The Curse of Koshiu - Lewis Wingfield - E-Book

The Curse of Koshiu E-Book

Lewis Wingfield

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It was towards the end of the fourteenth century that the grandeur of the Hojo family rose to its acme, then fell with awful crash. The feudal story of the Land of the Rising Sun is a long dark chronicle of blood and tears, of crime and rapine, of vengeance and vendetta, out of which there glints at intervals a gleam of glorious heroism, of holy devotion, of pure love and unsullied faith.

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The Curse of Koshiu

The Curse of KoshiuCHAPTER I.CHAPTER II.CHAPTER III.CHAPTER IV.CHAPTER V.CHAPTER VI.CHAPTER VII.CHAPTER VIII.CHAPTER IX.CHAPTER X.CHAPTER XI.CHAPTER XII.CHAPTER XIII.CHAPTER XIV.CHAPTER XV.CHAPTER XVI.CHAPTER XVII.CHAPTER XVIII.CHAPTER XIX.Copyright

The Curse of Koshiu

Lewis Wingfield

CHAPTER I.

BOY AND GIRL.It was towards the end of the fourteenth century that the grandeur of the Hojo family rose to its acme, then fell with awful crash. The feudal story of the Land of the Rising Sun is a long dark chronicle of blood and tears, of crime and rapine, of vengeance and vendetta, out of which there glints at intervals a gleam of glorious heroism, of holy devotion, of pure love and unsullied faith.In the stately roll of the great names of old Japan, there is none so terrible as Hojo. From time to time the patient people were ruled by one race or another of despots, cruel and selfish; the most cruel of all, the Hojos. Even now, after five hundred years of war and havoc, of vain aspirations, power misused, and wrecked ambitions, mothers still hush their babes to silence by breathing the dreaded name. The most destructive insect that ravages the fairest island in the world--the most voracious and omnivorous--is yet known as the Hojo beetle. When the first of the line erected a strong fortress--the Castle of Tsu, which will serve as background to many scenes in this our chronicle--he gave to it a bloody baptism, by burying beneath the foundations two hundred living men. Although their baleful course was marked by an ensanguined streak like a gory finger drawn across a map, they were not all black, these gruesome daimios, or even Buddha, whom we know to be deaf, and prone to somnolence, would earlier in the day have bestirred himself to punish them. Maybe Buddha drinks too much saké, for though we piously crack our finger-joints, and beat our palms, each morn at sunrise, and bang the gongs and pull the bell-strings each evening in the temple, he recks little of mere mundane worries, letting things go from bad to worse in grievous fashion. And yet, once roused to wakefulness, his vengeance is swift as the typhoon, as destructive and as sweeping.No. The lurid Hojo cloud that for a hundred years brooded over long-suffering Japan, had silver breaks in it. The Mikados, as nominal rulers, dwelt at Kiŷoto; while the Shoguns, as military viceroys, reigned at Kamakura; but the dominating family, as wire-pullers, directed their movements from behind. The father of Hojo No-Kami, last of the race, had his good points. None of his supercilious ancestors was more superbly overbearing, more sublimely indifferent to human pain; and yet his worst enemies were compelled to admit that, if stern, his rule was sagacious. The Mikado, and his court ofkugésor lords-in-waiting, shivered before him, for his dirk was loose in the scabbard, and the order promptly to depart into another world by uncompromisingharakiriwas ever trembling on his lips. During his career three emperors had been summoned to shave their heads and retire into monkish solitude, each puppet bowled over in its turn for daring to dispute his will; and yet the very fact of his disdaining to mask the iron hand under the glove of silk, even in dealing with the highest, compelled the unwilling admiration of his turbulent and light-hearted countrymen.The upper class--Samurai, two-sword men, hatamotos, soldiers--could appreciate his martial bearing, as, in gallant bravery of scarlet armour and gold-studded helm, he rode forth to battle, with his martial wife beside him. For the beautiful Tomoyé was a fit mother for lion whelps. Of great personal strength as well as graceful carriage, sheathed in armour like her lord, astride on a swift horse, she was ever in the van of conflict. With her own hand she cut off the head of a rival daimio who crossed swords with her; and when her lord died, pierced through the heart by an arrow she fought till she fell beside him. The lower class of the unarmed--mechanics, mere farmers, paltry merchants--could also from their inferior standpoint admire their ruler, whilst grieving at his rough treatment of the Holy Mikado--mystic head of all--for he protected the workers of the hive from the depredations of other tyrants. The burthen of taxes was nicely weighed to suit the backs of the bearers. The ken of the Hojo was as piercing, and minutely attentive to details, as it was farsighted. A petition from the elders of the meanest village was sure of immediate attention. No petty feudal master, however recklessly bold or savagely contemptuous, dared to overstep his rights.The result of the adamantine rule of the last Hojo but one was peace. The