The Lady of the Picture

Many years ago, long before the present prosaic era, there lived in Yedo a young man named Toshika. His family belonged to the aristocratic rank of the hatamoto samurai, those knights who possessed the right to march to battle directly under the Shogun’s flag (hata), and his father was a high official in the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Toshika, whose disposition was of a dreamy and indolent nature with scholarly tastes, had no occupation. He took life easily, and when his studies were finished, he went to live at the family villa situated in the suburb of Aoyama.

Toshika was not interested in society, and except for an occasional visit to his home or to his favourite friend, he never went anywhere. Far from the world he spent his days quietly and pleasantly, reading books, tending and watering his flowers, practising the tea-ceremony, and composing poetry and playing on the flute. He was a young man of many accomplishments and studied art. He collected curios and specimens of well-known calligraphy, which all Japanese prize greatly, and he particularly delighted in pictures.

One day a certain friend whom Toshika had not seen for several months, came to call upon him. He had just returned from a visit to the seaport of Nagasaki and knowing the young man’s tastes had brought with him, as a present, a Chinese drawing of a beautiful woman, which he begged Toshika to accept.

Toshika was very pleased with this acquisition to his treasures. He examined the painting carefully, and though he could find no signature of the artist, his knowledge of the subject told him that it was probably drawn by the well-known Chinese painter of the Shin era.

It was the portrait of a young woman in the prime of youth, and Toshika felt intuitively that it was a real likeness. The face was one of radiant loveliness, and the longer he gazed at it, the more the charm and fascination of it grew upon him. He carried it to his own room and hung it up in the alcove. Whenever he felt lonely he retired to the solitude of his chamber, and sat for hours before the drawing, looking at it and even addressing it. As the days went by, gradually the picture seemed to glow with life and Toshika began to think of it as a person. He wondered who the original of the portrait could have been, and said that he envied the artist who had been granted the happiness of looking upon her beauty.

Daily the figure seemed more alive and the face more exquisite, and Toshika, as he gazed in rapture upon it, longed to know its history. The haunting pathos of the expression and the speaking wistfulness of the dark soft eyes called to his heart like music and gave him no peace.

Toshika, in fact, became enamoured of the lovely image suspended in the alcove, and as the infatuation grew upon him he placed fresh flowers before it, changing them daily. At night he had his quilts[1] so arranged that the last thing he looked upon before closing his eyes in sleep was the lady of the picture.

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Toshika had read many strange stories of the supernatural power of great artists. He knew that they were able to paint the minds of the originals into their portraits, whether of human beings or of creatures, so that through the spiritual force of the merit of their skill the pictures became endowed with life.

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As the passion grew upon him the young lover believed that the spirit of the woman whom the portrait represented actually lived in the picture. As this thought formed itself in his mind he fancied that he could see the gentle rise and fall of her breast in breathing, and that her pretty lips, bright as the scarlet pomegranate bud, appeared to move as if about to speak to him.

One evening he was so filled with the sense of the reality of her presence that he sat down and composed a Chinese poem in praise of her beauty.

And the meaning of the high-flown diction ran something like this: Thy beauty, sweet, is like the sun-flower:[2]

The crescent moon of three nights old thy arched brows: Thy lips the cherry’s dewy petals at flush of dawn: Twin flakes of fresh-fallen snow thy dainty hands. Blue-black, as raven’s wing, thy clustering hair: And as the sun half peers through rifts of cloud, Gleams through thy robes the wonder of thy form.. Thy cheeks’ dear freshness do bewilder me, So pure, so delicate, rose-misted ivory: And, like a sharp sword, pierce my breast The glamour of thy dark eyes’ messages.

Ah, as I gaze upon thy pictured form I feel therein thy spirit is enshrined, Surely thou liv’st and know’st my love for thee! The one who unawares so dear a gift bestowed Was verily the gods’ own messenger And sent by Heaven to link our souls in one.

‘Tis sad that thou wert borne from thine own distant land Far from thy race, and all who cherished thee; Thy heart must lonely pine so far away, In sooth thou need’st a mate to love and cherish thee.

But sorrow not, my picture love, For Time’s care-laden wings will never dim thy brow From poisoned darts of Fate so placidly immune; Anguish and grief will ne’er corrode thy heart, And never will thy beauty suffer change: While earthly beings wither and decay Sickness and care will ever pass thee by, For Art can grant where Love is impotent, And dowers thee with immortality.

Ah me! could the high gods but grant the prayer Of my wild heart, and passionate desire! Step down from out thy cloistered niche, Step down from out thy picture on the wall! My soul is thirsting for thy presence fair To crown my days with rapture—be my wife! How swift the winged hours would then pass by In bliss complete, and lovers’ ecstasy: My life, dear queen, I dedicate to thee, Ah! make it thus a thousand lives to me![3]

Toshika smiled to himself at the wild impossibility of his own chimera. Such a hope as he had breathed to her and to himself belonged to the realm of reverie, and not to the hard world of everyday life. Supposing that beautiful creature to have ever lived and the portrait to be a true likeness of her, she must have died ages ago, long before ever he was born.

