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The Story of Japan by  R. Van Bergen


 

 

THE FORTY-SEVEN RÔNIN (CONTINUED)

[151] THE spies were watching. They had not been able to discover any plot, although they had overheard every word spoken in the rooms below. The night passed, and dawn was commencing, when they fancied they heard cautious footsteps; a door was opened, some one entered, and a few words passed in a whisper. Then the footsteps were again audible, but soon grew fainter, and silence once more prevailed.

It was the secretary's son who had aroused their attention, the young man having come to seek his father. When he saw that they were alone, he cautiously took out a letter. "It is from our lord's widow," he said. "The court noble is going to leave Yedo. If we do not kill him now, the opportunity may be lost forever."

"Go back," whispered the secretary, "and when it is dark, send me a covered litter."

The secretary lay down, but did not sleep. He thought long and deeply, and when daylight appeared, he arose and took the letter. At this moment his former friend, the spy, entered the room, and the secretary quickly hid the letter in his breast, not, however, without having been observed. Both watched each other intently, while professing to be glad to meet again.

[152] "What good wind brings you here?" cried' the secretary. "It seems an age since we parted, and our foreheads are not any the smoother for the lapse of time. This is a good occasion to drive wrinkles away!"

"Why, Sir Secretary," the spy replied. "Is this the way you set about to avenge our lord?"

"Avenge! avenge! what nonsense is this?"

Both called for sake and breakfast. The traitor, when he saw the secretary eat fish, stood aghast. He believed that the spirit of his unavenged lord might have wandered into an animal, and took care to partake only of vegetable food. The secretary readily understood what was passing in his mind, and to confirm the impression he had made, said with feigned contempt:—

"Who has heard that our lord has turned into a fish? Bah! A chicken would be even better eating. Let me order one!" and he went out to see about it. This act may be considered the most heroic of all those performed by this loyal samurai. It filled him with loathing, for he was as superstitious as his opponent. But he wanted to convince the spy of his own worthlessness, and chose the most efficacious means.

When the secretary had left the room, the spy's comrade entered. They agreed that nothing was to be feared from a man so utterly ruined in principle, as was the secretary, and having finished their mission, they decided to depart.

The spies entered their curtained litter, but the secretary's former friend passed out on the other side, and hid under the floor of the porch, whispering to his com- [153] panion, "I am not yet wholly satisfied. Go on your way. I mean to discover what was in that letter."


[Illustration]

STROLLING PLAYERS

When he saw The litter depart, the secretary came out on the porch, and proceeded to open the letter his son had brought. It evidently contained matters of importance, for the reader was plunged in deep thought as he continued to unfold it. It was so long that part of it reached down to the ground, and the spy succeeded in drawing it through the cracks in the floor. What he read confirmed his suspicion. He was now convinced that a conspiracy existed, and that the secretary was [154] the leader. The question was: how could he obtain proof that would convince his employer; this was all the more necessary since his fellow-spy was satisfied that there was no conspiracy. He decided to tear off part of the letter.

Now it happened that one of the waitresses had come out on the upper porch to listen to some strolling players. Seeing the secretary's letter, and curious to know what it might contain, she seized her metal hand mirror, to obtain a reflection. But the mirror fell, and the secretary saw her. He called out to her, "Come down, my girl. I have taken a fancy to you and shall purchase your release from this place."

The girl, pleased at leaving this service, was coming down, when the soldier who had applied for admission among the conspirators reappeared. He was the girl's brother. He had heard the secretary's offer, and while the latter entered the tea house to pay his bill, the soldier asked his sister what it all meant. She answered that she had read part of the letter, and told him the contents. "Woman's curiosity!" he exclaimed. "The secretary will kill you to make sure of your silence." "Let him do so!" she answered. "If my death will assist him, he is welcome to take my life." The secretary, who had missed part of his letter, now returned. He overheard what was said, and told the soldier that no harm would befall his sister, but that he wished to keep her safe until the affair was over.

A search was at once begun for the culprit who had torn off part of the letter; and the spy was found and dragged from his hiding place. With the assistance [155] of the soldier, he was bound and gagged, taken to the river, and drowned. His death relieved the secretary of all immediate anxiety.