land that was given over usually to turmoil and bloodshed, with intervals of complete anarchy, enjoyed rest for fifteen years, during which the despot set himself to consolidate his power, and fix yet more firmly the family yoke on the necks of lords and people.He had two sons, the elder of whom--by Japanese paradox--was treated as if he had been the younger. Sampei, three years older than No-Kami, was the offspring of a second wife or concubine. The latter, heir-apparent, was the whelp of the war-queen Tomoyé. Now in Japan concubinage is a recognised institution, and the son of the handmaid is no bastard. And yet the child of the bondwoman is not co-heir with the child of the free. The latter, in the case of a great family, is undisputed head of the clan, and to him the former owes allegiance, however much older in years, in the same degree as lesser clansmen. The institution is so firmly welded into the constitution of the land as, save in a few cases, to preclude jealousy.Of course, as in all Eastern countries, ambitious men have striven to supplant their brothers--have hacked off their heads and reigned in their stead--but this does not affect the principle. The two sons of Hojo grew up side by side in perfect amity. Together they learned to ride and wield the sword and spear under the approving gaze of their martial parents. They were both soldiers--with a difference. Even Tomoyé was forced to admit that of the twain Sampei, son of the concubine, was the most promising. His nature was clear and bright as running water, simple and unsmirched, unlike that of the heir-apparent. None more brave than he, more quick and skilful with his weapons, more ready to smite hard and heavily; and yet on occasion he could be soft and tender as a woman. A polished politeness and chivalrous demeanour were so innate in him as to win the admiration of the ladies. For seductive luxury he had nothing but contempt. No-Kami, on the other hand, if brave and skilled in arms, was fierce and selfish and debauched; overfond of the harem and perfumed bath and saké cup; sullen, too, as an ill-conditioned animal; brutal to women, ruthlessly tossing them aside like shattered toys when sated with their charms. People nodded their pates and whispered of him the timeworn proverb which says that there is no seed to a great man. In sooth it has ever been a common thing in this otherwise favoured land to see a great house crumble into speedy ruin through the supineness and debauchery of its sons.There was no need for anxiety as to the future of Sampei. A soldier and a gentleman to the tips of his trim finger-nails, his career, in the most war-ridden of countries, was carved clear before him. It came to pass that Corea, conquered long since by the Amazon Empress Jingo, threw off allegiance.. Who more fitted than doughty young Sampei to reduce the rebel to obedience? Accordingly, five years before this story opens, the gay young general, full of life and hope, and rippling with high spirits, bade a respectful farewell to the father he was never to see again, a more tender one of his fond mother, Masago, who, like many another discarded concubine, was now the Abbess of a convent, and sailed with a fleet and army for Corea, whence news arrived from time to time, praising his deeds of valour.As for the future of No-Kami, it was more difficult to prophesy, and his parents were no little anxious. His prospects were splendid; but although his father had endeavoured to foresee contingencies, and build barriers against accidents, the path of the next tyrant must needs be beset with thorns. Hisrôlein the future would be arduous, thick strewn with snares and difficulties. To keep theentourageof the Mikado in subjection--to hold the daimios--powerful and wealthy princes as sturdy as the barons of the English John--in the requisite condition of meekness, would require more statecraft, diplomacy, and force of iron will, than could be expected of a model youth. And No-Kami, as we have seen, was by no means a model youth. None knew better than his astute and experienced parent how difficult to a young man this task would prove; none was more distinctly aware of the frail tenure of a despot's life. At any moment he, the father, might be taken, and what then would happen to his boy?Treachery stalks through the history of Japan. At any instant the dominant Hojo might be murdered under his son's eyes. Would the self-indulgent No-Kami be prepared with vigorous promptitude to avenge the slain, and, seizing the dropped reins, pursue his policy? Both father and mother sadly shook their heads. Even their partial vision could not but perceive that the hope of the house was a leper, abnormally sinful, inclined to become a sybarite. Was this young man to be left to steer the bark without a pilot? Certainly not. In case of anything unexpected arising, a staff must be prepared for him to lean upon. A man must be placed by his side, old in years and in experience, whose position and wisdom would command respect, whose interest it would be to bestow sound advice and timely sage reproof.What better guide than a prudent father-in-law? What surer loadstone to lure an embryo debauchee from the muddy byways of low company than a beautiful patrician bride? one of the pure and