The Forty-Seven Rônin
I must now tell you a story of which the Japanese are very fond. Boys and girls never weary of reading it, and whenever it is announced that this play is to be acted in a theater, the house is sure to be filled. Every foreigner coming to Japan hears about it, and his guide or interpreter is always anxious to show him the mean-looking burying ground where the heroes of this story are laid to rest.
But to you and to me this tale is of importance chiefly because it gives a fair idea of the character of a samurai, and shows why the people of Japan place so much trust in the members of that class.
A certain regent was expecting a visit from his brother, who was on his way to open a new shrine to the war god, and two daimio were appointed to receive the visitor, and to see that he was entertained according to his rank. Treason excepted, there is no greater crime than to be ignorant of the proper ceremonies due a visitor, and in order that no mistake might be made, an officer of the court was appointed to instruct the two daimio. Of course, both were anxious to learn, but the court officer being avaricious, the chief secretary of one of the daimio bribed him to take more pains with his master. This the court officer did, and he frequently made insulting remarks to his second pupil, while complimenting the first upon his natural aptitude, and flattering him in other ways.
At first the offended daimio thought that it was really to correct his awkwardness that these remarks were made. But when every successive day brought new insults and hidden taunts, he began to suspect that they were intentional, and he decided to punish the offender. He communicated this intention to his chief secretary, who perceived at once what was amiss. Begging his master to have patience for a few days, he hastily collected as much gold as he could, and in the evening paid a visit to the instructor. He began with praising his entertainer's skill and knowledge of ceremonies, and deplored his own ignorance, declaring that it was due to this that he had omitted to offer him a slight present as a token of respect from his lord, but that he wished to repair this grave error by tendering his humble gift. The court noble made a gracious reply; his eyes glistened as he felt the weight of the gold, and the faithful secretary felt assured that his lord would thereafter have no cause to complain of rudeness.
The daimio was wholly ignorant of the step taken by his secretary. All night he brooded over the insults that he had received, and they grew in number and importance as he recalled what had passed since he first entered the court noble's room. When he prepared to go to his daily ordeal, it was with the firm purpose that his instructor should die, if he dared act in his usual manner.
When, however, the daimio entered the room assigned to the exercises, the court noble bowed low before him, and protested that hitherto he had misapprehended his lordship's faculty; and with other soft words attempted to curry favor with a man who could afford such presents. The daimio took this unwonted politeness as a more refined insult, and, drawing his sword, rushed upon his tormentor. Others interfered, and prevented him from inflicting more than a slight wound.
But drawing a sword within the palace was an offense scarcely less in degree than high treason, and the punishment was severe. The daimio was condemned to commit hara-kiri, and his castle and lands were taken by the regent. His samurai might take service under another clan or turn rônin; that is, free lances.
When their lord had committed suicide, his secretary called together the samurai of the clan, and gave to each one his share of the cash in the treasury. Some of the older clansmen, furious at the insult to their master and the clan, proposed to follow their lord's example, because any resistance to the regent's decree would be hopeless. But the young samurai were in favor of resisting to death the surrender of the castle. Some, indeed, received their share, and quietly withdrew, without taking further part in the discussion. Only one, who had occupied the same rank as the secretary, abused him for dividing the money evenly, stating that his superior rank entitled him to a greater amount. But he, too, disappeared, and shortly afterwards offered his services to the same court noble whose avarice had caused his master's death.
When these samurai, more intent upon their own future than upon avenging the honor of the clan, had left, only forty-seven remained. The secretary, satisfied that they were loyal, now divulged his plan. He advised them to surrender the castle quietly to the officers of the regent, and to disperse in such manner that they could be easily brought together. He expressed the hope that their object in life would be to avenge in the blood of the court noble the insults and misfortunes of the clan; and that therefore they would take no service, but live on the money received from the treasury. All signed an agreement to this effect with their blood. The widow of the daimio moved to Yedo, trusting the management of her affairs to the devoted secretary.
This faithful samurai took his wife and family to a village near Kyoto, where he rented a small cottage. He knew that his loyalty to his master was known, and that the court noble would take sufficient precautions to insure his safety, so long as he feared the vengeance of the clan. Already the court noble had doubled the number of his samurai, and much as he loved money, he did not hesitate to pay liberally for spies to keep him informed of the doings of such members of the hostile clan as he feared most. He was confirmed in his opinion that a plot existed, because no resistance had been offered when the regent's officers appeared to take possession of the castle; and it was for the purpose of counter-scheming that he had engaged the former councilor of the dead daimio.
The secretary now set about lulling his enemy into security, and while in secret he remained a good husband and father, he began to visit tea houses and to lead, apparently, a very frivolous life. His best friends thought his mind had been unsettled by the misfortunes that had befallen his clan.
Of course, the spies employed by the guilty court noble kept their master informed of the conduct of the man suspected by him, and as month after month passed by, he began to think that, after all, his expensive precautions might be unnecessary. But the secretary's character was well known by his former friend and fellow-clansman, who proposed to his new master to let him proceed with one of his confidential samurai to the village inhabited by his enemy, and to find out if this conduct did not conceal a deep-laid scheme of revenge.
The court noble assented to this plan, and the two men arrived in the village. It did not take them long to discover the name and location of the tea house where the secretary was wont to spend much of his time. They decided upon surprising him there. Near the place, they heard shouts of laughter from the waitresses, and when they entered the tea house, they saw the secretary blindfolded, playing a game of blindman's buff with the girls. The two spies asked for a room; they were informed that they could have one on the next floor, but that the ground floor had been engaged by the secretary. They ordered some sake, and settled down to watch.
Presently they saw four men approaching and recognized three of them as free lances, former samurai of the proscribed clan. The fourth man was a common soldier, who wished to be admitted into the band of avengers. They had entered the inn, when the blind-folded secretary, trying to catch the girls, fell against one of his fellow-clansmen: "You are caught!" cried the secretary, "and now as forfeit you shall drink a cup of sake!"
The free lance shook him off. "What do you mean by acting in this way?" he said. "I am your former clansman, and here are two of our friends. I must speak with you."
"What about? asked the secretary, in an indifferent tone; then, turning to the waitresses, he added: "I don't think I want to play any more."
"We want to know when you propose going to Yedo!" said the spokesman of the four.
"Yedo!" repeated the secretary. "Yedo! Oh, that's a long way off! What are you talking about?"
The rônin were furious. They would have killed their former leader, had not the soldier interfered. But the man was really anxious to join the conspirators, and modestly made his request. The secretary answered: "What is the use of revenge? If we succeed, we shall die; and if we fail, we must die also. What is the good of it all? What is the use of taking medicine, when one is going to be beheaded the next day?"
Still the soldier repeated his request; but the secretary, stretching himself upon the mats, yawned, turned round, and soon appeared to be fast asleep. The samurai left in despair.