A VERY long time ago there lived in Japan a young fisherman named Urashima Taro. His father before him had been a very expert fisherman, but Urashima’s skill in the art so far exceeded that of his father, that his name as a fisher was known far and wide beyond his own little village. It was a common saying that he could catch more fish in a day than a dozen others could in a whole week.
But it was not only as a fisher that Urashima excelled. Wherever he was known, he was loved for his kindly heart. Never had he hurt even the meanest creature. Indeed, had it not been necessary to catch fish for his living, he would always have fished with a straight hook, so as to catch only such fish as wished to be caught. And as for teasing and tormenting animals, when he was a boy, his tenderness towards all the dumb creation was a matter for laughter with his companions; but nothing would ever induce him to join in the cruel sport in which some boys delight.
One evening, as Urashima was returning from a hard day’s fishing, he met a number of boys all shouting and laughing over something they were worrying in the middle of the road. It was a tortoise they had caught and were ill-treating. Between them all, what with sticks and stones and other kinds of torture, the poor creature was hard beset and seemed almost frightened to death.
Urashima could not bear to see a helpless thing treated in that way, so he interfered.
‘Boys!’ he said, ‘that’s no way to treat a harmless dumb creature. You’ll kill the poor thing!’
But the boys merely laughed, and, taking no further notice, continued their cruel sport.
‘What’s a tortoise?’ cried one. ‘Besides, it’s great fun. Come on, lads!’ And they went on with their heartless game.
Urashima thought the matter over for a little, wondering how he could persuade the boys to give the tortoise up to him. At last he said with a smile, ‘Come, boys! I know you’re good-hearted young fellows: I’ll make a bargain with you. What I really wanted was to buy the tortoise,--that is, if it is your own.’
‘Of course it’s our own. We caught it.’ They had begun to gather round him at the prospect of a sale, for they relished the money to buy sweetmeats even more than the cruel sport of tormenting an innocent creature.
‘Very well,’ replied Urashima, bringing a string of coins out of his pocket and holding them up. ‘See! you can buy a lot of nice things with this. What do you say?’
He smiled at them so sweetly and spoke so gently that, with the cash dangling before their eyes, they were soon won over. The biggest boy then grabbed the tortoise, and held it out to him with one hand, while he reached for the string of coins with the other. ‘All right, uncle,’ he said, ‘you can have the tortoise.’
Urashima handed over the money in exchange for the poor, frightened creature, and the boys were soon making their way to the nearest sweetmeat shop.
Meanwhile Urashima looked at the tortoise, which looked back at him with wistful eyes full of meaning; and, though it could not speak, the young fisherman understood it perfectly, and his tender heart went out to it.
‘Poor little tortoise!’ he said, holding it up and stroking it gently to soothe its fears, ‘you are all right with me. But remember, sweet little one, you’ve had a narrow squeak of losing a very long life. How long is it? Ten thousand years, they say;--that’s ten times as long as a stork can boast of. Now I’m going to take you right back to the sea, so that you can swim away to your home and to your own people. But promise me you will never let yourself be caught again.’
The tortoise promised with its eyes. So wistful and grateful were they, that Urashima felt he could never forget them.
By this time he was down on the seashore, and there he placed the tortoise in the sea and watched it swim away. Then he went home feeling very happy about the whole thing.
Morning was breaking when Urashima pushed off his boat for his day’s fishing. The sea was calm, and the air was full of the soft, sweet warmth of summer. Soon he was out skimming over the blue depths, and when the tide began to ebb, he drifted far beyond the other fishermen’s boats, until his own was lost to their sight.
It was such a lovely morning when the sun rose and slanted across the waters, that, when he thought of the short span of human life, he wished that he had thousands of years to live, like the tortoise he had rescued from the boys the day before.
As he was dreaming these thoughts, he was suddenly startled by a sweet voice calling his name. It fell on his ears like the note of a silver bell dropping from the skies. Again it came, nearer than before:
He looked all around on the surface of the sea, thinking that some one had hailed him from a boat, but there was no one there, as far as the eye could reach.
