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A Retainer's Duty

Hideyoshi's campaign in the western provinces, Mitsuhide's campaign in Tamba, and the long siege of Itami Castle were Nobunaga's real work. The campaign in the western provinces and the siege of Itami were still stalemated, and only in Tamba was there some minor action. Day by day, a vast number of letters and reports arrived from these three areas. The documents were screened by staff officers and private secretaries, so that Nobunaga saw only the most important ones.

Among them was a letter from Sakuma Nobumori. Nobunaga read it and tossed it aside with an expression of extreme displeasure. The person whose job it was to pick up any discarded letters was Nobunaga's trusted page, Ranmaru. Thinking that Nobunaga's orders had been disobeyed, he surreptitiously read the letter. There was nothing in it that should have upset Nobunaga. It read:

To my surprise, Hanbei has not yet taken any action to carry out your orders. As your messenger, I impressed upon him the error of his ways, informing him that if he disobeyed the order, I would be accused of negligence. I think your order will be carried out soon. This has been extremely trying for me, and I humbly request your magnanimity in this matter.

Behind Nobumori's words one sensed that he was, more than anything else, trying to justify his own faults. In fact, his intention really was nothing more than that. Ranmaru was not able to read more meaning into it.

Nobunaga's anger at the letter, and his perception that Nobumori had changed, would not be manifested until later on. Until then, it would have been difficult for anyone other than Nobunaga to have understood his own true feelings. The only hints presaging the future that did not go unnoticed were that Nobunaga did not seem angry about Hanbei's disobedience and negligenceeven after he received such a letter from Nobumoriand that after this event, the matter was ignored. Nobunaga himself certainly did not press it. But there was no reason for Hanbei to be aware of such complicated changes in Nobunaga's thinking. It was not Hanbei, however, but Oyu and the retainers who were taking care of him, who thought that Hanbei should do something. It seemed he had not yet decided what to do about the problem.

A month went by. The plum trees were blossoming at the main gate of the Nanzen Temple and around Hanbei's retreat. As the days went by the sun became warmer, but Hanbei's condition did not improve.

He could not bear uncleanliness, so every day he would have the sickroom swept clean and then, bathing himself in the sunlight on bright mornings, he would sit on the veranda.

His sister would prepare tea for him, and his one pleasure during his illness was to watch the steam rise from the tea bowl in the bright morning sun.

"Your color has improved a little this morning, brother," Oyu said brightly.

Hanbei rubbed his cheek with a thin hand. "Spring has come to me, too, it seems. This is pleasant. For the last two or three days I've felt rather well," he answered with a smile.

Both his mood and color had indeed become much better in the past two or three days, and Oyu felt the greatest pleasure in looking at him this fine morning. But suddenly she felt a sense of desolation as she recalled the doctor's words: "There is little hope of recovery." But she was not going to give in to her feeling. How many patients had recovered after their doctors had given them up for dead? She promised herself that she would nurse Hanbei back to healthto see him healthy was a goal she shared with Hideyoshi, who the day before had written from Harima to encourage him.

"If you continue to get better at this rate, you'll be able to get out of bed by the time the cherry trees are blooming."

"Oyu, I've been nothing but trouble, haven't I?"

"What nonsense are you talking now?"

Hanbei laughed weakly. "I haven't thanked you before, because we're brother and sister, but this morning somehow I feel I should say something. I wonder if it's because I'm feeling so much better."

"It makes me happy to think it might be so."

"It's already been ten years since we left Mount Bodai."

"Time passes quickly. When you look back, you realize life goes by just like a dream.

"You've been at my side since thenand me, nothing but a mountain hermitcooking my meals morning and night, taking care of me, even preparing my medicine."

"No, it's only been for a little while. Back then, you kept saying that you would never get better. But as soon as your health improved, you joined Lord Hideyoshi, fought at the Ane River, Nagashino, and Echizen. You were in pretty good health then, weren't you?

"I suppose you're right. This sick body has stood up pretty well."

"So if you take care of yourself, you'll certainly get better this time, too. I'm determined that you're going to become your old self again."

"It's not that I want to die."

