Sir Rutherford Climbs Mount Fuji – Part 2

VI

The Ambassador was woken early the next morning by the sound of Toby barking in the garden below.  He picked up a slipper which was on the floor next to his futon, “no doubt” he thought, “for this express purpose” and headed for the window.  Sliding the paper screen aside he pulled back his arm ready to let loose the slipper at his dog when he realised that a boy was playing with Toby.  “Oh bother,” he said quickly hiding the slipper behind him as the boy looked up and give a very low bow.  Sir Rutherford responded with a cheerful wave and a smile.  Just then Hirobumi entered the room followed by two young Japanese women carrying trays. 
“Good morning, Sir Rutherford,” said the secretary, “I trust you slept well.”
“Well, you can ask me that in the morning, can’t you?”
“Ah, I see the Ambassador is in fine form today and will no doubt feel even better after a good breakfast.”
“Yes, I suppose I will.  Just so long as it’s not a bowl of rice, that damned mushroom soup and dried up fish,” Sir Rutherford replied a little grumpily.
“Ah…..” was all Hirobumi could manage.
“Oh curses,” Sir Rutherford mumbled but then putting on his best diplomatic face he said, “THANK YOU MY DEARS.  JUST PUT THE BOWLS OF SLOP ON THE TABLE HERE AND I’LL TRY NOT TO CHOKE ON THE FISH BONES.  THANK YOU. THANK YOU.”
The two young women blushed as they bowed on their way out.
“They have never seen a foreigner before,” said Hirobumi.
“Oh.  I hope they’re not too disappointed,” said Sir Rutherford removing the lids of the six or seven bowls on the trays.  “How can a country function so well without sausages and bacon for breakfast, eh?”  With that he picked up one of the dried fish from a bowl and flicked it out of the open window into the pond in the garden below. 
“I believe it’s the miso soup,” his secretary replied.
“Miso?” Sir Rutherford looked confused, “I thought it was mushroom.”
“No, Sir Rutherford.  Miso.”
“What’s a ‘miso’?” the ambassador asked picking up the second fish and taking aim at the pond again.
Before Hirobumi could answer, the door flew open and Toby, the boy and a woman who Sir Rutherford remembered as the innkeeper burst inn. Sir Rutherford quickly stuffed the fish into his dressing gown pocket as everyone began to talk at once.
“It just slipped through my fingers you see,” Sir Rutherford stammered.
“I want to go too,” the boy shouted.
“Madam, what is the meaning of this?” Hirobumi started to protest.
“I’m terribly sorry, sirs,” the breathless woman cried.
“Very slippery even when they have been roasted to nearly a cinder,” Sir Rutherford continued nodding at the window by way of explanation.
“I want to go too,” the boy shouted even louder.
“He’s very spirited.  He’s from Nagaski.”
“I want to go,” the boy tried one more time.
“Where?” Sir Rutherford asked bending down to look in the boy’s eyes.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Madam.  But the Ambassador’s privacy must be respected,” Hirobumi addressed the innkeeper.
“The top of Mount Fuji.  With you,” the boy replied.
“Have you ever climbed Mount Fuji before?”
“His mother, my younger sister, is married to a foreign trader.  I told her not to give her heart to a foreigner but she wouldn’t hear it,” the woman explained with a pained look on her face.
“Yes, I’ve heard that some terrible things happen when you mix with foreigners.” Hirobumi rubbed his chin knowingly.
“Yes, many times, sir.” The boy and Sir Rutherford were having a conversation of their own.
“I told her not to go hanging around with foreigners.  But she said he was a gentleman, that’s what she said,” the woman continued now looking at the empty fish bowl with a frown.
“Yes, there are some around, I’ve heard,” Hirobumi said though not entirely convinced of the validity of this statement.
“Do you have a horse?” Sir Rutherford asked.
“Yes, sir.  It’s the fastest horse in the town.”
“I’ve tried my best with him these last few months,” the innkeeper continued, “but he’s so spirited.”
“OK.  Meet you outside in an hour,” the Ambassador said with a smile and then looking at the breakfast on the table beside him he added, “no make that 30 minutes.”
“Yatta!” the boy cried taking his aunt’s hand.  “He said ‘Yes’.”
“Nani?” asked the innkeeper.
“What?” asked Hirobumi.
“Um.  Who’s nanny?” Sir Rutherford asked putting on his most innocent face this time.

