A Cherry-flower Idyll

About one hundred years ago, in the old capital of Kyoto, there lived a young man named Taira Shunko. At the time this story opens he was about twenty years of age, of pre-possessing appearance, amiable disposition, and refined tastes, his favourite pastime being the composition of poetry. His father decided that Shunko should finish his education in Yedo, the Eastern capital, where he was accordingly sent. He proved himself an apt scholar, more clever than his comrade-students, which won him the favour of the tutor in whose charge he had been placed.

Some months after his arrival in Yedo, he went to stay at his uncle’s house during convalescence from a slight illness. By the time he was well again the spring had come, and the call of the cherry-flower season found a ready response in Shunko’s heart, so he determined to visit Koganei, a place famous for its cherry trees.

One fine morning he arose at dawn, and, equipped with a small luncheon box and a gourd filled with sake, set out on his way.

In the good old days, as now, Koganei was celebrated for the beauty of its scenery in the springtime. Thousands of spreading trees formed a glorious avenue on either side the blue waters of the River Tama, and when these burst into clouds of diaphanous bloom, visitors from far and near came in crowds to join in the revel of the Queen of Flowers.

Beneath the shade of the over-arching trees, tea-houses were dotted along the banks of the stream. Here, with the shoji[1] hospitably open on all sides, tempting meals of river-trout, bamboo shoots, and fern-curls, and sundry and manifold dainties were served to the pleasure-seeking traveller.

Shunko rested at one of these river-side hostelries, refreshing himself with generous draughts from his gourd, and then opened his tiny luncheon box, the contents of which he supplemented with the delicate river-trout, fresh from the pellucid waters of the stream and artistically prepared by the tea-house cuisine.

Under the influence of wine, the homesickness which had been oppressing his soul gradually took wings; he became merry, and felt as if he were at home in his own beautiful city of Kyoto. He sauntered along under the trees, singing snatches of songs in praise of this favourite flower. On every side the whole world was framed in softest clouds of ethereal bloom, which seemed to waft him along between earth and heaven.

Lost in admiration at the fairy like beauty of the scene, he wandered on and on, oblivious of time, till he suddenly realized that daylight was on the wane. A zephyr sprang up, scattering the petals of the blossoms like a fall of scented snow, and as Shunko gazed around, he became aware that the last visitors had gone, and that he was left alone with only the birds twittering on their way to their nests to remind him that he, too, like the rest of belated humanity, ought to be wending his way home.

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However, sinking down upon a mossy bank beneath a cherry-tree, he became lost in meditation. With the aid of a portable ink-box and brush he composed some stanzas, a rhapsody on the transcendent loveliness of the cherry flowers.

SONG TO THE SPIRIT OF THE CHERRY-BLOSSOM[2]

Throughout the land the Spring doth hold high Court, Obedient to the call from far I come To lay my tribute at thy matchless shrine, To vow allegiance to the Queen of Flowers.

How can I praise aright thy perfume sweet, The heavenly pureness of thy blossom’s snow: Spellbound I linger in thy Kingdom fair That rivets me, love’s prisoner!

Take this poor bud of poesy to thy fragrant breast, There let it hang, symbol of homage true: Ne’er can perfection be acclaimed right, Much less thy beauties, which are infinite! Thy by fragile petals fluttering on my robes Pluck at my heart, and bind me to thy realm.

With fairy fetters—ne’er can I leave thy bowers But worship thee for evermore, my peerless Queen of Flowers!

Having tied the slip of paper to a branch of the tree in whose shade he had been reclining, he turned to retrace his steps, but realized, with a start, that the twilight had merged into darkness, and the pale gleams of the crescent moon were already beginning to illumine the deep blue vault above him. During his abstraction he had wandered off the beaten-track, and was following a totally unknown path which grew more and more intricate among the hills. It had been a long day, and he was growing faint with hunger and weary from fatigue when, just as he was beginning to despair of ever finding an escape from such a labyrinth, suddenly a young girl appeared from the gloom as if by magic! By the fitful light of the lantern she was carrying, Shunko saw that she was very fair and dainty, and concluded that she was in the service of some household of rank. To his surprise she took his presence as a matter of course, and politely addressed him, with many bows:

“My mistress is awaiting you. Please come and I will show you the way.”

