Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 29

Sudden Showers

August 10th.

It rained this evening heavily, and the night was close and dark. About ten o’clock, on our return from one of the fashionable tea-houses we frequent, we arrived — Yves, Chrysanthème and I— at the familiar angle of the principal street, the turn where we must take leave of the lights and noises of the town, to climb up the dark steps and steep paths that lead to our dwelling at Diou-djen-dji.

But before beginning our ascent, we must first buy lanterns from an old tradeswoman called Madame Tres-Propre, whose regular customers we are. It is amazing what a quantity of these paper lanterns we consume. They are invariably decorated in the same way, with painted nightmoths or bats; fastened to the ceiling at the farther end of the shop, they hang in enormous clusters, and the old woman, seeing us arrive, gets upon a table to take them down. Gray or red are our usual choice; Madame Tres-Propre knows our preferences and leaves the green or blue lanterns aside. But it is always hard work to unhook one, on account of the little short sticks by which they are held, and the strings with which they are tied getting entangled together. In an exaggerated pantomime, Madame Tres-Propre expresses her despair at wasting so much of our valuable time: oh! if it only depended on her personal efforts! but ah! the natural perversity of inanimate things which have no consideration for human dignity! With monkeyish antics, she even deems it her duty to threaten the lanterns and shake her fist at these inextricably tangled strings which have the presumption to delay us.

It is all very well, but we know this manoeuvre by heart; and if the old lady loses patience, so do we. Chrysanthème, who is half asleep, is seized with a fit of kitten-like yawning which she does not even trouble to hide behind her hand, and which appears to be endless. She pulls a very long face at the thought of the steep hill we must struggle up tonight through the pelting rain.

I have the same feeling, and am thoroughly annoyed. To what purpose do I clamber up every evening to that suburb, when it offers me no attractions whatever?

The rain increases; what are we to do? Outside, djins pass rapidly, calling out: “Take care!” splashing the foot-passengers and casting through the shower streams of light from their many-colored lanterns. Mousmes and elderly ladies pass, tucked up, muddy, laughing nevertheless under their paper umbrellas, exchanging greetings, clacking their wooden pattens on the stone pavement. The whole street is filled with the noise of the pattering feet and pattering rain.

As good luck will have it, at the same moment passes Number 415, our poor relative, who, seeing our distress, stops and promises to help us out of our difficulty; as soon as he has deposited on the quay an Englishman he is conveying, he will come to our aid and bring all that is necessary to relieve us from our lamentable situation.

At last our lantern is unhooked, lighted, and paid for. There is another shop opposite, where we stop every evening; it is that of Madame L’Heure, the woman who sells waffles; we always buy a provision from her, to refresh us on the way. A very lively young woman is this pastry-cook, and most eager to make herself agreeable; she looks quite like a screen picture behind her piled-up cakes, ornamented with little posies. We will take shelter under her roof while we wait; and, to avoid the drops that fall heavily from the waterspouts, wedge ourselves tightly against her display of white and pink sweetmeats, so artistically spread out on fresh and delicate branches of cypress.

Poor Number 415, what a providence he is to us! Already he reappears, most excellent cousin! ever smiling, ever running, while the water streams down his handsome bare legs; he brings us two umbrellas, borrowed from a China merchant, who is also a distant relative of ours. Like me, Yves has till now never consented to use such a thing, but he now accepts one because it is droll: of paper, of course, with innumerable folds waxed and gummed, and the inevitable flight of storks forming a wreath around it.

Chrysanthème, yawning more and more in her kitten-like fashion, becomes coaxing in order to be helped along, and tries to take my arm.

“I beg you, mousme, this evening to take the arm of Yves-San; I am sure that will suit us all three.”

And there they go, she, tiny figure, hanging on to the big fellow, and so they climb up. I lead the way, carrying the lantern that lights our steps, whose flame I protect as well as I can under my fantastic umbrella. On each side of the road is heard the roaring torrent of stormy waters rolling down from the mountain-side. To-night the way seems long, difficult, and slippery; a succession of interminable flights of steps, gardens, and houses piled up one above another; waste lands, and trees which in the darkness shake their dripping foliage on our heads.

One would say that Nagasaki is ascending at the same time as ourselves; but yonder, and very far away, is a vapory mist which seems luminous against the blackness of the sky, and from the town rises a confused murmur of voices and laughter, and a rumbling of gongs.

The summer rain has not yet refreshed the atmosphere. On account of the stormy heat, the little suburban houses have been left open like sheds, and we can see all that is going on. Lamps burn perpetually before the altars dedicated to Buddha and to the souls of the ancestors; but all good Nipponese have already lain down to rest. Under the traditional tents of bluish-green gauze, we can see whole families stretched out in rows; they are either sleeping, or hunting the mosquitoes, or fanning themselves. Nipponese men and women, Nipponese babies too, lying side by side with their parents; each one, young or old, in his little dark-blue cotton nightdress, and with his little wooden block on which to rest the nape of his neck.

A few houses are open, where amusements are still going on; here and there, from the sombre gardens, the sound of a guitar reaches our ears, playing some dance which gives in its weird rhythm a strange impression of sadness.

Here is the well, surrounded by bamboos, where we are wont to make a nocturnal halt for Chrysanthème to take breath. Yves begs me to throw forward the red gleam of my lantern, in order to recognize the place, for it marks our halfway resting-place.

And at last, at last, here is our house! The door is closed, all is silent and dark. Our panels have been carefully shut by M. Sucre and Madame Prune; the rain streams down the wood of our old black walls.

In such weather it is impossible to allow Yves to return down hill, and wander along the shore in quest of a sampan. No, he shall not return on board to-night; we will put him up in our house. His little room has indeed been already provided for in the conditions of our lease, and notwithstanding his discreet refusal, we immediately set to work to make it. Let us go in, take off our boots, shake ourselves like so many cats that have been out in a shower, and step up to our apartment.

In front of Buddha, the little lamps are burning; in the middle of the room, the night-blue gauze is stretched.

On entering, the first impression is favorable; our dwelling is pretty this evening; the late hour and deep silence give it an air of mystery. And then, in such weather, it is always pleasant to get home.

Come, let us at once prepare Yves’s room. Chrysanthème, quite elated at the prospect of having her big friend near her, sets to work with a good will; moreover, the task is easy; we have only to slip three or four paper panels in their grooves, to make at once a separate room or compartment in the great box we live in. I had thought that these panels were entirely white; but no! on each is a group of two storks painted in gray tints in those inevitable attitudes consecrated by Japanese art: one bearing aloft its proud head and haughtily raising its leg, the other scratching itself. Oh, these storks! how tired one gets of them, at the end of a month spent in Japan!

Yves is now in bed and sleeping under our roof.

Sleep has come to him sooner than to me to-night; for somehow I fancy I had seen long glances exchanged between him and Chrysanthème.

I have left this little creature in his hands like a toy, and I begin to fear lest I should have caused some perturbation in his mind. I do not trouble my head about this little Japanese girl. But Yves — it would be decidedly wrong on his part, and would greatly diminish my faith in him.

We hear the rain falling on our old roof; the cicalas are mute; odors of wet earth reach us from the gardens and the mountain. I feel terribly dreary in this room to-night; the noise of the little pipe irritates me more than usual, and as Chrysanthème crouches in front of her smoking-box, I suddenly discover in her an air of low breeding, in the very worst sense of the word.

I should hate her, my mousme, if she were to entice Yves into committing a fault — a fault which I should perhaps never be able to forgive.

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