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However, having written the poem carefully, he placed it above the scroll and read it aloud, apostrophizing the lady of the picture.

It was the delicious season of spring, and Toshika sat with the sliding screens open to the garden. The fragrance of peach blossoms was wafted into the room by the breath of a gentle wind, and as the light of day faded into a soft twilight, over the quiet and secluded scene a crescent moon shed her tender jewel-bright radiance. Toshika felt unaccountably happy, he could not tell why and sat alone, reading and thinking deep into the night. Suddenly, in the stillness of the midnight, a rustle behind him in the alcove caused him to turn round quickly. What was his breathless amazement to see that the picture had actually taken life. The beautiful woman he so much admired detached herself from the paper on which she was depicted, stepped down on to the mats, and came gliding lightly towards him. He scarcely dared to breathe. Nearer and nearer she approached till she knelt opposite to where he sat by his desk. Saluting him she bowed profoundly.

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The ravishment of her beauty and her charm held him speechless. He could not but look at her, for she was lovelier than anyone he had ever seen.

At last she spoke, and her voice sounded to him like the low, clear notes of the nightingale warbling in the plum-blossom groves at twilight.

“I have come to thank you for your love and devotion. Such a useless, ugly[4] creature as myself ought not to be so audacious as to appear before you, but the virtue of your poem was irresistible and drew me forth. I was so moved by your sympathy that I felt I must tell you in person of my gratitude for all your care and thought of me. If you really think of me as you have written, let me stay with you always.”

Toshika rejoiced greatly when he heard these words. He put out his hand and taking hers said, “Ever since you came here I have loved you dearly. Consent to be my wife and we shall be happy evermore. Tell me your name and who you are and where you come from.”

She answered with a smile inexpressibly sweet, while the tears glistened in her eyes.

“My name is Shorei (Little Beauty). My father’s name is Sai. He was descended from the famous Kinkei. We lived in China at a place called Kinyo. One day, when I was eighteen years of age, bandits came and made a raid on our village and, with other fair women, carried me away. Thus I was separated from my parents and never saw them more. For many months I was carried from place to place and led a wandering life. Then, alas! who could have foretold it, I was seized by bad men and sold into slavery. The sorrow, the anguish and the horror I suffered in my helpless misery and homesickness you can never know. I longed every hour of the day for some tidings of my parents, for even now, I do not know what became of them. One day an artist came to the house of my captivity and looking at all the women there, he praised my face and described me as the Moon among the Stars. And he painted my picture and showed it to all his friends. In that way I became famous, for everyone talked of my beauty and came to see me. But I could not bear my life, and being delicate, my unhappy lot and the uncertainty of my father’s and mother’s fate preyed upon my mind, so that I sickened and died in six months. This is the whole of my sad history. And now I have come to your country and to you. This must be because of a predestined affinity between us.”

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The young man’s heart was filled with compassion as he listened to the sorrowful tale of the unfortunate woman, who had told him all her woes.

He felt that he loved her more than ever and that he must make up with his devotion for all the wretchedness she had suffered in the past.

They then began to compose poems together, and Toshika found that Shorei had had a literary education, that she was an adept in calligraphy and every kind of poetical composition. And his heart was filled with a great gladness that he had found a companion after his own heart.

They both became intensely interested in their poetical contest and as they composed they read their compositions aloud in turn, comparing and criticizing each other. At last, while Toshika was in the act of reciting a poem to Shorei, he suddenly awoke and found that he had been dreaming.

Unable to believe that his delightful experiences were but the memories of sleep he turned to the alcove. His cherished picture was hanging there and the lovely figure was limned as usual in living lines upon the paper. Was it all a delusion? As he watched the exquisite face before him, recalling with questioning wonder the events of the evening before, behold! the sweet mouth smiled at him, just as Shorei had smiled in his vision. Impatiently he waited for the darkness, hoping that sleep would again bring Shorei to his side. Night after night she came to him in his dreams, but of his happy adventure he spoke to none. He believed that in some miraculous way the power of poetry had evoked the spirit of the portrait. Centuries ago this ill-fated woman had lived and died an untimely death, and his love led her back to earth through the medium of an artist’s skill and his own verse. Six months passed and Toshika desired nothing more in life than to possess Shorei as his bride for all the years to come.

When I was eighteen years of age, bandits ... made a raid on one village and ... carried me away
When I was eighteen years of age, bandits … made a raid on one village and … carried me away

He never dreamed of change, but at last, one night, Shorei came looking very sad. She sat by his desk as was her wont, but instead of conversing or composing she began to weep.

Toshika was very troubled, for he had never seen her in such a mood.

“Tell me,” he said anxiously, “What is the matter? Are you not happy with me?”

“Ah, it is not that,” answered Shorei, hiding her face in her sleeve and sobbing; “never have I dreamed of such happiness as you have given me. It is because we are so happy that I cannot bear the pain of separation for a single night. But I must now leave you, alas! Our affinity in this world has come to an end.”