And now he heard the voice again close at hand, and, looking over the side of the boat, he saw a tortoise looking up at him, and he knew by its eyes that it was the same tortoise he had restored to the sea the previous day.
‘So we meet again,’ he said pleasantly. ‘Fancy you finding me in the middle of the ocean! What is it, you funny little tortoise? Do you want to be caught again, eh?’
‘I have looked for you,’ replied the tortoise, ‘ever since dawn, and when I saw you in the boat I swam after you to thank you for saving my life.’
‘Well, that’s very nice of you to say that. I haven’t much to offer you, but if you would like to come up into the boat and dry your back in the sun we can have a chat.’
The tortoise was pleased to accept the invitation, and Urashima helped it up over the side. Then, after talking of many things, the tortoise remarked, ‘I suppose you have never seen Rin Gin, the Dragon Sea-King’s palace, have you?’
Urashima shook his head.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘They tell me it is a beautiful sight, but in all the years that I have spent upon the sea I have never been invited to the Dragon King’s palace. It’s some distance from here, isn’t it?’
‘I do not think you believe there is such a place,’ replied the tortoise, who had seen a twinkle in Urashima’s eye. ‘Yet I assure you it exists, but a long way off--right down at the bottom of the sea. If you would really like to see Rin Gin, I will take you there.’
‘That is very kind of you,’ said Urashima with a polite bow, which pleased the tortoise greatly; ‘but I am only a man, you know, and cannot swim a long way under the sea like a tortoise.’
But the little creature hastened to reassure him.
‘That’s not at all necessary,’ it said. ‘I’ll do the swimming and you can ride on my back.’
Urashima laughed. The idea of his riding on the back of a tortoise that he could hold in his hand was funny, and he said so.
‘Never mind how funny it is,’ said the tortoise; ‘just get on and see.’ And then, as Urashima looked at it, the tortoise grew and grew and grew until its back was big enough for two men to ride upon.
‘What an extraordinary thing!’ exclaimed Urashima. ‘Right you are, friend tortoise, I’ll come with you.’ And with that he jumped on.
‘That’s better,’ said the tortoise; ‘now we’ll be off. Hold tight!’
The next moment the tortoise plunged into the sea, and dived down and down until Urashima thought they would never be able to reach the surface again in a thousand years. At last he caught sight of a land below them, shining all green with the filtered sunlight; and now, as they took a level course, he could make out the towns and villages below, with beautiful gardens full of bright flowers and waving dreamy trees. Then they passed over a vast green plain, at the further side of which, in a village at the foot of high mountains, shone the splendid portals of a magnificent palace.
‘See!’ said the tortoise, ‘that is the entrance to Rin Gin. We shall soon be there now. How do you feel?’
‘Quite well, thank you!’ And indeed, when Urashima felt his clothes he found they were quite dry, which was really not so surprising because, as he was borne swiftly through the water, there was all the time a space of air around him, so that not only was he kept quite dry, but he could breathe quite easily.
When they drew nearer to the great gate, Urashima could see beyond it, half hidden by the trees, the shining domes of the palace. It was indeed a magnificent place, unlike anything ever seen in the lands above the sea.
Now they were at the great gate, and the tortoise stopped at the foot of a flight of coral steps and asked him to dismount.
‘You can walk now, Urashima’; and it led the way. Then the gatekeeper--a royal sturgeon--challenged them, but the tortoise explained that Urashima was a mortal from the great kingdom of Japan, who had come to visit the Sea King, and the gatekeeper immediately showed them in.
As they advanced, they were met by the courtiers and officials. The dolphin, the bonito, the great cuttle-fish, the bright-red bream; and the mullet, the sole, the flounder, and a host of other fishes came forward and bowed gracefully before the tortoise; indeed, such homage did they pay that Urashima wondered what sway the tortoise held in this kingdom beneath the sea. Then, when the visitor was introduced, they all cried out a welcome. And the dolphin, who was a high official, remarked, ‘We are delighted to see so distinguished a stranger from the great kingdom of Japan. Welcome to the palace of the Dragon King of the Sea!’
Then all the fishes went in a procession before them to the interior of the palace.
