Ancient Tales and Folk-lore of Japan, by Richard Gordon Smith, , at sacred-texts.com
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39. The Woodcutter Saves Choyo From Robbers
FAR up on the north-eastern coast of Korea is a high mountain called Kanzanrei, and not far from its base, where lies the district of Kanko Fu, is a village called Teiheigun, trading in little but natural products such as mushrooms, timber, furs, fish, and a little gold.
In this village lived a pretty girl called Choyo, an orphan of some means. Her father, Choka, had been the only merchant in the district, and he had made quite a fortune for those parts, which he had left to Choyo when she was some sixteen summers old.
At the foot of the mountain of Kanzanrei lived a woodcutter of simple and frugal habits. He dwelt alone in a broken-down hut, associated with but the few to whom he sold his wood, and was considered generally to be a morose and unsociable man. The 'Recluse' he was called, and many wondered who he was, and why he kept so much to himself, for he was not yet thirty years of age and was remarkable for his good looks and strong frame. Sawada Shigeoki was his name, but the people did not know it.
One evening, as the Recluse was wending his way down the rough mountain path with a large load of firewood on his back, he was resting in a particularly wild and rocky pass darkened by the huge pine trees which towered on every hand, and was startled by a rustling sound close below. He looked nervously round, for the place in which he was had the reputation of being haunted by tigers, and with some truth, for several people had lately been killed by them. On this occasion, however, the sound which had startled the Recluse was caused by no tiger, but only by a pheasant which fluttered off her nest, and was imitating the sign of a wounded bird, to draw the intruder's attention away from the direction of her nest. Strange, however, was it, thought the Recluse, that the bird should have so acted, for she could neither have seen nor heard him; and so he listened intently to find the cause. There were not many minutes to wait. Almost immediately the Recluse heard the sounds of voices and of scuffling, and, hiding himself behind the trunk of a large tree, he waited, axe in hand.
Soon he saw being carried, pushed, and dragged down the path, a girl of surpassing beauty. She was in charge of three villainous men whom the Recluse soon recognised as bandits.
As they were coming his way the Recluse retained his position, hidden behind the great pine, and grasping more firmly his axe; and as the four approached him he sprang out and blocked their way.
'Who have you here, and what are you doing with this girl?' cried he. 'Let her go, or you will have to suffer!'
Being three to one, the robbers were in no fear, and cried back, 'Stand out of our way, you fool, and let us pass—unless you wish to lose your life.' But the woodcutter was not afraid. He raised his axe, and the robbers drew their swords. The woodcutter was too much for them. In an instant he had cut down one and pushed another over the precipice, and the third took to his heels, only too glad to get away with his life.
The Recluse then bent down to attend to the girl, who had fainted. He fetched water and bathed her face, bringing her back to her senses, and as soon as she was able to speak he asked who she was, whether she was hurt, and how she had come into the hands of such ruffians.
Amid sobs and weeping the girl answered:
'I am Choyo Choka. My home is the village of Teiheigun. This is the anniversary of my father's death, and I went to pray at his tomb at the foot of Gando Mountain. The day being fine, I decided to make a long tour and come back this way. About an hour ago I was seized by these robbers; and the rest you know. Oh, sir, I am thankful to you for your bravery in saving me. Please tell me your name.'
The woodcutter answered:
'Ah, then, you are the famous beauty of Teiheigun village, of whom I have so often heard! It is an honour indeed to me that I have been able to help you. As for me, I am a woodcutter. The "Recluse" they call me, and I live at the foot of this mountain. If you will come with me I will take you to my hut, where you can rest; and then I will see you safely to your home.'
Choyo was very grateful to the woodcutter, who
shouldered his stack of wood, and, taking her by the hand, led her down the steep and dangerous path. At his hut they rested, and he made her tea; then took her to the outskirts of her village, where, bowing to her in a manner far above that of the ordinary peasant, he left her.
That night Choyo could think of nothing but the brave and handsome woodcutter who had saved her life; so much, indeed, did she think that before the morn had dawned she felt herself in love, deeply and desperately.
