Q UIET and shady was the spot in the midst of one of the loveliest valley landscapes in the empire, near the banks of the Hidaka River, where stood a famous tea-house. It was surrounded on all sides by glorious mountains, ever robed with deep forest, silver-threaded with flashing water-falls, to which the lovers of nature paid many a visit. Here poets were inspired to write stanzas in praise of the white foam and the twinkling streamlets. Here the priests loved to muse and meditate. Anon merry picnic parties spread their mats, looped their canvas screens, and feasted out of nests of lacquered boxes, drinking the amber saké from cups no larger nor thicker than an egg-shell, while the sound of guitar and drum kept time to dance and song.
The garden of the teahouse was as lovely a piece of art as the florist's cunning could produce. Those who emerged from the deep woods of the lofty hill called the Dragon's Claw, could see in the garden a living copy of the landscape before them. There were mimic mountains, ten feet high, and miniature hills veined by a tiny path, with dwarfed pine groves, clumps of bamboo, a patch of grass for meadow, and a valley just like the great gully of the mountains, times smaller, yet only twenty feet long. So perfect was the imitation that even the miniature irrigated rice-fields, each no larger than a checker-board, were in full sprout. To make this little gem of nature in art complete, there fell from over a rock at one end a lovely little waterfall two feet high, which after an angry splash over the stones, rolled on over an absurdly small beach, all white-sanded and pebbled, threading its silver way beyond, until lost in fringes of lilies and aquatic plants. In one broad space imitating a lake, was a lotus pond, lined with iris, in which the fins of gold fish and silver carp flashed in the sunbeams. Here and there the nose of a tortoise protruded, while on a rugged rock sat an old grandfather surveying the scene with one or two of his grandchildren asleep on his shell and sunning themselves.
The fame of the tea-house, its excellent fare, and special delicacy of its mountain trout, sugar jelly and well-flavored rice-cakes, drew hundreds of visitors, especially lovers of grand scenery.
Just across the river, which was visible from the veranda of the tea-house, rose the lofty firs that surrounded a Buddhist temple. Hard by was the red pagoda, which peeped between the trees. A long row of paper-windowed and tile-roofed dwellings to the right made up the monastery, in which a snowy eye-browed but rosy-faced old abbot and some twenty priests dwelt, all shaven-faced and shaven-pated, in crape robes and straw sandals, their only food being water and vegetables.
Not the least noticeable of the array of stone lanterns, and bronze images with aureoles round their heads, and incense-burners and holy water tanks, and dragon spouts, was the belfry, which stood on a stone platform. Under its roof hung the massive bronze bell ten feet high. When struck with a suspended log, like a trip-hammer, it boomed solemnly over the valley and flooded three leagues of space with the melody which died away as sweetly as an infant falling in slumber. This mighty bell was six inches thick and weighed several tons.
Of the tea-house across the river, its sweetest charm, and fairest flower was Kiyo, the host's daughter. She was a lovely maiden of but eighteen, as graceful as the bamboo reed swaying in the breeze on a moonlit summer's eve, and as pretty as the blossoms of the cherry-tree. Far and wide floated the fame of Kiyo like the fragrance of white lilies, when the wind sweeping down the mountain heights, comes perfume-laden to the traveler.
As she busied herself about the garden, or as her white socks slipped over the mat-laid floor, she was the picture of grace itself. When at twilight, with her own hands she lighted the gay lanterns that hung in festoons along the eaves of the tea-house above the veranda, her bright eyes sparkling, her red silk under dress half visible through her semi-transparent crape robe, she made many a young man's heart glow with a strange new feeling, or burn with pangs of jealousy. And many came to the tea-house who were not thinking of the tea or scenery.
It was the rule of the monastery that none of the priests should drink saké, eat fish or meat, or even stop at the tea-houses. One young priest had rigidly kept these rules. Fish had never passed his mouth; and as for saké, he did not know even its taste. He was very studious and diligent. Every day he learned ten new Chinese characters. He had already read several of the sacred books, had made a good beginning in Sanskrit, knew the name of every one of the three thousand three hundred and thirty-three images in Kioto's most famous temples, had twice visited the sacred shrines of the Capital, and had uttered the prayer, "Glory be to the sacred lotus of the law," counting it on his rosary, five hundred thousand times. For sanctity and learning he had no peer among the young neophytes of the monastery.
