Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 3

The Garden of Flowers

The next day the rain fell in torrents, merciless and unceasing, blinding and drenching everything — a rain so dense that it was impossible to see through it from one end of the vessel to the other. It seemed as if the clouds of the whole world had amassed themselves in Nagasaki Bay, and chosen this great green funnel to stream down. And so thickly did the rain fall that it became almost as dark as night. Through a veil of restless water, we still perceived the base of the mountains, but the summits were lost to sight among the great dark masses overshadowing us. Above us shreds of clouds, seemingly torn from the dark vault, draggled across the trees, like gray rags-continually melting away in torrents of water. The wind howled through the ravines with a deep tone. The whole surface of the bay, bespattered by the rain, flogged by the gusts of wind that blew from all quarters, splashed, moaned, and seethed in violent agitation.

What depressing weather for a first landing, and how was I to find a wife through such a deluge, in an unknown country?

No matter! I dressed myself and said to Yves, who smiled at my obstinate determination in spite of unfavorable circumstances:

“Hail me a ‘sampan,’ brother, please.”

Yves then, by a motion of his arm through the wind and rain, summoned a kind of little, white, wooden sarcophagus which was skipping near us on the waves, sculled by two yellow boys stark naked in the rain. The craft approached us, I jumped into it, then through a little trap-door shaped like a rat-trap that one of the scullers threw open for me, I slipped in and stretched myself at full length on a mat in what is called the “cabin” of a sampan.

There was just room enough for my body to lie in this floating coffin, which was scrupulously clean, white with the whiteness of new deal boards. I was well sheltered from the rain, that fell pattering on my lid, and thus I started for the town, lying in this box, flat on my stomach, rocked by one wave, roughly shaken by another, at moments almost overturned; and through the half-opened door of my rattrap I saw, upside-down, the two little creatures to whom I had entrusted my fate, children of eight or ten years of age at the most, who, with little monkeyish faces, had, however, fully developed muscles, like miniature men, and were already as skilful as regular old salts.

Suddenly they began to shout; no doubt we were approaching the landing-place. And indeed, through my trap-door, which I had now thrown wide open, I saw quite near to me the gray flagstones on the quays. I got out of my sarcophagus and prepared to set foot on Japanese soil for the first time in my life.

All was streaming around us, and the tiresome rain dashed into my eyes.

Hardly had I landed, when there bounded toward me a dozen strange beings, of what description it was almost impossible to distinguish through the blinding rain — a species of human hedgehog, each dragging some large black object; they came screaming around me and stopped my progress. One of them opened and held over my head an enormous, closely-ribbed umbrella, decorated on its transparent surface with paintings of storks; and they all smiled at me in an engaging manner, with an air of expectation.

I had been forewarned; these were only the djins who were touting for the honor of my preference; nevertheless I was startled at this sudden attack, this Japanese welcome on a first visit to land (the djins or djin-richisans, are the runners who drag little carts, and are paid for conveying people to and fro, being hired by the hour or the distance, as cabs are hired in Europe).

Their legs were naked; to-day they were very wet, and their heads were hidden under large, shady, conical hats. By way of waterproofs they wore nothing less than mats of straw, with all the ends of the straws turned outward, bristling like porcupines; they seemed clothed in a thatched roof. They continued to smile, awaiting my choice.

Not having the honor of being acquainted with any of them in particular, I chose at haphazard the djin with the umbrella and got into his little cart, of which he carefully lowered the hood. He drew an oilcloth apron over my knees, pulling it up to my face, and then advancing, asked me, in Japanese, something which must have meant: “Where to, sir?” To which I replied, in the same language, “To the Garden of Flowers, my friend.”

I said this in the three words I had, parrot-like, learned by heart, astonished that such sounds could mean anything, astonished, too, at their being understood. We started, he running at full speed, I dragged along and jerked about in his light chariot, wrapped in oilcloth, shut up as if in a box — both of us unceasingly drenched all the while, and dashing all around us the water and mud of the sodden ground.

“To the Garden of Flowers,” I had said, like a habitual frequenter of the place, and quite surprised at hearing myself speak. But I was less ignorant about Japan than might have been supposed. Many of my friends, on their return home from that country, had told me about it, and I knew a great deal; the Garden of Flowers is a tea-house, an elegant rendezvous. There I should inquire for a certain Kangourou-San, who is at the same time interpreter, laundryman, and confidential agent for the intercourse of races. Perhaps this very evening, if all went well, I should be introduced to the bride destined for me by mysterious fate. This thought kept my mind on the alert during the panting journey we made, the djin and I, one dragging the other, under the merciless downpour.