slender, refined and high-bred maidens of noble lineage--fair and sweet as the fragrant mountain-lily--who now, as five hundred years ago, are the brightest glory of Japan.A crafty combination this on the part of the warrior-statesman, which would doubtless have been crowned with success, if he had not chanced to live in a world where mischievous spirits delight in frustrating plans the most cleverly matured. Tomoyé heard, and listened dubiously. Even among the most elevated Japanese, as well as in the highest European circles, papas and mammas will differ as to the ideal bride. What was the precise article that would suit No-Kami? Unfortunately there was not time to have one specially ordered. Since perfection is chary of repetition, it was not to be expected that another Tomoyé--a stern yet loving lioness--could be found for the precious youth. Indeed, so recreant a scion was he of the stock, that he might have objected possibly to a muscular and fiery wife whose pastime was the chopping of heads. And yet not so. A true lion-whelp was he in blood enjoyment. Even the low-bornGeishasinging girls who stocked his harem, had often cried under his buffets, and shouted shame, with tears, at his barbarous treatment of his servants.Alas! how sad it is that even the most sapient in mundane experience will be guilty of errors sometimes that are patent to the lesser fry. Is it over-anxiety that blinds them? The problem was to put the finger on a great noble--daimio among daimios--who could compare in descent and grandeuralmostwith the line of Hojo; who, of weight in counsel, and rather cool than hot, would stem precipitate rashness. He must have no son, and but one daughter, and devoid therefore of the ambition which accompanies male issue, must adopt his daughter's husband as his son; and by thus uniting the two families in closest bonds, make their interests identical. The child of the magnate (given that the two were found) must be mentally perfect, and a vision of corporeal loveliness."My dear!" quoth the broad-shouldered but practical Tomoyé, as with one eye critically closed she assayed the temper of a brand new sword. The lady was apt to get vexed when her lord grew warm and garrulous. "My dear," she observed, "we have many rounds of mortal life to climb ere, reaching the summit, we attain Nirvana. Though you are good enough to be blind to my blemishes, even I am not quite perfect. Perfection, in our present low cycle, is so very scarce, you know." With this she beamed upon her lord, whilst artlessly belying her words by approvingly fingering her muscles. She was inwardly aware, with pardonable pride, that no other daimio's daughter could boast such an arm as hers.My lord was provoked, and rubbed his nose. When you are erecting airy towers, practical people are exasperating. It was evident she had gained a point, so she proceeded to follow it up."Where in broad Japan do you propose to seek these paragons? This pink of perfect daimios, and his yet more model child?"There was a tendency to irreverence in this tone, which required nipping in the bud. The eye of the Mikado's master shot forth a gleam, before which even the lioness cowered. When his mind was made up, the Hojo brooked no argument."Be it as you will!" Tomoyé dutifully murmured. "My lord is all-wise, all-powerful; his wife his willing slave. Go forth and seek the paragons, and let us hope you will find them soon."To please him whom she loved best on earth, Tomoyé made believe to be convinced; and yet her woman's tact whispered down in the deep recesses of her manly bosom, that my lord, for all his wiliness, was wrong; that he was building a fool's paradise far up in Œther, out of which her dear boy might tumble.Curious to relate, the paragons concerning whom she was tempted to be disrespectful were not far to seek. With but little hocus-pocus father and daughter were conjured on the scene, as absolutely the "very thing," to all appearance, as the cunning Hojo had conceived them. He declared as much at least, and dutiful Tomoyé acquiesced, slightly pinching her lips in silent protest. Instead of the "very thing" which was to bring about complete success before its time in our weary pilgrimage of cycles, the mother's instinct beheld with prophetic vision, in the proposed alliance, the worst elements of discord and defeat,--of so dire and dread a tragedy as should shake Japan to its centre, and annihilate the dominating house. Yet who was she, the warrior wife reflected in her humility, to set up puny instincts against the ripened statecraft of my lord? Her muscles were better than her brains. Should she presume to know more than he who held in his hand Mikado, nobles, people?--whose nod was law in the land beloved of Buddha? who had preserved it from contamination from without? Her place was to bend before the will of the dictator, and offer prayers for her husband and her son.