The Spirit of the Lantern

Some three hundred years ago, in the province of Kai and the town of Aoyagi, there lived a man named Koharu Tomosaburo, of well-known ancestry. His grandfather had been a retainer of Ota Dokan,[1] the founder of Yedo, and had committed suicide when his lord fell in battle.

This brave clansman’s grandson was Tomosaburo, who, when this story begins, had been happily married for many years to a woman of the same province and was the proud father of a son some ten years of age.

At this time it happened, one day, that his wife fell suddenly ill and was unable to leave her bed. Physicians were called in but had to acknowledge themselves baffled by the curious symptoms of the patient: to relieve the paroxysms of pain from which she suffered, Moxa was applied and burned in certain spots down her back. But half a month passed by and the anxious household realized that there was no change for the better in the mysterious malady that was consuming her: day by day she seemed to lose ground and waste away.

Tomosaburo was a kind husband and scarcely left her bedside: day and night he tenderly ministered to his stricken wife, and did all in his power to alleviate her condition.

One evening, as he was sitting thus, worn out with the strain of nursing and anxiety, he fell into a doze. Suddenly there came a change in the light of the standing-lantern, it flushed a brilliant red, then flared up into the air to the height of at least three feet, and within the crimson pillar of flame there appeared the figure of a woman. Tomosaburo gazed in astonishment at the apparition, who thus addressed him:

“Your anxiety concerning your wife’s illness is well-known to me, therefore I have come to give you some good advice. The affliction with which she is visited is the punishment for some faults in her character. For this reason she is possessed of a devil. If you will worship me as a god, I will cast out the tormenting demon.”

Now Tomosaburo was a brave, strong-minded samurai, to whom the sensation of fear was totally unknown.

He glared fiercely at the apparition, and then, half unconsciously, turned for the samurai’s only safeguard, his sword, and drew it from its sheath. The sword is regarded as sacred by the Japanese knight and was supposed to possess the occult power assigned to the sign of the cross in mediæval Europe—that of exorcising evil.

The spirit laughed superciliously when she saw his action.

“No motive but the kindest of intentions brought me here to proffer you my assistance in your trouble, but without the least appreciation of my goodwill you show this enmity towards me. However, your wife’s life shall pay the penalty,” and with these malicious words the phantom disappeared.

He glared fiercely at the apparition, and then, half unconsciously, turned for the samurai's only safeguard, his sword
He glared fiercely at the apparition, and then, half unconsciously, turned for the samurai’s only safeguard, his sword

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From that hour the unhappy woman’s sufferings increased, and to the distress of all about her, she seemed about to draw her last breath.

Her husband was beside himself with grief. He realized at once what a false move he had made in driving away the friendly spirit in such an uncouth and hostile manner, and, now thoroughly alarmed at his wife’s desperate plight, he was willing to comply with any demand, however strange. He thereupon prostrated himself before the family shrine and addressed fervent prayers to the Spirit of the Lantern, humbly imploring her pardon for his thoughtless and discourteous behaviour.

From that very hour the invalid began to mend, and steadily improving day by day, her normal health was soon entirely regained, until it seemed to her as though her long and strange illness had been but an evil dream.

One evening after her recovery, when the husband and wife were sitting together and speaking joyfully of her unexpected and almost miraculous restoration to health, the lantern flared up as before and in the column of brilliant light the form of the spirit again appeared.

“Notwithstanding your unkind reception of me the last time I came, I have driven out the devil and saved your wife’s life. In return for this service I have come to ask a favour of you, Tomosaburo San,” said the spirit. “I have a daughter who is now of a marriageable age. The reason of my visit is to request you to find a suitable husband for her.”

“But I am a human being,” remonstrated the perplexed man, “and you are a spirit! We belong to different worlds, and a wide and impassable gulf separates us. How would it be possible for me to do as you wish?”

“It is an easier matter than you imagine,” replied the spirit. “All you have to do is to take some blocks of kiri-wood [Paulownia Imperialist] and to carve out from them several little figures of men; when they are finished I will bestow upon one of them the hand of my daughter.”

“If that is all, then it is not so difficult as I thought, and I will undertake to do as you wish,” assented Tomosaburo, and no sooner had the spirit vanished than he opened his tool box and set to work upon the appointed task with such alacrity that in a few days he had fashioned out in miniature several very creditable effigies of the desired bridegroom, and when the wooden dolls were completed he laid them out in a row upon his desk.

The next morning, on awaking, he lost no time in ascertaining what had befallen the quaint little figures, but apparently they had found favour with the spirit, for all had disappeared during the night. He now hoped that the strange and supernatural visitant would trouble them no more, but the next night she again appeared:

“Owing to your kind assistance my daughter’s future is settled. As a mark of our gratitude for the trouble you have taken, we earnestly desire the presence of both yourself and your wife at the marriage feast. When the time arrives promise to come without fail.”