"You're not going to die!"

"I want to keep living. I want to live to make sure this violent world finds peace again. Ah, if only I were healthy, I'd be able to help my lord to the best of my ability. Suddenly Hanbei's voice fell. "But the length of a man's life is beyond his control. What can I do in this condition?"

Looking into his eyes, Oyu was suffused with pain. Was there something that her brother was keeping from her?

The bell of the Nanzen Temple announced the hour of noon. Although the country was still in a state of civil war, people could be seen viewing the flowering plum trees, and the song of the nightingales could be heard among the falling blossoms.

That spring was considered to be a pleasant one, but it was still only the Second Month. When night fell, and the lamps began to flicker coldly, Hanbei began to cough again. During the night, Oyu would have to get up several times to rub his back. There were other retainers nearby, but Hanbei was unwilling to let them take care of him in this way.

"They are all men who will ride out with me into battle. It wouldn't be right to ask them to rub a sick man's back," he explained.

That night, too, she got up to massage her brother's back. Going into the kitchen to prepare his medicine, she suddenly heard a noise outside the kitchen door that sounded as if someone was brushing past the old bamboo of the hedge. Oyu listened carefully. She could hear whispering outside.

"I can see a light. Wait just a moment. Somebody must be up." The voices outside gradually came closer to the house. Then someone tapped lightly on the rain shutter.

"Who is it?" Oyu asked.

"Is that you, Lady Oyu? It's Kumataro from Kurihara. I've just come back from Itami."

"It's Kumataro!" she called excitedly to Hanbei. She slid open the door to the kitchen and saw three men standing in the starlight.

Kumataro stretched out his hand took the bucket Oyu offered him. He called the other two men, and all three went to the well.

Oyu wondered who the other two men were. Kumataro was the retainer they had brought up on Mount Kurihara. At that time he had been called Kokuma, but now he was a fine young samurai. After Kumataro drew up the well bucket and poured the water into the bucket he had taken from Oyu, the other two men washed the mud from their hands and feet and the blood from their sleeves.

Hanbei instructed her to light the lamp in the small guest room, put some burning coals in the brazier, and lay out cushions for the guests, even though it was late at night.

When Hanbei told her that one of the men with Kumataro must be Kuroda Kanbei, she could not hide her surprise. Kuroda was the man about whom there had been so many rumors: either that he had been a prisoner in Itami Castle since the previous year, or that he had changed sides and was staying in the castle of his own free will. Ordinarily, Hanbei did not talk at all to his retainers about official businessmuch less about secrets matters of this natureso even Oyu had no idea where Kumataro had gone before the New Year, or why he had stayed away for such a long time.

"Oyu, please bring me my coat," Hanbei said.

Although she was worried about him, Oyu knew that he would insist on getting out of bed and meeting his guests, no matter how sick he was. She slipped the coat over his shoulders.

Having combed his hair and rinsed his mouth, Hanbei went to the reception room where Kumataro and the other two guests were already sitting and waiting quietly for him.

Hanbei responded to the guests' greeting with deep emotion, "Ah, you're safe!" and he sat down, grasping Kanbei's hands. "I was worried."

"Don't worry on my account; as you see, I'm quite well," Kanbei replied.

"I'm glad you made it."

"I seem to have made you worry. I apologize."

"Anyway, heaven has blessed us by bringing us together again. For me, this is a real joy.

But who was the other, older man who had been watching in silence, reluctant to disturb the emotional reunion of the two friends? At last Kanbei asked him to introduce limself.

"I think this is not the first time we have met, my lord. I am also in the service of Lord Hideyoshi and I have seen you from a distance many times. I'm a member of the ninja corps, which doesn't mix with the other samurai much, so you may not remember me. I am Hachisuka Hikoemon's nephew, Watanabe Tenzo. I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance."

Hanbei slapped his knee. "You're Watanabe Tenzo! I've heard a lot about you. And now that you mention it, it seems I have seen you once or twice before."

Just then Kumataro said, "I met Tenzo quite by accident in the prison of Itami Castle. He had the same purpose I had in penetrating the place."