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Shunko was still more astonished at these words. He had never been in this wild and unknown place before, and could not imagine what human soul could know and summon him thus, at this late hour.

Suddenly a young girl appeared from the gloom as if by magic!
Suddenly a young girl appeared from the gloom as if by magic!

After a few moment’s silence he inquired of the little messenger, “Who is your mistress?”

“You will understand when you see her,” she replied. “My lady told me that as you had lost your way, I was to come and guide you to her house, so kindly follow me without delay.”

Shunko’s perplexity was only increased by these words, but after reflection, he told himself that probably one of his friends must be living in Koganei without his knowledge, and he decided to follow the fair messenger without further questioning.

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Setting out at a swift pace, she guided him into a small valley, through which a mountain stream was murmuring in its rocky bed. It was a remote and sheltered spot. Presently a turn in the path led them to a tiny dwelling, completely surrounded and over-shadowed by a cluster of cherry-trees in full bloom. The girl stopped before the little bamboo gate. Shunko hesitated, but she turned to him with a smile.

“This is the house where my mistress dwells. Be so good as to enter!”

Shunko obeyed, and passed up a miniature garden to the entrance. Another little maiden appeared with a lighted candle, and ushered Shunko through several anterooms leading to a large guest-chamber, which seemed to be overhanging the crystal waters of a lake, in whose depth, like golden flowers, he could see the reflection of myriad stars. He noticed that the appointments were all of a most sumptuous description. Cherry-blossoms formed the keynote of the decorations; the screens were all planted with the flowering branches, clusters of them adorned the tokonoma; while the high-standing candlesticks were of massive silver, as were also the charcoal braziers, the glow of which drove out the chill of the spring evening. Beautiful crêpe cushions were placed beside the braziers, as if in expectation of a welcome guest; while the perfume of rare incense, mingling with the delicious fragrance of cherry-blossom, floated through the room.

Shunko was too bewildered and too exhausted by his long wanderings to indulge in reflections. With the unreal sensations of an errant hero of a fairy tale, he sank upon the mats and waited, wondering what would happen next. Suddenly, the rustle of silken garments arrested his attention; noiselessly the screens of the room slid back, and the apparition of a beautiful maiden appeared, exquisitely graceful in her trailing robes.

She was in the prime of youth, and could not have been more than seventeen years of age. Her dress, in which the skies of spring seemed to be reflected, was the hue of a rich azure blue, and the crêpe fabric was half concealed beneath sprays of cherry-bloom so deftly worked, and with such a moonlit sheen upon them, that Shunko thought that they must have been woven from the moonbeams of the serene far-off moon for the Goddess of Spring. Her face was so perfect that the wondering guest was speechless at the loveliness of the vision before him. Never had he dreamed of such beauty, although he came from Kyoto, the city of beautiful women.

The fair hostess, noting his embarrassment, laughed softly, as she took her seat beside one of the silver braziers, and with a gentle gesture of the hand assigned him the companion place opposite her.

Bowing to the ground, she said:

“Ever have I lived alone in this place with only the river and the hills for my friends. So that your coming is a great joy and consolation to me. It is my wish to prepare a feast of welcome for you, but alas! in the depths of the woods, there is nothing meet for an honoured guest, but, poor as our entertainment is, I beg you, not to despise it.”

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A servant then appeared bearing trays of delicious dishes, with a golden wine flagon and a crystal cup.

At the sound of her voice, enchantment seemed to weave a subtle net around the bewildered Shunko; a languorous feeling of delight stole over his senses, and he yielded himself to the mysterious charm of the hour.

His lovely hostess proffered to her guest the crystal winecup, and filled it to the brim with amber wine from the golden flask.

As Shunko quaffed it, he thought never had such delicious nectar been tasted by mortal man. He could not resist cup after cup, till gradually all apprehension of the unknown surroundings passed away, and a strange gladness filled his heart as he succumbed to the charm of the hour, while servants silently went to and fro bearing fresh and tempting dainties to lay before him.

