Lost Images and Vanished Texts


1. Lost Images


           I met them first one grey November afternoon as the shadows were drawing in. They wore the dark plain clothes and caps of university students. When they came into the store I saw that the overcoat of one and the hakama of the other were faded and mended, and the long-haired boy wore no socks with his geta though the day was a cold one. But their faces were serious and intent, and I think they scarcely noticed the wind that nipped at toes and fingers. They asked to see the ceramic snuff-bottle in the window, a delicately coloured masterpiece from Shin. It showed two young scholars out in the open, reclining on a grassy bank beneath a willow tree with a stream running by their feet. They had cups in their hands and they seemed to be in the middle of some amusing conversation, for they smiled at each other with mirth and good humour.

           The one with the long hair held it in his narrow fingers and turned it about with delight.

           "This is so beautiful," he said. "It must be the work of a master."

           "It was made by Tao Kuang a hundred years ago," I said. "It shows the Twin Scholar-brothers from a popular romance of an earlier period."

           "Ahh." His taller friend leaned over his shoulder, looking at the picture with a wistful expression. "Then it must be very expensive."

           "Expensive in its way, yes. Tao Kuang had an ironic streak in him and his works tend to be... well, humourous." I was noting how the little jar glowed with a light that was more than its surface glazing as his friend's sensitive fingers caressed it.

           "Humourous?" The long-haired boy looked at the picture in perplexity. "What's funny about this?"

           "Not that kind of funny," I sighed. "Capricious, let's say. It's yours for fifty sen."

           They both gasped.

           "That- surely that can't be right?" the tall one said. "If it's a genuine Tao Kuang..."

           I smiled. "It's a genuine Tao Kuang, and it's taken a fancy to you two, so it must be yours. Otherwise there'll be ructions."

           Happily they turned out their pockets and put together their fifty sen. I wrapped the snuff box in its brocade cover and put it in a sturdy wooden box and they went away, their faces aglow with more than the pride of ownership.


           "You sold the Tao Kuang for fifty sen?" My grandfather sounded unhappy. "I hope it went to a good home."

           "I hope so too," I said.


           I saw the tall one again some time later, one of a small party at the exhibition of a major Japanese-style painter. This time he was very well-dressed and presentable, but that was no surprise given whose company he was in. Matsukita Takeo was a power in the worlds of railways and manufacturing, and I had heard intended to be a power in the world of the arts as well.

           "Matsukita sensei's newest acquisition," the painter's daughter murmured to me. "Tachibana Yuki. You've read his short story collection, Green Willow Nights?"

           "I've heard of it, naturally. It made quite a stir among the literati."

           "It's *delicious.*" She gave an elegant shudder. "The most exquisite ghost stories, but all with that frisson of voluptuous decadence that make them just the tiniest bit- you know."

           I nodded, and did not say, 'Vulgar.' "Who's the young woman beside him?"

           "Sensei's youngest daughter. Her father's probably told her to be nice to him, but I can't see that she minds the idea terribly."

           "No indeed."


           It was the fall when his friend came to the store, a rainy day in October, and unseasonably cold. His appearance had changed too: his long hair was now cut short and he wore the greatcoat of a junior officer in the army. He stood looking at the lacquer boxes and Chinese curios and his face had an odd emptiness.

           "I just came for a visit," he said. "I leave tomorrow for the mainland so I can't take anything with me."

           "That little snuffbox would fit in your baggage surely?" I suggested.

           "Oh- that. No, I let Tachibana have it. A wedding present, you know. I didn't have anything else to give him."

           I nodded. "He married Matsukita Hideo's youngest daughter, I believe."

           "Yes. It's a marvellous stroke of good fortune for him. Matsukita-sensei's backing..." His voice trailed off. He looked about the store as if seeking something that wasn't there. "Well, I should be going. Good-bye."

           "Good-bye," I said. "Good luck."

           He gave me a vague smile. I don't think it was me he saw.

           "Thank you."


           So I wasn't overly surprised when, a month or so later, Tachibana Yuki appeared at the store looking angry and put-out.

           "This snuff box," he said, and his voice had a slightly hysteric note to it. "What's the meaning of this? I got it out the other day when word came about poor Masao and look- look what's happened to it!" He thrust it at me.

           On a bank beneath a willow tree lolled a young debauchee. His face was flushed and his eyes glazed, and he embraced a sing-song girl with one arm while she poured wine into his foolishly gaping mouth.

           "What happened to the snuff box I bought?!" he demanded. "I want it back!"

           I looked sadly down at Tao Kuang's little masterpiece.

           "I'm afraid it's too late for that," I said. "This is the one you own now."


2. Vanished Texts


           I am the proprietor of a small but well-known bookstore here in this southern city. My clients come from the most renowned scholarly families. These gentlemen, outstanding Imperial candidates in their time, often drop by to chat and drink tea and look through my latest acquisitions.

           One day a carriage stopped by the front gate and a young gentleman came into the shop. From the quality of his clothing and equipage he was clearly the son of a well-to-do family, and the delicacy of his form and his quiet bearing showed that he was one who had pursued study all his life. Thus when I had seated him and served him tea, I was surprised to hear his request.

           "Would you have a copy of Tales of the Eastern Gallery? Specifically, one that contains the story of The Twin Scholar-Brothers?"

           "I believe I have a copy," I said, concealing my astonishment. "Certainly all editions include that story, since it is one of the most popular." I motioned to my assistant to go fetch it, keeping my thoughts from my face. It is true that scholars must have their lighter moments, but this cultivated gentleman looked the last person to interest himself in such a frivolous tale. My assistant returned with the volume- an expensive edition with special illustrations- and the young man opened it in the middle and perused the text anxiously. But only for a moment. He closed the book with a small sigh.