"I don't know if it happened completely by chance or through divine providence, but it was only because we met each other that we were able to get Lord Kanbei out. If we lad each been acting on our own, we probably would have been killed in the attempt," Tenzo said, smiling.

Tenzo had been in Itami Castle because Hideyoshi had also tried to engineer Kuroda Kanbei's rescue. Hideyoshi had first dispatched an envoy to beg Araki Murashige for Kanbei's release, and later, had sent a Buddhist priest in whom Murashige had faith to preach for the same thing. He had used every means at his disposal, but Murashige had stubbornly refused to let Kanbei go. As a last resort, Hideyoshi had ordered Tenzo to get Kanbei out of prison.

Tenzo had broken into the castle, and a chance to rescue Kanbei had presented itself. There was a celebration of some kind taking place in the castle, and all of Araki Murashige's family and retainers were in the main hall, while every last soldier had been treated to sake. As luck would have it, it was a dark night with neither moon nor wind. Tenzo knew that it was the moment to act decisively. Having already completed his reconnaissance of the grounds, he was investigating the area beneath the keep when he saw someone else spying into the prison, someone who did not look like a guard. In fact, the man must have broken into the castle just as he had. The other man introduced himself as Takenaka Hanbei's retainer, Kumataro.

"I am an agent of Lord Hideyoshi," Tenzo replied. With this exchange, they knew they had come on the same mission. Working together, they broke through the prison window and helped Kanbei to escape. Concealed by the darkness, they went over the castle ramparts, took a small boat from the floodgate across the moat, and fled.

After listening to the detailed circumstances of the difficulties they had been through, Hanbei turned to Kumataro and and said, "I was worried that I had sent you out on an impossible mission, and I realized that your chances of success were only one or two out of ten. This absolutely has to be the work of heaven. But what happened in the days after that? And how did you make your way here?"

Kumataro knelt respectfully, apparently without the least bit of pride in having done something worthy of praise. "We had little trouble in getting out of the castle; our real problems began afterward. The Araki forces were stationed at wooden palisades here and there, so we were surrounded several times, and sometimes we were separated from each other in the midst of the enemy's swords and spears. We were finally able to cut our way through, but in one of the fights Lord Kanbei received a sword wound to his left knee, and his injury kept us from going too far. In the end, we had to sleep in a barn. We traveled at night and slept in roadside shrines during the day. Finally we made our way to Kyoto."

Kanbei took up the story. "If we had been able to find refuge with the Oda troops that surrounded the castle, our escape would have been easier. According to what I heard in the castle, however, Araki Murashige was letting it be known that Lord Nobunaga was very suspicious of my actions. He told people that I should join their side because of the kind of person Nobunaga was, but I smiled at this chicanery."

Kanbei forced a sad smile, and Hanbei nodded silently.

By the time all the questions and stories were over, the night sky had begun to turn pale white. Oyu was preparing soup in the kitchen.

The men were tired after talking all night, and after finishing their breakfast, each took a short nap. Upon awakening, they spoke again.

"By the way," Hanbei said to Kanbei, "I know it's awfully sudden, but I was thinking that I would leave today for my home province of Mino and then go on to Azuchi to see Lord Nobunaga. As I will tell your story to His Lordship, I suggest you go directly to Harima."

"Of course, I don't want to be idle for a single day," Kanbei said, but then he looked dubiously at Hanbei's face. "You're still ill, and how is a sudden trip going to affect your health?" he asked.

"I planned on getting up today anyway. If I let my illness defeat me, there'll be no end to it, and I've been feeling much better for a while now."

But it's important to be completely cured. I don't know what kind of pressing business you have, but couldn't you put it off just a while longer and convalesce here?" Kanbei asked.

I prayed that I might get better quickly with the coming of the New Year, and I've been taking good care of myself. Now that I'm sure you're all right, I have no worries about that anymore. At the same time, I've committed a crime for which I have to receive punishment at Azuchi, and today's a good day to get out of the sickbed and say good-bye."

"A crime for which you have to receive punishment at Azuchi?"

Hanbei now told Kanbei for the first time about how he had disobeyed Nobunaga's orders for over a year.