  
  VII

Hirobumi was still diplomatically arguing with his employer as they walked through the gardens on their way to the stables.
“We know nothing about the boy, Sir Rutherford.  He could rob us blind in our sleep.  Or worse!”  And then, forgetting who he was speaking to, he added, “you know what these foreigners are like.”  
Sir Rutherford ignored this last comment and instead stopped at the pond where two gardeners were using a net to retrieve the cooked fish from the water.
“SKY SPIRITS!” Sir Rutherford said pointing up in the air, “THEY MUST BE VERY HAPPY WITH YOU.  WHAT WITH SHARING THEIR BREAKFAST WITH YOU AND EVERYTHING.  VERY LUCKY DAY FOR YOU.  VERY LUCKY”
The two old men looked at each other as the foreigner’s words sunk in and then they quickly hurried off to find a card game, the taller of the two putting the fish reverently in his pocket.
“But sir, is this wise?”  the secretary persisted as they reached the stable door.
“Hirobumi.  You said yourself that you have never climbed Mount Sushi.  We will need a guide.  And one that has been there before, is spirited, speaks English and knows the ways of a foreigner is as good as any.  And what’s that wonderful smell?”
With that, Sir Rutherford opened the door to find the boy holding out a plate on which there was a bacon sandwich.  Tears almost filled Sir Rutherford’s eyes as Hirobumi looked on from behind knowing that he had lost this argument forever.

  VIII

Sir Rutherford sat on a bale of hay and slowly finished the bacon sandwich, something akin to ketchup oozing through his fingers onto the plate.
“By Heaven, young man,” he said between mouthfuls, “I knew I hadn’t made a mistake with you.” 
The Ambassador got up and washed his hands in a nearby bucket.  Then straightening his tie he said, “ Well, I suppose introductions are in order.”
Hirobumi in the corner put his head in his hands as Sir Rutherford drew himself up to his full height and said, “MY NAME IS SIR RUTHERFORD ALCOCK,  AMBASSADOR FOR HER MAJESTY QUEEN VICTORIA TO THE IMPERIAL CHRYSANTHEMUM COURT OF JAPAN, SURGEON (RETIRED) OF THE MARINE BRIGADE, DEPUTY INSPECTOR-GENERAL OF HOSPITALS (ALSO RETIRED), EDITOR OF RIDDLES TODAY AND UNBEATEN CONKER CHAMPION AT MY SCHOOL FOR THREE YEARS RUNNING.”
“Boil or polish?” the boy asked.
“What?” Hirobumi asked raising his head in the corner.
“Oh, boiling was outlawed.  Could get a chap in a lot of trouble.”
“So what did you polish them with?” the boy continued.
“Polish what with?” the secretary asked thinking that he knew best how to look after Sir Rutherford’s finest Sheffield.
“Well, my lad” Sir Rutherford bent down with a twinkle in his eye “all the others used boot polish but not I.  No, I used honey.”
“Really?” the boys eyes opened wide with excitement.
“Yes! A good polish with honey late at night and by morning it had dried to armour.  Completely unstoppable.”
The boy let out a low whistle gazing into the distance.
“What are you talking about Sir Rutherford?” Hirobumi asked getting quite agitated.
“Conkers!” his two companions said at the same time looking at him with incredulity. 
“Oh…..right,” the secretary not for the first time realised that he had a lot to learn about the ways of the English.
“And what might your name be, young man?”
“Daito, sir.”
“Daiki, eh?”
“No, Daito, sir.”
“Dai…”
“Daito! sir.”
“Right.  Well, welcome aboard, young…man,” said Sir Rutherford. “Very well gentlemen; our party is now three and our quest remains the same, namely to climb Mount Sushi.”
“Mount Fuji, Sir Rutherford,” the secretary said with a resigned sigh.
“I admire your spirit, Hirobumi but I think we’ll just go for the one mountain on this trip.  And we’d better make a start if we are to get anywhere near that one today.  So let’s mount up!  Do you get it?  Mount up?  Mount Sushi?  Mount up? Mount …”
The Ambassador’s two companions looked at him as though he was quite mad.
“Well, I’ll explain it later,” Sir Rutherford managed, “or maybe not.”
As he spoke, Sir Rutherford’s horse reared up and tried to flatten Daito with its front hooves.  The boy scurried out of the way while the Ambassador took hold of the bridle and gently soothed the horse.
“Well, you are definitely English, aren’t you Daichi?  My horse here attacks Englishmen at the slightest chance.  I bought him from a grumpy little old Frenchman years ago and it took me a long time to bring him under control.  His name’s Marengo, by the way, and I suggest you don’t get too close to him for a while.”
Without any more words but with Daito moving cautiously around the Ambassador’s grey horse, the three adventurers left the stable.

