Once an old man and a young man left their village in company, in order to make a journey into a distant province. Now, whether they went for pleasure or for profit, for matters of money, of love or war, or because of some small or great vow that they had laid upon their souls, it is no longer known. All these things were very long since forgotten. It is enough to say that it is likely they accomplished their desires, for they turned their faces homewards about the setting-in of the winter season, which is an evil time for wayfarers, Heaven knows.
Now as they journeyed, it happened that they missed their way, and, being in a lonely part of the country, they wandered all the day long and came upon no good soul to guide them. Near nightfall they found themselves upon the brink of a broad and swift-flowing river. There was no bridge, no ford, no ferry. Down came the night, with pitch-black clouds and a little shrewd wind that blew the dry and scanty reeds. Presently the snow came. The flakes fell upon the dark water of the river.
“How white, how white they are!” cried the young man.
But the old man shivered. In truth it was bitter cold, and they were in a bad case. Tired out, the old man sat him down upon the ground; he drew his cloak round him and clasped his hands about his knees. The young man blew upon his fingers to warm them. He went up the bank a little, and at last he found a small poor hut, deserted by a charcoal-burner or ferryman.
“Bad it is at the best,” said the young man, “yet the gods be praised for any shelter on such a night.” So he carried his companion to the hut. They had no food and no fire, but there was a bundle of dried leaves in the corner. Here they lay down and covered themselves with their straw rain-coats; and in spite of the cold, they soon fell asleep.
About midnight the young man was awakened by an icy air upon his cheek. The door of the hut stood wide open, and he could see the whirling snow-storm without. It was not very dark. “A pest upon the wind!” said the young man. “It has blown open the door, and the snow has drifted in and covered my feet,” and he raised himself upon his elbow. Then he saw that there was a woman in the hut.
She knelt by the side of the old man, his companion, and bent low over him till their faces almost met. White was her face and beautiful; white were her trailing garments; her hair was white with the snow that had fallen upon it. Her hands were stretched forth over the man that slept, and bright icicles hung from her finger-tips. Her breath was quite plainly to be seen as it came from her parted lips. It was like a fair white smoke. Presently she made an end of leaning over the old man, and rose up very tall and slender. Snow fell from her in a shower as she moved.
“That was easy,” she murmured, and came to the young man, and sinking down beside him took his hand in hers. If the young man was cold before, he was colder now. He grew numb from head to heel. It seemed to him as if his very blood froze, and his heart was a lump of ice that stood still in his bosom. A deathly sleep stole over him.
“This is my death,” he thought. “Can this be all? Thank the gods there is no pain.” But the Cold Lady spoke.
“It is only a boy,” she said. “A pretty boy,” she said, stroking his hair; “I cannot kill him.”
“Listen,” she said. The young man moaned.
“You must never speak of me, nor of this night,” she said. “Not to father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother, nor to betrothed maid, nor to wedded wife, nor to boy child, nor to girl child, nor to sun, nor moon, nor water, fire, wind, rain, snow. Now swear it.”
He swore it. “Fire—wind—rain—snow ...” he murmured, and fell into a deep swoon.
When he came to himself it was high noon, the warm sun shone. A kind countryman held him in his arms and made him drink from a steaming cup.
“Now, boy,” said the countryman, “you should do. By the mercy of the gods I came in time, though what brought me to this hut, a good three ri out of my way, the August Gods alone know. So you may thank them and your wondrous youth. As for the good old man, your companion, it is a different matter. He is past help. Already his feet have come to the Parting of the Three Ways.”
“Alack!” cried the young man. “Alack, for the snow and the storm, and the bitter, bitter night! My friend is dead.”
But he said no more then, nor did he when a day’s journey brought him home to his own village. For he remembered his oath. And the Cold Lady’s words were in his ear.
“You must never speak of me, nor of this night, not to father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother, nor to betrothed maid, nor to wedded wife, nor to boy child, nor to girl child, nor to sun, nor moon, nor water, fire, wind, rain, snow....”
Some years after this, in the leafy summer time, it chanced that the young man took his walks abroad alone, and as he was returning homewards, about sundown, he was aware of a girl walking in the path a little way before him. It seemed as though she had come some distance, for her robe was kilted up, she wore sandals tied to her feet, and she carried a bundle. Moreover, she drooped and went wearily. It was not strange that the young man should presently come up with her, nor that he should pass the time of day. He saw at once that the girl was very young, fair, and slender.