Kanbei was shocked. That Nobunaga had doubted him was one thing. But that he would order the decapitation of Shojumaru was something he could not even begin to imagine.

"Is that the way it was?" Kanbei moaned. Suddenly he felt cold and hollow toward Nobunaga. He had risked so much: gone into Itami Castle alone, been imprisoned, and only narrowly avoided deathand in the end, whom was he working for? At the same time, he was unable to keep from shedding tears at Hideyoshi's inordinate show of affection and Hanbei's friendship.

"I'm very grateful, but why should you do this for my son's sake? If that's the situation, then I should go to Azuchi to explain myself."

"No, the crime of disobedience was mine. The only request I have is that you join Lord Hideyoshi in Harima. I doubt that I'm going to be in the world much longer, whether I'm found guilty or innocent. I'd like you to go to Harima as quickly as possible."

Hanbei prostrated himself in front of his friend as if to beg him. He had a sick man's determination. Even more, he was Hanbei, a man not lacking in mature deliberation; once he had spoken, he did not go back on his decisions.

That day the two friends parted company, one going east, the other west. Kanbei went on to the campaign in Harima, accompanied by Watanabe Tenzo. Hanbei set off for Mino, accompanied only by Kumataro.

As Oyu saw her brother off at the gate of the Nanzen Temple, there were tears in her eyes, for in her mind was the possibility that he might never return. The priests tried to comfort her by telling her that her grief would be as fleeting as all things, but in the end they almost had to carry her back through the main gate.

Hanbei most likely had the same thoughts as well. No, it was clear that he felt an even more intense grief. In the saddle of his horse, his body swayed as he neared a rise.

Hanbei suddenly pulled back on the reins as though he had just remembered something. "Kumataro," he said, "there's something I've forgotten to say. I'm going to write it down, and I'd like you to run back and give it to Oyu." Taking out a piece of paper, he scribbled something and handed it to Kumataro. "I'll go on ahead slowly, so you can catch up with me."

Kumataro took the letter, bowed respectfully, and ran back toward the temple.

I've made mistakes, he thought sadly, as he looked down at the Nanzen Temple one last time. I have no regrets at all about the road I have taken, but for my sister. He let the horse walk at its own pace.

A samurai's road was a straight one; and after Hanbei had come down from Mount Kurihara, he had not deviated from it. Nor would he have had any regrets, even if his life were to end that day. But what pained him most was that Oyu had become Hideyoshi's mistress. As her brother, he constantly felt censured by his conscience. She had, after all, been at his side at the crucial time of choosing her own path, he told himself. The fault lay with him, not with his sister. He secretly worried about the many years that were ahead of Oyu after his own death.

It was a woman's misfortune that her happiness never lasted her whole life. What was especially painful to him was the feeling that he had stained the pure whiteness of the Way of the Samuraithe way that based itself on death. How many times had he grumbled to himself about this matter, thinking that he should apologize to Hideyoshi and ask to be dismissed, or that he should unburden himself of his anguish to his sister, and ask her to live in seclusion? But the appropriate course of action had never presented itself.

He was embarking on a journey from which he would never return, and naturally felt that he should say something about the matter to Oyu. He had been unable to say anything when she stood so sweetly in front of him, but now, perhaps, he could write few lines of verse, which his sister might appreciate more easily. After he was gone, on the pretext of mourning him, she might be able to extricate herself from the crowd of women that clustered around Hideyoshi's bedroom like flowering vines at a gate.

When he arrived at his own estate in Mino, Hanbei spent the day worshiping at the grave of his ancestors and then went briefly back to Mount Bodai. He had not been there for a long time but would not give in to his desire to stay longer.

On arising the next morning, he quickly arranged his hair and heated up water for a rare bath.

"Call Ito Hanemon," he ordered.

The song of the nightingale could be heard frequently both in the plains around Mount Bodai and in the trees inside the castle compound.

"I am at your service, my lord." With the sliding paper doors at his back, a sturdy- looking elderly samurai bowed deeply. Ito was Shojumaru's guardian.