What were the contents of the letter that had caused all this trouble? The daimio's widow, who had kept herself informed of all the court noble's actions, wrote that her enemy had dismissed most of the guards he had hired, as he was about to leave Yedo. With the small number of samurai at present in his yashiki (yash-kee), or residence, it would be comparatively easy to finish the affair. She urged immediate action.

In a city, not far from Kyoto, lived a merchant who had been agent to the clan; that is, he had sold the rice paid as taxes, and purchased whatever was necessary. This man shared the feelings of the loyal samurai at the misfortunes of the clan, and freely offered his means to help the conspiracy, since he, as a simple citizen, could not devote his life to the cause. His offer was accepted.

The secretary designed a model after which forty-seven sets of armor were made, so that the conspirators could recognize each other in a night attack. The swords and other weapons were stored with the merchant, and so that no gossip might betray what was passing in his house, his wife was sent, for the time being, to her father's home. The merchant agreed to have two well-equipped junks ready to carry the band to Yedo, when the time for the final act should arrive.

Now before the unfortunate episode that ended in the suicide of the daimio and the dissolution of the clan, the secretary's son had been betrothed to the daughter [156] of the man who with his timely presents had bought the court noble's good will. This man and his family had heard of their old friend's sad downfall, and for some time the matter of the marriage had been allowed to drop. But father and daughter had too great a liking for the secretary's son to abandon the project; so, to please his friend, the father had procured a plan of the court noble's house and grounds. He now sent his wife and daughter to the secretary's home, he himself following at a short distance.

The two ladies arrived and were hospitably received by the secretary's wife; but when they mentioned that they had come to confer about the marriage, the hostess grew cold and haughty. "Why did your husband first bribe that wretched court noble," she said; "why did he interfere when my lord was going to kill him? Bring me the head of your husband, and then I may listen to your proposal."

Meanwhile her husband, disguised as a beggar, had arrived and overheard this cruel demand. He had expected a refusal, but this undeserved hatred made him lose his temper. "Here is my head; take it!" he said, entering and throwing off his disguise. "I have heard that your husband is not only a rônin, but also a tramp and a madman, and should not be surprised if the son is like the father. Let them take my head if they can."

The wife of the secretary was almost beside herself at this insult. Seizing a spear from a rack, she made a thrust at him with all her strength, but the samurai caught the weapon and took it from her. To prevent [157] the furious woman from doing mischief, he brought her to the ground and held her down. Just at this moment the door opened, and the secretary entered with his son. The young man, thinking his mother in danger, without waiting for an explanation, picked up the spear, and ran the visitor through the body.

Every one was aghast at the turn of affairs. But the visitor, who felt that the wound was mortal, recollected the purpose of his visit, and gathering all his strength, explained his object. "Let my desire be granted," he concluded, "and I shall die happy. Surely you will not make my journey vain."

In reply the secretary opened the sliding doors into the garden. There, playing the madman, he had made two tombs of snow. He pointed toward these, and the visitor understood that they were for father and son, who were to die before the snow could melt. His wife then said:—

"You understand now why I demanded your husband's head. It was not to insult you; but the court noble must die, and my husband and son will be compelled to commit suicide. Why should my son marry on the brink of death?"

"And yet I insist," replied the dying visitor. "Take this paper; it contains a list of the gifts that my daughter will bring to her husband."

He produced the paper and gave it to the son, who opened it listlessly. But no sooner had he cast his eyes over it, than his face grew animated; and after examining it closely, he cried: "This is no list of gifts, but the greatest of boons. It is the plan of the court [158] noble's residence, with walls, gates, barracks, garden, complete!" And he passed it to his father.

"Thanks, my old friend," said the secretary. "This is, indeed, the best gift we could receive, since it removes the last difficulty. Nothing can now prevent the punishment of our enemy."

"Show me the plan!" gasped the visitor. "See! here is the water gate, and here the main gate. Force an entrance at these two points. You will have no difficulty in making your way to the private apartments, while at the same time you can prevent escape or rescue. And now, before I die, let the marriage take place."

