The Genteel Burglar

I

THE afternoon sun, slanting through the branches of the ginkgo tree, outlined on the worn mat below a pattern of intricate design. Takeo thrust his lean old shanks gratefully into its warmth as he put the finishing touches to a winter bonnet of straw he was making. It would protect the ancient stone lantern by the lily pond against the hard frosts of a Tokyo winter.

He regarded the results of his morning’s work in the garden with justifiable pride, for he had been at it since sunrise, and now, in their winter wrappings, the familiar trees and shrubs had been cunningly disguised as for some freakish masquerade.

The dwarf pines were well provided for in case of a heavy fall of snow. Each separate twig was supported by a length of twine and fastened to a stout pole above. It looked as though some giant spider had been spinning steadily all through the night. The camellia and japonica bushes were very lightly clad, for they were sturdy plants and, with leggings of straw, would be blooming again in March.

The palms were fantastic Harlequins in their elaborate pantaloons of straw; coming from the South, they needed warm garments, and they made the bamboos, facing the winter unguarded, look neglected by comparison. It was not so, however, for though they would shiver and rub their slender leaves together for warmth, with little whispering sounds, they were quite impervious to icy winds in spite of their air of highbred delicacy.

The watchdog, thinking perhaps that a midday bento was in progress, left the shelter of the house and joined old Takeo upon the mat. They are inseparable companions, sharing their food and secrets indiscriminately. I often hear the old man droning on and on when they are together, in an apparently endless monologue, punctuated at intervals by sympathetic tail thumpings from his audience. She is a very ‘skillful’ listener, Takeo tells me.

As she approached his mat, yawning and stretching, he welcomed her with ceremony, glad of an audience. Did she remember him as he was not so many moons ago, he demanded. An old man, ill and out of work, who had been forced to steal — or starve. Condescend to look about, for this very house was the scene of his first attempt at burglary.

He sounded so sorry for himself as he quavered along that the dog moved nearer to him on the mat. With rough, warm tongue and waving tail, she assured him of an affectionate understanding which, centring upon so recently retired a robber, was slightly unprofessional in a watchdog.

Takeo patted her briefly before he drew out his tobacco pouch. From it he selected a half-smoked cigarette, with the air of a connoisseur fingering over a heap of precious stones. When the smoke curled up in thin blue spirals to the branches above, he leaned back luxuriously. There was no particular reason to hurry back to work; he could finish the rest of the shrubs before the first hard frost, and the warm sun, filtering through the fernlike leaves above him, made him feel pleasantly reminiscent. ‘Eh to! So, des ne . . .’ And with all the gusto of an Irishman in the confessional he launched once more upon the story of his brief career of crime.

II

For many months, following a long illness, he had no work at all, very little food, and a shelter that was in no way adequate for an ailing old man. His worn clothing would not hold together much longer, it was evident, although he labored over the gaping rents with failing eyesight and shaking, unaccustomed fingers. For his odd appearance he consoled himself with a mild show of truculence: ‘I am no tailor, I am a gardener’ — and hunted up all the old newspapers he could find to scan them feverishly, in the hope that someone had advertised for his services.

Occasionally someone did. Then Takeo would tear off that portion of the paper, stow it carefully in his empty tobacco pouch, pull the paper doors of his house together behind him, and set out in quest of work.

In the summer, these trips were very pleasant indeed. The early-morning mist lent the country the witchery of a fairy tale, and the dust of the highroad was cool and soft underfoot. Takeo padded along contentedly, first taking care to see that the hem of his faded kimono was tucked high in his girdle to ensure greater comfort and freedom on his journey.

He loitered a little near the more prosperous farmhouses, just visible in their protecting grove of pines, in the hope that someone, rising betimes, might share an early-morning cup of tea with him.

Enchanted, he paused beside vast fields of lotus, while, raised on tall, clean stems above their glossy leaves, the buds opened to the light. Hunger and poverty alike were forgotten in the miracle of this morning oblation to the sun. Takeo felt certain that the white and shell-pink blossoms must be kinfolk of the floating wisps of cloud that heralded the dawn.

In the first warmth of the day, people were stirring on the road and in the fields. Barelegged coolies, sidling along with their edgewise gait, called hoarse greetings and ribald jokes; in the rice fields, stooping figures in faded blue straightened themselves under their huge hats to reply. Old Takeo enjoyed the rough good-fellowship of the road after the many solitary hours spent in his shabby house.

Winter came at last, however. Only now and again was a gardener needed, by some farmer in the back country, which meant long trips on unprotected roads where icy rains beat down upon the old man and north winds chilled him to the bone. Often he arrived at his destination so exhausted that the kindly maidservants, seeing with pity his blue lips and shaking limbs, brought out their own hibachi to dry his threadbare clothing. They gave him bowls of scalding, bitter tea and scraps of food left over from their own plentiful meals, which he consumed in noisy gulps, mindful of good form even in his extreme need.

They squatted around him in a circle and waited considerately for him to finish before they questioned him about himself and the reason for his present poor estate. Patently, this was no uncouth fellow: despite his rags, he ate with a genteel commotion, giving full attention to his food and showing his appreciation of it as etiquette demanded. But over a pipeful of tobacco he answered them fully concerning his misfortunes.

