By the next day it was considered safe enough to make the trip to Sakusa. It was a tortuous way, and one that required the services of a guide, but a young Japanese, whom Mr. Montell knew, consented to make one of the party. He could speak English, and, being an intelligent, educated gentleman, was much more desirable as an adjunct than the ordinary interpreter. By bamboo forests, and rice-fields, past many a temple and shrine, they trudged, part of their journey being indicated by a stone path difficult to walk upon yet necessarily used. Here they must go single file.
"It is getting rather tiresome," said Jack over her shoulder to Mary Lee who followed closely, these two walking in the footsteps of their guide while the others lagged behind, the two couples separated by a perceptible space.
"We'll get there after a while," returned Mary Lee. "It is all for the cause, remember, Jack."
"I feel precisely as if I were doing penance," Jack answered back.
"Perhaps you are," replied her sister with a little smile.
Jack said no more, but toiled on till at last a small cluster of houses indicated that they were nearing a village.
"Is it Sakusa?" Jack asked Mr. Tamura, their guide.
"Sakusa," he replied with a wave of the hand toward where a tori-i
, a high paintless structure, stood, and in another moment they had left their rough stone path to step upon the pavement of the temple's court. Here they waited for the others to come up. Meantime they could observe the fine old trees, the quaint monuments and the gateway itself.
"This is the temple of Yaegaki," Mr. Tamura told them. "It is a very noted shrine, small as it is. We will go to the main temple which is the most interesting."
The group, now complete, went forward and presently, with one accord, stopped short. "What are they?" inquired Eleanor wonderingly looking at myriads of tiny flags inserted in the ground all around the base of the shrine.
"Those," Mr. Tamura said, "are tokens of gratitude. They mean that many lovers' prayers have been answered."
"And those white wisps upon the gratings of the doors?" Eleanor continued to question.
"Those are the prayers of the lovers who have made the pilgrimage."
"So many, so many," murmured Nan.
"And what is that which looks like hair, there with the little knots of paper?" Mary Lee put this question.
"It is hair," she was told, "most of it, though some is seaweed, probably brought from a long distance. These are votive offerings. A maiden making a vow, a wish, a prayer, will often cut off her hair and hang it upon the shrine that she may thus show her strength of desire, her faith, her intention to propitiate the deities of love and marriage who preside over this shrine."
Mr. Harding stepped nearer to see the many names carved upon the doors and the woodwork. These he could in some instances read, but as they were written in the Chinese characters, the girls could not make them out.
"Now," said Mr. Tamura, "we must see the famous Camellia tree which is supposed to be inhabited by the beings who answer lovers' prayers. It is very ancient and much revered. We will look at it before we go to the sacred grove."
They all stood a few moments before the gnarled old tree and then followed on to where their guide again paused. "Here you can find the talismans and the charms, if you wish to buy," Mr. Tamura informed them.
"Oh, we must have some of them," declared the girls, and though neither Mr. Harding nor Mr. Montell said a word, they did not hold back.
"Which are considered the nicest?" inquired Jack.
Mr. Tamura smiled as he answered. "If you are in love this mamori
is supposed to be the most wonder-working, and will assure you a blessed union with the object of your affection." He picked out a long folded paper with queer characters and a seal upon it.
"Can I open it?" inquired Jack. "Will it break the charm?"
"Oh, no, you can see what it holds within the interior," Mr. Tamura told her, and Jack did not delay in opening the paper.
"Oh, look," she cried, "aren't they cunning?"
The others gathered around to see two tiny little figures in ancient costume. One enfolded the other in his embrace.
"It is the small wife enfold to the heart of the small husband," their guide explained. "If you marry the man of your ambition, you must return this charm to the temple. It does not promise you the happiness of after marriage, but only the marriage."
"I would run the risk of the happiness," said Mr. Harding in a low tone to Nan who for some reason blushed furiously.
"If you wish the love of after marriage you must purchase another. It is the leaf from the tree we have just seen, but you see it is of the most preciousness." And of the whole party there was not one, with the exception of Mary Lee, who did not buy one of each of these two charms. Mary Lee contented herself with some little amulets which she declared were more worth her while.
"Of course," said Eleanor lightly, "we don't believe in them at all and have no special use for them, but we may be able to make presents of them to some of our friends."
"That is just it," echoed Nan.
"And the little lady and her husband are so cunning," declared Jack, "I just had to get one to show Jean."
Mary Lee smiled wisely but said not a word.
"They are really great curiosities," remarked Nan airily. "I do not remember ever having seen their like. I know mother and Aunt Helen will be greatly interested in them."
Again Mary Lee smiled and kept her counsel.
They went on further till they came to a great grove of cedars, pines, and bamboo with other trees, making so deep a shade that they seemed in a sunless world. When their eyes became accustomed to the half light, they observed that wherever possible upon the bark of the bamboo trees names were written. "Names and wishes," said their guide.
"How weird and mysterious it all seems," said Nan to her companion.
