The Samurai and the Long-Nosed Devils (2 page)

 

“I had nothing whatever to do with it!” protested Zenta. “This girl can tell you.”

The officer was grinning broadly. Not quite so tall as Zenta, he was strongly built and had an expressive face with lines of laughter around his eyes. “I'm not accusing you of anything,” he said. “I'm merely pointing out that when you are around, things happen. Doors pop out of their frames, saddles slip from horses' backs and helmets fly from people's heads. Wasn't that a naked monk I just saw? Don't tell me you weren't responsible!”

“Then you two are old friends?” asked Matsuzo, surprised.

“Hambei and I are old
acquain
tances
,”corrected Zenta. “Don't believe half of the things that he tells about me. He is famous for his lies and his practical jokes. Most of the incidents he mentioned just now were started by him, and I had to save him from the consequences.” Hambei made no effort to deny Zenta's statement and only laughed heartily. “You look half-starved, as usual,” he said. “Come on. I know a good restaurant not far from here.”

“I must go back to my master's house,” said Chiyo. She bowed low to the two ronin and murmured her thanks for their help. Her solemn expressions of gratitude ended in a smile of pure mischief. Although Chiyo's eyes were too big for perfect beauty in the classical sense, they were alive with humor and intelligence.

Matsuzo found the girl enchanting, and he was quite sorry that she and Hambei seemed to have some sort of understanding already.

After dismissing his men, Hambei led the two ronin to one of the many eating places overlooking the Kamo River. The ground floor was crowded with customers trying to find some coolness in the river breezes. Matsuzo, conscious of his own grubby condition, read amusement in the glances of the people. On his travels he was accustomed to the respect given to his two swords and his status as a samurai. But the sophisticated citizens of the capital city seemed to show no awe whatsoever for a provincial warrior. All the benches of the ground floor dining room were occupied and no one seemed inclined to make room for the three samurai.

Hambei, however, was a favored customer. The proprietor bustled forward andconducted them to a private room on the second floor. One side of the room was almost completely open to the river, and Matsuzo was delighted with the view. There before his eyes were scenes famous in poetry and song: the banks of the Kamo River, the Gojo Bridge, and in the distance the Eastern Hills glowing in the late afternoon sun.

The three men sat down on the floor, which was soft and springy with sweet-smelling
tatami
, a thick rush covered mat. In the provinces, Matsuzo had seen tatami only in the more prosperous homes. He accepted a hot towel from a serving girl and wiped his neck, surrendering himself to blissful luxury.

After discussing the menu with the proprietor, Hambei turned to his two guests. “He recommended the broiled eel, since it's the right dish for this weather. But I told him that you've probably had enough eel for the day. Now tell me: How did you manage to undress that monk?” While waiting for the meal to be served, Hambei and Zenta recalled some of their experiences together. With a mixture of horror and fascination, Matsuzo listened to accounts of pranks for which the two men narrowly escaped well-deserved punishment. Since Zenta avoided talking about himself, this was the first time that Matsuzo had heard about the lighter side of his friend's past life. Zenta broke off his reminiscing when the food arrived and devoted himself singlemindedly to his meal. Hambei looked on with a smile. “You're all skin and bones. What happened? No work recently?”

Zenta merely grunted and held out his rice bowl to the serving girl for a refill. Although Matsuzo rather liked this boisterous new companion, he frowned when he thought he detected a patronizing note in Hambei's voice. “We've had plenty of work,” he said stiffly. “But it wasn't always work for which we received payment.”

Hambei looked amused by Matsuzo's sensitivity. “You don't have to tell me. I know what it's like to travel with Zenta. He is notorious for being fastidious about his choice of masters.” There was envy in his voice as he added, “It doesn't seem to harm his reputation. There was one petty warlord who was actually flattered when Zenta condescended to work for him. I really thought he was comfortably settled there for life. But he suddenly decided to leave. Do you know why? He didn't like the way taxes were being collected! That warlord was so furious that I thought for a while Zenta wouldn't be able to leave with his head on his shoulders.”