Now the humble fisherman had never been in such a magnificent place before. He had never read How to behave in a Palace, but, though much amazed, he did not feel at all shy. As he followed his guides, he suddenly noticed that the tortoise had disappeared, but he soon forgot this when he saw a lovely Princess, surrounded by her maidens, come forward to greet him.
She was more beautiful than anything on earth, and her robes of pink and green changed colour like the surface of the sea at sunset in some sheltered cove. There were threads of pure gold in her long hair, and, as she smiled, her teeth looked like little white pearls. She spoke soft words to him, and her voice was as the murmur of the sea.
Urashima was so enchanted that he could not speak a word; but he had heard that one must always bow low to a Princess, and he was about to do so when the Princess tripped to his side, and, taking his hand in hers, led him off into a splendid apartment, where she conducted him to the place of honour and asked him to be seated.
‘Listen to me, Urashima,’ she said in a low, sweet voice. ‘I am filled with joy at welcoming you to my father’s palace, and I will tell you why. Yesterday you saved the precious life of a tortoise. Urashima, I was that tortoise! It was my life that you saved!’
Urashima could not believe this at first, but, when he gazed into her beautiful eyes, he remembered their wistful look, and her sweet words were spoken in the same voice as that which had called his name upon the sea. And he was so astonished that he could not speak.
‘Would you like to live here always, Urashima,--to live in everlasting youth, never growing tired or weary? This is the land of eternal summer, where all is joy, and neither death nor sorrow may come. Stay, Urashima, and I, the Princess of my father’s kingdom, will be your bride!’
Urashima felt it was all a dream; yet, if it were, then from the very heart of that dream he replied in words that came of their own accord.
‘Sweet Princess, if I could thank you ten thousand times I should still want to thank you all over again. I will stay here; nay--more: I simply cannot go, for this is the most wonderful place I have ever dreamed of, and you are the most wonderful thing in it.’
A smile spread over her lovely face. She bent towards him, and their lips met in the first sweet kiss of love.
Then, as if by this a magic button had been pressed, a loud gong sounded, and immediately the whole palace was in a bustle of excitement. Presently a procession of all kinds of fishes came in, all richly attired in flowing robes of various colours. Each one advanced with slow and stately pace, some bearing beautiful flowers, others great mother-of-pearl dishes laden with all the delicacies that go to make a feast; others bore trays of coral, red and white, with fragrant wines and rare fruits such as only grow at the bottom of the sea. It was the wedding feast, and with all decorum they set everything before the bride and bridegroom.
It was a day of great joy, a day of song and revelry. Throughout the whole kingdom the choice wine flowed and the sweet music resounded. In the palace the happy pair pledged themselves in a wedding cup, while the music played and glad songs were sung. Later on, the great hall of the palace was cleared for a grand ball, and all the fishes of the sea came dressed in their best gold and silver scales, and danced till the small hours. Never had Urashima known happiness so great; never had he moved amid so much splendour.
In the morning the Princess showed Urashima over the palace, and pointed out all the wonders it contained. The whole place was fashioned out of pink and white coral, beautifully carved and inlaid everywhere with priceless pearls. But, wonderful as was the palace itself, the wide gardens that encircled it appealed to Urashima even more.
These gardens were designed so as to represent the four seasons. Turning to the east, Urashima beheld all the wealth of Spring. Butterflies flitted from flower to flower, and bees were busy among the cherry blossoms. The song of the nightingale could be heard among the trees, and the sweetest fragrance was wafted on the breeze.
Facing round to the south, he saw everything at the height of Summer. The trees were fully green, and luscious fruits weighed down their branches, while over all was the drowsy hum of the cicada.
To the west the whole landscape was ablaze with the scarlet foliage of Autumn; while, in the north, the whole outlook was beautiful with snow as far as the eye could reach.
* * * * *
It was a wonderful country to live in and never grow old. No wonder that Urashima forgot his home in Japan, forgot his old parents, forgot even his own name. But, after three days of indescribable happiness, he seemed to wake up to a memory of who he was and what he had been. The thought of his poor old father and mother searching everywhere for him, perhaps mourning him as dead; the surroundings of his simple home, his friends in the little village,--all these things rushed in on his mind and turned all his joy to sadness.