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By this time Tomosaburo was thoroughly wearied of these ghostly visitations and considered it highly obnoxious to be in league with such weird and intangible beings, yet fully aware of their powers of working evil, he dared not offend them. He racked his brains for some way of escape from this uncanny invitation, but before he could frame any reply suitable to the emergency, and while he was hesitating, the spirit vanished.

Long did the perplexed man ponder over the strange situation, but the more he thought the more embarrassed he became: and there seemed no solution of his dilemma.

The next night the spirit again returned.

“As I had the honour to inform you, we have prepared an entertainment at which your presence is desired. All is now in readiness. The wedding ceremony has taken place and the assembled company await your arrival with impatience. Kindly follow me at once!” and the wraith made imperious gestures to Tomosaburo and his wife to accompany her. With a sudden movement she darted from the lantern flame and glided out of the room, now and again looking back with furtive glances to see that they were surely following—and thus they passed, the spirit guiding them, along the passage to the outer porch.

The idea of accepting the spirit’s hospitality was highly repugnant to the astonished couple, but remembering the dire consequences of his first refusal to comply with the ghostly visitor’s request, Tomosaburo thought it wiser to simulate acquiescence. He was well aware that in some strange and incomprehensible manner his wife owed her sudden recovery to the spirit’s agency, and for this boon he felt it would be both unseemly and ungrateful—and possibly dangerous—to refuse. In great embarrassment, and at a loss for any plausible excuse, he felt half dazed, and as though all capacity for voluntary action was deserting him.

What was Tomosaburo’s surprise on reaching the entrance to find stationed there a procession, like the train of some great personage, awaiting him. On their appearance the liveried bearers hastened to bring forward two magnificent palanquins of lacquer and gold, and at the same moment a tall man garbed in ceremonial robes advanced and with a deep obeisance requested them not to hesitate, saying:

“Honoured sir, these kago[2] are for your august conveyance—deign to enter so that we may proceed to your destination.”

At the same time the members of the procession and the bearers bowed low, and in curious high-pitched voices all repeated the invitation in a chorus: “Please deign to enter the kago!”

Both Tomosaburo and his wife were not only amazed at the splendour of the escort which had been provided for them, but they realized that what was happening to them was most mysterious, and might have unexpected consequences.

However, it was too late to draw back now, and all they could do was to fall in with the arrangement with as bold a front as they could muster. They both stepped valiantly into the elaborately decorated kago; thereupon the attendants surrounded the palanquins, the bearers raised the shafts shoulder high, and the procession formed in line and set out on its ghostly expedition.

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The night was still and very dark. Thick masses of sable cloud obscured the heavens, with no friendly gleams of moon or stars to illumine their unknown path, and peering through the bamboo blinds nothing met Tomosaburo’s anxious gaze but the impenetrable gloom of the inky sky.

Seated in the palanquins the adventurous couple were undergoing a strange experience. To their mystified senses it did not seem as if the kago was being borne along over the ground in the ordinary manner, but the sensation was as though they were being swiftly impelled by some mysterious unseen force, which caused them to skim through the air like the flight of birds. After some time had elapsed the sombre blackness of the night somewhat lifted, and they were dimly able to discern the curved outlines of a large mansion which they were now approaching, and which appeared to be situated in a spacious and thickly wooded park.

The bearers entered the large roofed gate and, crossing an intervening space of garden, carefully lowered their burdens before the main entrance of the house, where a body of servants and retainers were already waiting to welcome the expected guests with assiduous attentions. Tomosaburo and his wife alighted from their conveyances and were ushered into a reception room of great size and splendour, where, as soon as they were seated in the place of honour near the alcove, refreshments were served by a bevy of fair waiting-maids in ceremonial costumes. As soon as they were rested from the fatigues of their journey an usher appeared and bowing profoundly to the bewildered new-comers announced that the marriage feast was about to be celebrated and their presence was requested without delay.

Following this guide they proceeded through the various ante-rooms and along the corridors. The whole interior of the mansion, the sumptuousness of its appointments and the delicate beauty of its finishings, were such as to fill their hearts with wonder and admiration.

The floors of the passages shone like mirrors, so fine was the quality of the satiny woods, and the richly inlaid ceilings showed that no expense or trouble had been spared in the selection of all that was ancient and rare, both in materials and workmanship. Certain of the pillars were formed by the trunks of petrified trees, brought from great distances, and on every side perfect taste and limitless wealth were apparent in every detail of the scheme of decoration.

More and more deeply impressed with his surroundings, Tomosaburo obediently followed in the wake of the ushers. As they neared the stately guest-chamber an eerie and numbing sensation seemed to creep through his veins.

Observing more closely the surrounding figures that flitted to and fro, with a shock of horror he suddenly became aware that their faces were well known to him and of many in that shadowy throng he recognized the features and forms of friends and relatives long since dead. Along the corridors leading to the principal hall numerous attendants were gathered: all their features were familiar to Tomosaburo, but none of them betrayed the slightest sign of recognition. Gradually his dazed brain began to understand that he was visiting in the underworld, that everything about him was unreal—in fact, a dream of the past—and he feebly wondered of what hallucination he could be the victim to be thus abruptly bidden to such an illusory carnival, where all the wedding guests seemed to be denizens of the Meido, that dusky kingdom of departed spirits! But no time was left him for conjecture, for on reaching the ante-room they were immediately ushered into a magnificent hall where all preparations for the feast had been set out, and where the Elysian Strand[3] and the symbols of marriage were all duly arranged according to time-honoured custom.