           "This is not the edition I am looking for," he said.

           "What edition would that be, sir?" I asked.

           "I don't know," he said. "We read it in my student days before I passed the examinations-- my friend and I, who were study mates together. He kept it with him when I returned home to be married and I have not seen him since. Some time ago I began searching for a copy of my own but have never found the right one. There are many editions, I believe?"

           "Indeed," I said. "The work is popular and has been reprinted often, sometimes with more stories and sometimes with fewer. As I say, The Twin Scholars is always included."

           "But isn't there at least one edition that has a different version of the tale?"

           "Not to my knowledge," I said. "I believe the actual stories are always the same."

           "But the story I read as a student was different from this, and from all the other copies I've seen. Why have I never been able to find it again?" His face showed an emotion that seemed akin to despair. This sadness, so unsuited to his prosperous appearance, made me want to help him in whatever way I might.

           "In what way was it different?" I asked. "Perhaps if I make inquiries among my professional acquaintance I could find it for you."

He looked down at his hands. "The story I read was about the student Liang from Nanjing who goes up to the capital to study for the Imperial examinations. There he meets Sheng Baoshu, a fellow scholar from his home province. The two become friends. They share a room and a bed; they study through the days and burn the oil at night; when weary from their labours they rest their minds by composing linked verse. They are called The Twins by the other students and the people of their neighbourhood, for one is never seen without the other and they are as devoted as brothers. Both are poor. Often their dinner is only an oilcake and a piece of fruit, but whatever they have they divide in exactly equal portions. In winter they study in bed for warmth. Though poor in the things of this world, they are rich in learning and friendship." He paused, his expression momentarily far away. Then he continued.

"When they take the examinations Liang comes first and Sheng second. A wonderful marriage is arranged for Liang, to the daughter of a wealthy merchant in Nanjing. He will live in splendour the rest of his life, even without taking up a post in the government. Sheng also is to be married in his home town, and the two must return south. But rather than rejoicing, Liang is distraught at the thought of parting. He sends excuses to his parents, of ill health and obligations in the city. He becomes pale and thin, and when he sees Sheng sadly making the preparations for his own journey, he says, 'You are the brother of my heart, the dearest person in the world to me. We must return home to be married but this is the end, not the beginning, of all my happiness. We have never spent a night apart in the three years we have been in the capital, but ever shared the same room and the same bed and the same candle as we passed the dark hours in study. And now we must bid farewell to each other, never to meet again. How can we bear this parting?' and he weeps bitter tears. His friend weeps with him, but says, 'Yet still we must follow our parents' will, for filial obedience is blessed by Heaven but ingratitude earns its punishment. Go home, marry the lady your father has selected, and get many sons. We can only trust that our virtue will find its reward.' Their last night is spent making verse together, a long poem that recalls their happy student days and mourns the fate that will separate one twin from his brother. In the morning Liang leaves for Nanjing." He fell silent as if affected by the sadness of the tale, and indeed I thought I saw tears in his eyes.

           "That is indeed the way the story goes..." I began, but he interrupted me fiercely.

           "But it is not! In the story here-" he tapped the book before him angrily- "in all the other ones I have read-- Sheng Baoshu is a woman!"

"Why yes," I said, taken aback. "She is the daughter of a noted scholar and passionate for learning. Her family allows her to go in disguise to the capital to study for the examinations and there she meets Liang. When she passes the examinations her family send word that they have arranged a marriage for her to a brilliant scholar and she must return home. Being a wise woman and virtuous she submits to her parents' will and counsels Liang to do the same. Liang is desolate at the thought of leaving the friend of his heart but he returns to Nanjing, and his path is marked by the tears he sheds. The wedding is held, the bride appears, and when, with listless hand, Liang lifts her veil he sees the face of his friend before him. He believes that grief has unhinged his senses, but his wife says to him, 'Did I not tell you that obedience is blessed by heaven? Now may we be together forever in happiness.' And so it happens."

           "That is not the version I read," he said. "That is not what happened at all. Liang leaves for Nanjing. His wedding is held. The bridal night is consummated. In a few months his wife proves to be with child. Liang spends his days in his study and few ever see his face. The night his son is born a strange wind blows, bringing the scent of forests and the distant sound of flowing water to the streets of the busy city. In the morning Liang is not to be found anywhere and he is never seen again. But it is noted that the son-in-law of the wealthiest merchant in the neighbouring town also disappears on the same night, also after the birth of his son, and rumour spreads of a vengeful female spirit that takes fortunate and beautiful young men. After that for a while it is common for merchants' sons to be married to ugly women. But the people in the countryside tell that two Immortals now wander their mountains, and that if you walk softly you may find them sitting together in a mountain dell, drinking the wine of immortality and composing linked verse."

           He looked at me and his eyes were bright with tears. "That is the story I read, the only story I know. Imagine how I felt when, a year or so after my marriage, I sought a copy of The Twin Scholar-Brothers and read the version you told me. That is the only one I have been able to find, but I know I read the other one- we read it together on so many nights- why can I not find it again?"

           "I do not know, sir," I said, "but I will certainly make inquiries as to where that book may be found."

           I saw him to his carriage and bowed as he left. Returning to my store I meditated that it would have been little use to ask him the name of the man who had been his study mate during their student days together. He was doubtless posted to some far province or other; it would be exceedingly difficult to track him down. And even if he had brought his copy of Tales of the Eastern Gallery with him to that distant posting, I think we would find that in it Liang's scholar brother was now a sister.



June '04