Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 11

A Game of Archery

July 14th.

This is the National Fete day of France. In Nagasaki Harbor, all the ships are adorned with flags, and salutes are fired in our honor.

Alas! All day long, I can not help thinking of that last fourteenth of July, spent in the deep calm and quiet of my old home, the door shut against all intruders, while the gay crowd roared outside; there I had remained till evening, seated on a bench, shaded by an arbor covered with honeysuckle, where, in the bygone days of my childhood’s summers, I used to settle myself with my copybooks and pretend to learn my lessons. Oh, those days when I was supposed to learn my lessons! How my thoughts used to rove — what voyages, what distant lands, what tropical forests did I not behold in my dreams! At that time, near the garden-bench, in some of the crevices in the stone wall, dwelt many a big, ugly, black spider always on the alert, peeping out of his nook ready to pounce upon any giddy fly or wandering centipede. One of my amusements consisted in tickling the spiders gently, very gently, with a blade of grass or a cherry-stalk in their webs. Mystified, they would rush out, fancying they had to deal with some sort of prey, while I would rapidly draw back my hand in disgust. Well, last year, on that fourteenth of July, as I recalled my days of Latin themes and translations, now forever flown, and this game of boyish days, I actually recognized the very same spiders (or at least their daughters), lying in wait in the very same places. Gazing at them, and at the tufts of grass and moss around me, a thousand memories of those summers of my early life welled up within me, memories which for years past had lain slumbering under this old wall, sheltered by the ivy boughs. While all that is ourselves perpetually changes and passes away, the constancy with which Nature repeats, always in the same manner, her most infinitesimal details, seems a wonderful mystery; the same peculiar species of moss grows afresh for centuries on precisely the same spot, and the same little insects each summer do the same thing in the same place.

I must admit that this episode of my childhood, and the spiders, have little to do with the story of Chrysanthème. But an incongruous interruption is quite in keeping with the taste of this country; everywhere it is practised, in conversation, in music, even in painting; a landscape painter, for instance, when he has finished a picture of mountains and crags, will not hesitate to draw, in the very middle of the sky, a circle, or a lozenge, or some kind of framework, within which he will represent anything incoherent and inappropriate: a bonze fanning himself, or a lady taking a cup of tea. Nothing is more thoroughly Japanese than such digressions, made without the slightest apropos.

Moreover, if I roused my past memories, it was the better to force myself to notice the difference between that day of July last year, so peacefully spent amid surroundings familiar to me from my earliest infancy, and my present animated life passed in the midst of such a novel world.

To-day, therefore, under the scorching midday sun, at two o’clock, three swift-footed djins dragged us at full speed — Yves, Chrysanthème, and myself — in Indian file, each in a little jolting cart, to the farther end of Nagasaki, and there deposited us at the foot of some gigantic steps that run straight up the mountain.

These are the granite steps leading to the great temple of Osueva, wide enough to give access to a whole regiment; they are as grand and imposing as any work of Babylon or Nineveh, and in complete contrast with all the finical surroundings.

We climb up and up — Chrysanthème listlessly, affecting fatigue, under her paper parasol painted with pink butterflies on a black ground. As we ascended, we passed under enormous monastic porticoes, also in granite of rude and primitive style. In truth, these steps and these temple porticoes are the only imposing works that this people has created, and they astonish, for they do not seem Japanese.

We climb still higher. At this sultry hour of the day, from top to bottom of the enormous gray steps, only we three are to be seen; on all that granite there are but the pink butterflies on Chrysanthème’s parasol to give a cheerful and brilliant touch.

We passed through the first temple yard, in which are two white china turrets, bronze lanterns, and the statue of a large horse in jade. Then, without pausing at the sanctuary, we turned to the left, and entered a shady garden, which formed a terrace halfway up the hill, at the extremity of which was situated the Donko-Tchaya — in English, the Teahouse of the Toads.

This was the place where Chrysanthème had wished to take us. We sat down at a table, under a black linen tent decorated with large white letters (of funereal aspect), and two laughing ‘mousmes’ hastened to wait upon us.

The word ‘mousme’ means a young girl, or very young woman. It is one of the prettiest words in the Nipponese language; it seems almost as if there were a little pout in the very sound — a pretty, taking little pout, such as they put on, and also as if a little pert physiognomy were described by it. I shall often make use of it, knowing none other in our own language that conveys the same meaning.

