Flashback. 1920th year. Yunho has returned from Japan back to Korea after study. He walked through the territory of the manor, in which he had been absent for several years. He noted that during this time practically nothing had changed: the trees in bloom was a joy to see in early spring as before.
- Young master! – the old maid roared as she hugged Yunho. – You are finally back, we missed you so much!
- I’m home, – Yunho smiled, hugging her back.
- Young master! Welcome back!
- Changmin! – Yunho recognized the maid’s grandson, who ran up to him. – You’ve grown so much since we last met. How old are you now?
- It turned thirteen this February, – the boy said proudly.
- Already quite an adult, – Yunho stated, not hiding a smile, and patted the boy on the top of his head.
Since childhood, he knew all the servants, many of them worked for his family during many years, changing generations, so new workers appeared quite rarely.
A servant took his luggage to carry it into the room. Yunho went through the vast territory of the estate towards the main house to meet with his parents. Suddenly his gaze caught on a boy sitting by the wall of the barn and reading a book. A servant with a book?.. Yunho got curious and came closer.
- Who are you? – he asked. – I don’t remember seeing you before…
The boy shuddered, as if he had been caught stealing, turned tail and ran – only his heels sparkled. The boy pressed his head into his shoulders, his hair was disheveled, obscuring his face, it was hard to see it, and he dropped the book. Yunho picked it up and saw that it was a Korean language textbook that had been banned due to Japanese occupation.
“I think I scared him, – Yunho thought to himself. – Curious… Is he secretly learning Korean? Maybe the child of one of the servants has grown up?”
He took the book with him and tucked it into his bosom, fleetingly thinking that he would return it sometime later, and went to meet with his parents.
- Yunho, my dear boy! – Misol, Yunho’s mother, smiled broadly. She took him by the shoulders and looked closely into his face, as she couldn’t take her eyes off from the handsome son, and then hugged him tightly. – I missed you so much! You are my only joy, my pride, you have returned to us at last!
- I missed you, too, mother, – Yunho replied, hugging her back.
His father, Kyungho, came up to them, and as soon as Misol reluctantly let go of his son, he also hugged him.
- Welcome back, – he said warmly.
- Father, – Yunho smiled.
- I ordered the servants to prepare a real feast today! – shared the information Misol, beaming with enthusiasm. – And at dinner we will discuss something very joyful!
- Speaking of the servants, – Yunho remembered what he wanted to ask his parents, skipping the part about “something very joyful”. – On the way here, I came across a boy I didn’t know. Is he someone’s grown-up son or new worker?
Misol, who was in the best mood, suddenly darkened.
- An orphan half-breed, – she replied reluctantly, and there was contempt in her voice. – His father is one of the Japanese soldiers who hit and quit his Korean mother. She died of illness in poverty, leaving her rug rat without a livelihood. We were kind enough to take care of him and give a job.
- Watch your words, Misol, – Kyungho said.
- Did I say something wrong? – the woman responded coldly. – Why are you always protecting him? Because he’s too cute that he might pass as a courtesan?
- Misol, – Kyungho repeated in a more commanding tone. – Don’t come up with stupidity, otherwise someone might think that you are blowing your head from jealousy. And this is in your age! Okay, let’s not ruin such a beautiful day with meaningless conversations. I’ll go to the study and work a little. – He stood up, patted Yunho on the shoulder, and left the room first. Misol snorted in displeasure.
- Never mind, Yunho, – she said to son. – Servants are just dust under your feet, it’s not worth your attention. You must be tired. Take a relax while dinner is being prepared.
Yunho frowned. He didn’t like what his mother said about the servants. She had allowed herself to speak disparagingly of those of lower status before and boasted of their family’s position, but this time, it seemed that something really pissed her off. A moment ago, Misol was glowing with joy, but as soon as the conversation about the boy-servant came, her mood changed dramatically. What kind of guy could it be that made Yunho’s always sane mother so maddened?..
At dinner, Misol’s spirits lifted again, and she spoke:
- Yunho, remember I mentioned that we would have to discuss something joyful? Guess what it might be?