While they were conversing happily together the lady left his side, and seating herself beside the koto, began to sing a wild and beautiful air. Strange and wonderful to relate, the song was none other than the self-same poem which Shunko had composed that very evening, and had left fluttering from the branch of the cherry-tree beneath whose canopy of bloom he had rested. Falling completely under the bewitchment of his surroundings, Shunko felt that he wished to stay there for evermore, and a pang smote his breast at the thought that he soon must separate, if only for a few hours, from his mystic lady of the vale of cherry-blossoms.

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As the last plaintive chord throbbed into silence, a chime in the next room struck two in the morning.

Laying the instrument aside, she said:

“At this late hour it is impossible for you to return home to-night. Everything is prepared in the next room. Honourably deign to rest. Forgive me that I cannot entertain you in a more befitting manner, in this, our poor home.”

Attendants then entering, the screens were drawn aside for their guest, and he passed into the adjoining chamber, which had been prepared as a sleeping apartment. Sinking to rest among the silken coverlets and luxurious quilts, he was soon lost in heavy slumber.

His beautiful hostess, seating herself beside the koto began to sing a wild and beautiful air
His beautiful hostess, seating herself beside the koto began to sing a wild and beautiful air

Suddenly, in the morning, he was awakened by a cold wind blowing across his face. Day had broken, and the rosy dawn was flushing the horizon in the east. Slowly returning to his senses, he found himself lying on the ground beneath the very cherry-tree that had inspired his poem of the day before; but his wonderful adventure, his charming hostess, and her waiting maidens were no more! Shunko, lost in wonder, recalled over and over again the glowing memories of the preceding evening, but the vision had been so vivid that he felt assured it must have been something more than the mere phantoms of a dream. An overpowering conviction crept over him that the lovely maiden had her living counterpart in this world of realities.

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From his earliest childhood he had always offered a special devotion to the cherry-flowers. Year after year, in the springtime, he had taken special joy in visiting some place noted for their blossoms. Could it be that the spirit of the cherry-tree, to whose beauty he had dedicated his poem, had appeared to him in human form to reward him for his life-long fidelity?

At last he rose and stretched his cramped limbs, and musing only on the vanished wonders of the night, wandered aimlessly along. At length he regained the main road and slowly turned his errant footsteps towards home.

Although he took up his usual life again, he could not forget his experiences in the cherry-blossom valley, they haunted him not only in the silent watches of the night, but in the bright noontide of day. Three days later he returned to Koganei, with the fond hope of evoking once again the longed-for vision of the lovely girl who had so bewitched him with her beauty and her charm.

But, alas for human hopes! In those short days all had changed. What so ephemeral as the reign of the cherry-flower in the spring! Grey were the skies that had been so blue and fair; bleak and deserted was the scene that had been so gay and full of life; bare of blossom, and stripped of their fairy beauty were the trees, whose petals of blushing-snow the relentless wind had scattered far and wide.

As before, he rested at the same little tea-house by the river and waited for the shades of evening to fall. Roaming about in the deepening twilight, he anxiously sought some sign or token, but vain were all his efforts to find the valley of dream again. Vanished was the little dwelling in the shadow of the cherry groves. Nowhere by unfamiliar paths could he find the fair messenger who had guided him to the bamboo gate. All had faded and suffered change.

Year after year, in the springtime, did Shunko make a pilgrimage of loving memory to the same spot, but though his faithfulness was never rewarded by a sight of her, who had so completely taken possession of his heart and soul, yet the flower of hope never faded, and firm was his resolution, that none other than the maiden of Koganei should ever be his wife.

About five years passed. Then a sudden summons from his home arrived, bearing the sorrowful tidings that his father had been stricken with severe illness, and begging him to return without delay.

That very day he made all arrangements, and disposed of his few student’s belongings in readiness to set out at daybreak.

It happened to be the season of autumn when, in the Orient, the deer cries for its mate in the flaming maple glades of the forest, and a young man’s heart[3] is filled with what the Japanese call mono no aware wo shiru (“the Ah-ness of things”).