Oh, what a curious Japan I saw that day, through the gaping of my oilcloth coverings, from under the dripping hood of my little cart! A sullen, muddy, half-drowned Japan. All these houses, men, and beasts, hitherto known to me only in drawings; all these, that I had beheld painted on blue or pink backgrounds of fans or vases, now appeared to me in their hard reality, under a dark sky, with umbrellas and wooden shoes, with tucked-up skirts and pitiful aspect.

At times the rain fell so heavily that I closed up tightly every chink and crevice, and the noise and shaking benumbed me, so that I completely forgot in what country I was. In the hood of the cart were holes, through which little streams ran down my back. Then, remembering that I was going for the first time in my life through the very heart of Nagasaki, I cast an inquiring look outside, at the risk of receiving a drenching: we were trotting along through a mean, narrow, little back street (there are thousands like it, a labyrinth of them), the rain falling in cascades from the tops of the roofs on the gleaming flagstones below, rendering everything indistinct and vague through the misty atmosphere. At times we passed a woman struggling with her skirts, unsteadily tripping along in her high wooden shoes, looking exactly like the figures painted on screens, cowering under a gaudily daubed paper umbrella. Again, we passed a pagoda, where an old granite monster, squatting in the water, seemed to make a hideous, ferocious grimace at me.

How large this Nagasaki is! Here had we been running hard for the last hour, and still it seemed never-ending. It is a flat plain, and one never would suppose from the view in the offing that so vast a plain lies in the depth of this valley.

It would, however, have been impossible for me to say where I was, or in what direction we had run; I abandoned my fate to my djin and to my good luck.

What a steam-engine of a man my djin was! I had been accustomed to the Chinese runners, but they were nothing beside this fellow. When I part my oilcloth to peep at anything, he is naturally always the first object in my foreground; his two naked, brown, muscular legs, scampering along, splashing all around, and his bristling hedgehog back bending low in the rain. Do the passers-by, gazing at this little dripping cart, guess that it contains a suitor in quest of a bride?

At last my vehicle stops, and my djin, with many smiles and precautions lest any fresh rivers should stream down my back, lowers the hood of the cart; there is a break in the storm, and the rain has ceased. I had not yet seen his face; as an exception to the general rule, he is good-looking; a young man of about thirty years of age, of intelligent and strong appearance, and a frank countenance. Who could have foreseen that a few days later this very djin? But no, I will not anticipate, and run the risk of throwing beforehand any discredit on Chrysanthème.

We had therefore reached our destination, and found ourselves at the foot of a high, overhanging mountain; probably beyond the limits of the town, in some suburban district. It apparently became necessary to continue our journey on foot, and to climb up an almost perpendicular narrow path.

Around us, a number of small country-houses, garden-walls, and high bamboo palisades shut off the view. The green hill crushed us with its towering height; the heavy, dark clouds lowering over our heads seemed like a leaden canopy confining us in this unknown spot; it really seemed as if the complete absence of perspective inclined one all the better to notice the details of this tiny corner, muddy and wet, of homely Japan, now lying before our eyes. The earth was very red. The grasses and wild flowers bordering the pathway were strange to me; nevertheless, the palings were covered with convolvuli like our own, and I recognized china asters, zinnias, and other familiar flowers in the gardens. The atmosphere seemed laden with a curiously complicated odor, something besides the perfume of the plants and soil, arising no doubt from the human dwelling-places — a mingled odor, I fancied, of dried fish and incense. Not a creature was to be seen; of the inhabitants, of their homes and life, there was not a vestige, and I might have imagined myself anywhere in the world.

My djin had fastened his little cart under a tree, and together we climbed the steep path on the slippery red soil.

“We are going to the Garden of Flowers, are we not?” I inquired, desirous to ascertain whether I had been understood.

“Yes, yes,” replied the djin, “it is up there, and quite near.”

The road turned, steep banks hemming it in and darkening it. On one side it skirted the mountain, all covered with a tangle of wet ferns; on the other appeared a large wooden house almost devoid of openings and of evil aspect; it was there that my djin halted.

What, was that sinister-looking house the Garden of Flowers? He assured me that it was, and seemed very sure of the fact. We knocked at a large door which opened immediately, slipping back in its groove. Then two funny little women appeared, oldish-looking, but with evident pretensions to youth: exact types of the figures painted on vases, with their tiny hands and feet.

On catching sight of me they threw themselves on all fours, their faces touching the floor. Good gracious! What can be the matter? I asked myself. Nothing at all, it was only the ceremonious salute, to which I am as yet unaccustomed. They arose, and proceeded to take off my boots (one never keeps on one’s shoes in a Japanese house), wiping the bottoms of my trousers, and feeling my shoulders to see whether I am wet.

