I am unjust,” he added; “you are the only one I love, and doubtless that is why I think no one loves me but you.”

Nagato raised his eyes gratefully to the Prince.

“You feel that you are forgiven, don’t you?” said Fide-Yori, smiling. “But try to spare me the Regent’s reproaches; you know how painful they are to me. Go and salute him; the hour of his levee is at hand; we will meet again in the council.”

“Must I smile upon that ugly creature?” grumbled Nagato.

But he had his dismissal; he saluted the Shogun, and moved away with a sulky air.

Fide-Yori continued his walk along the avenue, but soon returned to the lemon grove. He paused to admire it once more, and plucked a slender twig loaded with flowers. But just then the foliage rustled as if blown by a strong breeze; an abrupt movement stirred the branches, and a young girl appeared among the blossoms.

The Shogun started violently, and almost uttered a cry; he fancied himself the prey to some hallucination.

“Who are you?” he exclaimed; “perhaps the guardian spirit of this grove?”

“Oh, no,” said the girl in a trembling voice; “but I am a very bold woman.”

She issued from the grove amidst a shower of snowy petals, and knelt on the grass, stretching out her hands to the King.

Fide-Yori bent his head toward her, and gazed curiously at her. She was of exquisite beauty,—small, graceful, apparently weighed down by the amplitude of her robes. It seemed as if their silken weight bore her to her knees. Her large innocent eyes, like the eyes of a child, were timid and full of entreaty; her cheeks, velvety as a butterfly’s wings, were tinged with a slight blush, and her small mouth, half open in admiration, revealed teeth white as drops of milk.

“Forgive me,” she exclaimed, “forgive me for appearing before you without your express command.”

“I forgive you, poor trembling bird,” said Fide-Yori, “for had I known you and known your desire, my wish would have been to see you. What can I do for you? Is it in my power to make you happy?”

“Oh, master!” eagerly cried the girl, “with one word you can make me more radiant than Ten-Sio-Dai-Tsin, the daughter of the Sun.”

“And what is that word?”

“Swear that you will not go to-morrow to the feast of the God of the Sea.”

“Why this oath?” said the Shogun, amazed at this strange request.

“Because,” said the young girl, shuddering, “a bridge will give way beneath the King’s feet; and when night falls, Japan will be without a ruler.”

“I suppose you have discovered a conspiracy?” said Fide-Yori, smiling.

At this incredulous smile the girl turned pale, and her eyes filled with tears.

“O pure disk of light!” she cried, “he does not believe me! All that I have hitherto accomplished is in vain! This is a dreadful obstacle, of which I never dreamed. You hearken to the voice of the cricket which prophesies heat; you listen to the frog who croaks a promise of rain; but a young girl who cries, ‘Take care! I have seen the trap! death is on your path!’ you pay no heed to her, but plunge headlong into the snare. But it must not be; you must believe me. Shall I kill myself at your feet? My death might be a pledge of my sincerity. Besides, if I have been deceived, what matters it? You can easily absent yourself from the feast. Hear me! I come along way, from a distant province. Alone with the dull anguish of my secret, I outwitted the most subtle spies, I conquered my terrors and overcame my weakness. My father thinks me gone on a pilgrimage to Kioto; and, you see, I am in your city, in the grounds of your palace. And yet the sentinels are watchful, the moats are broad, the walls high. See, my hands are bleeding; I burn with fever. Just now I feared I could not speak, my weary heart throbbed so violently at sight of you and with the joy of saving you. But now I am dizzy, my blood has turned to ice: you do not believe me.”

“I believe you, and I swear to obey you,” said the king, touched by her accent of despair. “I will not go to the feast of the God of the Sea.”

The young girl uttered a cry of delight, and gazed with gratitude at the sun as it rose above the trees.

“But tell me how you discovered this plot,” continued the Shogun, “and who are its authors?”

“Oh! do not order me to tell you. The whole edifice of infamy that I overthrow would fall upon my own head.”

“So be it, my child; keep your secret. But at least tell me whence comes this great devotion, and why is my life so precious to you?”

The girl slowly raised her eyes to the King, then looked down and blushed, but did not reply. A vague emotion troubled the heart of the Prince. He was silent, and yielded to the sweet sensation. He would fain have remained thus, in silence, amidst these bird songs, these perfumes, beside this kneeling maiden.

“Tell me who you are, you who have saved me from death,” he asked at last; “and tell me what reward I can give you worthy of your courage.”

“My name is Omiti,” said the young girl; “I can tell you nothing more. Give me the flower that you hold in your hand; it is all I would have from you.”

Fide-Yori offered her the lemon twig; Omiti seized it, and fled through the grove.

The Shogun stood rooted to the spot for some time, lost in thought, gazing at the turf pressed by the light foot of Omiti.


[1]Lord of the kingdom. This is the same title as Tycoon, but the latter was not created till 1854.

[2]Six hours after noon.

[3]Six o’clock in the morning.

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