IX

By now it was mid-morning and the dusty street was filled with people going about their daily business.  The townspeople stopped and stared at Sir Rutherford and his party as they slowly rode past.  Sir Rutherford waved and nodded to the people but few acknowledged his pleasantries.  “Oh well,” he thought “at least they’re not grabbing rocks and pitch forks like in the old days.”
After a few more minutes of trying to be friendly, Sir Rutherford gave up and instead turned to Daito and said “Well, Daiki.  What’s the plan for tackling Mount Sushi?”
By now Daito was becoming used to the Ambassador’s habit of mispronouncing names and so without passing comment, he lowered his voice and in a deadly hushed tone, he said, “First we have to go to the Indian Hut and meet… the Wise Women.”       
Hirobumi let out a barely disguised howl of laughter.
“You alright there, Hirobumi?” the ambassador called back to him.
“Hmmm,” the secretary sniggered, tears filling his eyes.
“OK.  Go on Daiki,” Sir Rutherford encouraged, taking another glance back at Hirobumi who was dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief.
The boy continued in his very serious way, “two things, sir, you should know about the wise women.  First …”
“They are women and second they are wise!” Hirobumi chipped in from behind exploding into convulsions of laughter turning his face red and causing more tears to stream down his face.
“No!” Daito snapped back, “First, one always tells the truth while the other one lies.  And second, only one of them likes chocolate.”
“Ah, that’s good to know, Daiki,” Sir Rutherford nodded his head sagely while trying to ignore Hirobumi who was having trouble remaining in his saddle, “good intelligence is the key to a successful campaign as my friend, Sunny Zoo wrote in his Painting War by Numbers book or something like that.”
“And why do we need to go to the Wise Women?” Hirobumi still had a whole symphony of sarcasm in his voice.
“Because there are two paths up the mountain; red and white.  One is safe but if you choose the wrong path you will die.  Only the wise women know which path is safe each day.  So we have to visit them and ask them.  OK?”
Hirobumi had suddenly lost all appetite for humour as he thought about the boy’s words.  “So we have a 50% chance of dying.  Even before we meet the Terrible Goddess at the top?”
“Yes, that’s right,” the boy confirmed, “so you’d better start thinking of the 3 questions we can ask the Wise Women like your life depends on it… because it does depend on it!”

The three riders had almost reached the end of the town when Sir Rutherford stopped his horse outside a shop.  He looked at the sign above the door and an observant watcher would have noticed his lips moving slightly as he slowly read it.  “Yes, this will do nicely.  ‘Harry’s bakery and confectionery.’  I’ll just pop in here for some supplies for today.”
He dismounted from the horse and his two friends outside soon heard,
“GOOD DAY TO YOU, SIR.  MY NAME IS SIR RUTHERFORD ALCOCK, AMBASSADOR FOR…”
“Does he always do that?” Daito asked Hirobumi.
“Yes, I’m afraid he does.”
“CHRYSANTHEMUM COURT OF JAPAN”
“Does anyone every listen?”
“Very few, I think.  And Daito, I think you were the only one to ever understand it all.”
“(ALSO RETIRED)”
“How does he do that thing with the brackets?”
“I’m not sure.  But I think he got it from his father who was a university professor.  It’s called parent’s thesis or something.”
Hirobumi then asked the boy to explain more about the wise women and the two paths to the top of the mountain.  Daito repeated that there were only two paths one of which was the safe and the other dangerous.  Only two witches called Kako and Wako, who lived at the bottom of the mountain, knew which path was safe each day.  Any group of travellers were allowed to ask 3 questions of the women before choosing either red or white.  One witch always told the truth but the other one always lied.  But they took it in turns to be the liar.  Hirobumi was just trying to think of a suitable question to ask when Sir Rutherford appeared at the door with Harry, the proprietor of the shop.  The baker was a jolly man with rotund body, full moustache beneath a head of very short black hair.  They shook hands and then Sir Rutherford pointed to a large cake displayed in the shop window.
“Harry’s gateau,” he said.
“Ah!  You say Harry’s gateau like we say Harry’s gateau!” the big man smiled broadly, striking his own chest.
“What?” Sir Rutherford asked.
“You say Harry’s gateau like we say Harry’s gateau!” the baker repeated slowly his face still beaming.
“Well, yes, thank you.”
“No, no, no.  Harry’s gateau!” the big man was still enjoying his joke.
“Harry’s gateau,” Sir Rutherford said and then began filling his saddles bags with supplies.
The baker was still smiling and waving as the riders moved off and Sir Rutherford began to explain, “a rather strange but interesting man Harry Hanzo.  He has a cousin called Hattori Hanzo who lives in Okinawa.  He makes the finest…”
Just then Toby appeared up ahead and began barking loudly.
“Oh dear,” said his master, “I wonder what mischief he’s got himself into this time.” And having said that, he urged his horse quickly on.
“Does Sir Rutherford always do that too?” asked Daito.
“Yes, all the time,” Hirobumi replied and they both hurried after the Englishman.