What always strikes one on first entering a Japanese dwelling is the extreme cleanliness, the white and chilling bareness of the rooms.

Over the most irreproachable mattings, without a crease, a line, or a stain, I was led upstairs to the first story and ushered into a large, empty room — absolutely empty! The paper walls were mounted on sliding panels, which, fitting into each other, can be made to disappear — and all one side of the apartment opened like a veranda, giving a view of the green country and the gray sky beyond. By way of a chair, they gave me a square cushion of black velvet; and behold me seated low, in the middle of this large, empty room, which by its very vastness is almost chilly. The two little women (who are the servants of the house and my very humble servants, too), awaited my orders, in attitudes expressive of the profoundest humility.

It seemed extraordinary that the quaint words, the curious phrases I had learned during our exile at the Pescadores Islands — by sheer dint of dictionary and grammar, without attaching the least sense to them — should mean anything. But so it seemed, however, for I was at once understood.

I wished in the first place to speak to one M. Kangourou, who is interpreter, laundryman, and matrimonial agent. Nothing could be easier: they knew him and were willing to go at once in search of him; and the elder of the waiting-maids made ready for the purpose her wooden clogs and her paper umbrella.

Next I demanded a well-served repast, composed of the greatest delicacies of Japan. Better and better! they rushed to the kitchen to order it.

Finally, I beg they will give tea and rice to my djin, who is waiting for me below; I wish — in short, I wish many things, my dear little dolls, which I will mention by degrees and with due deliberation, when I shall have had time to assemble the necessary words. But the more I look at you the more uneasy I feel as to what my fiancee of to-morrow may be like. Almost pretty, I grant you, you are — in virtue of quaintness, delicate hands, miniature feet, but ugly, after all, and absurdly small. You look like little monkeys, like little china ornaments, like I don’t know what. I begin to understand that I have arrived at this house at an ill-chosen moment. Something is going on which does not concern me, and I feel that I am in the way.

From the beginning I might have guessed as much, notwithstanding the excessive politeness of my welcome; for I remember now, that while they were taking off my boots downstairs, I heard a murmuring chatter overhead, then a noise of panels moved quickly along their grooves, evidently to hide from me something not intended for me to see; they were improvising for me the apartment in which I now am just as in menageries they make a separate compartment for some beasts when the public is admitted.

Now I am left alone while my orders are being executed, and I listen attentively, squatted like a Buddha on my black velvet cushion, in the midst of the whiteness of the walls and mats.

Behind the paper partitions, feeble voices, seemingly numerous, are talking in low tones. Then rises the sound of a guitar, and the song of a woman, plaintive and gentle in the echoing sonority of the bare house, in the melancholy of the rainy weather.

What one can see through the wide-open veranda is very pretty; I will admit that it resembles the landscape of a fairytale. There are admirably wooded mountains, climbing high into the dark and gloomy sky, and hiding in it the peaks of their summits, and, perched up among the clouds, is a temple. The atmosphere has that absolute transparency, that distance and clearness which follows a great fall of rain; but a thick pall, still heavy with moisture, remains suspended over all, and on the foliage of the hanging woods still float great flakes of gray fluff, which remain there, motionless. In the foreground, in front of and below this almost fantastic landscape, is a miniature garden where two beautiful white cats are taking the air, amusing themselves by pursuing each other through the paths of a Lilliputian labyrinth, shaking the wet sand from their paws. The garden is as conventional as possible: not a flower, but little rocks, little lakes, dwarf trees cut in grotesque fashion; all this is not natural, but it is most ingeniously arranged, so green, so full of fresh mosses!

In the rain-soaked country below me, to the very farthest end of the vast scene, reigns a great silence, an absolute calm. But the woman’s voice, behind the paper wall, continues to sing in a key of gentle sadness, and the accompanying guitar has sombre and even gloomy notes.

Stay, though! Now the music is somewhat quicker — one might even suppose they were dancing!

So much the worse! I shall try to look between the fragile divisions, through a crack which has revealed itself to my notice.