‘Alas!’ he cried, ‘how can I stay here any longer? My mother will be weeping and wringing her hands, and my father bowing his old head in grief. I must go back this very day.’
So, towards evening, he sought the Princess, his bride, and said sadly:
‘Alas! alas! you have been so kind to me and I have been so very, very happy, that I have forgotten and neglected my parents for three whole days. They will think I am dead and will weep for me. I must say farewell and leave you.’
Then the Princess wept and besought him to remain with her.
‘Beloved!’ he protested, ‘in our land of Japan there is no crime so terrible as the crime of faithlessness to one’s parents. I cannot face that, and you would not have me do it. Yet it will break my heart to leave you--break my heart--break my heart! I must go, beloved, but only for one day; then I will return to you.’
‘Alas!’ cried the Princess, ‘what can we do? You must act as your heart guides you. I would give the whole world to keep you with me just one more day. But I know it cannot be. I know something of your land and your love of your parents. I will await your return: you will be gone only one day. It will be a long day for me, but, when it is over, and you have told your parents all, you will find a tortoise waiting for you by the seashore, and you will know that tortoise: it is the same that will take you back to your parents--for one day!’
‘Oh, my beloved! How can I leave you? But----’
‘But you must. Wait! I have something to give you before you go.’
The Princess left him hastily and soon returned with a golden casket, set with pearls and tied about with a green ribbon made from the floating seaweed.
‘Take it,’ said she.
‘After all your other gifts?’ said he, feeling rather ashamed.
‘You saved my life,’ said she. ‘You are my life, and all I have is yours. That casket contains all. When you go up to the dry land you must always have this box with you, but you must never open it till you return to me. If you do--alas! alas, for you and me!’
‘I promise, I promise. I will never open it till I return to you.’ Urashima went on his bended knee as he said these words.
Urashima was then conducted to the gate by the court officials, led by the dolphin. There the royal sturgeon blew a loud whistle, and presently a large tortoise came up. As Urashima mounted on its back, it averted its head as if to conceal its eyes. Perhaps it had a reason. And for that same identical reason Urashima sat on its back stolidly, and never a word spoken.
Down they went into the deep, green sea, and then up into the blue. For miles and miles and miles they sped along, until they came to the coast of Japan. There Urashima stepped ashore, answered the wistful eyes of the tortoise with a long, lingering gaze of love, and hastened inland.
The tortoise plunged back into the sea, and Urashima was left on the land with a sense of sadness.
He looked about him, recognising the old landmarks. Then he went up into the village; but, as he went, he noticed with some surprise that everything seemed wonderfully changed. The hills were the same, and, in a way, the village was familiar, but the people who passed him on the road were not those he had known three days ago. Surely three short days would leave him exactly where he stood before he went. Three days could never produce this change. He was at a loss to understand it. People he did not know--strangers in the village, he supposed--passed him by as if he were a complete stranger. Some of them turned and looked at him as one would look at a newcomer. Furthermore, he noticed that the slender trees of three days since were now giant monarchs of the wayside.
At last, wondering greatly, he came to his old home. How changed it was! And, when he turned the handle of the door and walked in, crying out, ‘Ho, mother! ho, father! I have come back at last!’ he was met by a strange man barring the doorway.
‘What do you want?’
‘What do you mean? I live here. Where are my father and mother? They are expecting me.’
‘I do not understand. What is your name?’
‘Urashima Taro!’ cried the man in surprise.
‘Yes, that is my name: Urashima Taro!’
The man laughed, as if he saw the joke.
‘You don’t mean the original Urashima Taro?’ he said. ‘But still, you may be some descendant of his--what?’
‘I do not understand you. My name is Urashima Taro. There is no other bears that name. I am the fisherman: surely you know me.’
The man looked at Urashima very closely to see if he were joking or not.
‘There was a Urashima Taro, a famous fisherman of three hundred years ago, but you--you are joking.’
‘Nay, nay, I am not joking. It is you that are joking with your three hundred years. I left here three or four days ago, and now I have returned. Where have my father and mother gone?’