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Toshika could hardly believe her words. He looked at her in great distress as he asked: “Why must we part? You are my wife and I will never marry any other woman. Tell me why you speak of parting?”

“To-morrow you will understand,” she answered mysteriously. “We may meet no more now, but if you do not forget me I may see you again ere long.”

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Toshika had put out a hand and made as if to detain her, but she had risen and was gliding towards the alcove, and while he imploringly gazed at her she gradually faded from his sight and was gone.

Words cannot describe Toshika’s despair. He felt that all the joy of life went with Shorei, and he could not endure the idea of living without her.

Slowly he opened his eyes and looked round the room. He heard the sparrows twittering on the roof, and in the light of dawn, as he thought, the night-lantern’s flame dwindled to a fire-fly’s spark.

He rose and rolled back the wooden storm-doors which shut the house in completely at night, and found that he had slept late, that the sun was already high in the heavens.

Listlessly he performed his toilet, listlessly he took his meal, and his old servants anxiously went about their work, fearing that their master was ill.

In the afternoon a friend came to call on Toshika. After exchanging the usual formalities on meeting, the visitor suddenly said:

“You are now of an age to marry. Will you not take a bride? I know of a lovely girl who would just suit you, and I have come to consult with you on the matter.”

Toshika politely but firmly excused himself. “Do not trouble yourself on my account, I pray you! I have not the slightest intention of marrying any woman at present, thank you,” and he shook his head with determination.

The would-be go-between saw from the expression of Toshika’s face that there was little hope in pressing his suit that day, so after a few commonplace remarks he took his leave and went home.

No sooner had the friend departed than Toshika’s mother arrived. She, as usual, brought many gifts of things that she knew he liked, boxes of his favourite cakes and silk clothes for the spring season. Grateful for all her love and care, he thanked her affectionately and tried to appear bright and cheerful during her visit. But his heart was aching, and he could think of nothing but of the loss of Shorei, wondering if her farewell was final, or whether, as she vaguely hinted, she would come to him again. He said to himself that to hold her in his arms but once again he would gladly give the rest of his life.

His mother noticed his preoccupation and looked at him anxiously many times. At last she dropped her voice and said: “Toshika, listen to me! Your father and I both think that you have arrived at an age when you ought to marry. You are our eldest son, and before we die we wish to see your son, and to feel sure that the family name will be carried on as it should be. We know of a beautiful girl who will make a perfect wife for you. She is the daughter of an old friend, and her parents are willing to give her to you. We only want your consent to the arrangement of the marriage.”

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Toshika, as his mother unfolded the object of her visit, understood the meaning of Shorei’s warning, and said to himself:

“Ah, this is what Shorei meant—she foresaw my marriage, for she said that to-day I should understand; but she pledged herself at the same time to see me again—it is all very strange!”

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Feeling that his fate was come upon him he consented to his mother’s proposal.

She returned home delighted. She had had little doubt of her son’s conformance to his parents’ wishes, for he had always been of a tractable disposition. In anticipation, therefore, of his consent to the marriage, she had already bought the necessary betrothal presents, and the very next day these were exchanged between the two families.

Toshika, in the meantime, watched the picture day by day. This was his only consolation, for Shorei, his beloved, visited him no more in his dreams. His life was desolate without her and his heart yearned for her sweet presence.

Had it not been for her promise to come to him again he knew that he would not care to live. He felt, however, that she still loved him and in some way or other would keep her promise to him, and for this waited. Of his approaching marriage he did not dare to think. He was a filial son, and knew that he must fulfil his duty to his parents and to the family.

When the bride was led into the room and seated opposite Toshika, what was his bewildering delight to see that she was ... the lady-love of his picture
When the bride was led into the room and seated opposite Toshika, what was his bewildering delight to see that she was … the lady-love of his picture

As the days went by Toshika noticed that the picture lost by degrees its wonderful vitality. Slowly from the face the winning expression and from the figure the tints of life faded out, till at last the drawing became just like an ordinary picture. But he was left no time to pine over the mystery of the change, for a summons from his mother called him home to prepare for the marriage. He found the whole household teeming with the importance of the approaching event. At last the momentous day dawned.

His mother, proud of the product of her looms, set out in array his wedding robes, handwoven by herself. He donned them as in a dream, and then received the congratulations of his relatives and retainers and servants.

In those old days the bride and bridegroom never saw each other till the wedding ceremony. When the bride was led into the room and seated opposite Toshika, what was his bewildering delight to see that she was no stranger but the lady-love of his picture, the very same woman he had already taken to wife in his dream life.

And yet she was not quite the same, for when Toshika, a few days later, joyfully led her to his own home and compared her with the portrait, she was even ten times more beautiful.

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[1] The floor of the Japanese room is padded with special grass mats over two inches thick. On these the bed quilts are laid out at night and packed away in cupboards in the daytime.

[2] Prumus Umé, or Plum blossom, the Japanese symbol of womanly virtue and beauty.

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

[4] It is a Japanese custom for a woman to speak thus depreciatingly of herself.

The Lady of the Picture – Romances of Old Japan

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