What a singular spectacle it is; evidently the gilded youth of Nagasaki holding a great clandestine orgy! In an apartment as bare as my own, there are a dozen of them, seated in a circle on the ground, attired in long blue cotton dresses with pagoda sleeves, long, sleek, and greasy hair surmounted by European pot-hats; and beneath these, yellow, worn-out, bloodless, foolish faces. On the floor are a number of little spirit-lamps, little pipes, little lacquer trays, little teapots, little cups-all the accessories and all the remains of a Japanese feast, resembling nothing so much as a doll’s tea-party. In the midst of this circle of dandies are three overdressed women, one might say three weird visions, robed in garments of pale and indefinable colors, embroidered with golden monsters; their great coiffures are arranged with fantastic art, stuck full of pins and flowers. Two are seated with their backs turned to me: one is holding the guitar, the other singing with that soft, pretty voice; thus seen furtively, from behind, their pose, their hair, the nape of their necks, all is exquisite, and I tremble lest a movement should reveal to me faces which might destroy the enchantment. The third girl is on her feet, dancing before this areopagus of idiots, with their lanky locks and pot-hats. What a shock when she turns round! She wears over her face the horribly grinning, death-like mask of a spectre or a vampire. The mask unfastened, falls. And behold! a darling little fairy of about twelve or fifteen years of age, slim, and already a coquette, already a woman — dressed in a long robe of shaded dark-blue china crape, covered with embroidery representing bats-gray bats, black bats, golden bats.

Suddenly there are steps on the stairs, the light foot steps of barefooted women pattering over the white mats. No doubt the first course of my luncheon is just about to be served. I fall back quickly, fixed and motionless, upon my black velvet cushion. There are three of them now, three waiting-maids who arrive in single file, with smiles and curtseys. One offers me the spirit-lamp and the teapot; another, preserved fruits in delightful little plates; the third, absolutely indefinable objects upon gems of little trays. And they grovel before me on the floor, placing all this plaything of a meal at my feet.

At this moment, my impressions of Japan are charming enough; I feel myself fairly launched upon this tiny, artificial, fictitious world, which I felt I knew already from the paintings on lacquer and porcelains. It is so exact a representation! The three little squatting women, graceful and dainty, with their narrow slits of eyes, their magnificent coiffures in huge bows, smooth and shining as shoe-polish, and the little tea-service on the floor, the landscape seen through the veranda, the pagoda perched among the clouds; and over all the same affectation everywhere, in every detail. Even the woman’s melancholy voice, still to be heard behind the paper partition, was evidently the proper way for them to sing — these musicians I had so often seen painted in amazing colors on rice-paper, half closing their dreamy eyes among impossibly large flowers. Long before I arrived there, I had perfectly pictured Japan to myself. Nevertheless, in the reality it almost seems to be smaller, more finicking than I had imagined it, and also much more mournful, no doubt by reason of that great pall of black clouds hanging over us, and this incessant rain.

While awaiting M. Kangourou (who is dressing himself, it appears, and will be here shortly), it may be as well to begin luncheon.

In the daintiest bowl imaginable, adorned with flights of storks, is the most wildly impossible soup made of seaweed. After which there are little fish dried in sugar, crabs in sugar, beans in sugar, and fruits in vinegar and pepper. All this is atrocious, but above all unexpected and unimaginable. The little women make me eat, laughing much, with that perpetual, irritating laugh which is peculiar to Japan — they make me eat, according to their fashion, with dainty chop-sticks, fingered with affected grace. I am becoming accustomed to their faces. The whole effect is refined — a refinement so entirely different from our own that at first sight I understand nothing of it, although in the long run it may end by pleasing me.

Suddenly enters, like a night butterfly awakened in broad daylight, like a rare and surprising moth, the dancing-girl from the other compartment, the child who wore the horrible mask. No doubt she wishes to have a look at me. She rolls her eyes like a timid kitten, and then all at once tamed, nestles against me, with a coaxing air of childishness, which is a delightfully transparent assumption. She is slim, elegant, delicate, and smells sweet; she is drolly painted, white as plaster, with a little circle of rouge marked very precisely in the middle of each cheek, the mouth reddened, and a touch of gilding outlining the under lip. As they could not whiten the back of her neck on account of all the delicate little curls of hair growing there, they had, in their love of exactitude, stopped the white plaster in a straight line, which might have been cut with a knife, and in consequence at the nape appears a square of natural skin of a deep yellow.

An imperious note sounds on the guitar, evidently a summons! Crac! Away she goes, the little fairy, to entertain the drivelling fools on the other side of the screens.

Suppose I marry this one, without seeking any further. I should respect her as a child committed to my care; I should take her for what she is: a fantastic and charming plaything. What an amusing little household I should set up! Really, short of marrying a china ornament, I should find it difficult to choose better.

