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Friday 22 March 2013

'Of A Promise Broken' by Lafcadio Hearn


"I am not afraid to die," said the dying wife; — "there is only one thing that troubles me now. I wish that I could know who will take my place in this house."
"My dear one," answered the sorrowing husband, "nobody shall ever take your place in my home. I will never, never marry again."
At the time that he said this he was speaking out of his heart; for he loved the woman whom he was about to lose.
"On the faith of a samurai?" she questioned, with a feeble smile.
"On the faith of a samurai," he responded, — stroking the pale thin face.
"Then, my dear one," she said, "you will let me be buried in the garden, — will you not? — near those plum-trees that we planted at the further end? I wanted long ago to ask this; but I thought, that if you were to marry again, you would not like to have my grave so near you. Now you have promised that no other woman shall take my place; — so I need not hesitate to speak of my wish. . . . I want so much to be buried in the garden! I think that in the garden I should sometimes hear your voice, and that I should still be able to see the flowers in the spring."
"It shall be as you wish," he answered. "But do not now speak of burial: you are not so ill that we have lost all hope."
"I have," she returned; — "I shall die this morning. . . . But you will bury me in the garden?"
"Yes," he said, — "under the shade of the plum-trees that we planted; — and you shall have a beautiful tomb there."
"And will you give me a little bell?"
"Bell — ?"
"Yes: I want you to put a little bell in the coffin, — such a little bell as the Buddhist pilgrims carry. Shall I have it?"
"You shall have the little bell, — and anything else that you wish."
"I do not wish for anything else," she said. . . . "My dear one, you have been very good to me always. Now I can die happy."
Then she closed her eyes and died — as easily as a tired child falls asleep. She looked beautiful when she was dead; and there was a smile upon her face.

She was buried in the garden, under the shade of the trees that she loved; and a small bell was buried with her. Above the grave was erected a handsome monument, decorated with the family crest, and bearing the kaimyĆ“: — "Great Elder Sister, Luminous-Shadow-of-the-Plum-Flower-Chamber, dwelling in the Mansion of the Great Sea of Compassion."

. . . . . .

But, within a twelve-month after the death of his wife, the relatives and friends of the samurai began to insist that he should marry again. "You are still a young man," they said, "and an only son; and you have no children. It is the duty of a samurai to marry. If you die childless, who will there be to make the offerings and to remember the ancestors?"
By many such representations he was at last persuaded to marry again. The bride was only seventeen years old; and he found that he could love her dearly, notwithstanding the dumb reproach of the tomb in the garden.


Nothing took place to disturb the happiness of the young wife until the seventh day after the wedding, — when her husband was ordered to undertake certain duties requiring his presence at the castle by night. On the first evening that he was obliged to leave her alone, she felt uneasy in a way that she could not explain, — vaguely afraid without knowing why. When she went to bed she could not sleep. There was a strange oppression in the air, — an indefinable heaviness like that which sometimes precedes the coming of a storm.
About the Hour of the Ox she heard, outside in the night, the clanging of a bell, — a Buddhist pilgrim's bell; — and she wondered what pilgrim could be passing through the samurai quarter at such a time. Presently, after a pause, the bell sounded much nearer. Evidently the pilgrim was approaching the house; — but why approaching from the rear, where no road was? . . . Suddenly the dogs began to whine and howl in an unusual and horrible way; — and a fear came upon her like the fear of dreams. . . . That ringing was certainly in the garden. . . . She tried to get up to waken a servant. But she found that she could not rise, — could not move, — could not call. . . . And nearer, and still more near, came the clang of the bell; — and oh! how the dogs howled! . . . Then, lightly as a shadow steals, there glided into the room a Woman, — though every door stood fast, and every screen unmoved, — a Woman robed in a grave-robe, and carrying a pilgrim's bell. Eyeless she came, — because she had long been dead; — and her loosened hair streamed down about her face; — and she looked without eyes through the tangle of it, and spoke without a tongue: —

"Not in this house, — not in this house shall you stay! Here I am mistress still. You shall go; and you shall tell to none the reason of your going. If you tell HIM, I will tear you into pieces!"

So speaking, the haunter vanished. The bride became senseless with fear. Until the dawn she so remained.

Nevertheless, in the cheery light of day, she doubted the reality of what she had seen and heard. The memory of the warning still weighed upon her so heavily that she did not dare to speak of the vision, either to her husband or to any one else; but she was almost able to persuade herself that she had only dreamed an ugly dream, which had made her ill.
On the following night, however, she could not doubt. Again, at the Hour of the Ox, the dogs began to howl and whine; — again the bell resounded, — approaching slowly from the garden; — again the listener vainly strove to rise and call; — again the dead came into the room, and hissed, —

"You shall go; and you shall tell to no one why you must go! If you even whisper it to HIM, I will tear you in pieces!" . . .

