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Japanese history, heroes of Japanese drama, the tale of whose deeds I am about to transcribe.
On the left-hand side of the main court of the temple is a chapel, in which, surmounted by a gilt figure of Kwanyin, the goddess of mercy, are enshrined the images of the forty-seven men, and of the master whom they loved so well. The statues are carved in wood, the faces coloured, and the dresses richly lacquered; as works of art they have great merit—the action of the heroes, each armed with his favourite weapon, being wonderfully life-like and spirited. Some are venerable men, with thin, grey hair (one is seventy-seven years old), others are mere boys of sixteen. Close by the chapel, at the side of a path leading up the hill, is a little well of pure water, fenced in and adorned with a tiny fernery, over which is an inscription, setting forth that “This is the well in which the head was washed; you must not wash your hands or your feet here.” A little further on is a stall, at which a poor old man earns a pittance by selling books, pictures, and medals, commemorating the loyalty of the Fortyseven; and higher up yet, shaded by a grove of stately trees, is a neat inclosure, kept up, as a signboard announces, by voluntary contributions, round which are ranged forty-eight little tombstones, each decked with evergreens, each with its tribute of water and incense for the comfort of the departed spirit. There were forty-seven Rônins; there are forty-eight tombstones. The story of the fortyeighth is truly characteristic of Japanese ideas of honour. Almost touching the rail of the graveyard is a more imposing monument, under which lies buried the lord, whose death his followers piously avenged.
And now for the story.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century there lived a daimio, called Asano Takumi no Kami, the Lord of the Castle of Ako, in the province of Harima. Now it happened that an Imperial ambassador from the Court of the Mikado, having been sent to the Shogun' at
Sometimes it happens that for political reasons a man will become Rônin, in order that his lord may not be implicated in some deed of blood in which he is about to engage. Sometimes, also, men become Rônins, and leave their native place for awhile, until some scrape in which they have become entangled shall have blown over; after which they return to their former allegiance. Nowadays it is not unusual for men to become Rônins for a time, and engage themselves in the service of foreigners at the open ports, even in menial capacities, in the hope that they may pick up something of the language and lore of western folks. I know instances of men of considerable position who have adopted this course in their zeal for education.
(1) The full title of the Tycoon was Sei-i-tai-Shogun, “Barbarian repressing Commander-in-chief.” The style Tai Kun, Great Prince, was borrowed, in order to convey the idea of sovereignty to foreigners, at the time of the conclusion of the Treaties. The envoys sent by the Mikado from Kiôto to communicate to the Shogun the will of his sovereign, were received with Imperial honours, and the duty of entertaining them was confided to nobles of rank. The title Sei-i-tai-Shogun was first borne by Minamoto no Yoritomo, in the seventh month of the year 1192 A.D.
Yedo, Takuini no Kami and another noble called Kamei Sama, were appointed to receive and feast the envoy; and a high official, named Kira Kôtsuké no Suké, was named to teach them the proper ceremonies to be observed upon the occasion. The two nobles were accordingly forced to go daily to the castle to listen to the instructions of Kôtsuké no Suké. But this Kôtsuké no Suké was a man greedy of money, and as he deemed that the presents which the two daimios, according to time-honoured custom, had brought him in return for his instruction, were mean and unworthy, he conceived a great hatred against them, and took no pains in teaching them, but on the contrary rather sought to make laughing-stocks of them. Takumi no Kami, restrained by a stern sense of duty, bore his insults with patience, but Kamei Sama, who had less control over his temper, was violently incensed and determined to kill Kôtsuké no Suké.
One night when his duties at the castle were ended, Kamei Sama returned to his own palace, and having summoned his councillors? to a secret conference, said to them: “Kôtsuké no Suke has insulted Takumi no Kami and myself during our service in attendance on the Imperial envoy. This is against all decency, and I was minded to kill him on the spot; but I bethought me that if I did such a deed within the precincts of the castle, not only would my own life be forfeit, but my family and vassals would be ruined : so I stayed my hand. Still the life of such a wretch is a sorrow to the people, and to-morrow when I go to Court I will slay him: my mind is made up, and I will listen to no remonstrance.” And as he spoke his face became livid with rage.