Some Japanese Watteau must have mapped out this Donko-Tchaya, for it has rather an affected air of rurality, though very pretty. It is well shaded, under a shelter of large trees with dense foliage, and a miniature lake close by, the chosen residence of a few toads, has given it its attractive denomination. Lucky toads, who crawl and croak on the finest of moss, in the midst of tiny artificial islets decked with gardenias in full bloom. From time to time, one of them informs us of his thoughts by a ‘Couac’, uttered in a deep bass croak, infinitely more hollow than that of our own toads.

Under the tent of this tea-house, we sit on a sort of balcony jutting out from the mountain-side, overhanging from on high the grayish town and its suburbs buried in greenery. Around, above, and beneath us cling and hang, on every possible point, clumps of trees and fresh green woods, with the delicate and varying foliage of the temperate zone. We can see, at our feet, the deep roadstead, foreshortened and slanting, diminished in appearance till it looks like a sombre rent in the mass of large green mountains; and farther still, quite low on the black and stagnant waters, are the men-of-war, the steamboats and the junks, with flags flying from every mast. Against the dark green, which is the dominant shade everywhere, stand out these thousand scraps of bunting, emblems of the different nationalities, all displayed, all flying in honor of far-distant France. The colors most prevailing in this motley assemblage are the white flag with a red ball, emblem of the Empire of the Rising Sun, where we now are.

With the exception of three or four ‘mousmes’ at the farther end, who are practising with bows and arrows, we are today the only people in the garden, and the mountain round about is silent.

Having finished her cigarette and her cup of tea, Chrysanthème also wishes to exert her skill; for archery is still held in honor among the young women.

The old man who keeps the range picks out for her his best arrows tipped with white and red feathers — and she takes aim with a serious air. The mark is a circle, traced in the middle of a picture on which is painted, in flat, gray tones, terrifying chimera flying through the clouds.

Chrysanthème is certainly an adroit markswoman, and we admire her as much as she expected.

Then Yves, who is usually clever at all games of skill, wishes to try his luck, and fails. It is amusing to see her, with her mincing ways and smiles, arrange with the tips of her little fingers the sailor’s broad hands, placing them on the bow and the string in order to teach him the proper manner. Never have they seemed to get on so well together, Yves and my doll, and I might even feel anxious, were I less sure of my good brother, and if, moreover, it was not a matter of perfect indifference to me.

In the stillness of the garden, amid the balmy peacefulness of these mountains, a loud noise suddenly startles us; a unique, powerful, terrible sound, which is prolonged in infinite metallic vibrations. It begins again, sounding more appalling: ‘Boum!’ borne to us by the rising wind.

“Nippon Kane!” exclaims Chrysanthème — and she again takes up her brightly feathered arrows. “Nippon Kane (‘the Japanese brass’); it is the Japanese brass that is sounding!” It is the monstrous gong of a monastery, situated in a suburb beneath us. It is powerful indeed, “the Japanese brass”! When the strokes are ended, when it is no longer heard, a vibration seems to linger among the suspended foliage, and a prolonged quiver runs through the air.

I am obliged to admit that Chrysanthème looks very charming shooting her arrows, her figure well bent back the better to bend her bow; her loose-hanging sleeves caught up to her shoulders, showing the graceful bare arms polished like amber and very much the same color. Each arrow whistles by with the rustle of a bird’s wing — then a short, sharp little blow is heard, the target is hit, always.

At nightfall, when Chrysanthème has gone up to Diou-djen-dji, we cross, Yves and I, the European concession, on our way to the ship, to take up our watch till the following day. The cosmopolitan quarter, exhaling an odor of absinthe, is dressed up with flags, and squibs are being fired off in honor of France. Long lines of djins pass by, dragging, as fast as their naked legs can carry them, the crew of the ‘Triomphante,’ who are shouting and fanning themselves. The Marseillaise is heard everywhere; English sailors are singing it, gutturally, with a dull and slow cadence like their own “God Save.” In all the American bars, grinding organs are hammering it with many an odious variation and flourish, in order to attract our men.

One amusing recollection comes back to me of that evening. On our return, we had by mistake turned into a street inhabited by a multitude of ladies of doubtful reputation. I can still see that big fellow Yves, struggling with a whole band of tiny little ‘mousmes’ of twelve or fifteen years of age, who barely reached up to his waist, and were pulling him by the sleeves, eager to lead him astray. Astonished and indignant, he repeated, as he extricated himself from their clutches, “Oh, this is too much!” so shocked was he at seeing such mere babies, so young, so tiny, already so brazen and shameless.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:36