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Here the bridegroom and his bride were seated in state, both attired in elegant robes as befitting the occasion. Tomosaburo, who had acted such a strange and important part in providing the farcical groom for this unheard-of marriage, gazed searchingly at the newly wedded husband, whose mien was quite dignified and imposing, and whose thick dark locks were crowned with a nobleman’s coronet. He wondered what part the wooden figures he had carved according to the spirit’s behest had taken in the composition of the bridegroom he now saw before him. Strangely, indeed, his features bore a striking resemblance to the little puppets that Tomosaburo had fashioned from the kiri-wood some days before.

The nuptial couple were receiving the congratulations of the assembled guests, and no sooner had Tomosaburo and his wife entered the room than the wedding party all came forward in a body to greet them and to offer thanks for their condescension in gracing that happy occasion with their presence. They were ceremoniously conducted to seats in a place of honour, and invited with great cordiality to participate in the evening’s entertainment.

Servants then entered bearing all sorts of tempting dainties piled on lacquer trays in the form of large shells; the feast was spread before the whole assemblage; wine flowed in abundance, and by degrees conversation, laughter, and merriment became universal and the banquet-hall echoed with the carousal of the ghostly throng.

Under the influence of the good cheer Tomosaburo’s apprehension and alarm of his weird environment gradually wore off, he partook freely of the refreshments, and associated himself more and more with the gaiety and joviality of the evening’s revel.


The night wore on and when the hour of midnight struck the banquet was at its height.

In the mirth and glamour of that strange marriage feast Tomosaburo had lost all track of time, when suddenly the clear sound of a cock’s crow penetrated his clouded brain and, looking up, the transparency of the shoji[4] of the room began to slowly whiten in the grey of dawn. Like a flash of lightning Tomosaburo and his wife found themselves transported back, safe and sound, into their own room.

On reflection he found his better nature more and more troubled by such an uncanny experience, and he spent much time pondering over the matter, which seemed to require such delicate handling. He determined that at all costs communications must be broken off with the importunate spirit.

A few days passed and Tomosaburo began to cherish the hope that he had seen the last of the Spirit of the Lantern, but his congratulations on escaping her unwelcome attentions proved premature. That very night, no sooner had he laid himself down to rest, than lo! and behold, the lantern shot up in the familiar shaft of light, and there in the lurid glow appeared the spirit, looking more than ever bent on mischief. Tomosaburo lost all patience. Glaring savagely at the unwelcome visitant he seized his wooden pillow[5] and, determining to rid himself of her persecutions once and for all, he exerted his whole strength and hurled it straight at the intruder. His aim was true, and the missile struck the goblin squarely on the forehead, overturning the lantern and plunging the room into black darkness. “Wa, Wa!” wailed the spirit in a thin haunting cry, that gradually grew fainter and fainter till she finally disappeared like a luminous trail of vanishing blue smoke.

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From that very hour Tomosaburo’s wife was again stricken with her former malady, and no remedies being of any avail, within two days it took a turn for the worse and she died.

The sorrow-stricken husband bitterly regretted his impetuous action in giving way to that fatal fit of anger and, moreover, in appearing so forgetful of the past favour he had received from the spirit. He therefore prayed earnestly to the offended apparition, apologizing with humble contrition for his cruelty and ingratitude. But the Spirit of the Lantern had been too deeply outraged to return, and Tomosaburo’s repentance for his rash impulse proved all in vain.

These melancholy events caused the unhappy husband to take a strong aversion to the house, which he felt sure must be haunted, and he decided to leave that neighbourhood with as little delay as possible.

As soon as a suitable dwelling was found and the details of his migration arranged, the carriers were summoned to transport his household goods to the new abode, but to the alarm and consternation of every one, when the servants attempted to move the furniture, the whole contents of the house by some unseen power adhered fast to the floor, and no human power was available to dislodge them.

Then Tomosaburo’s little son fell ill and died. Such was the revenge of the Spirit of the Lantern.

Footnotes

[1] 1513, date of Ota Dokan’s death.

[2] Kago = palanquins.

[3] Horai Dai, the Eastern fairyland, where death and sickness never come, and where the fabulous old couple of Takasayo, paragons of conjugal felicity and constancy, live for ever in the shade of the evergreen pines, while storks and green-tailed tortoises, emblems of prosperity and ten thousand years of life, keep them company.

[4] Shoji, the sliding screens which takes the place of doors and windows in a Japanese house—the framework is of a fine lattice-work of wood, covered with white paper sufficiently transparent to let in the light.

[5] The old Japanese pillow was a wooden stand, on the top of which was a groove; in this was placed a small roll of cotton-wool covered with silk or

The Spirit of the Lantern – Romances of Old Japan