At this moment enters M. Kangourou, clad in a suit of gray tweed, which might have come from La Belle Jardiniere or the Pont Neuf, with a pot-hat and white thread gloves. His countenance is at once foolish and cunning; he has hardly any nose or eyes. He makes a real Japanese salutation: an abrupt dip, the hands placed flat on the knees, the body making a right angle to the legs, as if the fellow were breaking in two; a little snake-like hissing (produced by sucking the saliva between the teeth, which is the highest expression of obsequious politeness in this country).

“You speak French, Monsieur Kangourou?”

“Yes, Monsieur” (renewed bows).

He makes one for each word I utter, as if he were a mechanical toy pulled by a string; when he is seated before me on the ground, he limits himself to a duck of the head — always accompanied by the same hissing noise of the saliva.

“A cup of tea, Monsieur Kangourou?”

Fresh salute and an extra affected gesticulation with the hands, as if to say, “I should hardly dare. It is too great a condescension on your part. However, anything to oblige you.”

He guesses at the first words what I require from him.

“Of course,” he replies, “we shall see about it at once. In a week’s time, as it happens, a family from Simonoseki, in which there are two charming daughters, will be here!”

“What! in a week! You don’t know me, Monsieur Kangourou! No, no, either now, to-morrow, or not at all.”

Again a hissing bow, and Kangourou-San, understanding my agitation, begins to pass in feverish review all the young persons at his disposal in Nagasaki.

“Let us see — there was Mademoiselle Oeillet. What a pity that you did not speak a few days sooner! So pretty! So clever at playing the guitar! It is an irreparable misfortune; she was engaged only yesterday by a Russian officer.

“Ah! Mademoiselle Abricot! — Would she suit you, Mademoiselle Abricot? She is the daughter of a wealthy China merchant in the Decima Bazaar, a person of the highest merit; but she would be very dear: her parents, who think a great deal of her, will not let her go under a hundred yen —[A yen is equal to four shillings.]— a month. She is very accomplished, thoroughly understands commercial writing, and has at her fingers’-ends more than two thousand characters of learned writing. In a poetical competition she gained the first prize with a sonnet composed in praise of ‘the blossoms of the blackthorn hedges seen in the dew of early morning.’ Only, she is not very pretty: one of her eyes is smaller than the other, and she has a hole in her cheek, resulting from an illness of her childhood.”

“Oh, no! on no account that one! Let us seek among a less distinguished class of young persons, but without scars. And how about those on the other side of the screen, in those fine gold-embroidered dresses? For instance, the dancer with the spectre mask, Monsieur Kangourou? or again she who sings in so dulcet a strain and has such a charming nape to her neck?”

He does not, at first, understand my drift; then when he gathers my meaning, he shakes his head almost in a joking way, and says:

“No, Monsieur, no! Those are only geishas — [Geishas are professional dancers and singers trained at the Yeddo Conservatory.]— Monsieur — geishas!”

“Well, but why not a geisha? What difference can it make to me whether they are geishas or not?” Later, no doubt, when I understand Japanese affairs better, I shall appreciate myself the enormity of my proposal: one would really suppose I had talked of marrying the devil.

At this point M. Kangourou suddenly calls to mind one Mademoiselle Jasmin. Heavens! how was it he had not thought of her at once? She is absolutely and exactly what I want; he will go to-morrow, or this very evening, to make the necessary overtures to the parents of this young person, who live a long way off, on the opposite hill, in the suburb of Diou-djen-dji. She is a very pretty girl of about fifteen. She can probably be engaged for about eighteen or twenty dollars a month, on condition of presenting her with a few costumes of the best fashion, and of lodging her in a pleasant and well-situated house — all of which a man of gallantry like myself could not fail to do.

Well, let us fix upon Mademoiselle Jasmin, then — and now we must part; time presses. M. Kangourou will come on board to-morrow to communicate to me the result of his first proceedings and to arrange with me for the interview. For the present he refuses to accept any remuneration; but I am to give him my washing, and to procure him the custom of my brother officers of the ‘Triomphante.’ It is all settled. Profound bows — they put on my boots again at the door. My djin, profiting by the interpreter kind fortune has placed in his way, begs to be recommended to me for future custom; his stand is on the quay; his number is 415, inscribed in French characters on the lantern of his vehicle (we have a number 415 on board, one Le Goelec, gunner, who serves the left of one of my guns; happy thought! I shall remember this); his price is sixpence the journey, or five-pence an hour, for his customers. Capital! he shall have my custom, that is promised. And now, let us be off. The waiting-maids, who have escorted me to the door, fall on all fours as a final salute, and remain prostrate on the threshold as long as I am still in sight down the dark pathway, where the rain trickles off the great overarching bracken upon my head.

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