"The very Court of Love," returned he, "and you are treading it with me," he added softly.
Nan's heart beat fast but she made no reply. It all seemed so intangible, so unreal an existence, that even his presence began to appear unreal.
"There is a little pond further on, Tamura says," Mr. Harding remarked after a period when silence was upon them both. "There are water newts in it, and one tests his fortune by sailing a small boat in which he puts a rin
. If it sinks to the bottom and the newts touch it all will be well, but if it does not sink and if the newts disregard it, then it is an ill omen. Shall we go and sail a boat?"
"It might be amusing," returned Nan, trying to hide her confusion.
They found the rest of their party already on the brink of the pond where others were launching tiny crafts of paper. Mr. Tamura was showing Jack how to make one. He seemed to surmise that more than one would be required for he soon had a little fleet of them ready, and himself set one afloat with a rin
in it. He watched it gravely as it went on its course. Mr. Harding launched his, giving Nan a smile as he did so. It drifted out upon the clear water and became so saturated as soon to succumb to the weight of its freight of copper coin, then down it sank. It could be seen distinctly through the limpid water and presently the newts were observed to approach it. Mr. Harding rose to his feet, and waved his hat gaily. "A good omen," he cried.
Most of the other boats acted in the same way, although they did not wait to see the fate of all that were launched, but turned to wander about and look up the remaining strange evidences of superstitious faith.
Nan and her companion allowed the others to put some distance between themselves and this lagging pair.
"Let them alone and they'll come home bringing their tales behind them," whispered Jack to Mary Lee. "Their love-tales, I hope they will be. What a self-absorbed, blind ninny I was not to see things before. Why, they are simply daffy about one another. I don't believe any one else exists at this present moment for them. Did you ever think dear old Nan would be so far gone?"
"Oh, yes, I knew when Nan did really let herself go that there wouldn't be any question about it," returned Mary Lee with a half sigh.
"I hope he is good enough for her," said Jack a little jealously.
"Nobody is good enough for any of you sisters," returned Mary Lee.
"Oh, Carter is entirely too good for me," declared Jack frankly. "All the same I would scratch any one's eyes out who tried to take him from me."
"I haven't a doubt but that some one will try to if you don't treat him better," Mary Lee said teasingly. "You can't expect a man to stay forever faithful to a girl who behaves as if he were an old shoe to be picked up and cast aside at will."
"You don't mean that," Jack averred. "If you did, I would take the next steamer home and marry him before any of you reached there to stop me. When he gets my letter he will understand, so don't you go trying to stir me up. Where in the world are those two?"
"Oh, never mind them," rejoined Mary Lee. "There are Eleanor and Mr. Montell just ahead and we can get along for a while without Nan."
Meantime Nan and Mr. Harding were lingering in the deep grove. They stood by a bamboo tree upon which were cut many names. "There is just a little space here where I can cut a dear, small name," said Mr. Harding, "the name of the dearest, sweetest girl in the world." He began to carve the letters while Nan stood by with half-averted face. "N-a-n," he wrote, with the N much longer than the other letters. After he had finished, he came to Nan. "Will you look?" he said, "and will you tell me if I may put my name there too? The same initial does for both, you see. Dear Nan, sweet Nan! this is the Court of Love and you are my queen. You have been so kind to me these last few days and I may be called away any moment, so I am daring enough to tell you that I love you."
Nan took from him the knife he still held. She went up to the tree, and upon the smooth bark she began to trace the letters which, following the initial of her own name, became that of her lover:
"Is it true? Is it true?" breathed he close by her side.
"I am afraid it is," returned Nan in a whisper.
"Afraid, you darlingest girl?"
"No, no, I don't mean I am afraid, I mean--oh, what do I mean?"
"You mean that all the queer little charms have nothing to do with you and me, because you loved me, didn't you, before we even started out to come here? You did love me yesterday and the day before, didn't you, Nan?"
"And even so far back as last week," admitted Nan.
"When you wouldn't even look at me?"
"Why wouldn't you?"
"Because you wouldn't look at me."
"I did look when I could steal a glance at you. I wanted to look at you every minute and I was afraid, for I loved you from that very first time in the grove of Kamakura. I tried to keep away from you, and I couldn't. I was so unhappy and so moony and headless that the chief noticed it, and said I'd better take a rest for I was ill. He didn't know what was the matter, but I did."
"Oh, dear," sighed Nan, "and I was unhappy, too. I thought you liked Jack."
"And I thought you liked a miserable somebody whom I could have annihilated."
Talking on in the strain which so pleases lovers the world over, they neared the group waiting for them by the temple gate. "Please don't tell any one," said Nan hastily. "Mother must be the first to know."
"And I hope I may go to her myself that I may ask her for your precious self. Will she give you to me, Nan?"
"She will, when she knows that it is for my happiness."
"And you will be willing to go to a strange country with me? You will wait for me till I can feel I have something more than myself to offer?"