Now one of Kamei Sama's councillors was a man of great judgment, and when he saw from his lord's manner that remonstrance would be useless, he said: “Your lordship's words are law; your servant will make all preparations accordingly; and to-morrow, when your lordship goes to Court, if this Kôtsuké no Suké should again be insolent, let him die the death.” And his lord was pleased at this speech, and waited with impatience for the day to break, that he might return to Court and kill his enemy.
But the councillor went home, and was much troubled, and thought anxiously about what his prince had said. And as he reflected, it occurred to him that since Kôtsuké no Suké had the reputation of being a miser he would certainly be open to a bribe, and that it was better to pay any sum, no matter how great, than that his lord and his house should be ruined. So he collected all the money he could, and, giving it to his servants to carry, rode off in the night to Kôtsuké no Suke's palace, and said to his retainers : “My master, who is now in
(1) Councillor, literally “elder.” The councillors of Daimios were of two classes ; the Karó, or “ elder," an hereditary office, held by cadets of the Prince's family, and the Yônin, or “man of business," who was selected on account of his merits.
attendance upon the Imperial envoy, owes much thanks to my Lord Kôtsuké no Suké, who has been at so great pains to teach him the proper ceremonies to be observed during the reception of the Imperial envoy. This is but a shabby present which he has sent by me, but he hopes that his lordship will condescend to accept it, and commends himself to his lordship’s favour.” And, with these words, he produced a thousand ounces of silver for Kôtsuké no Suké, and a hundred ounces to be distributed among his retainers.
When the latter saw the money their eyes sparkled with pleasure, and they were profuse in their thanks; and, begging the councillor to wait a little, they went and told their master of the lordly present which had arrived with a polite message from Kamei Sama. Kôtsuké no Suké in eager delight sent for the councillor into an inner chamber, and after thanking him, promised on the morrow to instruct his master carefully in all the different points of etiquette. So the councillor seeing the miser's glee rejoiced at the success of his plan; and having taken his leave returned home in high spirits. But Kamei Sama, little thinking how his vassal had propitiated his enemy, lay brooding over his vengeance, and on the following morning at daybreak went to Court in solemn procession.
When Kôtsuké no Suké met him his manner had completely changed, and nothing could exceed his courtesy. “You have come early to Court this morning, my Lord Kamei,” said he. “I cannot sufficiently admire your zeal. I shall have the honour to call your attention to several points of etiquette to-day. I must beg your lordship to excuse my previous conduct, which must have seemed very rude; but I am naturally of a cross-grained disposition, so I pray you to forgive me.” And as he kept on humbling himself and making fair speeches, the heart of Kamei Sama was gradually softened, and he renounced his intention of killing him. Thus, by the cleverness of his councillor, was Kamei Sama, with all his house, saved from ruin.
Shortly after this Takumi no Kami, who had sent no present, arrived at the castle, and Kôtsuké no Suké turned him into ridicule even more than before, provoking him with sneers and covered insults; but Takumi no Kami affected to ignore all this, and submitted himself patiently to Kôtsuké no Suke's orders.
This conduct, so far from producing a good effect, only made Kôtsuké no Suké despise him the more, until at last he said haughtily : “Here, my Lord of Takumi, the ribbon of my sock has come untied ; be so good as to tie it up for me.”
Takumi no Kami, although burning with rage at the affront, still thought that as he was on duty he was bound to obey, and tied up the ribbon of the sock. Then Kôtsuké no Suké, turning from him, petulantly exclaimed: “Why, how clumsy you are! You cannot so
much as tie up the ribbon of a sock properly! Any one can see that you are a boor from the country, and know nothing of the manners of Yedo.” And with a scornful laugh he moved towards an inner room.
But the patience of Takumi no Kami was exhausted; this last insult was more than he could bear.
"Stop a moment, my lord,” cried he.
“Well, what is it?” replied the other. And, as he turned round, Takumi no Kami drew his dirk, and aimed a blow at his head; but Kôtsuké no Suké, being protected by the Court cap which he wore, the wound was but a scratch, so he ran away; and Takumi no Kami, pursuing him, tried a second time to cut him down, but missing his aim, struck his dirk into a pillar. At this moment an officer, named Kajikawa Yosobei, seeing the affray, rushed up, and holding back the infuriated noble, gave Kôtsuké no Suke time to make good his escape.