Beneath Hambei's flippant manner Matsuzo thought he detected a trace of real feeling. He guessed that the warlord's anger had been spectacular. Judging from his own experiences with Zenta, Matsuzo had no difficulty believing Hambei's story. He described the abrupt way in which they had left their recent employer, which had resulted in their present penniless condition. Under Hambei's skillful questioning, he gave a detailed account of their activities during the past months. Hambei listened so intently that Matsuzo was flattered by his serious interest, until he realized that news of the more remote regions could be valuable to Hambei's master Nobunaga.

Finally Hambei turned to Zenta and said, “What are you doing in Miyako? I thought you were more interested in the activities of the northern warlords.”

Zenta cleaned the last grain of rice from his bowl and put down his chopsticks. “I've heard a lot of talk about Oda Nobunaga recently,” he replied. “It's possible that he is the man who will finally unify the country and put an end to all these civil wars. I should like to work for him.” Hambei nodded. “I can bring you to him, of course, and give him my recommendation. But that won't be necessary. He needs good subordinates, and he likes men who show initiative and independence.”

From Hambei's expression of satisfaction, Matsuzo suspected that Hambei himself was one such fast-rising subordinate.

“Nobunaga started as only a minor warlord,” continued Hambei. “While the great warlords were fighting with each other, Nobunaga struck here at the heart of the country with his small but well-trained force and occupied the capital.”

“I heard that the reason for his success was his novel use of firearms,” said Zenta. “Didn't that decide the outcome in several crucial battles?”

“An even more important reason for Nobunaga's success was that he made good use of men like us that he raised from obscurity,” said Hambei.

He smiled and added, “If you work for him you will have to watch your tongue, though. He is a bad man to cross.”

“I'm not in the habit of insulting my superiors,” said Zenta mildly. “I only offer criticism when it's really deserved.”

“That's the kind of criticism that's hardest to take,” said Hambei. “I'm warning you: Nobunaga has one of the most violent tempers I have ever seen.”

Zenta did not seem alarmed. “Tell me,” he said, “why is Nobunaga waging a campaign to discredit Buddhist monks?”

After a slight pause Hambei said, “What makes you think that?”

“The little performance that we saw by the eel vendor—that was designed to make the monks look ridiculous to the townspeople, wasn't it?”

Matsuzo looked at Zenta in bewilderment. “I don't understand. Those monks were terrorizing that poor girl Chiyo. They tried to kidnap her, perhaps for an immoral purpose.” “Chiyo wasn't terrorized in the least,” said Zenta. “She easily slipped out of the grasp of that monk. Now, if she had been a normal, frightened girl, she would have taken advantage of the distraction that you provided to escape into the crowd. Instead, she stayed and made things worse by taunting those monks.”

Hambei was now smiling broadly. “I should have guessed that you would see through us. Chiyo is a clever girl, but she does overact.”

“And your arrival with your men was a little too timely,” added Zenta. “But what was the reason for the performance? It looked like more than just one of your practical jokes.”

“Chiyo hates those monks,” explained Hambei. “Her family was from Sakamoto, at the foot of Mt. Hiei. They were forced to go and work for the monks when Chiyo was a child. Fortunately an abbot of one of the temples on Mt. Hiei felt sorry for the little girl. He took her under his protection and even gave her some education. When she grew up and became beautiful, a few of the more lecherous monks began eyeing her. Last year, after her mother had died, Chiyo felt so unsafe that she escaped from the mountain. I came upon her hiding near the Yasaka Shrine and found her a job as a serving girl in a noble household. But she never got over her hatred of the Mt. Hiei monks, and she doesn't lose any opportunity to help undermine them.”

“She risked her safety to help with your plan!” said Matsuzo, deeply touched by Hambei's account of Chiyo's history.

Zenta looked unimpressed. “I still don't see why you and your men should be involved with the girl's personal feud,” he said.

“We have orders from Nobunaga to do everything we can to embarrass the monks,” admitted Hambei. “I arranged this particular incident by letting Chiyo walk where she would be sure to be seen by the monks, and they played into our hands by grabbing her.”