* * * * *The most perfectly poetic spot in all poetic Japan, whose ensanguined history is made beauteous to the eye of a fastidious posterity by the flora of chivalry and valour, is Nara.Lovely and secluded, sweet-smelling and umbrageous Nara! The Nara of to-day--how much more the Nara of five hundred years ago--suggests to the incursive foreigner a bit of Eden's garden.In very early times the central mart of Japanese opulence (which ebbed by-and-by to Kiŷoto), it came after a while to be recognised as the special home of holiness. Accepting the better part, it exchanged the shimmering sham glory of mundane ambition for the sheen reflected from above. Some twenty miles from Kiŷoto--time-honoured residence of Mikados, and therefore a sacred city--the small town of Nara stands on a plain surrounded by rugged hills. Passing through low grey streets, leaving on the left a huge and ornate pagoda, you enter a tangle of wild greenery--an ideal wood of immense cryptomerias darkling skyward after light. A jungle of variegated foliage, so sweet and fresh, masks half their altitude, while the undulating ground beneath is broken into verdant waves chequered with blossoms of all hues. This forest is vast and silent, save where a white-robed group of pilgrims saunters along its glades--undefended by barriers, save those of religious custom. And what more tough than they? If sprightly and given to skull-cracking, the Japanese live in terror of their deities, who without exception are vindictive. Buddha and the lesser lights are awful and threatening and ever-present, and the favourite hunting-grounds of Buddha are the hallowed groves of Nara.The thickets teem with game. All kinds of coy animals which usually flee at sight of man, here hold undisputed sway. The intruder is on their territory, and they let him know it. The timorous doe stands with soft unstartled eyes across the path, sniffing with moist nostrils the expected cake. And if the white-clad pilgrim should have striven to combine economy with cure of soul by investing in cheap offerings, the scornful stag and his following will shake their ears, and bound away to relate to the gods the insult. With head on one side, birds look critically down from boughs, nor think of flight; hares, taught by impunity, instead of making off, white scut in air, groom nose with paw, undaunted.Hidden away, centre of an intricate labyrinth--enclosed in many courts, each hung with myriad lamps in bronze-like fringes round the eaves--stands the Holy of Holies, Buddha's hunting-box, wherein a band of virgins perform weird shinto rites for the behoof of awe-struck pilgrims. At stated seasons this bevy of priestesses, emerging from strict retirement, performs thekagura, a slow swanlike measure, with many and intricate figures and waving of fans and bells and kerchiefs, accompanied by priestly flutes--which (doubtless good for the soul, since its weary length is interminable) is soothing also to ear and eye, for the ladies are graceful and slender in their loose red trousers and gossamer robes, their long locks flowing as they float to and fro, with a background of gold screens, and beyond the antique forest. How peaceful a life, free from sordid cares, must these holy damsels lead! Far from the fretful striving of the churlish world--its hate and jealousy and bitterness and disillusion--no call to arms or shock of war invades this calm retreat. They share ungrudgingly their Eden with the beasts and butterflies, guileless and content as they, strumming the three-stringed samisen, sailing through maze of solemnkagura, doing tender service in the temple.Among the troop of maidens was one who wore no religious habit. Although she had taken no vows, priests and virgins loved her as much as if one of themselves. Brought up among them with the hares and birds for comrades, as stately and as gentle as the deer, she shared from childhood, being motherless, their pure and contemplative life. Strangers often said that the fairest thing in lovely Nara was the tall and pale O'Tei. Some compared her to the unblown white lotos as it sways dreamily in the breeze. Others dubbed her pearl; but later all agreed that young Sanjo the armourer was delivered of the neatest simile when he fashioned a white fawn of purest silver and gave it to the maiden for a hairpin. As a child she had always been still and given to day-dreams, peering into the flowers as if she could read secrets there, or gazing into the opal sky in search of angels, or watching the pallid stars as they glimmered forth out of the deepening blue. Yet was she as gay as the chirping cicadas in the trees, as light and fleet as her four-footed friends, as, pattering on dainty clogs in wayward mood, she would leave the forest for the town, and peeping in at Sanjo's, shake an arch finger at the brawny armourers, while they wiped their swart brows, and laughed.It was by a whimsical coincidence that the celebrated family of Sanjo, from time immemorial armourers in chief to the Mikados, as the Miochins were to the Shoguns, should have set up the forge, emblem of war, hard by the sacred wood, the type of peace. But so it was. Indeed, as I write, the existing Sanjos occupy the ancestral dwelling. They are poor now. Their occupation is gone, for civilisation and European ways have stepped in and ruined them. At the period which occupies us, the blowing of the forge-bellows and the welding of iron on the anvil were in curious contrast to the surrounding calm. Many lords who came hither in pilgrim guise to improve their soul's estate, looked in at Sanjo's ere they went away, to buy new blades and armour. The holy forest was an oasis