"Hanemon? Come in. You're the only one I've ever talked to about this in detail, but the day has finally come when Shojumaru must go to Azuchi. We will leave today. I know this is sudden, but please inform the attendants and have them make travel preparations at once."

Hanemon understood his master's distress very well, and the color suddenly drained from his face.

"Then Master Shojumaru's life is"

Hanbei could see that the old man was shaking, and to reassure him he said, smiling, "No, he won't be beheaded. I'm going to appease Lord Nobunaga's anger, even if it's at the expense of my own life. As soon as he was freed from Itami, Shojumaru's father went to the campaign in Harima, a wordless statement of his innocence. Now the only thing remaining is my crime of ignoring my lord's orders."

Hanemon withdrew silently and went to Shojumaru's room. As he approached, could hear the happy sounds of the child's voice as he beat upon a hand drum. Shojumaru was treated so well by the Takenaka clan that one would hardly think he had been put in its care as a hostage.

Thus, when his guardians, who knew little of the real situation concerning the child, heard that they were to make preparations for a journey, they were fearful for Shojumaru's life.

Hanemon did his best to reassure them. "You have nothing to fear. If Master Shojumaru is going to Azuchi, have faith in Lord Hanbei's sense of justice. I think we should leave everything to him."

Shojumaru knew nothing of what was occurring and continued to play happily, beating the drum and dancing. Even though he was a hostage, he had his father's fortitude and was undergoing the robust training of a samurai. He was by no means a timid child.

"What did Hanemon say?" Shojumaru asked, putting down the drum. Seeing his guardian's face, the child seemed to realize something had happened and he looked worried.

"It's nothing to worry about," one of the guardians said. "But we have to make quick preparations for a trip to Azuchi."

"Who's going?"

"You are, Master Shojumaru."

"I'm going too? To Azuchi?"

The guardians turned away so that the boy could not see their tears. As soon as Shojumaru heard their words, he jumped up and clapped his hands.

"Really? How wonderful!" And he ran back to his room. "I'm going to Azuchi! They said I'm going on a trip with Lord Hanbei! The dancing and drumming is over. Stop, everyone!"

Then he asked loudly, "Are these clothes all right?"

Ito came in and said, "His Lordship reminds you to take a bath and arrange your hair nicely."

The guardians led Shojumaru to the bath, put him in the tub, and did his hair. But when they began to dress him for the trip, they saw that both the underclothes and the kimono provided for him were of the purest white silkthe vestments of death.

Shojumaru's attendants immediately thought that Ito had lied to console them and that the boy's head was going to be cut off in front of Nobunaga. They started to cry again, but Shojumaru paid absolutely no attention and put on the white kimono, a red brocade armor coat, and a skirt of China silk. Dressed in this finery and flanked by his two attendants, he was taken to Hanbei's room.

In high spirits, Shojumaru ignored the tear-streaked faces of his attendants. "Well then, let's go!" he urged Hanbei again.

Hanbei finally stood up and said to his retainers, "Please take care of everything afterward." When they considered this later, it seemed that all of his intent was contained in the one word, "afterward."

* * *

After the battle of the Ane River, Nobunaga had granted Hanbei an audience. On that occasion Nobunaga had said, "I've heard from Hideyoshi that he looks upon you not only as his retainer but as his teacher. Be sure to understand that I don't think lightly of you, either."

Thereafter, whether Hanbei was given an audience or simply went to Azuchi, Nobulaga always treated him as though he were one of his own direct retainers.

Hanbei now climbed to Azuchi Castle, bringing with him Kanbei's son, Shojumaru.

Because of his illness, his fatigue showed on his face, but, dressed in his best clothes, he went step by step in a dignified manner up into the tower where Nobunaga sat. Nobunaga had received notice of their arrival the night before, and was waiting.

"I so rarely see you," Nobunaga said in high spirits as soon as he saw Hanbei. "I'm glad you're here. Come closer. You have permission to take a cushion. Someone give Hanbei something to sit on." Showing exceptional sympathy, he spoke to Hanbei, who remained prostrate at a distance in deep respect. "Are you better now? I imagine you were exhausted both mentally and physically by the long campaign in Harima. According to my doctor, it would be dangerous to send you to the battlefield right now. He said you need at least one or two more years of complete rest."

