Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 34

The Feast of the Temple

Sunday, August 25th.

About six o’clock, while I was on duty, the ‘Triomphante’ abandoned her prison walls between the mountains and came out of dock. After much manoeuvring we took up our old moorings in the harbor, at the foot of the Diou-djen-dji hills. The weather was again calm and cloudless, the sky presenting a peculiar clarity, as if it had been swept by a cyclone, an exceeding transparency bringing out the minutest details in the distance till then unseen; as if the terrible blast had blown away every vestige of the floating mists and left behind it nothing but void and boundless space. The coloring of woods and mountains stood out again in the resplendent verdancy of spring after the torrents of rain, like the wet colors of some freshly washed painting. The sampans and junks, which for the last three days had been lying under shelter, had now put out to sea, and the bay was covered with their white sails, which looked like a flight of enormous seabirds.

At eight o’clock, at nightfall, our manoeuvres having ended, I embarked with Yves on board a sampan; this time it is he who is carrying me off and taking me back to my home.

On land, a delicious perfume of new-mown hay greets us, and the road across the mountains is bathed in glorious moonlight. We go straight up to Diou-djen-dji to join Chrysanthème; I feel almost remorseful, although I hardly show it, for my neglect of her.

Looking up, I recognize from afar my little house, perched on high. It is wide open and lighted; I even hear the sound of a guitar. Then I perceive the gilt head of my Buddha between the little bright flames of its two hanging night-lamps. Now Chrysanthème appears on the veranda, looking out as if she expected us; and with her wonderful bows of hair and long, falling sleeves, her silhouette is thoroughly Nipponese.

As I enter, she comes forward to kiss me, in a graceful, though rather hesitating manner, while Oyouki, more demonstrative, throws her arms around me.

Not without a certain pleasure do I see once more this Japanese home, which I wonder to find still mine when I had almost forgotten its existence. Chrysanthème has put fresh flowers in our vases, spread out her hair, donned her best clothes, and lighted our lamps to honor my return. From the balcony she had watched the ‘Triomphante’ leave the dock, and, in the expectation of our prompt return, she had made her preparations; then, to wile away the time, she was studying a duet on the guitar with Oyouki. Not a question did she ask, nor a reproach did she make. Quite the contrary.

“We understood,” she said, “how impossible it was, in such dreadful weather, to undertake so lengthy a crossing in a sampan.”

She smiled like a pleased child, and I should be fastidious indeed if I did not admit that to-night she is charming.

I announce my intention of taking a long stroll through Nagasaki; we will take Oyouki-San and two little cousins who happen to be here, as well as some other neighbors, if they wish it; we will buy the most amusing toys, eat all sorts of cakes, and entertain ourselves to our hearts’ content.

“How lucky we are to be here, just at the right moment,” they exclaim, jumping with joy. “How fortunate we are! This very evening there is to be a pilgrimage to the great temple of the jumping Tortoise! The whole town will be there; all our married friends have already started, the whole set, X——, Y——, Z——, Touki-San, Campanule, and Jonquille, with ‘the friend of amazing height.’ And these two, poor Chrysanthème and poor Oyouki, would have been obliged to stay at home with heavy hearts, had we not arrived, because Madame Prune had been seized with faintness and hysterics after her dinner.”

Quickly the mousmes must deck themselves out. Chrysanthème is ready; Oyouki hurries, changes her dress, and, putting on a mouse-colored gray robe, begs me to arrange the bows of her fine sash-black satin lined with yellow-sticking at the same time in her hair a silver topknot. We light our lanterns, swinging at the end of little sticks; M. Sucre, overwhelming us with thanks for his daughter, accompanies us on all fours to the door, and we go off gayly through the clear and balmy night.

Below, we find the town in all the animation of a great holiday. The streets are thronged; the crowd passes by — a laughing, capricious, slow, unequal tide, flowing onward, however, steadily in the same direction, toward the same goal. From it rises a penetrating but light murmur, in which dominate the sounds of laughter, and the low-toned interchange of polite speeches. Then follow lanterns upon lanterns. Never in my life have I seen so many, so variegated, so complicated, and so extraordinary.

We follow, drifting with the surging crowd, borne along by it. There are groups of women of every age, decked out in their smartest clothes, crowds of mousmes with aigrettes of flowers in their hair, or little silver topknots like Oyouki — pretty little physiognomies, little, narrow eyes peeping between their slits like those of new-born kittens, fat, pale, little cheeks, round, puffed-out, half-opened lips. They are pretty, nevertheless, these little Nipponese, in their smiles and childishness.

The men, on the other hand, wear many a pot-hat, pompously added to the long national robe, and giving thereby a finishing touch to their cheerful ugliness, resembling nothing so much as dancing monkeys. They carry boughs in their hands, whole shrubs even, amid the foliage of which dangle all sorts of curious lanterns in the shapes of imps and birds.

As we advance in the direction of the temple, the streets become more noisy and crowded. All along the houses are endless stalls raised on trestles, displaying sweetmeats of every color, toys, branches of flowers, nosegays and masks. There are masks everywhere, boxes full of them, carts full of them; the most popular being the one that represents the livid and cunning muzzle, contracted as by a deathlike grimace, the long straight ears and sharp-pointed teeth of the white fox, sacred to the God of Rice. There are also others symbolic of gods or monsters, livid, grimacing, convulsed, with wigs and beards of natural hair. All manner of folk, even children, purchase these horrors, and fasten them over their faces. Every sort of instrument is for sale, among them many of those crystal trumpets which sound so strangely — this evening they are enormous, six feet long at least — and the noise they make is unlike anything ever heard before: one would say gigantic turkeys were gobbling amid the crowd, striving to inspire fear.