of peace in a world of uproar; for was not the castle of the powerful lord of Nara but a mile beyond the town; and did not close by (happily concealed by a hill from his proud gaze) the fortress of the Daimio of Osaka rear its majestic front, home of his hereditary foe? Of course it was enough for two great feudal lords to dwell cheek by jowl for them to hate one another cordially. These two were as jealous as two rival beauties. The outer moat at Nara was wider than that of my lord of Osaka, but then the interior of Osaka's stronghold was the more splendid, and its armoury more richly furnished. Hence frowns and jibes and backbitings from generation to generation, varied now and then by siege or battle, accompanied by fire and massacre.Among the many who were firm friends of the Sanjos, was, naturally enough, Sampei. Of course, so gallant a young gentleman could wear no armour but Sanjo's, could wield no sword but one that bore his mark. One morning, standing beside the anvil, and laying down the law to an obsequious audience, on military subjects, he beheld, framed in the doorway, such a delightful vision, that his heart gave a great thump, and he dropped the precious blade, whose temper he was critically testing by the bisecting of a coin. It was only for a second. Startled by the apparition of a distinguished stranger, and grown unaccountably bashful of a sudden, the blushing and beautiful O'Tei cried Oh! and, turning on her clogs, scampered back into the wood, whither the inflammable Sampei would swiftly have followed, had he not been restrained by the armourer."Beware!" the latter whispered, grasping him tightly by the skirt. "That maid is not for thee! The heiress of the Daimio of Nara will look higher than a soldier of fortune!"Sampei laughed, to conceal his annoyance. It is exasperating and humiliating too, to a handsome young soldier, who as such adores the sex, to be bluntly informed that the loveliest girl whom he has ever looked upon is hopelessly out of reach. And yet he could not deny that his friend was right. The White Fawn of Nara might never be his, for one so noble and so fair could command the most splendid ofpartis. But was that any reason why he should not look at her? He was heartwhole. No doubt of that. His soul was devoted to his sword; but, as dashing young warriors have done time out of mind, he liked to dally with maidens, and the prettier they were the better. Instead of purchasing a blade and departing straightway, he all at once became fastidious. This one was too light; that one ill-balanced.Japan is the land of blades. From the tail of the Dragon was born the sword which the Sun-goddess bestowed on the first Emperor. By the sword of the clustering clouds, Yamato-Daké subdued the East. It was quite fitting that our young general should be particular. Sanjo produced in vain his rarest achievements. There was "Knee-cutter" and "Beard-divider," unrivalled masterpieces, which Sanjo himself so loved that he had always declined to part with them. But there was no satisfying this capricious and arrogant youth. Sanjo would be good enough to set himself to work and create an inspiration; and Sampei, to whom time had all at once become no object, would remain at Nara and superintend the progress of the miracle. And so it came about that the blade, taking long to make, O'Tei (curious, after the fashion of maidens) came pattering along the street, just to see if the young warrior was gone. Oddly enough, he was still there; with face towards the door too. This was well, if strange; for he was comely; extremely civil, to boot; courteous, and vastly respectful; could troll rich snatches of merry song, and tell diverting tales with dancing eye and glittering teeth; while as for his smile, it did one good to bask under it--so bright it was, so warm and genial, exuberant with bubbling youth.The brawny workers at the anvil vowed with grins and nudges that 'twas charming to watch these two--she, the type of the patrician beauty of her country--complexion of palest olive, nose aquiline, cheek bones a trifle high, perfectly moulded chin and throat, eyes and hair a deep black, the former raised the least little bit in the world at the outer corners--as she lounged in a steelykimonoof finest crape drawn up over one of scarlet. And he was in his way as bonny a spectacle. Exceeding dark of skin; of low stature, as are most of the Japanese, but admirably proportioned and muscular; his luxuriant sable locks (shaven away in the centre, lest the eyes should be obscured in battle), fastened in two tresses at the back, while a becoming blue fillet bound his temples, knotted at the side in a bow.I am afraid I must admit at once that Sampei, to whom I am very partial, was a sad flirt. He invented appalling tales of death and slaughter, for the pleasure of seeing the cheek of O'Tei grow whiter, then set himself to woo the delicate sea-shell colour back with well-timed jest; and was flattered and pleased to find that he could learn to play upon her as on some fragile instrument. To the girl his radiant advent was a strange and wondrous break in the sweet monotony of years,--a revelation like the raising of some veil that masks the infinite; and she marvelled vaguely whether the perfumed wood would hold so