This time the haunter came close to the couch, — and bent and muttered and mowed above it. . . .
Next morning, when the samurai returned from the castle, his young wife prostrated herself before him in supplication: —
"I beseech you," she said, "to pardon my ingratitude and my great rudeness in thus addressing you: but I want to go home; — I want to go away at once."
"Are you not happy here?" he asked, in sincere surprise. "Has any one dared to be unkind to you during my absence?"
"It is not that — " she answered, sobbing. "Everybody here has been only too good to me. . . . But I cannot continue to be your wife; — I must go away. . . ."
"My dear," he exclaimed, in great astonishment, "it is very painful to know that you have had any cause for unhappiness in this house. But I cannot even imagine why you should want to go away — unless somebody has been very unkind to you. . . . Surely you do not mean that you wish for a divorce?"
She responded, trembling and weeping, —
"If you do not give me a divorce, I shall die!"
He remained for a little while silent, — vainly trying to think of some cause for this amazing declaration. Then, without betraying any emotion, he made answer: —
"To send you back now to your people, without any fault on your part, would seem a shameful act. If you will tell me a good reason for your wish, — any reason that will enable me to explain matters honorably, — I can write you a divorce. But unless you give me a reason, a good reason, I will not divorce you, — for the honor of our house must be kept above reproach."
And then she felt obliged to speak; and she told him everything, — adding, in an agony of terror, —
"Now that I have let you know, she will kill me! — she will kill me! . . ."
Although a brave man, and little inclined to believe in phantoms, the samurai was more than startled for the moment. But a simple and natural explanation of the matter soon presented itself to his mind.
"My dear," he said, "you are now very nervous; and I fear that some one has been telling you foolish stories. I cannot give you a divorce merely because you have had a bad dream in this house. But I am very sorry indeed that you should have been suffering in such a way during my absence. To-night, also, I must be at the castle; but you shall not be alone. I will order two of the retainers to keep watch in your room; and you will be able to sleep in peace. They are good men; and they will take all possible care of you."
Then he spoke to her so considerately and so affectionately that she became almost ashamed of her terrors, and resolved to remain in the house.


The two retainers left in charge of the young wife were big, brave, simple-hearted men, — experienced guardians of women and children. They told the bride pleasant stories to keep her cheerful. She talked with them a long time, laughed at their good-humored fun, and almost forgot her fears. When at last she lay down to sleep, the men-at-arms took their places in a corner of the room, behind a screen, and began a game of go,2 — speaking only in whispers, that she might not be disturbed. She slept like an infant.
But again at the Hour of the Ox she awoke with a moan of terror, — for she heard the bell! . . . It was already near, and was coming nearer. She started up; she screamed; — but in the room there was no stir, — only a silence as of death, — a silence growing, — a silence thickening. She rushed to the men-at-arms: they sat before their checker-table, — motionless, — each staring at the other with fixed eyes. She shrieked to them: she shook them: they remained as if frozen. . . .

Afterwards they said that they had heard the bell, — heard also the cry of the bride, — even felt her try to shake them into wakefulness; — and that, nevertheless, they had not been able to move or speak. From the same moment they had ceased to hear or to see: a black sleep had seized upon them.

. . . . . .

Entering his bridal-chamber at dawn, the samurai beheld, by the light of a dying lamp, the headless body of his young wife, lying in a pool of blood. Still squatting before their unfinished game, the two retainers slept. At their master's cry they sprang up, and stupidly stared at the horror on the floor. . . .
The head was nowhere to be seen; — and the hideous wound showed that it had not been cut off, but torn off. A trail of blood led from the chamber to an angle of the outer gallery, where the storm-doors appeared to have been riven apart. The three men followed that trail into the garden, — over reaches of grass, — over spaces of sand, — along the bank of an iris-bordered pond, — under heavy shadowings of cedar and bamboo. And suddenly, at a turn, they found themselves face to face with a nightmare-thing that chippered like a bat: the figure of the long-buried woman, erect before her tomb, — in one hand clutching a bell, in the other the dripping head. . . . For a moment the three stood numbed. Then one of the men-at-arms, uttering a Buddhist invocation, drew, and struck at the shape. Instantly it crumbled down upon the soil, — an empty scattering of grave-rags, bones, and hair; — and the bell rolled clanking out of the ruin. But the fleshless right hand, though parted from the wrist, still writhed; — and its fingers still gripped at the bleeding head, — and tore, and mangled, — as the claws of the yellow crab cling fast to a fallen fruit. . . .

* *

["That is a wicked story," I said to the friend who had related it. "The vengeance of the dead — if taken at all — should have been taken upon the man."
"Men think so," he made answer. "But that is not the way that a woman feels. . . ."

He was right.]


Written by Lafcadio Hearn
Published: 'Japanese Miscellany'
Narration: Ghastly Tales

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