XXI. To the Sea.
It was a ten minutes' walk, the next morning, from the inn down to the boat: an everwinding path along a succession of terraces studded with trees just breaking into leaf, and dotted with cottages, whose folk gave us good-day as we passed. The site of the village sloped to the south, its cheek full turned to the sunshine that stole down and kissed it as it lay. On this lovely May morning, amid the slumbering air, it made as amorous a bit of springtide as the heart could wish. In front of us, in vignette, stretched the stream, half a mile of it to where it turned the corner. Each succeeding level of terrace reset the picture, as if for trial of effect.
The boat was waiting, lightly grounded on a bit of shingle left by a turn of the current. Several enthusiastic followers accompanied us out to it with respectful insistence.
On reaching our craft, we found, to our surprise, that it was full of bales of merchandise of large and plethoric habit. We asked in astonishment what all this cargo meant. The men answered sheepishly that it was to make the boat ride better. The boat had ridden well enough the day before, and on general principles should, it would seem, ride all the better for being light. But indeed their guilt was plain. Our rascally boatmen, who had already charged a goodly sum for their craft, had thought to serve two masters, and after having leased the whole boat to me were intending now to turn a dishonest penny by shipping somebody else's goods into the bargain. In company with the rest of my kind, I much dislike to be imposed upon; so I told them they might instantly take the so-called ballast out again. When I had seen the process of disembarkation fairly begun I relented, deciding, so long as the bales were already aboard, to take them on to the first stopping place, and there put them ashore.
The river, its brief glimpse at civilization over, relapsed again into utter savagery. Rocks and trees, as wild apparently as their first forerunners there, walled us in on the sides, and appeared to do so at the ends, making exit seem an impossibility, and entrance to have been a dream. The stream gave short reaches, disclosing every few minutes, as it took us round a fresh turn, a new variation on the old theme. Then, as we glided straight our few hundred feet, the wall behind us rose higher and higher, stretching out at us as if to prevent our possible escape. We had thought it only a high cliff, and behold it was the whole mountain side that had stood barrier there.
I cannot point the wildness of it all better than did a certain sight we came upon suddenly, round a corner. Without the least warning, a bend in the current introduced us to a fishing-pole and a basket, reposing together on the top of a rock. These two hints at humanity sat all by themselves, keeping one another company; no other sign of man was visible anywhere. The pair of waifs gave one an odd feeling, as might the shadow of a person apart from the person himself. There was something uncanny in their commonplaceness in so uncommon a place. While we were still wondering at the whereabouts of their owner, another turn disclosed him by a sort of cove where his boat lay drawn up. Indeed, it was an ideal spot for an angler, and a lucrative one as well, for the river is naturally full of fish. Were I the angler I have seen others, I would encamp here for the rest of my life and feed off such phosphoric diet as I might catch, to the quickening of the brain and the composing of the body. But fortunately man has more of the river than of the rock in his composition, and whether he will or no is steadily being hurried past such nicks in life toward other adventures beyond.
The rapids here were, if anything, finer than those above Mitsushima. Of them in all there are said to be more than thirty. Some have nicknames, as "the Turret," "the Adze," "Boiling Rice," and "the Mountain Bath." Indeed, probably all of them have distinctive appellations, but one cannot ask the names of everybody in a procession. There were some bad enough to give one a sensation. Two of the worst rocks have been blown up, but enough still remain to point a momentary moral or adorn an after tale. All were exhilarating. Through even the least bad I should have been more than sorry to have come alone. But confiding trust in the boatmen was not misplaced; for if questionable in their morals, they were above reproach in their water-craft.
The rapids were incidents; the gorge we had always with us, superb cleft that it was, hewn as by some giant axe, notching the mountain chain imperiously for passage. Hour followed hour with the same setting. How the river first took it into its head to come through so manifestly unsuitable a place is a secret for the geologist to tell. But I for one wish I had been by to see.
From morning till noon we raced with the water at the bottom of the canon. Each turn was like, and yet unlike, the one before, so that I wonder that I have other than a blurred composite picture on my mind's plate. Yet certain bits have picked themselves out and ousted the rest, and the river comes up to me in thought as vivid as in life.
These repeated disclosures that disclosed nothing lulled us at last into a happy unconsciousness of end in this subterranean passage to a lower world. Though we were cleaving the mountain chain in part against the grain, indeed because we were, it showed no sign of giving out; until without premonition a curve shot us out at the foot of a village perched so perpendicularly on terraces that it almost overhung the stream. It was called Nishinoto, and consisted of a street that sidled up between the dwellings in a more than alpine way. Up it we climbed aerially to a teahouse for lunch; but not before I had directed the boatmen to discharge the smuggled goods.