rich a charm whenhewas no longer there to rouse the echoes with his laughter. Hand in hand they wandered--artless children--while the soft-eyed deer peeped out at them approvingly. They visited her favourite haunts; the open glade where the glorious lilies grew in clusters--lemon-yellow, or white, brown centred; where the great jewelled butterflies tumbled low along like junks under heavy sail; where beds of scarlet blossoms like geraniums nestled in sheets on the bank of a crystal stream--home of flights of glittering dragon-flies, black and iron-blue, like the cohorts of the warlike Osaka. And then the sharptwee tweeof the cicadas, answering or calling one another out of the deep stillness of the canopy above, the boom of the hoarse bees, the buzzing of gossamer wings, the click of the cricket, the hum of the myriad tiny voices up in the dense green, which joining in harmonious chorus form a silence--a haven of solitude and rest.It was not possible to linger in the shadowed aisles whose pillars were the giant cryptomerias, without feeling subdued and softened; and a suspicion flitted more than once across the mind of the young soldier that perchance the career of hurly-burly and the clash of steel were a mistake, the contemplative life a better. What happier method of getting through the cycle than to muse away the years, till called to go, with gentle O'Tei, and the forest, and the animals? And then, the sylvan influence and flash of the clear eyes removed, Sampei would wake and shake himself in distress, and know that the ground was dangerous. The contemplative life was good for girls and shaven priests, and men who had succumbed in the battle. Youths with lives spread out before like a trail of moonlight on the sea, must gird up their loins and elbow their way through the medley. Too long already had the young General dallied, wasting time. And yet, not wasting, for he and she were to be friends for life--that was quite settled--dear brother and loving sister, trusting each other without question, certain, in moments of emergency, of the completest helpfulness and sympathy. It was delicious to possess such a sister, a soft warm sunspot on his harsh career; more she might never be, and he recognised that this was well.Her gentleness unnerved his arm, he was wont jestingly to say, for her nature was woven of such frail glass threads that just as the rush of the herd snapped the slender lily-stems, a rude puff of wind might shatter it. Some day she would find a suitable husband, and her adopted brother would love him for her sake; and then they would recline in the long grass and fall a-talking of what the lucky mortal would be like. To match with the perfection of O'Tei he must be a perfect creature. Not a bluff soldier like Sampei. No, that would never do, for like a tender plant must the dear maid be cherished. To the end must the White Fawn be screened from din of war and rude surroundings. Poor hearts! They were both so young and ignorant and hopeful. They knew not how futile a pastime is the building of air-palaces. They were unaware that Fate is a sad marplot, and that if we plan a matter in a certain way, it will surely come out quite otherwise.The Shinto virgins were somewhat scandalised by the romantic proceedings of the fair O'Tei and the too good-looking General. They were disinclined to approve of him, for they knew he had said that, with faces painted a dead white, eyebrows at top of foreheads, and long flat hair well-oiled, they looked like the dolls of Asakusa. A ribald military person was not expected to have taste, or to know wherein lies true beauty, but he might show more respect for youthful gorgons. O'Tei did little credit, they averred, with tart displeasure, to her education. If she pined for male society, was not the temple full of holy bonzes? The heiress of Nara showed lamentable signs of incipient depravity. What business had she with Sanjo, the common armourer? She who, wayward always and inconsistent, when taught like every prospective chatelaine to wield a pike, had been wont to toss down the silver-mounted weapon, with a pout, vowing that she hated fighting.Things could not go on as they were, for the situation was a false one. Sanjo grew nervous. If the Daimio of Nara, who as Kugé or court noble lived usually at Kiŷoto in attendance on the Emperor, were to hear that his only child, instead of innocently floating through mazes ofkagura, was using his (Sanjo's) forge for flirting purposes with an ineligible man who was the son of a concubine, there would be trouble; and Sanjo was not unaware of the parable concerning iron pots and earthen pipkins. All were relieved, therefore, except O'Tei, who was hazy as to her own sentiments, when the news arrived that the rebellion in Corea was to be quelled, and that Sampei was to command the expedition.When brother and sister parted, O'Tei clung round the neck of the youth, and, weeping bitterly, shivered she knew not why. Lovingly he kissed her brow, and disengaged himself from her embrace, and was more than ever certain as he rode away that, perfect in a congenial sphere, as wife of some grandee who would appreciate her gentle excellence, his sweet and sensitive sister would make the worst of consoles for one whose trade was war.