Shunko was sad. He yearned for the lovely girl who had so bewitched him, and in addition to this sorrow his heart was heavy at the thought of his father’s illness.

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As Shunko proceeded on his journey his depression increased, and sadly he repeated aloud the following lines:

Cold as the wind of early spring Chilling the buds that still lie sheathed In their brown armour with its sting, And the bare branches withering— So seems the human heart to me!

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Cold as the March wind’s bitterness; I am alone, none comes to see Or cheer me in these days of stress.

Now it chanced that an old man heard this mournful recital, and took pity on Shunko.

“Pray pardon a stranger intruding upon your privacy,” said the old man, “but we sometimes take a gloomy view of life for want of good cheer. It may be that you have travelled far and are footsore and weary. If that is so, be honourably pleased to accept rest and refreshment in my humble house in yonder valley.”

Shunko was pleased with the old man’s kindly manner, and warmly accepted his hospitality.

After a hearty meal and a long chat with the old man, Shunko retired to bed.

The youth had no sooner closed his eyes than he found himself dreaming of Koganei and of the beautiful woman he had met there. A gentle breeze was full of the scent of flowers. He noticed a cloud of cherry-blossom falling like a little company of white butterflies to the ground. While watching so pleasing a scene he observed a strip of paper hanging to one of the lower branches. He advanced close to the tree to discover that some one had written a poem on the wind-blown paper.

A thrill passed through him as he read the words:

Lingers still the past within thy memory, East of the Temple let thy footsteps stray And there await thy destiny!

Earnestly he repeated the lines over and over again, and awoke to find himself still reciting the little verse that seemed so full of meaning. Deeply he pondered over his dream. How could he solve the enigmatic message it surely bore for him? What did it portend?

The next day he set out on his journey to the west. His father was in the last stages of his malady, and the doctors had given up all hope of his recovery. In a few weeks the old man died, and Shunko succeeded to the estate. It was a sad winter, and the young man with his widowed mother, were secluded in the house for some months, observing the strictest retirement during the period of mourning.

But youth soon recovers from its griefs, and by the time that April had come with the dear beguilement of her blue skies and flowering landscapes, Shunko, in company with an old friend, set out to assuage his sorrows in the viewing of his favourite cherry-trees, and to find balm for his soul in the golden sunshine of spring. His father’s death, and the business of attending to the affairs of succession, had left him but little leisure for vain regrets, and the family upheaval he had experienced the last few months had somewhat dimmed the memory of the mysterious dream, which had come to him the night before his return home.

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But now, with a strange and eerie sensation, he realized that, unwittingly, Fate had guided their footsteps to the Eastern Mountain, and that the way they had chosen was East of the Temple Chionin. The message on the scroll flashed into his mind as he sauntered along:

Lingers still the past within thy memory? East of the Temple let thy footsteps stray, And there await thy destiny!

By this time they had reached the famous avenue of cherry-trees, and the pearly mist of bloom, that seemed to envelope them like a fragrant cloud, at once recalled to Shunko’s mind how striking was the resemblance this fairy-like spot bore to Koganei.

Just at that moment he espied a small glittering object lying on the ground at the root of one of the cherry-trees. It proved to be a golden ring, and engraven on it was the hieroglyphic “Hana,” which may be interpreted as meaning either “Flower” or “Cherry-Blossom.”

As the afternoon began to wane they came to a tea-house, which seemed to look especially inviting, and here they rested and refreshed their weariness as the shadows gradually lengthened into the twilight.

In the next room were two or three girls’ voices talking gaily together, and their laughter sounded soft and musical as it floated out into the balmy air of that soft evening of spring.

By degrees Shunko found himself overhearing snatches of their conversation, and at length he distinctly caught the words:

“The day has been a perfect one except for one little cloud. O Hana San’s ring….”

Then a silvery voice made answer: “The mere loss of the ring is nothing, but as it bears my name, it grieves me that it should fall into the hands of a stranger.”

At these words Shunko impetuously rose and entered the adjoining chamber.

“Pardon me,” he cried, “but can this be the lost ring?” and he held out to the little group the trinket which he had found beneath the cherry-tree that afternoon.