The day passed and night came. Choyo had told all her friends of how she had been saved and by whom. The more she talked the more she thought of the woodcutter, until at last she made up her mind that she must go and see him, for she knew that he would not come to see her. 'I have the excuse of going to thank him,' she thought; 'and, besides, I will take him a present of some delicacies and fish.'
Accordingly, next morning she started off at daybreak, carrying her present in a basket. By good fortune she found the Recluse at home, sharpening his axes, but otherwise taking a holiday.
'I have come, sir, to thank you again for your brave rescue of myself the other day, and 1 have brought a small present, which, I trust, however unworthy, you will deign to accept,' said the love-sick Choyo.
'There is no reason to thank me for performing a common duty,' said the Recluse; but by so fair a pair of lips as yours it is pleasing to be thanked, and I feel the great honour. The gift, however, I cannot accept; for then I should be the debtor, which for a man is wrong.'
Choyo felt both flattered and rebuffed at this speech, and tried again to get the Recluse to accept her present; but, though her attempts led to friendly conversation and to chaff, he would not do so, and Choyo left, saying:
'Well, you have beaten me to-day; but I will return, and in time I shall beat you and make you accept a gift from me.'
'Come here when you like,' answered the Recluse. 'I shall always be glad to see you, for you are a ray of light in my miserable but; but never shall you place me under an obligation by making me accept a gift.'
It was a curious answer, thought Choyo as she left; but 'Oh, how handsome he is, and how I love him! and anyway I will visit him again, often, and see who wins in the end.'
Such was the assurance of so beautiful a girl as Choyo. She felt that she must conquer in the end.
For the next two months she visited the Recluse often, and they sat and talked. He brought her wild-flowers of great rarity and beauty from the highest mountains, and berries to eat; but never once did he make love to her or even accept the slightest present from her hands. That did not deter Choyo from pursuing her love. She was determined to win in the end, and she even felt that in a way this strange man loved her as she loved him, but for some reason would not say so.
One day in the third month after her rescue Choyo again went to see the Recluse. He was not at home: so she sat and waited, looking round the miserable hut and thinking what a pity it was that so noble a man should live in such a state, when she, who was well off, was only
too anxious to marry him;—and of her own beauty she knew well. While she was thus musing, the woodcutter returned, not in his usual rags, but in the handsome costume of a Japanese samurai, and greatly astonished was she as she rose to greet him.
'Ah, fair Choyo, you are surprised to see me now as I am, and it is also with sorrow that I must tell you what I do, for I know well what is in both your heart and mind. To-day we must part for ever, for I am going away.'
Choyo flung herself upon the floor, weeping bitterly, and then rising, said, between her sobs: 'Oh, now, this cannot be! You must not leave me, but take me with you. Hitherto I have said nothing, because it is not for a maid to declare her love; but I love you, and have loved you ever since the day you saved me from the robbers. Take me with you, no matter where; even to the Cave where the Demons of Hell live will I follow you if you will but let me! You must, for I cannot be happy without you.'
'Alas,' cried the Recluse, 'this cannot be! It is impossible; for I am a Japanese, not a Korean. Though I love you as much as you love me, we cannot be united. My name is Sawada Shigeoki. I am a samurai from Kurume. Ten years ago I committed a political offence and had to fly from my country. I came to Korea disguised as a woodcutter, and until I met you I had not a happy day. Now our Government is changed and I am free to return home. To you I have told this story, and to you alone. Forgive my heartlessness in leaving you. I do so with tears in my eyes and sorrow in my heart. Farewell!' So saying, the 'brave samurai' (as my
raconteur calls him) strode from the hut, never to see poor Choyo again.
Choyo continued to weep until darkness came on and it was too late for her to return home in safety: so she spent the night where she was, in weeping. Next morning she was found by her servants almost demented with fever. She was carried to her home, and for three months was seriously ill. On her recovery she gave most of her money to temples, and in charity; she sold her house, keeping only enough money to buy herself rice, and spent the remainder of her days alone in the little hut at the foot of Mount Kanzanrei, where at the age of twenty-one she was found dead of a broken heart. The samurai was brave; but was he noble in spite of his haughty national pride? To the Japanese mind he acted as did Buddha when he renounced his worldly loves. What chance is there, if all men act thus, of a sincere friendship between Japan and Korea?