Had the Old One then no sons to care for him? Ah so? It was indeed pitiful that he had no one to provide for him in his age and partial blindness. Why did he not apply to this or that charitable organization for help?

To Takeo the tea was warm and consoling, but the thought of charity was bitter indeed. When his hands grew a little steadier he fumbled in his girdle for the tobacco pouch, from which he extracted a damp bit of newspaper. Then with a worn finger he indicated the advertisement to prove that he was no object of charity, but had come in answer to their request for a gardener that they might have the benefit of what poor skill his years of experience had brought.

More tea was proffered and another pipeful of tobacco in order to delay the time when they must tell him gently that his trip had been quite fruitless. A young, strong man was needed for the work.

Takeo murmured patiently, ‘Ah so desuka? Ah so,’ and thanked them for their trouble as he rose to go. At the door, again, he did not forget the traditional salutations before he limped out into the storm to face the journey back and the bleak discomfort of his fireless house.

III

It took several such trips to convince old Takeo that he must abandon hope of any work until the spring at least. His situation was desperate, for when a man is seventy-five, and in fragile health, next spring is a long way off. And he knew no other trade. All of his life had been spent among his flowers without thought for the morrow, and now the penalties of old age — poverty and illness — were closing in on him. Like a child sent in from the sunshine to brave the terrors of a strange, dark attic, he faced the prospect of starvation.

From long habit, he stooped and gathered up an old newspaper that clung forlornly to the side of a bamboo fence. It was useless to look at the ‘help wanted’ column, of course, but the stories of robbers and their deeds made cheerful reading for a lonely old man. They were always so successful. Clearly the police were too much occupied with the menace of dangerous thoughts to concern themselves with private property.

He crushed the paper in both hands and rose to his feet with the daring thought that flashed through his mind. He would be a burglar! What a solution for his difficulties! Charity he could not accept, lest he lose face, but he could and would, with honor, become a burglar. Then, too, no preliminary training was needed for this career — even children had been accomplished thieves. New life seemed to flow through his feeble frame as his purpose hardened into practical considerations and definite plans.

With great care, Takeo smoothed out the tattered paper again, and, guided by the details of various accounts, went briskly about his preparations. Having neither food nor fire in the house, his first foray could not be made too soon. He knew the very house to rob, one owned by careless foreigners, suitable and safe for a maiden effort.

From underneath a heap of broken flowerpots, relics of his one-time profession, the gardener emeritus unearthed a rusty pruning knife. He wasted no time in sentimental musings on happy hours spent in sunny gardens, but, fired with his new idea, sharpened the blade to a fine razor edge. It made a formidable weapon.

With a bit of charcoal ground to powder on his doorstone and a cup of hot water poured over the mass, he concocted a sticky paste which he smeared liberally, if unevenly, over his mild old countenance. The results were all that any desperado could have asked, and Takeo was delighted. Already, it appeared, he showed a promising aptitude for his new vocation.

Of course, a disguise was hardly necessary, for when had a burglar been inconvenienced by the police in any way? In this case, however, it would be most impolite to appear without one, for the people he meant to rob knew him well.

Last winter, just after his long illness, the foreign lady heard of his plight, and offered him light work indoors for which she had overpaid him foolishly. When he left she also gave him tobacco and some long, warm garments of the master’s, which were very strange-looking but most comforting to wear on such a frosty night as this. He slipped into them with a sigh of gratitude.

It would be most unseemly now for the foreign lady to see him in the guise of a burglar; she might think that he had not appreciated her kindness, which was not so. Gratitude surged up afresh in old Takeo when he reflected that, thanks to her, he now knew the house well enough to rob it. He resolved to spare her the pain of recognition if it lay within his power.

He was still slightly elated by the thought of his own benevolence when he set out on foot for the house of his intended victims. The evening was drawing into a bitter night, and he met no one on the way but a wretched dog that whined at his heels for companionship. Sensing the old man’s preoccupation, it slunk away into the shadows after a block or so.

A little after midnight, shaking with his mounting excitement, Takeo found the house. Seeing that it was hospitably dark, he slipped quietly through a gap in the hedge.

IV

It was a night of bright stars, and by their light he observed with real distress the shocking condition of the garden. The chrysanthemums would never bloom placed where they were. Any fool should have known that they belonged on the other side of the house. Perhaps there would be time to change them before he began in earnest on his new trade, for it was still many hours to sunrise.

Irresolute, he shifted uneasily from one foot to the other as he recalled himself sternly to the work in hand. But the appeal of the scrubby plants proved too potent to withstand, and, whipping out his pruning knife, the old gardener went to work swiftly and efficiently.

Humming a tuneless little song of contentment, he padded back and forth with the chrysanthemums, and placed them close enough for sociability but not too near for comfort when they should have reached their full growth. He pressed the loose earth down about the roots, and sniffed the acrid fragrance of the few straggling buds with the assurance that now they had a chance to become fine, full blooms.