“Is Nobunaga violently anti-Buddhist, then?” asked Zenta.

“He doesn't seem more or less religious than the rest of us,” replied Hambei. “So far he hasn't shown any hostility towards any of the Zen Buddhist temples here in the city. But he regards the warrior monks of Mt. Hiei as a serious menace.”

Matsuzo found this understandable. For centuries these militant monks had meddled in the political affairs of the country. He remembered a famous remark of Emperor Shirakawa, who said that there were three things he couldn't control: the fall of dice, the waters of the Kamo River, and the monks of Mt. Hiei.

“Nobunaga believes that he cannot count himself as master of Miyako unless he breaks the power of Mt. Hiei,” said Hambei. “Of course, by their own licentious behavior, some of the monks are making it easy for us. . . .”

Hambei's remarks were interrupted by a commotion outside of their window, and the three men leaned out to see the cause of the uproar.

Sauntering by the river right under their window were two very strange-looking men. The color of their faces was pale, not the creamy white of aristocratic ladies, but pinkly pale, like the color of certain raw fish.

A crowd was gathering behind the two strangers, and someone muttered, “Longnosed devils!”

One of the two men wore a long dark gown shaped like a tube, with an opening on top for the head and two sleeves for the arms. It didn't part in front like a sensible garment, and Matsuzo smiled to himself as he pictured the awkward struggle while getting into this gown. One had to put the whole thing over one's head and poke around for the right openings!

The second man wore clothes that were even more outlandish. On the top half of his body he wore what was obviously armor, but instead of the flexible pieces sewn together in Japanese armor, it consisted of large flat pieces of welded metal. Below the waist his pants puffed out in a grotesque fashion. What was inside the pants boggled the imagination.

It was the color of the man's legs that caused Matsuzo's eyes to start. “Look at that! His legs are blue!”

Hambei laughed. “No, no, that's not the color of his skin! The man is wearing closefitting hose that's colored blue.”

The blue legs, so long that they looked like the legs of a heron, terminated in clumsy boots made of leather. Altogether, thought Matsuzo, it was the most bizarre ensemble that he had ever seen on a human being.

But the two ronin were more interested in the man's weapons. Dangling from his waist was a sword, long and straight, which looked as if it could be used only for frontal thrusts. It was the weapon that he carried over his shoulder, however, which aroused their greatest interest.

“A gun!” said Zenta. “I've seen a few of these weapons, but they were clumsy ones made by our ironworkers. This one looks like a sleek new model!”

He turned to Hambei and asked, “Are these the men that some people call the Southern Barbarians?”

“Yes,” said Hambei. “But they call themselves Portuguese. Their country Portugal is not really in the south. It's to the northwest and it's so far away that their ships take two or three years to get here.”

“What are they doing in our country?” asked Zenta. “Are they eager for trade? Many warlords I know would be very anxious to buy their guns.” “Some of the Portuguese here are merchants, but the one in the long gown is a priest trying to spread his religion, which he calls Christianity.”

“He won't be very successful if his religion is as barbaric as his clothes,” said Matsuzo.

“I'm no authority on Christianity,” said Hambei, “but I've heard that a number of people, including several lords of high rank, have been converted. Nobunaga has received the foreigners several times and is very favorably impressed by them.”

“Not everyone feels so cordial towards the Portuguese,” said Matsuzo, noticing some of the crowd below fearfully backing away from the two foreigners.

“That's true,” said Hambei. “And it's not just the superstitious common people. Lord Fujikawa, Chiyo's employer, lives next door to the Portuguese, and he hates them so much that he has hired some bully swordsmen to harass the foreigners whenever they get a chance.”

“Why does Lord Fujikawa hate the Portuguese?” asked Zenta. “Is he against the foreign religion?”

“That's one of the reasons. Another one is that a member of his household was converted to Christianity, and she left to work for the Portuguese.”

Suddenly Hambei turned and stared at Zenta. “I have an idea!” he cried. “You have always liked unusual jobs. How would you like to be bodyguards for these Portuguese?”

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