X

All afternoon Sir Rutherford listened to his two young companions discussing the problem of the wise women.
“So we can’t just ask one of the women which path is safe because she may lie to us,” Hirobumi stated.
“That’s right,” Daito agreed, “and we can’t ask if she is lying because she will say ‘no’ but she might actually be lying.”
“How about if we asked what the other witch would say?” the secretary pondered.
“But she still might lie to us and we wouldn’t know.”
“Yes, but if…” Hirobumi began.
“What questions did you ask them when you climbed the mountain?” Sir Rutherford asked turning round in his saddle.
“Oh, um.  I just asked each of them if the red path was safe and then asked the tall thin one if the white path was safe.”
“And were the answers helpful?  After all you’re not dead, are you?”
“Well, um, I suppose so.”
“What colour kimono does the goddess at the top of the mountain wear?” Sir Rutherford asked quickly.
“Oh, umm….Green…. No blue.  Bright blue with yellow bits.”
“You’ve never been to the top of Mount Fuji, have you, Daito?” the Ambassador gently asked completely forgetting to mispronounce the names.
“No, sir,” Daito admitted.
“What happened?”
“Well, I went to see the witches and asked them 3 questions but the answers weren’t very helpful.  So I just guessed and started climbing the red path but I got really scared and turned back.”
“Yes, it is sometimes wise to retreat until one is better prepared.”
“Oh, great,” Hirobumi threw his arms up in the air, “our guide hasn’t even been to the place where he’s supposed to be guiding us.”
“Don’t be too hard on the boy,” Sir Rutherford said, “at least he volunteered for this little adventure, unlike some others.”
“Yes, that’s true.  It will be a great comfort to him when he gets hit on the head by a big piece of lava.”

The road became narrower and steeper as they rode on.  The ground was covered in ancient lava and the trees gave way to smaller bushes.  The sun was setting in the west and its rays were made weaker by a faint mist which had developed.  There was no sound to be heard at all; no birds flew in the sky and no creatures scurried under the bushes.  Suddenly a foul odour of rotten eggs hit Sir Rutherford’s sensitive nose.
“Good Lord, Hirobumi!  Was that you?” the Ambassador asked.
“Was what me?”
“That terrible smell!”
“Sir Rutherford!  I can assure you that I am not the origin of such a ghastly stench,” the secretary replied indignantly.
“Daiki?”
“Not I, Sir Rutherford!”
“Oh.  It must be me then,” the Ambassador shrugged his shoulders and carried on riding.
Just as the sun was setting the three companions turned a corner and saw the Indian Hut by the side of the road.  As they approached the door opened and two old women stepped out, friendly smiles on their faces.  One of the women was tall and thin; the other short and fat.  Sir Rutherford got off his horse and walked the last few steps to the hut.
“Greetings, friends,” the taller woman said, “we’ve been expecting you.  My name is Kako.”
“And so is mine,” the fat woman said.
“Ah, it’s like that, is it?” said Sir Rutherford.
“Yes,” the two women said in unison.
 

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Comments
  1. Rob/boddy-chan says:

    Really enjoying the story. Sorry I’m a little behind. Like the hints of Blackadder and Kill Bill. A great accompaniment to my breakfast.

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