- I have no idea, – Yunho replied. – The country is now experiencing not the best times, what could have happened so joyful?
- Oh, well, that’s enough, – Misol dismissed. – We live well, and this is the main thing. I personally don’t care how others live. Why should I care about them? And the new governor-general has noticeably softened the policy, so the common people have nothing to complain about.
Kyungho coughed. He didn’t share his wife’s pro-Japanese views. Yunho, although he was close to his mother, but his worldview was the same as that of his father, and despite his forced studying in Japan, he didn’t have sympathy for the Japanese and their politics. Misol ignored her husband’s remark, pretending nothing had happened, and, not paying attention to the fact that Yunho also looked restrained, turned to him again with a new question:
- Do you remember Hana, who lives across the house from us? You grew up with her. She has become such a beauty!
- I remember her. How are she and her family doing?
- Perfectly! All this time that you were studying in Japan, Hana inquired about you. I really wanted to invite her to dinner today, but her parents could not join because of a business meeting, and inviting an unmarried girl alone would not do her honor…
- I see. Well, they can visit us at any other time. I’m glad they are doing well, – Yunho said, not particularly keen on the conversation.
- You can personally ask how Hana is doing already tomorrow! – Misol chirped as Kyungho silently ate his food and didn’t interrupt the conversation. – I really want you to see her as soon as possible.
- I will definitely meet all my childhood friends, – Yunho promised.
- Yes-yes, of course, – Misol smiled too fake. – So, about Hana, she also went to Japan for a short study for girls and recently returned. She is very talented in ikebana, can also dance, sing, play the piano…
Throughout the evening, the woman only crucified about Hana, which made Yunho suspicious that the good news that his mother wanted to share was about the imminent kinship of two families. Misol didn’t say it directly, but her hints about it were too obvious. Kyungho wife’s enthusiasm didn’t share, but he didn’t oppose either, because Hana’s family was respected in high society, including the sympathy of the Japanese, and there was no need to spoil relations with them for no reason.
In the evening, Yunho returned to his room with conflicting feelings and plopped down on the bed, staring at the ceiling. He didn’t appreciate the way his mother was preparing the ground for the announcement of his imminent marriage. He didn’t even think about creating a family in the near future. Yunho heard that the new governor-general was going to build an imperial university in the capital, and upon completion, Yunho would like to teach there. He had many plans, and now they are waiting for significant adjustments due to mother’s decision…
Yunho sighed and turned his head towards the writing table. His eyes caught on the Korean textbook lying on top, and Yunho remembered the incident with the servant in the morning. He got out of bed, took the book in his hands and leafed through, inside saw the clumsy notes and answers to the exercises. Yunho grinned. The boy did every task so diligently… The book should be returned to him.
Memories of the servant dispelled Yunho’s gloomy mood a bit. The next day, he hoped to see him on the territory of the manor, but the boy fell like through the snow, and Yunho didn’t notice him anywhere. He was already thinking about going to the part of the servants’ house to look for him there, but he abandoned this idea. Why did he have to worry about this servant anyway?..
Meanwhile, Misol waited with bated breath for the arrival of Hana, as if waiting for her own daughter. Yunho had an older sister, but she married and didn’t live with them, so such a reverent attitude towards the girl next door aroused a certain suspicion. All of Gwangju already knew that she would become Yunho’s fiancée, only the groom was still officially unaware.
- Yunho, please meet Hana at the gate and escort her to the living room! – Misol asked. – She will be pleased if it is you who meet her. Besides, the weather is cloudy, what if it starts to rain? Take umbrella with you!
Yunho sighed, but listened to his mother’s request. On the way to the gate, he suddenly saw a boy squatting near the bushes and drawing something on the ground with a stick.
“That boy!” – Yunho guessed and, forgetting to meet Hana, approached him.
The boy was so absorbed in his occupation that he didn’t even hear that someone crept up to him. Looking over his shoulders, Yunho saw that he was drawing hieroglyphs.
- Do you even know hanja? – Yunho was surprised.