"I will wait years if need be, and----" She hesitated. The strange country away from all those she loved best did seem appalling, but she bravely went on, "Strange countries do not seem so distant as they used to be."
Seeing them approaching, the others started on their stony way. "It is a rough road," said Neal, "but for me it was the way to Paradise."
Nan could have echoed the words, but she did not. They must walk single file for a time, but she might have been side by side with a heavenly host, so uplifted was she. Of all queer places to find her happiness; in the grove of a Shinto temple in a distant and difficult part of Japan. It all seemed like a dream from which she awoke to reality only when she saw a beloved form striding along behind her when she turned her head. He must keep her in view, he said, lest some accident befall her.
On their way through the streets of the old city which they reached foot-sore and weary, but so glad at heart they had no thought of bodily aches and pains, they passed a little shop. "Let us stop here a moment," proposed Neal. "I want to get you something as a reminder of this day."
"Do you think I will ever forget it?" asked Nan with a shy glance.
"You adorable girl, no, I don't, but all the same I want to get something."
They entered the small establishment and from the carvings Neal selected a little figure of Hotei, the God of Happiness, whose counterpart Nan declared she must buy to give in exchange. Then they went on, arriving at the hotel long after the others.
"And did you have a happy day?" asked Miss Helen who had passed the hours of her nieces' absence in the quiet garden and in the streets of the old city. "Was it worth the hard trip?"
"Well worth it," was Nan's reply given with emphasis though not a word did she tell of the joy the day had brought her.
"The others seemed pretty well tired out," Miss Helen went on, "and have gone to lie down, but you appear fresher than any of the party."
"I am a little tired, for it was rather far and quite rough, but it was so very interesting," Nan vouchsafed, and then began to describe the temples and shrines, but of that carving of her own name on the bark of the bamboo tree she said nothing.
Mary Lee and Jack looked at her glowing face questioningly when she went in to where they were, but she gave them no confidences beyond explaining for her tardiness by saying that she and Mr. Harding had stopped at a shop on their way.
"It will have to be 'boots and saddles,' as soon as we can manage it," Mary Lee announced. "Aunt Helen thinks we should start as soon as we get rested, so we shall pack to-morrow and the day after begin our journey across country. Eleanor will go with us, she says, though I didn't think she would, for she could easily go back with her brother from here and save herself the longer trip."
"Is her brother going back from here?" asked Nan.
"You ought to know. Is he?" queried Mary Lee.
"No," Nan replied with a laugh.
"Oh!" Mary Lee gave Jack a little prod with her elbow and Jack responded with a soft pinch which expressed her understanding.
"Is Mr. Montell going back from here?" asked Nan.
"I don't believe he is. You see he is free to come and go as he may see fit and I understand that he thinks he can gather profitable material by joining our caravan. Nell vows that she means to see the last of us and will stand by till we are fairly off. Ergo Mr. Montell follows suit."
"Good old Nell," remarked Nan apropos of what she did not explain.
"Well, what do you make of it?" inquired Mary Lee as soon as Nan was out of hearing.
"I think it is very, very near the climax," responded Jack.
"I go further than that. I think the hour and the man have arrived this day, and that it is all settled."
"Oh, Mary Lee, do you really?" Jack propped herself up to look at her sister. "Then why didn't she tell us?"
"For the same reason another young person of my acquaintance did not tell until it was forced from her," rejoined Mary Lee.
Jack sank back again. "Oh," she ejaculated in a discomfited way. "I am crazy to know, aren't you?" she asked presently.
"Of course I should like to know, but I can wait. Nan has such a telltale face and I never saw such a radiant expression as she has. Oh, dear me, Jack, I don't feel happy over it myself, for do you realize that it means we shall have to part with our dear old Nan, and that she may go goodness knows where to live? Neal Harding is hoping for diplomatic service for keeps, you know. He hopes for an appointment as consul somewhere, and that means that Nan may have to go away off from all her kinfolks."
"Mercy me, I hadn't thought of that. Oh, dear, I wish now I had kept up my little game, then perhaps this would never have come about."
"You mean child. I don't wish that, and after all it would not have done any good, probably, for if Neal Harding were in real earnest, he would not have allowed the thing to stop here. Eleanor would have seen to it that he knew of Nan's comings and goings, and then the evil day would simply have been put off. Meantime poor Nan would have been wretchedly unhappy." Jack agreed that this was all very true and that they must make the best of it. Later on they conferred with Eleanor who had nothing more to add to what they already suspected.
"I quite agree with you, Mary Lee," she said, "that it is all right, and I will tell you why. When Neal came in he came up and kissed me as if he had not seen me for a long time. I said, 'Why this unusual effusiveness, my dear?' 'Oh, just because I feel so jolly happy,' he said. I take that to mean something, whatever you may think."
But they were kept in the dark for several days longer, and in the meantime, the journey was undertaken which would bring them to the Inland Sea again and to the spot where they would find Mrs. Corner and Jean waiting for them.
IS IT TRUE?