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HOME > Classical Novels > Memoirs Of A Geisha > Chapter 21
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Chapter 21

I ate one afternoon a week or so later, Mameha came up to me during a break in rehearsals, very excited about something. It seemed that on the previous day, the Baron had mentioned to her quite casually that he would be giving a party during the coming weekend for a certain kimono maker named Arashino. The Baron owned one of the best-known collections of kimono in all of Japan. Most of his pieces were antiques, but every so often he bought a very fine work by a living artist. His decision to purchase a piece by Arashino had prompted him to have a party.

"I thought I recognized the name Arashino," Mameha said to me, "but when the Baron first mentioned it, I couldn't place it. He's one of Nobu's very closest friends! Don't you see the possibilities? I didn't think of it until today, but I'm going to persuade the .Baron to invite both Nobu and the Doctor to his little party. The two of them are certain to dislike each other. When the bidding begins for your mizuage, you can be sure that neither will sit still, knowing the prize could be taken by the other."

I was feeling very tired, but for Mameha's sake I clapped my hands in excitement and said how grateful I was to her for coming up with such a clever plan. And I'm sure it was a clever plan; but the real evidence of her cleverness was that she felt certain she'd have no difficulty persuading the Baron to invite these two men to his party. Clearly they would both be willing to come-in Nobu's case because the Baron was an investor in Iwamura Electric, though I didn't know it at the time; and in Dr. Crab's case because . . . well, because the Doctor considered himself something of an aristocrat, even though he probably had only one obscure ancestor with any aristocratic blood, and would regard it as his duty to attend any function the Baron invited him to. But as to why the Baron would agree to invite either of them, I don't know. He didn't approve of Nobu; very few men did. As for Dr. Crab, the Baron had never met him before and might as well have invited someone off the street.

But Mameha had extraordinary powers of persuasion, as I knew. The party was arranged, and she convinced my dance instructor to release me from rehearsals the following Saturday so I could attend it. The event was to begin in the afternoon and run through dinner- though Mameha and I were to arrive after the party was under way. So it was about three o'clock when we finally climbed into a rickshaw and headed out to the Baron's estate, located at the base of the hills in the northeast of the city. It was my first visit to anyplace so luxurious, and I was quite overwhelmed by what I saw; because if you think of the attention to detail brought to bear in making a kimono, well, that same sort of attention had been brought to the design and care of the entire estate where the Baron lived. The main house dated back to the time of his grandfather, but the gardens, which struck me as a giant brocade of textures, had been designed and built by his father. Apparently the house and gardens never quite fit together until the Baron's older brother-the year before his assassination-had moved the location of the pond, and also created a moss garden with stepping-stones leading from the moon-viewing pavilion on one side of the house. Black swans glided across the pond with a bearing so proud they made me feel ashamed to be such an ungainly creature as a human being.

We were to begin by preparing a tea ceremony the men would join when they were ready; so I was very puzzled when we passed through the main gate and made our way not to an ordinary tea pavilion, but straight toward the edge of the pond to board a small boat. The boat was about the size of a narrow room. Most of it was occupied with wooden seats along the edges, but at one end stood a miniature pavilion with its own roof sheltering a tatami platform. It had actual walls with paper screens slid open for air, and in the very center was a square wooden cavity filled with sand, which served as the brazier where Mameha lit cakes of charcoal to heat the water in a graceful iron teakettle. While she was doing this, I tried to make myself useful by arranging the implements for the ceremony. Already I was feeling quite nervous, and then Mameha turned to me after she had put the kettle on the fire and said:

"You're a clever girl, Sayuri. I don't need to tell you what will become of your future if Dr. Crab or Nobu should lose interest in you. You mustn't let either of them think you're paying too much attention to the other. But of course a certain amount of jealousy won't do any harm. I'm certain you can manage it."

I wasn't so sure, but I would certainly have to try.

A half hour passed before the Baron and his ten guests strolled out from the house, stopping every so often to admire the view of the hillside from different angles. When they'd boarded the boat, the Baron guided us into the middle of the pond with a pole. Mameha made tea, and I delivered the bowls to each of the guests.

Afterward, we took a stroll through the garden with the men, and soon came to a wooden platform suspended above the water, where several maids in identical kimono were arranging cushions for the men to sit on, and leaving vials of warm sake on trays. I made a point of kneeling beside Dr. Crab, and was just trying to think of something to say when, to my surprise, the Doctor turned to me first.

"Has the laceration on your thigh healed satisfactorily?" he asked.

This was during the month of March, you must understand, and I'd cut my leg way back in November. In the months between, I'd seen Dr. Crab more times than I could count; so I have no idea why he waited until that moment to ask me about it, and in front of so many people. Fortunately, I didn't think anyone had heard, so I kept my voice low when I answered.

