XX. Down the Tenriugawa.
We had made arrangements overnight for a boat, not without difficulty, and in the morning we started in kuruma for the point of embarkation. We were eager to be off upon our voyage, else we should have strolled afoot down the long meadow slope, such invitation lay in it, the dew sparkling on the grass blades, the freshly tilled earth scenting the air, and the larks rising like rockets up into the sky and bursting into song as they went. It seemed the essence of spring, and we had a mile or more of it all before we reached the brink of the canon. For even here the river had begun a gorge for itself through the plain. We left our jinrikisha at the top and zigzagged on foot down the steep descent, and straightway departed the upper life of fields and larks and sunshine for a new and semi-subterranean one. It was not simply a change of scene; it was a complete change of sphere. The world with its face open to the day in a twinkling had ceased to be, and another world, a world of dark water girt by shadowed walls of rock and trees, had taken its place.
Amid farewell wavings from the jinrikisha men we pushed off into the stream. In spite of the rush of the water and the creaking of the oars, a strange stillness had fallen on everything. The swirling, inky flood swept us on past the hushed banks, heights of motionless leaves nearly hiding the gray old rock. Occasionally some puff of wind more adventurous than its fellows swooped down to make the leaves quiver a moment, and then died away in awe, while here and there a bird flew in and out among the branches with strangely subdued twitter.
Although this part of the river could show its gorge and its rapids, it made only the preface to that chapter of its biography we had come to read. At Tokimata, some hours further down, begins the voyage proper. But even the preface was imposing. The black water glided sinuous along, its stealthy course every now and again interrupted by rapids, where the sullen flood lashed itself to a passion of whitecaps with a kind of hissing roar. Down these we shot, the boat bowing first in acquiescence, and then plunging as madly as the water itself. It was hard to believe that both boat and river were not sentient things.
At intervals we met other boats toiling slowly up stream, pulled laboriously by men who strained along the bank at the ends of hundreds of feet of tow-rope, the ropes themselves invisible at first for distance; so that we were aware only of men walking along the shore in attitudes of impossible equilibrium, and of boats that followed them doglike from pure affection. It would seem weary work even for canal-boating. It takes weeks to toil up what it once took only hours to float down. As we sped past the return convoys, we seemed sad profligates, thus wantonly to be squandering such dearly-won vantage of position. The stream which meant money to them was, like money, hard come and easy go.
Still the stream hurried us on. We hugged the cliffs, now on one side, now on the other, only to have them slip by us the quicker. Bend after bend opened, spread out, and closed. The scene changed every minute, and yet was always the same. Then at times we were vouchsafed openings in the surrounding hills, narrow bits of foreground, hints of a something that existed beyond.
For three hours and more we kept on in our serpentine course, for the river meandered as whimsically as if it still had a choice of its own in the matter. Then gradually the land about began to make overtures toward sociability. The trees on the banks disappeared, the banks themselves decreased in height; then the river took to a more genial flow, and presently we were ware of the whole countryside to the right coming down in one long sweep to the water's edge.
The preface was over. The stream was to have a breathing spell of air and sunlight before its great plunge into sixty miles of twilight canon. With a quick turn of his rudder oar the boatman in the stern brought the flat-bottomed craft round, and in a jiffy she lay beached on the shingle at Tokimata. It was now high noon.
The greater part of the village kindly superintended the operation of disembarking, and then the more active of its inhabitants trotted before as guides to the inn. For our boat would go no further, and therefore all our belongings had to come out. It was only when we inquired for further conveyance that the crowd showed signs of satiety and edged off. To our importunities on this head the populace were statuesque or worse. A Japanese assent is not always the most encouraging of replies, and a Japanese "No" touches in you a depth not unlike despair. They have a way of hinting the utter hopelessness of your wish, past, present, and to come, an eternity of impossibility to make you regret that you ever were born. After we had reached the inn, and had stated our wants to a more informed audience, we were told that the nautical part of the inhabitants were in the fields, gathering mulberry leaves for the silkworms. From the bribe we offered to induce a change in pursuit, we judged money to be no object to them. There remained nothing, therefore, but the police.
It is good policy never to invoke the law except in the last extremity, for you are pretty safe to have some flaw shown up in you before you are through with it. The law in this case was represented, Yejiro found, by a person still yellow with the jaundice. He met the demand for boatmen with the counter demand for the passport, and when this was produced his official eye at once detected its anachronism.
"This," said he, "is not in order. I do not see how you can go on at all."