For the past two or three years it had been rare for Nobunaga to use such gentle words when speaking to a retainer. Hanbei felt some disorientation in his heart that was neither happiness nor grief.

"I do not deserve such sympathy, my lord. Going to the battlefield, I become ill; returning, I do nothing more than receive your kind favors. I'm just a sick man who's done nothing of service for you at all."

"No, no! I'll be in real difficulty if you don't take care of yourself. The first thing we must think of is not to discourage Hideyoshi."

"Please don't say such things, my lord, you make me blush," Hanbei said. "Originally, the reason I dared to show my face asking for an audience was that last year Sakuma Nobumori delivered your orders concerning Shojumaru's execution. But until now"

"Wait a minute," Nobunaga interrupted. Ignoring Hanbei for the moment, he looked at the youth kneeling by Hanbei's side. "Is that Shojumaru?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Hm, I see. He resembles his father, and he looks a little different from other children. He's a promising young man. You should be good to this boy, Hanbei."

"Well then, what about sending his head?" Hanbei tensed and gazed steadily at Nobunaga. If Nobunaga insisted on cutting off the child's head, he was resolved to risk his own life by admonishing his lord. But, from the beginning of the audience, that did not seem to be Nobunaga's intention, Hanbei now began to realize.

Feeling Hanbei's direct stare, Nobunaga suddenly burst out laughing and spoke a though he could no longer hide his own foolishness. "Forget all that. I myself regretted that order almost immediately after I gave it. Somehow, I'm just a very suspicious person. This has been awkward for both Hideyoshi and Kanbei. But the wise Hanbei resisted my orders and did not slay the child. In fact, when I heard about how you had dealt with this, I was relieved. How am I going to blame you? The blame is mine. Forgive me, I didn't act very well." Nobunaga didn't hang his head or bow to the ground, but he looked as though he wanted to change the subject quickly.

Hanbei, however, was not so easily contented with Nobunaga's forgiveness. Nobunaga had said to forget the matter, to let it flow downstream, but Hanbei's expression displayed no joy at all.

My having disobeyed your order may reflect on your authority at a later time. If youve spared Shojumaru's head because of Kanbei's innocence and merit, allow this young man to prove himself worthy of your mercy. Also, you could do me no better favor, my lord, than to command me to do some meritorious deed to atone for the crime of having ignored your order." Hanbei spoke as though he were opening his heart, once gain prostrating himself and waiting for Nobunaga's benevolence. This was what Nobunaga had wanted from the beginning.

When Hanbei had once again received his lord's pardon, he told Shojumaru in a whisper to thank Nobunaga courteously. He then turned to Nobunaga again. "This may be the last time the two of us will meet in this life. I pray that you will prosper even more in the fortunes of war."

"That's sort of a strange thing to say, isn't it? Does that mean you're going to disobey me yet again?" Nobunaga pressed Hanbei for his meaning.

"Never." Hanbei shook his head as he looked down at Shojumaru. "Please look at the way this child is dressed. He is leaving here to fight in the Harima campaign beside Kanbei; he is resolved to distinguish himself no less than his father, gallantly ready to leave everything to destiny."

"What? He wants to go to the battlefield?"

"Kanbei is a famous warrior, and Shojumaru is his son. My request is that you enourage him in his first campaign. It would be a great blessing if you would tell him to exert himself in a manly way."

"But what about you?"

"As a sick man, I doubt that I can complement the strength of our men much at all, but I think it is the right time for me to accompany Shojumaru to the campaign."

"Are you all right? What about your health?"

"I was born a samurai, and to die peacefully in my bed would be mortifying. When it's time to die, one cannot do otherwise."

"Well then, go with my blessing, and I wish Shojumaru good fortune in his first campaign, too." Nobunaga beckoned the youth with his eyes and gave him a short sword made by a famous swordsmith. Then he ordered a retainer to bring sake, and they drank together.

Characters and places | Taiko | Hanbeis Legacy