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."

To add artificial impossibility to natural, was too much. Yejiro answered that he had better come to the inn; which he accordingly did. Poor man! I pitied him. For, in the first place, he was still jaundiced; and, in the second, although conscious of guilt as I was, I was much the less disturbed of the two. I was getting used to being a self-smuggler; while he, as the Japanese say, was "taihen komarimasu" (exceedingly "know not what to do"), a phrase which is a national complaint. In this instance he had cause. What to do with so hardened a sinner was a problem passing his powers. Here was a law-breaker who by rights should at once be bundled back to Tokyo under police surveillance. But he could not go himself, he had no one to send, and furthermore the delinquent seemed only too willing to escort himself there, free of government expense, as speedily as possible. All I had to do was to whet his perception that the sooner boatmen were got the sooner I should be on the right side of the law again. After some conflict with himself he went in search of men.

I was left to study the carp-pond, with its gold and silver fish, the pivot of attention of the pretty little garden court which stood handy to the kitchen. This juxtaposition was no accident; for such ponds are landscape and larder in one. Between meals the fish are scenery; at the approach of the dinner hour they turn into game. The inn guest having sufficiently enjoyed the gambols of future repasts, picks out his dish to suit his taste or capacity, and the fish is instantly netted and translated to the gridiron. The survivors, none the wiser, continue to steamboat about, intent on their own dinners, flashing their colors as they turn their armored sides in and out of the light. Eccentric nature has fitted these prototypes of navigation with all the modern improvements. Double and even triple sets of screws are common things in tails, and sometimes the fins, too, are duplex. As for me, I had neither the heart nor the stomach to help depopulate the pond. But I took much mechanical delight in their motions; so I fed them instead of they me.

I had my choice between doing this and watching the late boatmen at their dinner in the distance. No doubt moods have an aesthetic conscience of their own, - they demand appropriate setting; for I was annoyed at the hilarity of these men over their midday meal. I bore them no malice, but I own I should have preferred not to have seen them thus making free with time they had declared themselves unable to sell to me.

Thanks in part to my quality of outlaw, and in part to four hours' propitiation of the gods of delay, the jaundiced policeman finally succeeded in beating up a crew. There were four conscripts in all, kerchiefed, not to say petticoated, in the native nautical costume; a costume not due to being fresh-water sailors, since their salt-water cousins are given to a like disguise of sex. These mariners made us wait while they finished their preparations. It meant a long voyage to them, - a facilis descensus Averni; sed revocare gradum, - a very long pull. Then the bow was poled off, the current took us in its arms and swung us out into the stream, and the crowd on the shingle dropped perspectively astern.

While I was still standing gazing at lessening Tokimata, I heard a cry from behind me, and, turning, ducked just in time to escape being unceremoniously somersaulted into the water by a hawser stretched from bank to bank at a level singularly suited to such a trick. The rope was the stationary half of a ferry to which I had neglected to make timely obeisance. It marked, indeed, an incipient stage in the art of suspension bridges, the ferryboat itself supporting a part of the weight, while the ferryman pulled it and himself across. We met several more in the course of the next few minutes, before which we all bowed down into the bottom of the boat, while the hawser scraped, grumbling impotently, overhead.

Our boat was of adaptive build. It was forty-five feet long, not quite four feet wide, and somewhat over two feet deep. These proportions and the character of the wood made it exceeding lithe, so that it bent like a willow before necessity. In the stern stood the head man, wielding for rudder an oar half as long again as those the others used. There was very little rowing done, nor was there need; the current itself took us along at racing speed.

Shortly after ducking under the last ferry rope we reached the gateway to the canon. Some rapids made an introduction, rocks in places jutting out of the foam, and while we were still curveting to the waves the hills suddenly closed in upon the stream in two beetling cliffs, spanned surprisingly by a lofty cantalever bridge. An individual who chanced to cross at the moment stopped in mid path to watch us through. The stream swept us in, and the countryside contracted to a vanishing vista behind. We were launched on our long canon voyage. The change was as sudden as a thunderstorm of a smiling summer afternoon. It was an eclipse of the earth by the earth itself. Dark rocks picketed with trees rose in still darker shadow on either hand, higher than one could see. The black river swirled beside us, silent, sullen, swift. At the bottom of that gorge untrodden by man, borne by the dark flood that untouched by sunlight coiled snakelike along, we seemed adventured on some unforgotten Styx.

For some time we had voyaged thus with a feeling not unlike awe, when all at once there was a bustle among the boatmen, and one of them went forward and stood up in the bow. We swept round a corner, and saw our first great rapids three hundred yards ahead. We could mark a dip in the stream, and then a tumbled mass of white water, while a roar as of rage came out of the body of it. As we swept down upon the spot, the man in the bow began beating the gunwale with his oar in regularly repeated raps. The board gave out a hollow ring that strangely filled the river chasm; a sound well calculated to terrify the evil spirits of the spot. For indeed it was an exorcism of homoeopathic design. His incantation finished, he stood motionless. So did the rest of us, waiting for the plunge. The boat dipped by the bow, darted forward, and in a trice we were in the midst of a deafening turmoil of boiling waters and crashing breakers. The breakers laid violent hands upon us, grappling at the frail gunwale and coming in part aboard, and then, as we slipped from their grasp, impotently flung their spray in our faces, and with a growl dropped astern. The boat trembled like a leaf, and was trembling yet, when, with nightmare speed, the thing had slipped into the past, and we were shot out into the midst of the seething flood below.

Not the least impressive part of the affair was the strange spirit-rapping on the bow. The boatmen valiantly asserted that this was simply for signal to the man in the stern. Undoubtedly now the action has largely cloaked itself in habit, but that it once was superstitious is unquestionable. Devils still constitute far too respected a portion of the community in peasant parts of Japan.

The steering the boatmen did was clever, but the steering the stream managed of its own motion was more so. For between the rapids proper were swirls and whirlpools and races without end. The current took us in hand at the turns, sweeping us down at speed straight for a rock on the opposite bank, and then, just as shipwreck seemed inevitable, whisked us round upon the other tack. A thick cushion of water had fended the boat off, so that to strike would have been as impossible as it looked certain. And then at intervals came the roar of another rapid, like a stirring refrain, with the boatman in the bow to beat the time.

So we swept on, now through inky swirls of tide, now through snow-capped billows, moods these of the passing stream, while above the grand character of the gorge remained eternally the same.

The trees far up, sharp-etched against the blue, Let but the river's strip of skylight through To trees below, that on each jutting ledge Scant foothold found to overlook the edge, - As still as statues on their niches there, Where no breeze stirred the ever-shadowed air, - Spellbound spectators, crowded tier on tier From where the lowest, bending to be near The shock of spray, with leaves a-tremble stood In shuddering gaze above the swirling flood. The whole deep chasm, some vast natural nave That to the thought a touch of grandeur gave, And touch of grace, - for that wistaria clung Upon the trees, its grapelike bunches hung In stretch to catch their semblance in the stream; Pale purple clusters, meant to live in dream, Placed high above man's predatory clutch, To sight alone vouchsafed, from harming touch Wisely withheld as he is hurried past, And thus the more a memory to last, A violet vision; there to stay - fair fate - Forever virginly inviolate.

Slowly the strip of sky overhead became steeped in color, the half light at the bottom of the gorge deepened in tint, and suddenly a turn brought us out at a blaze in the cliff, where a handful of houses straggled up toward the outer world. We had reached Mitsushima, a shafting in the tunnel, and our halting place for the night.