The youngest of the trio, a graceful girl of about seventeen or eighteen summers, bowed to the ground, murmuring her thanks, while an elderly woman, who was evidently her foster-nurse, came forward to receive the missing treasure.

As the young girl raised her head, Shunko felt a thrilling shock of recognition quiver through his frame. At last the gods had granted his fervent prayers. Before him, as a living and breathing reality, he beheld the long sought maiden of the vision at Koganei. The room, its occupants, and all around him faded away, and his soul was wafted back through the vista of years to the lonely valley of dreams, so far away.

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This, then, was the significance of the mystic writing in the deserted house, that now he had served his term of probation and was at last deemed worthy of the beloved one for whom he had waited and longed for so many years.

The elderly nurse was aware of his embarrassment, and tactfully attempted to come to his aid. She proffered wine and refreshments, and made several inquiries as to where he had found the ring and where he lived.

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After replying to these queries, Shunko, who was in no mood for talking, withdrew with deep obeisances, and slowly wended his way homewards, lost in abstraction.

Oh, the delight of it! To be alone with his reverie and thoughts of her, whom he had scarcely hoped to see again, the lady of his dreams! Both head and heart were in a whirl. And the wonder of his adventure kept him awake through the midnight darkness. Only at the break of dawn did he fall into a troubled sleep.

Towards noon his belated slumbers were disturbed by a servant, who came to announce the advent of a visitor, who urgently desired an interview. He arose in haste, and there awaiting him in the guest-room was the foster-nurse of the day before. Rich gifts of silk lay on the mats, and with the explanation that she had been sent by the parents of her young charge, she came to express their thanks for the incident of the day before.

When the formalities of greeting were exchanged, Shunko could no longer keep silence regarding the subject nearest his heart, and begged the nurse to tell him, in confidence, all she could concerning O Hana San.

“My young mistress belongs to a knightly family. There are three children in all, but she is the only girl, and the youngest child. She is just seventeen years of age, and is quite renowned for her beauty, which, as you have seen her, you may perhaps understand. Many have ardently desired her hand in marriage, but hitherto all have been declined. She cares nothing for worldly things and devotes herself to study.”

“Why does she refuse to marry?” asked the young man, with a beating heart.

“Ah! there is a strange reason for that!” replied the nurse, and her voice dropped to a whisper. “Several years ago, when she was not much more than a child, her mother and I took her to visit the beautiful Kiyomidzu Temple in the springtime to see the cherry-flowers. As you know, Kwannon, the Goddess of Mercy of that temple, takes under her protection all lovers who pray to her for a happy union, and the railings round her shrine are white with the tying of paper-prayer love-knots innumerable. O Hana’s mother told me afterwards that when we passed before Kwannon’s altar, she had offered up a special prayer for her daughter’s future happiness in marriage.

“While we were walking in the vicinity of the waterfall below the temple, we suddenly lost sight of Hana for a few minutes. It seems that, wrapt in wonder at the beauty of the blossoming trees, she had strayed away, and was listening to the foaming water as it dashed over the boulders of rock. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew over us. It was icy cold! We looked round for O Hana San, and you can imagine the fear that seized our hearts when we found that she had disappeared. In a frenzy of anxiety I ran hither and thither, and at last caught sight of her prostrate on the ground at some distance away. She had fallen into a deep faint near the cascade, and was lying there pale and senseless, and drenched with spray. We carried her to the nearest tea-house, and tried every means in our power to restore her to consciousness, but she remained sunk in a deep swoon all through that long, long day. Her mother wept, fearing that she was dead. When the sun set and no change took place, we were lost in the anguish of despair. All of a sudden an old priest appeared before us. Staff in hand, and clad in ancient and dilapidated garments, he seemed an apparition from some past and bygone age. He gazed long at the senseless girl, lying white and cold in the semblance of death, and then sank on his knees by her side, absorbed in silent prayer, now and again gently stroking her inanimate body with his rosary.

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“All through the night we watched thus by O Hana San, and never did hours seem so interminable or so black. At last, towards the dawn, success crowned the old man’s efforts; the spell that had so mysteriously changed her youth and bloom into a pallid mask, was gradually exorcised, her spirit returned, and with a gentle sigh, O Hana San was restored to life.