CHAPTER II.

THE LAST HOJO.

Being a cunning and artful reader, you have long since guessed that the pattern maid whose benign influence was destined to reform the brutish No-Kami, was no other than O'Tei, while the paragon Daimio was Nara.

The Shinto virgins, as unjust and purblind as young gorgons may be expected to prove, were quite wrong as to O'Tei, who was no flirt. She did all credit to her rearing, for, when summoned to leave the conventual seclusion of the forest and assume the garb and responsibilities of her rank, she dutifully murmured, "Let my father's will be done," and accepted the husband of his choice. She had never been told--for the holy bonzes knew little about the subject--that in many marriages there are but two cheerful days--the first and the last--and marched straight upon her fate without a tremor.

The elder Hojo, though a crafty and long-headed statesman, made a sad mistake while arranging the affairs of his son. The air palace he built was complete and imposing, beautiful to the eye, but, as the muscular and practical Tomoyé had foreseen, its foundations were of the weakest. He forgot that old Nara, as lord in waiting, was likely to be deeply attached to the person as well as to the position of the Mikado; that he, like the rest of the Kugés, would probably treasure up the insults which were freely showered on his master, with a view to future vengeance.

Thanks to the uncompromising tactics of the despot, the reigning Mikado (there were three in exile) was a boy, aroi fainéant, a puppet; but he was hedged about with the intangible and mystic attributes of the Mikadoate, and the buffets he received reverberated along the line of Kugés into the hearts of the lower class. To possess the person of the Emperor was doubtless pleasing to the possessor--a trump card--but those who did not possess him felt his thraldom bitterly. That his daughter should wed the heir of the all-powerful Hojo was satisfactory and flattering to Nara. So long as the tyrant lived against whom it was hopeless to struggle, he would mask his game; but after his death, what then? He was expected to assume the functions of chief adviser, and keep the successor straight--was, in fact, to tighten the bonds about his master's limbs, for the behoof of the execrated family.

This was whimsical--illogically planned--and Hojo a fool for his pains, When he contemplated the folly of the man he hated in his heart, the grim visage of the cautious Nara was puckered into unaccustomed smiles. The advice he would give in the future--so the wily lord decided--must depend on the attitude of his son-in-law, and be guided by the course of events for the benefit of the imperial prisoner. In his mind's eye (if Hojo could only have guessed it!) he beheld with secret exultation the brutish No-Kami sinking lower and lower by sure degrees into debauchery, until the moment should arrive when the ruler would become the ruled. And then--and then! Well, time must show what then. Sufficient for the day is its labour.

Just as a Nimrod of the chase may fly safely over tremendous obstacles and be undone by a ditch at last, so was it with old Hojo. He sallied forth one day to put down an insignificant riot in never tranquil Satsuma, and received there his quietus. As already related, the faithful Tomoyé died with him, and No-Kami--juvenile, inexperienced, and cruel--was called to reign in his stead. And now, no longer restrained in the smallest degree by respect for a severe mother or fear of a fiery father, the new despot, surrounded by parasites, gave free rein to all his vices.

The unaccustomed period of peace came to an abrupt conclusion. The young Mikado having been goaded one day to remonstrate with his new jailor, the latter raised his fan and slapped the august cheek. The Kugés flew to arms to avenge their outraged lord, but No-Kami, with the aureole of his father's prestige still about him, was too much for them. The nobles who dwelt in the palace bore but little of the stamp of warriors. The astute Nara, whilst hating the young man, saw that now, while the aureole remained unfaded, it was not yet the time to strike. He assumed therefore, with much parade of zeal, therôleof mediator between his master and his son-in-law. At first in vain.

An unorganised band of patriots took the field, who were speedily routed and slain; and No-Kami, like the tyrant that he was, ungenerously pursued his advantage. Thanks to Nara's intervention, he refrained from deposing the Mikado; but he made up for this act of clemency by committing outrageous deeds. Banishment and confiscation were the order of the day. The estates of those who had dared to unsheath thekatanawere distributed among the minions of the despot. All over Japan, those who loved their country heard with groans of the annihilation of the loyalists, and the pitiful condition of the Emperors. There was a puppet Mikado at Kiŷoto, and a nominal Shogun at Kamakura, but they were both under the tutelage of Hojo.

No-Kami, as Nara hoped and expected, flushed with easy victory, and drunk with blood, resigned himself for a while to luxury, and neglected public business. A horde of rapacious bravos and licensed bandits sucked the lifeblood and paralysed the energies of the people. The weight of taxes, that ever crushes the spirit of the Asiatic peasant, grew heavier, day by day, until existence became intolerable. How was an end to be put to this nightmare? That was the question which all were fearfully whispering, and to which there seemed no solution.

No-Kami, if self-indulgent and ruthless, was no zany. He knew that his position was to be maintained by fear and a strong hand, and that enervation meant destruction. Bundles of bamboo, when bound together, will dam a stream, though each separate stem is but a feeble wand. The insurrection of effeminate Kugés had been precipitate and foolish. If the whole country were to rise like one man, he would, as he was aware, be swept like rice chaff into the sea. In the mutual jealousy of the Daimios lay his chief safeguard. While plunging each in separate discomfort, union at all costs must be prevented. Attempts at conspiracy among the nobles, or at combinations among the lower classes, must be frustrated, and to that end he gave strict orders to officials and tax-collectors to allow of no public meetings. The people were to pay what was demanded of them, humbly and dutifully, as best they could, but on no account were to be permitted to hold gatherings. Even the great festivals of the year were for a while to be discontinued.

Over and above these precautions, the tyrant surrounded his person with a picked body-guard of Samurai, or two-sword men; hedged his fortress with bristling defences; and recalled his brother, the brilliant Sampei, from his career of victory abroad.

Urged possibly by a spirit of contrariness, a contempt for the society of his prisoner and the Kugés--perhaps by a sense of freedom from personal danger there--the favourite abode of No-Kami was his castle of Tsu, four days' journey from the capital, over precipitous hills. Here he loved to dwell, surrounded by his brawling warriors; sojourning from time to time, when business called him to Kiŷoto, at a small but superb villa, called the Golden House, which stood secluded in a park on the outskirts of the sacred city.