The boy started, dropping his stick, his legs were numb from the long sitting, and he couldn’t get up and run quickly. Standing in front of Yunho, he lowered his head guiltily.
- Don’t be afraid, – the young man hastened to calm him down. – I will not punish you. Raise your head.
The boy hesitated. His height was near Yunho’s shoulder and he was thin as a reed. Slightly hesitating, the servant slowly looked up at the master, their eyes met, and at that moment something in Yunho was trembled.
The servant’s face was smeared with soot, but no dirt could hide his handsome features. He looked like a frightened bunny, and his eyes ran from side to side like two small black fishes. In Yunho’s head it involuntarily slipped through that no girl, not even a sakura’s flower could compare with the unusual beauty of this young boy, which was like an uncut diamond. This was the beauty that deserved to be captured on paper. And Yunho, as an artist, just wanted to pick up a pencil and sketch it out.
- What… What is your name? – Yunho asked emerging from his thoughts.
- Hiro, – the boy replied quietly.
- Hiro… – Yunho echoed. – How old are you?
- This winter I turned sixteen.
- So you can read and write?
The servant was silent, obviously nervous.
- You… – he looked at Yunho fearfully and asked quietly: – Will you punish me for learning Korean?
- No, – Yunho shook his head. – I told you I’m not going to punish you. Answer my question. Are you educated? Do you know what this hieroglyph is?
After hesitating for a moment, Hiro said:
- My mother taught me hangul, but she didn’t know hanja. I tried to learn myself, but I don’t know what element should be here…
- Let me show you.
Yunho took a stick from the ground and drew the missing lines in hieroglyph.
- Now you can memorize the correct spelling sequence for this hieroglyph. It means “plum”. Why did you write it?
- Because the trees in the garden bloom beautifully. I wanted to know how they are written.
Yunho looked closely at Hiro. Usually the servants were not interested in education, not just because they didn’t have the means and the opportunity for this, but they themselves didn’t show a strong desire, because they worked only by physical labor. For what reason should they have to spend energy on learning the hangul, and even more so the hieroglyphs, by which could not be earned for rice?
- Then, if you want, I’ll give you lessons, – Yunho suddenly suggested.
Hiro’s face lit up at first with undisguised surprise, then with such a happy smile that Yunho thought that cloudy day became the brightest event in his life since returning to Korea. And then the boy’s smile faded, and a slight mistrust took its place.
- Are you seriously?.. – Hiro asked, doubting that the master of the house would suddenly offer to teach him just for nothing.
- Of course, seriously, – Yunho confirmed his words. – You thought I was joking? Here, take it, this is yours.
He pulled out a textbook from his bosom and handed it to Hiro. The boy took the book in bewilderment with both hands, bowed in gratitude and wanted to say something, but didn’t have time, as their conversation was interrupted by a loud voice:
The young man involuntarily turned his head upon hearing his name. It was Hana, accompanied by a maid. The girl had really grown up quite pretty, but now that Yunho saw Hiro, nothing and no one else mattered to him. When he talked to him, it was as if they were left alone in this house and as if in the whole world, and now their idyll was violated by a third superfluous.
When Hana got closer, Hiro bowed and hurried away as quickly as possible, so she didn’t even pay any attention to him, and she was not even interested. Yunho involuntarily shot a glance at the retreating back of the boy, and then his attention was drawn to the talking girl:
- Yunho, how glad I am to see you again! – she broke into a smile. – We haven’t seen each other for so long time, I want to fill in these gaps, tell and hear about everything that happened during our separation!
- Mother was looking forward to your arrival. Come on in, let’s not keep her waiting, – Yunho said with a polite smile and walked Hana to the main house.
Hana was all glowing with joy and at first didn’t attach any importance to Yunho’s interest in a servant. It was only much more later that she began to notice that his curiosity had begun to grow into something more, and this began to worry her.
That evening was for Yunho as in a fog. He didn’t follow the conversation between his mother and Hana at all and didn’t pay attention to glances Hana secretly threw at him, and how his mother condoned it. The memories of the meeting with Hiro were running through Yunho’s head every now and then, and his face flashed before his eyes – frightened, then surprised, then happy. Yunho didn’t immediately notice that Misol was calling for him.