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“Her mother was transported with joy. When she was able to speak, she murmured, ‘Praise be to the mercy of the holy Kwannon of Kiyomidzu!’ and again and again she expressed her fervent gratitude to the queer priest.

An old priest suddenly appeared ... staff in hand and clad in ancient and dilapidated garments
An old priest suddenly appeared … staff in hand and clad in ancient and dilapidated garments

“In answer he took from the folds of his robe a poem-card, which he handed to my mistress.

“‘This,’ said he, ‘was written by your daughter’s future bridegroom. In a few years he will come to claim her, therefore keep this poem as the token.’

“With these words he disappeared as unexpectedly and mysteriously as he had come. Great was our desire to know more of the meaning of those fateful words, but though we made inquiries of everyone in the temple grounds, not a soul had seen a trace of the ancient priest. O Hana San seemed none the worse for her long swoon, and we returned home, marvelling greatly at the extraordinary events that had happened to us that day and night in the temple of Kiyomidzu.

“From that time onwards I noticed a great change in O Hana San. She was no longer a child. Though only thirteen years of age, she grew serious and thoughtful, and studied her books with great diligence. In music she especially excelled, and all were astonished at her great talent. As she grew in years, her amiability and charm became quite noted in the neighbourhood: her mother realizes that she is at the zenith of her youth and beauty, and, many a time, has tried to find the author of the poem, but hitherto her efforts have been of no avail.

“Yesterday we had the good fortune to meet you, and if you will forgive my boldness, it seemed to me as though Fate had especially directed you to my foster-child. On our return home, we related all that had befallen us to my mistress. She listened to our recital with deep agitation, and then exclaimed, with joy: ‘Thanks be to Heaven I At last the long-sought for one has come!'”

Shunko felt as if in a trance. Full well he knew that the Gods had guided his footsteps to their yearned-for goal, and the maiden to whom he had restored the little golden circlet, was none other than the one for whom his heart had hungered for many years.

It was, indeed, a supreme Fate that had linked their lives in one.

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In taking farewell of the old nurse, Shunko entrusted to her his message to his bride-elect—the mysterious token of affinity composed beneath the cherry-tree five years ago.

There was no longer any doubt but that O Hana’s destiny was indeed fulfilled. The bridegroom, foretold by the age-old priest, had come at last. Her mother’s prayer offered up at the temple of the Kwannon of Kiyomidzu had been heard. Both parents rejoiced at the happy fate that the Powers above had vouchsafed to their beloved child, an eminent sooth-sayer was consulted, and a specially auspicious day was chosen for the wedding.

When the excitement of the bridal feast was over and Shunko was left alone with his lovely bride, he noticed that her wedding-robe of turquoise blue, scattered over with embroideries of her name-flower, was the self-same one that had been worn by his visionary hostess; and, moreover, comparisons proved that the date of her long trance at Kiyomidzu was identical with that of his prophetic vision at Koganei.

A great gladness filled the bridegroom’s heart, for he felt that in some mystical way his bride and dream-love were one and the same incarnate. The spirit of the cherry-tree had surely entered into Hana when she had lost consciousness at the Kiyomidzu temple, and En-musubi no Kami, the God of Marriage, had assumed the disguise of the old priest, and with the magnetic threads of love, had woven their destinies together.

And Shunko tenderly caressed his bride, saying:

“I have known and loved and waited for you ever since your spirit came to me from the Kiyomidzu temple.”

And he told her all that had befallen him at Koganei.

The young lovers thereupon pledged their love to each other for many lives to come, and lived blissfully to the end of their days.

Footnotes

[1] Shoji, the sliding screens which take the place of doors in a Japanese house.

[2] Rendered into English verse by my friend, Countess Iso-ko-Mutsu.

[3] At this point there is a break in Madame Ozaki’s MS., and the gap has been filled up by another hand. Madame Ozaki resumes her story with “A thrill passed through him….”.

A Cherry-flower Idyll – Romances of Old Japan

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