The man stared at him aghast.
‘Are you mad?’ he cried. ‘I have lived in this house for thirty years at least, and, as for your father and mother--why, if you are really Urashima Taro, they have been dead three hundred years; and that is absurd. Do you want me to believe you are a ghost?’
‘Not so; look at my feet.’ And Urashima put out one foot and then the other, in full accordance with the Japanese belief that ghosts have no feet.
‘Well, well,’ said the man, ‘you can’t be Urashima Taro, whatever you say, for he lived three hundred years ago, and you are not yet thirty.’
With this the man banged the door in Urashima’s face.
What could it all mean? Urashima Taro dead. Lived three hundred years ago. What nonsense! He must be dreaming. He pinched his ear and assured himself that he was not only alive, but wide awake. And yet--and yet--everything about him seemed very much changed since he saw it last. He stood stock still on his way to the gate, and looked this way and that, trying to find something that had suffered only three days’ change. But everything was unfamiliar.
Then an idea struck him. On the morning of the day that he had rescued the tortoise from the boys, he had planted a little willow slip down by the pond in the field. He would go and look at it, and that would settle the matter.
So he took his way to the pond. Half-way he was baulked by a hedge, high and thick, which was new to him, but he found a way through a gap. Well he remembered the exact spot where he had planted the willow slip on the edge of the pond, but, when he arrived there, he could see no sign of it. In its place was a gigantic trunk bearing vast branches which towered overhead. And there the birds were singing the same songs as they sang--three days ago! Alas! could it indeed be three centuries ago?
Perplexed beyond measure, Urashima resolved to go to the fountain-head and settle the matter once and for all. Turning away, he made all haste to the village--was this the village he had known?--and inquired of a countryman he had never seen before, where the village chronicles were kept.
‘Yonder,’ said the man, pointing to a building which had certainly taken more than three days to erect.
Urashima thanked him and then hastened to the building and went in. He was not long in finding what he wanted. It was an ancient entry, and it ran:
‘Urashima Taro--a famous fisherman who lived in the early part of the fourteenth century--the traditional patron demi-god of fishermen. There are many stories concerning this half-mythical character, chief of which is that he hooked a whale far from shore, and, as he would not relinquish the prize, his boat was dragged for ever and ever over the surface of the sea. Mariners of the present day solemnly aver that they have seen Urashima Taro sitting in his boat skimming the waves as he held the line by which he had caught the whale. Whatever the real history of Urashima Taro, it is certain that he lived in the village, and the legend concerning him is the subject of great interest to visitors from the great land of America.’
Urashima shut the book with a slam and went away, down to the seashore. As he went, he realised that those three days he had spent in perfect happiness with the Princess were not three days at all, but three hundred years. His parents were long since dead, and all was changed. What else could he do but go back to the Dragon kingdom under the sea?
But when he reached the shore, he found no tortoise ready to take him back, and, after waiting a long time, he began to think his case was hopeless. Then, suddenly, he bethought himself of the little box which the Princess had given him. He drew it forth and looked at it. He had promised her not to open it, but what did it matter now? As he did not care what happened to him, the deadly secret of the box was just as well out as in. Besides, he might learn something from it, some secret way of finding his beloved Princess--and that would be happiness; but if, on the other hand, some terrible thing happened to him, what did it signify?
So he sat down on the seashore, untied the fastenings of the little box and then lifted the lid. He was surprised to find that the box was empty; but, slowly, out of the emptiness came a little thin, purple cloud which curled up and circled about his head. It was fragrant, and reminded him of the sweet perfume of the Princess’s robes. Now it floated away towards the open sea and Urashima’s soul seemed to go with it.
Suddenly he stood up, thinking he heard her sweet voice calling him. For a moment he stood there, a splendid figure of early youth. Then a change came over him. His eyes grew dim, his hair turned silvery white, lines came upon his face, and his form seemed to shrivel with extreme old age.
Then Urashima Taro reeled and staggered to and fro. The burden of three hundred years was too heavy for him. He threw up his arms and fell dead upon the sand.