The castle of Tsu was one of the strongest in Japan (the outline of its foundations still remains to attest to its vast area), and covered, within the square space of the outer moat, sufficient ground to accommodate an army. This outer moat, upon which many a shallop floated, was wide and deep and sluggish on three sides, masked by a luxuriant crop of lotos; while the fourth wall was washed by a rapidly-running river, the Iwatagawa, which a couple of miles away brawled into the sea. Out of the water rose a platform of great stones, with a fringe of gnarled and rusty pines, through which were visible battlements of earth crowned by a low parapet. At each corner was a huge four-storied building, fitted with four wide roofs of sculptured copper; the walls of whitewashed plaster within frameworks of unpainted wood. Inside this outer defence was a recreation and drill-ground of sufficient extent to allow of room for jousts and spectators, as well as trees and vegetable gardens, and a village of wooden huts for soldiery and camp followers. Dwellings of a better class were clustered like seashells about the second or inner moat, which enclosed a second wall.

Within the inner square was a space of considerable size, in the centre of which uprose the castle, a four-sided tower three hundred feet in height, tapering towards the top. By reason of its many roofs or verandahs of burnished and sculptured bronze, it seemed more like a cluster of many towers, the centre one the loftiest; and a picturesque object it was, for owing to the prevalence of earthquakes, all the walls above the foundation platform were of whitened mud and plaster, enclosed like the corner buildings within frames of timber; while the middle roof reared its head with overhanging eaves to a sharp point, crowned on the apex by a great fish, fashioned of pure gold.

This fortress was, barring miracle or treachery, justly reputed impregnable. Both moats were crossed by drawbridges, as an extra caution against surprise. The outer entrance was approached round a corner, so that the gate with its side postern was doubly commanded from above. Even if the outer wall were stormed, the inner one frowned on the intruder with manifold engines, while the ground about it could be rendered untenable by missiles from the summit of the tower.

A bowshot from the outer moat, westward from the river bank, the town of Tsu, with straggling suburbs, meandered, low and grey, like a long serpent. All Japanese towns are of one colour, walls and roofs alike, of wood unpainted and weatherworn, rendered a shade more silvery by clusters of pale lichen; but Tsu was more monotonously gloomy in aspect than most, by reason of damp and misery. The country close around, with the exception of two low hills, was flat and sedgy, broken by marshes and shallow rivulets. Away, hazy, melting into blue, could be discerned the encircling peaks of the range, beyond which is Kiŷoto. Grand mountains these, rugged and austere, with many a beetling crag. Mikuni Yama; Outake San; and away to the south-east Asama Yama, the majestic chief volcano of Japan.

The town of Tsu differed from others in that it displayed none of the spick-and-span cleanliness for which the land of the Rising Sun is as conspicuous as European Holland. The outlying cottages bore the stamp of squalor and ague, standing in oozy sludge. So did the people bear the brand of sorrow, as, listless and inert, they dragged their heavy feet. As a poor show of enterprise, a few unripe persimmons, which no one desired to buy, were exposed for sale in the mire; while here and there a tray of sorrel-like leaves were placed to dry (?)--a plant used for dying blue the cotton which is the common garment of the peasant. There was none of the briskness and gaiety to be seen that make rural Japan so cheery. None of the incessant chatter and laughter and pattering of clogs, the rush-and-tumble of naked brown babies, the whirr of the silk-looms, the busy hammer of the carpenters.

The houses, wide open to the street, displayed the usual raised platform of wood, smoothly planed, covered with matting, withhibachior firebox in the middle; but there was no brilliant glimpse beyond of the wonderful toy gardens, with rocks and dwarfed trees and straying tortoises and gaudy flowers and crickets in tiny cages, which distinguish a prosperous village. The paper windows or screens being always pushed back in their grooves during the day, a rustic Japanese household of the lower class may be said to live in public; for, till the screens are replaced, which they usually are at dusk, there may be said to be no privacy. You have a free view of goodman or matron in the bath, or at the toilet, or eating, or sleeping, or at work, and unabashed--with innocence sometimes for only garment--they nod to you pleasantly with a cheerful "Ohayo!" as you pass. Tsu was too degraded, steeped to the lips in grinding poverty, to have energy for work or washing, much less for the homely ornament of a single lily in a pot. Almost entirely nude the men, unkempt and frowsy, lolled and slept--such a marvellous variety of attitudes of sleep a sculptor might find there--while the housewife, thin and sallow, naked to the waist, fumbled feebly over the weaving of cheap hats, or grass sandals for man and horse.

Of course the town could boast of a superior quarter, where, in front of houses of a better kind, were flapping blue cotton awnings, each one adorned with the dominant daimio's cognisance. Into one of these, apparently the cleanest and the best, we will enter (first removing our clogs and swords), for what is proceeding within should interest us somewhat.