With a clear conscience he could now begin his evening’s work, and, wiping his knife on the short, dry grass, he stepped lightly inside the house. As he had expected, it was a simple matter to gain entrance, for, like all of their kind, these people were mad enough to sleep with their windows open.

A dim light was burning in the room beyond, and thither Takeo made his way, successfully avoiding all of the huge objects with which a foreigner clutters up his house.

Someone had eaten a late meal, for the careless amah had left the table set, and food still on the plates. But more exciting still were the ash trays, piled high with cigarette stubs. Many a moon had come and gone since he had seen so much good tobacco. Takeo gathered the treasures greedily into a square of white cloth that lay upon the table and tucked them securely inside his girdle before he fell upon the food.

Perched precariously on the edge of a chair, he wolfed everything in sight: a great bowl of rice and all the meat beside it, with peanuts, pickled ginger, and shredded fish in small blue dishes on a tray. He drank all the heeltaps of warm beer remaining in the bottles, and presently a pleasant glow spread over him. What a splendid life was that of a burglar! Takeo sighed gustily at the thought of his wasted youth.

When the last scrap of food had vanished he raised his head and drew a great breath of repletion. It caught midway, however, and his knees swayed under him, working both ways as he rose to his feet, frozen with terror. Across the room a monster was watching him — a fiend with a hideous black face and little slits of eyes!

Then, with the memory of his disguise, the blood flowed back into his paralyzed limbs, and he sank down reassured but not entirely relieved.

Oya ma! What a face! Even a robber should not be so filthy. If anyone should find him with such an evil look they well might take him for some low-class fellow. It was too much. He must take care not to frighten anyone who might chance to see him.

Without further ado, Takeo rose and walked firmly through the kitchen and to the bath beyond. The water in the wooden tub was still hot, he found on lifting up the cover. A thin but reassuring vapor rose from it into the cold air as he stripped off his shabby clothes. He sniffed suspiciously at the scented soap, but decided to use it for lack of any better.

It would be a shame, though, to soil the bath water of these foreigners. Had he not eaten of their food? Then, too, they had showed him much kindness, but with such loud voices and rough ways that his heart became small at their approach. So, seizing the little wooden bucket, he plunged it deep into the water and sluiced himself off again and again before he went to work in earnest upon his grimy face. He scrubbed so vigorously that the slippery soap shot from his hand now and again on to the concrete floor and had to be retrieved; and not until he was thoroughly assured of his success by the condition of the small white towels belonging to the foreign lady did old Takeo step into the tub.

Chin-deep he sank into the water, which smelled deliciously of clean, resinous wood. Well fed, and warmed for the first time in months, he crouched like some drowsy sea animal, soaking and nodding. The light overhead struck a spark from the copper stove at the end of the tub, which winked at him companionably. How splendid was a life of crime, he reflected happily; and, otherwise forgetful of his enterprise, old Takeo the burglar propped his chin on the edge of the tub and slept.

V

It was dawn when he awoke. The wooden amado of a neighboring house were being pushed back with a great clatter, jarring the old man into frantic activity as he realized where he was and why. A robber’s lot was a bleak and terrifying one when viewed in the early dawn.

As he leaped from the chilly water with surprising agility, he reached for his kimono and the precious cigarette stubs in one sweeping gesture. The long, warm garments with the foreign master’s laundry mark upon them were left hanging from a hook — mute but incontrovertible proof of the visitor’s identity.

Outside, a pale fog softened the steely light of a rising day. There were no alarming signs of pursuit, only the muffled boom of heavy waters, boisterous among the rocks. Once from overhead came the querulous talk of sea birds flying through the mist. The fear that lent old Takeo wings was not enough, however, to lift up his feet. His flight was marked, had anyone been looking, by a whirling wake of dust clouds that hung for a time over the road before they settled listlessly in place or drifted off among the wayside grasses.

With his breath whistling in agonized gasps from overdriven lungs, he reached the house at last and crawled between his dingy quilts, utterly spent. Gradually the familiar squalor brought its sense of security and quieted the throbbing heart that shook his frail old body so roughly, and he was able to review his enterprise with tranquil enjoyment. After all, it had been a splendid evening. Had he not eaten rich foods, drunk good beer, and finished off with a hot bath?

Still clasping the trophies of his foray in one hand, old Takeo lay smiling to himself with a pleasant sense of adventure that he made no effort to resist.

VI

The sun still slanted through the ginkgo tree, but the story had broken off abruptly. Glancing out of the window from which I had overheard old Takeo’s monologue on more than one occasion, I saw that he had withdrawn his lean old shanks ungratefully from its warmth.

Rising stiffly, he stumped to the stone lantern and clapped the straw bonnet on its head at an angle that would have been distinctly saucy on a less venerable object. As he secured it against the high winter winds with bits of plaited straw, he grumbled to himself.

It occurred to me then that I had never heard the end of the story. Takeo always stopped at exactly the same point. Wondering idly, I called out to him at his work and put my question, suggesting mildly that the tale seemed to have a very happy ending.

When his bows had diminished somewhat in number and in depth, he replied gloomily: —

‘Oku-san, what self-respecting burglar could fail to be saddened by the constant thought that, after showing so much promise in the beginning, he had completely forgotten to steal anything from you?’