Alas for his piety! One day, after returning from a visit to a famous shrine, as he was passing the tea-house, he caught sight of Kiyo, and from that moment his pain of heart began. He returned to his bed of mats, but not to sleep. For days he tried to stifle his passion, but his heart only smouldered away like an incense-stick.
Before many days he made a pretext for passing that way again and again. Hopelessly in love, he stopped and entered the tea-house.
His call for refreshments was answered by Kiyo herself!
As fire kindles fire, so priest and maiden were now consumed in one flame of love. To shorten a long story, he visited the inn oftener and oftener, even stealing out at night to cross the river and spend the silent hours with his love.
So passed several months, until a change began to come over the young priest. His conscience began to trouble him for breaking his vows. In the terrible conflict between principle and passion, his soul was tossed to and fro like the feathered seed-ball of a shuttlecock. But conscience was the stronger, and won the victory. He resolved to drown his love and break off his connection with the girl. To do it suddenly, would bring grief to her and a scandal both on her family and the monastery. He must do it gradually to succeed at all.
Ah! how quickly does the sensitive love-plant know the finger-tip touch of cooling passion! Kiyo marked the ebbing tide of her lover's regard, and in her first grief and anger a terrible resolve of evil took possession of her soul. She determined to win over her lover by her importunities, and failing in this, to destroy him by sorcery.
One night she sat up until two o'clock in the morning, and then, arrayed only in a white robe, she went out to a secluded part of the mountain where in a lonely shrine stood a hideous scowling image of Fudo, who holds the sword of vengeance and sits clothed in fire. There she called upon the god to change her lover's heart or else show her how to destroy him.
Thence, with her head shaking and eyes glittering with anger like the orbs of a serpent, she hastened to the shrine of Kampira, whose servants are the long-nosed sprites, who have the power of magic and of teaching sorcery. Standing in front of the portal she saw it hung with votive tablets, locks of hair, teeth, various tokens of vows, pledges, and marks of sacrifice, which the devotees of the god had hung up. In the cold night air she asked for the power of sorcery, that she might be able at will to transform herself into the terrible dragon-serpent whose engine coils are able to crack bones, crush rocks, melt iron, or root up trees, and which are long enough to wind round a mountain.
It would be too long to tell how this once pure and happy maiden, now turned to an avenging demon, went out nightly on the lonely mountains to practice the arts of sorcery. The mountain-sprites were her teachers, and she learned so diligently that the chief goblin at last told her she would be able, without fail, to transform herself when she wished.
The dreadful moment was soon to come. The visits of the once lover-priest gradually became fewer and fewer. They were no longer tender hours of love, but were on his part only formal interviews, while Kiyo became more importunate than ever. Tears and pleadings were alike useless, and finally one night as he was taking leave, the priest told the maid that he had paid his last visit.
Immediately the baleful fire of a serpent came into Kiyo's eyes, and the priest turned and fled across the river. He had seen the terrible gleam in the maiden's eyes, and now terribly frightened, hid himself under the great temple bell.
Forthwith Kiyo seeing the awful moment had come, pronounced the spell of incantation taught her by the mountain spirit, and raised her T-shaped wand. In a moment her fair head and lovely face, body, limbs, and feet lengthened out, disappeared, or became demon-like, and a fire-darting, hissing-tongued serpent, with eyes like moons trailed over the ground toward the temple, swam the river, and scenting out the track of the fugitive, entered the belfry, cracking the supporting columns made of whole tree-trunks into a mass of ruins, while the bell fell to the earth with the cowering victim inside.
Then she began winding the terrible coils round and round the metal, as with her wand of sorcery in her hands, she mounted the bell. The glistening scales, hard as iron, struck off sparks as the pressure increased. Tighter and tighter they were drawn, till the heat of the friction consumed the timbers and made the metal glow hot like fire.
Vain was the prayer of priest, or spell of rosary, as all the other bonzes piteously besought great Buddha to destroy the demon. Hotter and hotter grew the mass, until the ponderous metal ran down into a hissing pool of molten bronze; and soon, man within and serpent without, timber and tiles and ropes were nought but a few handfuls of white ashes.