"Very well," replied the secretary. "But I must go at once to arrange for boats, and to collect our men." So, taking a dignified leave of his wife, and bidding farewell to his visitors, he told his son to join him the [159] next day, and left, after offering a brief prayer to Buddha for his friend.


[Illustration]

A JAPANESE FUNERAL

With wife and daughter kneeling beside him, the stanch old samurai was dying. He bore his pain without flinching, and when the lifeless body lay stretched on the floor, the features were in calm repose. The women began the prayers for the dead, while the wife of the secretary thought with pride of her own husband who was so earnestly bent upon preparing his own shroud.

The secretary had hurried to the house of the agent, and found that everything was in readiness. The merchant's wife had not yet returned from her visit, and her father was highly displeased, and considered his daughter divorced. Still the merchant refused to allow her to return, fearing that an unguarded word might betray the cause to which he was devoted.

The evening before the day set for the sailing of the conspirators had arrived. About midnight the agent was aroused by loud and repeated knocking at his door; and when he opened it, six samurai, armed and dressed as city guards, rushed in. He was at once seized and placed under arrest; and the officer in command charged him with conspiring against the life of the court noble.

"We have evidence against you which cannot be denied," said the officer. "We have seized this box which came from your house. Confess at once, and give the names of the other conspirators, or we will put you to torture."

The box was, indeed, full of weapons and chain [160] armor, and had been sent that day on board the ship that was to carry the secretary and his men to Yedo. "Well, thought the poor agent, "all is lost, though through no fault of mine. Yet they shall not discover anything from me. I can die but once; and I will die in an honorable cause." With a sudden effort he threw off his guards, and putting his knees upon the box, dared them do their worst.

"Fool!" said the officer. "What good would it do us to kill you? But we shall find the means to loosen your tongue." At a signal to one of his men, the agent's little one-year-old son was seized and handed to the officer, who pretended to prepare to cut the child's throat. Whatever may have been his feelings, the agent gave no sign of submission.

"Now," said the officer sternly, "we know that this box contains armor and weapons for the secretary and his band of conspirators, and that it came from your house. Confess at once, or first this child shall die and then you shall follow him."

"All I can tell you," replied the agent, "is that I deal in arms as well as in other things. Is that a crime for which an honest man can be put to death? If it is, you must begin with me, and now." So saying, he made a rush for the officers.

"Stop!" thundered the secretary, throwing off his disguise. He now explained that some of the conspirators had expressed fear that the agent, who knew everything connected with the expedition, might betray them at the eleventh hour; and their leader, to make sure, had resorted to this disguise to put the agent to [161] the test. He, as well as all the rônin, apologized for their distrust and openly expressed their admiration for the courage and loyalty of the agent. The secretary willingly accepted an invitation to partake of refreshments, and with two of his men remained, while the others returned on board.

The agent's wife, urged by her father to consider herself divorced, and to accept another husband whom he had chosen for her, had not been able to sleep that night; and, anxious to see her husband and child, she had quietly left the house. Reaching her home while the agent was entertaining his guests, she induced the servant to admit her. Her husband, hearing her voice, left the room and commanded her to return to her father, but he could not explain why he wished her to do so. The merchant was aware that his father-in-law could compel his daughter to marry again,—because when a man sends his wife to her father to stay, it means that he divorces her. Hence although she obeyed his orders to leave the house, she would not go away from the door.

The secretary and his two companions could not help overhearing what was passing, and they appreciated the agent's difficulty. The leader whispered some instructions to them, and they left the house at the back, and passing to the front, met the wife as she came out of the door. They seized the frightened woman, unfastened her hair, cut it off, and, laughing, ran away with it.

They returned by the way they had come, while the wife's outcries brought the agent to the front door. He [162] bade the woman enter and laid his perplexities before his guests. The secretary handed him his wife's tresses, saying that there would be no danger now of any suitors, but that she had better enter a convent for a while, so that her hair might have time to grow. This was agreed upon, and the samurai then took their leave. "I wish," said the secretary in parting, "that you were a samurai; you would then be able to join us, and I am sure not one would be braver. But you shall hear from us long before your wife's hair has grown, so your separation need not be long."

The two junks with the conspirators on board set sail, and in due time arrived in Yedo.


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