- Yunho? Yunho? Everything is fine?
- What? – The young man came to his senses, as if he woke up from a dream. – It’s okay, why are you asking?
- You looked somewhere to the side and smiled at something. What exactly made you happy? – The woman asked incredulously.
Yunho was taken by surprise. He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t even pay attention to the moment at which he began to smile.
- Mother, Yunho must be just very happy to be back home again, – Hana rescued him, coming up with a plausible excuse. – Am I right, Yunho?
- Yes, that’s it…
- Oh, this is so cute, you even understand him perfectly, – Misol said. – You two will make a wonderful couple! Hana, I would like to pay an official visit to your parents…
Yunho wasn’t listening to her anymore. The next time he returned to his senses was, when Hana had already left, and in the living room were remained Misol and emersed Kyungho.
- Yunho, well, what do you think about Hana? – Misol asked. – Isn’t she adorable? She is beautiful, smart, well-mannered and tactful. Do you understand what I’m talking about? It will be the perfect match for you!
- But I just got back and didn’t think about getting married so far, – Yunho expressed his opinion carefully. – Besides, we’ve never had such a close relationship with Hana… Don’t you think this is too hasty, mother?
- I also see no reason to rush, – supported the son Kyungho.
- No one is rushing you! – Misol assured. – You have not seen each other for a long time, of course, you need time to get to know each other better, but I am sure that you will have a lot of common topics for conversations and discussions! While you were finishing your studies in Japan, I already had time to talk about this matter with Hana’s mother. She supported this idea! After a couple of meetings, you can start officially to date with Hana. Am I not well done for worrying about your bright future in advance?
The woman smiled radiantly, believing with all her heart that everything she did for her son was for his good. Yunho, on the other hand, didn’t share his mother’s efforts at all. Of course, he loved and respected her, but he was sad that she didn’t understand him. On the one hand, it was a common thing in high society, and yet Yunho hoped that he could find a life partner himself. He never had any deep feelings for Hana, and now, having matured, no spark appeared.
Yunho realized with a doom that everything had been decided finally and irrevocably. Even if he tried to stop his mother and cancel everything, it would deal a blow to the reputation of Hana, whom everyone already knew as his fiancée, and to his family, too. Yunho was aware that he had obligations to his parents and, being a member of high society, this imposed an additional responsibility, and yet it doesn’t sit right with him. It’s not that he didn’t like Hana at all, rather, he was indifferent to her as a girl, retaining in his heart an attitude like to a younger sister. They didn’t even have time to get to know each other better, but Yunho didn’t feel that he wants to. His heart was overflowing with desperate inspiration from a completely different person.
In the evening, when Yunho returned to his room, he was seized by a strange impulse, mixed out of despair that his mother had already arranged his personal life, and the beauty of spring nature outside the window, fleeting, like a short plum's bloom – the same as the freedom of Yunho. The image of Hiro appeared before his eyes, as the personification of an impossibility, something that can only be admired from the outside, but it will always be far from you.
Looking at the snow-white plum’s petals in the droplets of the past rain, sparkling in the moonlight, the first chords were born in Yunho’s head, he sat down at the table, grabbed the paper and pencil and scribbled notes. Then he took the violin and bow, and the melody that he had just thought of in his head spilled over the room. It accurately conveyed his entire mood, was as beautiful as the view from the window, and at the same time exuded the sadness of his heart. Yunho has always been a creative person, he enjoyed drawing and playing the violin, but it has been a long time since he had such strong inspiration. Like a gust of wind, it drove the clouds out of his soul and brought light peace.
It was weird that some boy that Yunho had only met a couple of times and with whom he hadn’t even really talked to, caused such a storm of emotions in him. However, now Yunho understood the words of his teacher, who said that when Yunho meets his soulmate, which will become a source of inspiration for him, he will definitely feel it.
When Yunho finished playing, he smiled. He seems to have found his muse. And in his soul, seized with confusion, just as at the trees in the garden, flowers will soon bloom, too.