“Young maiden,” he said, “whither are you bound?”
She answered, “Sir, I am bound for Yedo, where I intend to take service. I have a sister there who will find me a place.”
“What is your name?” he asked.
“My name is O’Yuki.”
“O’Yuki,” said the young man, “you look very pale.”
“Alas! sir,” she murmured, “I faint with the heat of this summer day.” And as she stood in the path her slender body swayed, and she slid to his feet in a swoon.
The young man lifted her gently, and carried her in his arms to his mother’s house. Her head lay upon his breast, and as he looked upon her face, he shivered slightly.
“All the same,” he said to himself, “these summer days turn chilly about sundown, or so it seems to me.”
When O’Yuki was recovered of her swoon, she thanked the young man and his mother sweetly for their kindness, and as she had little strength to continue her journey, she passed the night in their house. In truth she passed many nights there, and the streets of Yedo never knew her, for the young man grew to love her, and made her his wife ere many moons were out. Daily she became more beautiful—fair she was, and white. Her little hands, for all she used them for work in the house and work in the fields, were as white as jasmine flowers; the hot sun could not burn her neck, or her pale and delicate cheek. In the fulness of time she bore seven children, all as fair as she, and they grew up tall and strong with straight noble limbs; their equal could not be found upon that country-side. Their mother loved them, reared them, laboured for them. In spite of passing years, in spite of the joys and pains of motherhood, she looked like a slender maiden; there came no line upon her forehead, no dimness to her eyes, and no grey hairs.
All the women of the place marvelled at these things, and talked of them till they were tired. But O’Yuki’s husband was the happiest man for miles round, what with his fair wife and his fair children. Morning and evening he prayed and said, “Let not the gods visit it upon me if I have too much joy.”
On a certain evening in winter, O’Yuki, having put her children to bed and warmly covered them, was with her husband in the next room. The charcoal glowed in the hibachi; all the doors of the house were closely shut, for it was bitter cold, and outside the first big flakes of a snow-storm had begun to fall. O’Yuki stitched diligently at little bright-coloured garments. An andon stood on the floor beside her, and its light fell full upon her face.
Her husband looked at her, musing....
“Dear,” he said, “when I look at you to-night I am reminded of an adventure that came to me many years since.”
O’Yuki spoke not at all, but stitched diligently.
“It was an adventure or a dream,” said the man her husband, “and which it was I cannot tell. Strange it was as a dream, yet I think I did not sleep.”
O’Yuki went on sewing.
“Then, only then, I saw a woman, who was as beautiful as you are and as white ... indeed, she was very like you.”
“Tell me about her,” said O’Yuki, not lifting her eyes from her work.
“Why,” said the man, “I have never spoken of her to anybody.” Yet he spoke then to his undoing. He told of his journey, and how he and his companion, being benighted in a snow-storm, took shelter in a hut. He spoke of the white Cold Lady, and of how his friend had died in her chill embrace.
“Then she came to my side and leaned over me, but she said, ‘It is only a boy ... a pretty boy ... I cannot kill him.’ Gods! How cold she was ... how cold.... Afterwards she made me swear, before she left me she made me swear....”
“You must never speak of me, nor of this night,” O’Yuki said, “not to father, nor mother, nor brother, nor sister, nor to betrothed maid, nor to wedded wife, nor to boy child, nor to girl child, nor to sun, nor moon, nor water, fire, wind, rain, snow. All this you swore to me, my husband, even to me. And after all these years you have broken your oath. Unkind, unfaithful, and untrue!” She folded her work together and laid it aside. Then she went to where the children were, and bent her face over each in turn.
The eldest murmured “Cold ... Cold ...” so she drew the quilt up over his shoulder.
The youngest cried, “Mother” ... and threw out his little arms.
She said, “I have grown too cold to weep any more.”
With that she came back to her husband. “Farewell,” she said. “Even now I cannot kill you for my little children’s sakes. Guard them well.”
The man lifted up his eyes and saw her. White was her face and beautiful; white were her trailing garments; her hair was white as it were with snow that had fallen upon it. Her breath was quite plainly to be seen as it came from her parted lips. It was like a fair white smoke.
“Farewell! Farewell!” she cried, and her voice grew thin and chill like a piercing winter wind. Her form grew vague as a snow wreath or a white vaporous cloud. For an instant it hung upon the air. Then it rose slowly through the smoke-hole in the ceiling and was no more seen.