VIII. Across the Etchiu Delta.
The twilight lingered, and the road threaded its tortuous course for miles through the rice plain, bordered on either hand by the dykes of the paddyfields. Every few hundred feet, we passed a farmhouse screened by clipped hedgerows and bosomed in trees; and at longer intervals we rolled through some village, the country pike becoming for the time the village street. The land was an archipelago of homestead in a sea of rice. But the trees about the dwellings so cut up the view, that for the moments of passing the mind forgot it was all so flat and came back to its ocean in surprise, when the next vista opened on the sides.
Things had already become silhouettes when we dashed into lantern-lighted Mikkaichi. We took the place in form, and a fine sensation we made. What between the shouts of the runners and the clatter of the chaises men, women and children made haste to clear a track, snatching their little ones back and then staring at us as we swept past. Indeed, the teams put their best feet foremost for local effect, and more than once came within an ace of running over some urchin who either would not or could not get out of the way. Fortunately no casualties occurred. For it would have been ignominious to have been arrested by the police during our first ten minutes in the town, not to speak of the sad dampening to our feelings an accident would have caused.
In this mad manner we dashed up the long main street. We were forced to take the side, for the village aqueduct or gutter - it served both purposes - monopolized the middle. At short intervals, it was spanned by causeways made of slabs of stone. Over one of these we made a final swirl and drew up before the inn. Then our shafts made their obeisance to the ground.
A warm welcome greeted the appeal. A crowd of servants came rushing to the front of the house with an eye to business, and a crowd of village folk with an eye to pleasure closed in behind. Between the two fires we stepped out and entered the side court, to the satisfaction of the one audience and the chagrin of the other. But it is impossible to please everybody.
Fortunately it was not so hard to please us, and certainly the inn people did their best; for they led the way to what formerly were the state apartments, that part of the house where the daimyo of Kaga had been wont to lodge when he stopped here over night on his journey north. Though it had fallen somewhat into disrepair, it was still the place of honor in the inn, and therefore politely put at the service of one from beyond sea. There I supped in solitary state, and there I slept right royally amid the relics of former splendor, doubting a little whether some unlaid ghost of bygone times might not come to claim his own, and oust me at black midnight by the rats, his retinue.
But nothing short of the sun called me back to consciousness and bade me open to the tiny garden, where a pair of ducks were preening their feathers after an early bath in their own little lake. On the veranda my lake already stood prepared; a brass basin upon a wooden stand, according to the custom of the country. So ducks and I dabbled and prinked in all innocence in the garden, which might well have been the garden of Eden for any hint it gave of a world beyond. It was my fate, too, to leave it after the same manner. For breakfast over we were once more of the road.
We had a long day of it before us, for I purposed to cross the Etchiu delta and sleep that night on the threshold of my hopes. The day, like all days that look long on the map, proved still longer on the march. Its itinerary diversified discomfort. First seventeen miles in kuruma, then a ferry, then a tramp of twelve miles along the beach through a series of sand dunes; then another ferry, and finally a second walk of seven miles and a half over some foothills to top off with. The inexpensiveness of the transport was the sole relieving feature of the day. Not, I mean, because the greater and worse half of the journey was done on our own feet, but because of the cheap charges of the chaises and even of the porters. To run at a dogtrot, trundling another in a baby carriage, seventeen miles for twenty cents is not, I hold, an extortionate price. Certain details of the tariff, however, are peculiar. For instance, if two men share the work by running tandem, the fare is more than doubled; a ratio in the art of proportion surprising at first. Each man would seem to charge for being helped. The fact is, the greater speed expected of the pair more than offsets the decreased draft.
Otherwise, as I say, the day was depressing. It was not merely the tramp through the sand dunes that was regrettable, though heaven knows I would not willingly take it again. The sand had far too hospitable a trick of holding on to you at every step to be to my liking. Besides, the sun, which had come out with summer insistence, chose that particular spot for its midday siesta, and lay there at full length, while the air was preternaturally still. It was a stupidly drowsy heat that gave no fillip to the feet.
But such discomfort was merely by the way. The real trouble began at Fushiki, the town on the farther side of the second ferry. In the first place the spot had, what is most uncommon in Japan, a very sorry look, which was depressing in itself. Secondly, its inhabitants were much too busy or much too unemployed, or both, to be able to attend to strangers at that hour of the afternoon. Consequently it was almost impossible to get any one to carry the baggage. We dispatched emissaries, however. By good luck we secured some beer, and then argued ourselves dry again on the luggage question. The emissaries were at work, we were assured, and at last some one who had been sent for was said to be coming. Still time dragged on, until finally the burden bearers turned up, and turned out to be - women.