Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 26

A Quiet Smoke

The sound of the innumerable wooden panels, which at nightfall are pulled and shut in every Japanese house, is one of the peculiarities of the country which will remain longest imprinted on my memory. From our neighbor’s houses these noises reach us one after the other, floating to us over the green gardens, more or less deadened, more or less distant.

Just below us, Madame Prune’s panels move very badly, creak and make a hideous noise in their wornout grooves.

Ours are somewhat noisy too, for the old house is full of echoes, and there are at least twenty screens to run over long slides in order to close in completely the kind of open hall in which we live. Usually, it is Chrysanthème who undertakes this piece of household work, and a great deal of trouble it gives her, for she often pinches her fingers in the singular awkwardness of her too tiny hands, which never have been accustomed to do any work.

Then comes her toilette for the night. With a certain grace she lets fall the day-dress, and slips on a more simple one of blue cotton, which has the same pagoda sleeves, the same shape all but the train, and which she fastens round her waist with a sash of muslin of the same color.

The high head-dress remains untouched, it is needless to say — that is, all but the pins, which are taken out and laid beside her in a lacquer box.

Then there is the little silver pipe that must absolutely be smoked before going to sleep; this is one of the customs which most provoke me, but it has to be borne.

Chrysanthème squats like a gipsy before a certain square box, made of red wood, which contains a little tobacco-jar, a little porcelain stove full of hot embers, and finally a little bamboo pot serving at the same time as ash-tray and cuspidor. (Madame Prune’s smoking-box downstairs, and every smoking-box in Japan, is exactly the same, and contains precisely the same objects, arranged in precisely the same manner; and wherever it may be, whether in the house of the rich or the poor, it always lies about somewhere on the floor.)

The word “pipe” is at once too trivial and too big to be applied to this delicate silver tube, which is perfectly straight and at the end of which, in a microscopic receptacle, is placed one pinch of golden tobacco, chopped finer than silken thread.

Two puffs, or at most three; it lasts scarcely a few seconds, and the pipe is finished. Then tap, tap, tap, tap, the little tube is struck smartly against the edge of the smoking-box to knock out the ashes, which never will fall; and this tapping, heard everywhere, in every house, at every hour of the day or night, quick and droll as the scratchings of a monkey, is in Japan one of the noises most characteristic of human life.

“Anata nominase!” (“You must smoke too!") says Chrysanthème.

Having again filled the tiresome little pipe, she puts the silver tube to my lips with a bow. Courtesy forbids my refusal; but I find it detestably bitter.

Before laying myself down under the blue mosquito-net, I open two of the panels in the room, one on the side of the silent and deserted footpath, the other on the garden side, overlooking the terraces, so that the night air may breathe upon us, even at the risk of bringing the company of some belated cockchafer, or more giddy moth.

Our wooden house, with its thin old walls, vibrates at night like a great dry violin, and the slightest noises have a startling resonance.

Beneath the veranda are hung two little AEolian harps, which, at the least ruffle of the breeze running through their blades of grass, emit a gentle tinkling sound, like the harmonious murmur of a brook; outside, to the very farthest limits of the distance, the cicalas continue their sonorous and never-ending concert; over our heads, on the black roof, is heard passing, like a witch’s sabbath, the raging battle, to the death, of cats, rats, and owls.

Presently, when in the early dawn a fresher breeze, mounting upward from the sea and the deep harbor, reaches us, Chrysanthème rises and slyly shuts the panels I have opened.

Before that, however, she will have risen at least three times to smoke: having yawned like a cat, stretched herself, twisted in every direction her little amber arms, and her graceful little hands, she sits up resolutely, with all the waking sighs and broken syllables of a child, pretty and fascinating enough; then she emerges from the gauze net, fills her little pipe, and breathes a few puffs of the bitter and unpleasant mixture.

Then comes tap, tap, tap, tap, against the box to shake out the ashes. In the silence of the night it makes quite a terrible noise, which wakes Madame Prune. This is fatal. Madame Prune is at once seized also with a longing to smoke which may not be denied; then, to the noise from above, comes an answering tap, tap, tap, tap, from below, exactly like it, exasperating and inevitable as an echo.

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