Then there arose a great uproar and confusion, and Takumi no Kami was arrested and disarmed, and confined in one of the apartments of the palace under the care of the censors. A council was held, and the prisoner was given over to the safeguard of a daimio, called Tamura Ukiyô no Daibu, who kept him in close custody in his own house, to the great grief of his wife and of his retainers; and when the deliberations of the council were completed, it was decided that, as he had committed an outrage and attacked another man within the precincts of the palace, he must perform hara kiri, that is, commit suicide by disembowelling; his goods must be confiscated, and his family ruined. Such was the law. So Takumi no Kami performed hara kiri, his castle of Akô was confiscated, and his retainers, having become Rônins, some of them took service with other daimios, and others became merchants.
Now amongst these retainers was his principal councillor, a man called Oishi Kuranosuké, who with forty-six other faithful dependants formed a league to avenge their master's death by killing Kôtsuké no Suké. This Oishi Kuranosuké was absent at the castle of Ako at the time of the affray, which, had he been with his prince, would never have occurred; for, being a wise man, he would not have failed to propitiate Kôtsuké no Suké by sending him suitable presents; while the councillor who was in attendance on the prince at Yedo was a dullard, who neglected this precaution, and so caused the death of his master and the ruin of his house.
So Oishi Kuranosuké and his forty-six companions began to lay their plans of vengeance against Kôtsuké no Suké; but the latter was so well guarded by a body of men lent to him by a daimio called Uyésugi Sama, whose daughter he had married, that they saw that the only way of attaining their end would be to throw their enemy off his guard. With this object they separated, and disguised themVOL. VII. N.S.
selves, some as carpenters or craftsmen, others as merchants; and their chief, Kuranosuké, went to Kiôto, and built a house in the quarter called Yamashina, where he took to frequenting houses of the worst repute, and gave himself up to drunkenness and debauchery, as if nothing were further from his mind than revenge. Kôtsuké no Suké, in the meanwhile, suspecting that Takumi no Kami's former retainers would be scheming against his life, secretly sent spies to Kiôto, and caused a faithful account to be kept of all that Kuranosuké did. The latter, however, determined thoroughly to delude the enemy into a false security, went on leading a dissolute life with harlots and winebibbers. One day, as he was returning home drunk from some low haunt, he fell down in the street and went to sleep, and all the passers-by laughed him to scorn. It happened that a Satsuma man saw this, and said: “Is not this Oishi Kuranosuké, who was a councillor of Asano Takumi no Kami, and who, not having the heart to avenge his lord, gives himself up to women and wine ? See how he lies drunk in the public street! Faithless beast! Fool and craven! Unworthy the name of a Samurai !”]
And he trod on Kuranosuké’s face as he slept, and spat upon him; but when Kôtsuké no Suke's spies reported all this at Yedo he was greatly relieved at the news, and felt secure from danger.
One day Kuranosuke's wife, who was bitterly grieved to see her husband lead this abandoned life, went to him and said : “My lord, you told me at first that your debauchery was but a trick to make your enemy relax in watchfulness. But indeed, indeed, this has gone too far. I pray and beseech you to put some restraint upon yourself.”
“ Trouble me not,” replied Kuranosuké, “for I will not listen to your whining. Since my way of life is displeasing to you, I will divorce you, and you may go about your business; and I will buy some pretty young girl from one of the public-houses, and marry her for my pleasure. I am sick of the sight of an old woman like you about the house, so get you gone—the sooner the better."
So saying, he flew into a violent rage, and his wife, terror-stricken, pleaded piteously for mercy.
“Oh, my lord ! unsay those terrible words! I have been your faithful wife for twenty years, and have borne you three children; in sickness and in sorrow I have been with you; you cannot be so cruel as to turn me out of doors now. Have pity! have pity!”
“Cease this useless wailing. My mind is made up, and you must go; and as the children are in my way also, you are welcome to take them with you."
When she heard her husband speak thus, in her grief she sought her eldest son, Oishi Chikara, and begged him to plead for her,
(1) Samurai, a man of gentle blood, entitled to bear arms.