"Thank you so much, Doctor. With your help it has healed completely."

"I hope the injury-hasn't left too much of a scar," he said.

"Oh, no, just a tiny bump, really."

I might have ended the conversation right there by pouring him more sake, perhaps, or changing the subject; but I happened to notice that he was stroking one of his thumbs with the fingers of his other hand. The Doctor was the sort of man who never wasted a single movement. If he was stroking his thumb in this way while thinking about my leg ... well, I decided it would be foolish for me to change the subject.

"It isn't much of a scar," I went on. "Sometimes when I'm in the bath, I rub my finger across it, and . . . it's just a tiny ridge, really. About like this."

I rubbed one of my knuckles with my index finger and held it out for the Doctor to do the same. He brought his hand up; but then he hesitated. I saw his eyes jump toward mine. In a moment he drew his hand back and felt his own knuckle instead.

"A cut of that sort should have healed smoothly," he told me.

"Perhaps it isn't as big as I've said. After all, my leg is very . . . well, sensitive, you see. Even just a drop of rain falling onto it is enough to make me shudder!"

I'm not going to pretend any of this made sense. A bump wouldn't seem bigger just because my leg was sensitive; and anyway, when was the last time I'd felt a drop of rain on my bare leg? But now that I understood why Dr. Crab was really interested in me, I suppose I was half-disgusted and half-fascinated as I tried to imagine what was going on in his mind. In any case, the Doctor cleared his throat and leaned toward me.

"And . . . have you been practicing?"

"Practicing?"

"You sustained the injury when you lost your balance while you were . . . well, you see what I mean. You don't want that to happen again. So I expect you've been practicing. But how does one practice such a thing?"

After this, he leaned back and closed his eyes. It was clear to me he expected to hear an answer longer than simply a word or two.

"Well, you'll think me very silly, but every night ..." I began; and then I had to think for a moment. The silence dragged on, but the Doctor never opened his eyes. He seemed to me like a baby bird just waiting for the mother's beak. "Every night," I went on, "just before I step into the bath, I practice balancing in a variety of positions. Sometimes I have to shiver from the cold air against my bare skin; but I spend five or ten minutes that way."

The Doctor cleared his throat, which I took as a good sign.

"First I try balancing on one foot, and then the other. But the trouble is . . ."

Up until this point, the Baron, on the opposite side of the platform from me, had been talking with his other guests; but now he ended his story. The next words I spoke were as clear as if I'd stood at a podium and announced them.

"... when I don't have any clothing on-"

I clapped a hand over my mouth, but before I could think of what to do, the Baron spoke up. "My goodness!" he said. "Whatever you two are talking about over there, it certainly sounds more interesting than what we've been saying!"

The men laughed when they heard this. Afterward the Doctor was kind enough to offer an explanation.

"Sayuri-san came to me late last year with a leg injury," he said. "She sustained it when she fell. As a result, I suggested she work at improving her balance."

"She's been working at it very hard," Mameha added. "Those robes are more awkward than they look."

"Let's have her take them off, then!" said one of the men- though of course, it was only a joke, and everyone laughed.

"Yes, I agree!" the Baron said. "I never understand why women bother wearing kimono in the first place. Nothing is as beautiful as a woman without an item of clothing on her body."

"That isn't true when the kimono has been made by my good friend Arashino," Nobu said.

"Not even Arashino's kimono are as lovely as what they cover up," the Baron said, and tried to put his sake cup onto the platform, though it ended up spilling. He wasn't drunk, exactly-though he was certainly much further along in his drinking than I'd ever imagined him. "Don't misunderstand me," he went on. "I think Arashino's robes are lovely. Otherwise he wouldn't be sitting here beside me, now would he? But if you ask me whether I'd rather look at a kimono or a naked woman . . . well!"

"No one's asking," said Nobu. "I myself am interested to hear what sort of work Arashino has been up to lately."

But Arashino didn't have a chance to answer; because the Baron, who was taking a last slurp of sake, nearly choked in his hurry to interrupt.

"Mmm . . . just a minute," he said. "Isn't it true that every man on this earth likes to see a naked woman? I mean, is that what you're saying, Nobu, that the naked female form doesn't interest you?"

"That isn't what I'm saying," Nobu said. "What I'm saying is, I think it's time for us to hear from Arashino exactly what sort of work he's been up to lately."

"Oh, yes, I'm certainly interested too," the Baron said. "But you know, I do find it fascinating that no matter how different we men may seem, underneath it all we're exactly the same. You can't pretend you're above it, Nobu-san. We know the truth, don't we? There isn't a man here who wouldn't pay quite a bit of money just for the cha............

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