In the religious amusements of this people it is not possible for us to penetrate the mysteriously hidden meaning of things; we can not divine the boundary at which jesting stops and mystic fear steps in. These customs, these symbols, these masks, all that tradition and atavism have jumbled together in the Japanese brain, proceed from sources utterly dark and unknown to us; even the oldest records fail to explain them to us in anything but a superficial and cursory manner, simply because we have absolutely nothing in common with this people. We pass through the midst of their mirth and their laughter without understanding the wherefore, so totally do they differ from our own.

Chrysanthème with Yves, Oyouki with me, Fraise and Zinnia, our cousins, walking before us under our watchful eyes, move slowly through the crowd, holding hands lest we should lose one another.

Along the streets leading to the temple, the wealthy inhabitants have decorated the fronts of their houses with vases and nosegays. The peculiar shed-like buildings common in this country, with their open platform frontage, are particularly well suited for the display of choice objects; all the houses have been thrown open, and the interiors are hung with draperies that hide the back of the apartments. In front of these hangings, and standing slightly back from the movement of the passing crowd, the various exhibited articles are placed methodically in a row, under the full glare of hanging lamps. Hardly any flowers compose the nosegays, nothing but foliage — some rare and priceless, others chosen, as if purposely, from the commonest plants, arranged, however, with such taste as to make them appear new and choice; ordinary lettuce-leaves, tall cabbage-stalks are placed with exquisite artificial taste in vessels of marvellous workmanship. All the vases are of bronze, but the designs are varied according to each changing fancy: some complicated and twisted, others, and by far the larger number, graceful and simple, but of a simplicity so studied and exquisite that to our eyes they seem the revelation of an unknown art, the subversion of all acquired notions of form.

On turning a corner of a street, by good luck we meet our married comrades of the Triomphante and Jonquille, Toukisan and Campanule! Bows and curtseys are exchanged by the mousmes, reciprocal manifestations of joy at meeting; then, forming a compact band, we are carried off by the ever-increasing crowd and continue our progress in the direction of the temple.

The streets gradually ascend (the temples are always built on a height); and by degrees, as we mount, there is added to the brilliant fairyland of lanterns and costumes yet another, ethereally blue in the haze of distance; all Nagasaki, its pagodas, its mountains, its still waters full of the rays of moonlight, seem to rise with us into the air. Slowly, step by step, one may say it springs up around, enveloping in one great shimmering veil all the foreground, with its dazzling red lights and many-colored streamers.

No doubt we are drawing near, for here are steps, porticoes and monsters hewn out of enormous blocks of granite. We now have to climb a series of steps, almost carried by the surging crowd ascending with us.

We have arrived at the temple courtyard.

This is the last and most astonishing scene in the evening’s fairy-tale — a luminous and weird scene, with fantastic distances lighted up by the moon, with the gigantic trees, the sacred cryptomerias, elevating their sombre boughs into a vast dome.

Here we are all seated with our mousmes, beneath the light awning, wreathed in flowers, of one of the many little teahouses improvised in this courtyard. We are on a terrace at the top of the great steps, up which the crowd continues to flock, and at the foot of a portico which stands erect with the rigid massiveness of a colossus against the dark night sky; at the foot also of a monster, who stares down upon us, with his big stony eyes, his cruel grimace and smile.

This portico and the monster are the two great overwhelming masses in the foreground of the incredible scene before us; they stand out with dazzling boldness against the vague and ashy blue of the distant sphere beyond; behind them, Nagasaki is spread out in a bird’s-eye view, faintly outlined in the transparent darkness with myriads of little colored lights, and the extravagantly dented profile of the mountains is delineated on the starlit sky, blue upon blue, transparency upon transparency. A corner of the harbor also is visible, far up, undefined, like a lake lost in clouds the water, faintly illumined by a ray of moonlight, making it shine like a sheet of silver.

Around us the long crystal trumpets keep up their gobble. Groups of polite and frivolous persons pass and repass like fantastic shadows: childish bands of small-eyed mousmes with smile so candidly meaningless and coiffures shining through their bright silver flowers; ugly men waving at the end of long branches their eternal lanterns shaped like birds, gods, or insects.

Behind us, in the illuminated and wide-open temple, the bonzes sit, immovable embodiments of doctrine, in the glittering sanctuary inhabited by divinities, chimeras, and symbols. The crowd, monotonously droning its mingled prayers and laughter, presses around them, sowing its alms broadcast; with a continuous jingle, the money rolls on the ground into the precincts reserved to the priests, where the white mats entirely f disappear under the mass of many-sized coins accumulated there as if after a deluge of silver and bronze.

We, however, feel thoroughly at sea in the midst of this festivity; we look on, we laugh like the rest, we make foolish and senseless remarks in a language insufficiently learned, which this evening, I know not why, we can hardly understand. Notwithstanding the night breeze, we find it very hot under our awning, and we absorb quantities of odd-looking water-ices, served in cups, which taste like scented frost, or rather like flowers steeped in snow. Our mousmes order for themselves great bowls of candied beans mixed with hail — real hailstones, such as we might pick up after a hailstorm in March.

Glou! glou! glou! the crystal trumpets slowly repeat their notes, the powerful sonority of which has a labored and smothered sound, as if they came from under water; they mingle with the jingling of rattles and the noise of castanets. We have also the impression of being carried away in the irresistible swing of this incomprehensible gayety, composed, in proportions we can hardly measure, of elements mystic, puerile, and even ghastly. A sort of religious terror is diffused by the hidden idols divined in the temple behind us; by the mumbled prayers, confusedly heard; above all, by the horrible heads in lacquered wood, representing foxes, which, as they pass, hide human faces — hideous livid masks.

In the gardens and outbuildings of the temple the most inconceivable mountebanks have taken up their quarters, their black streamers, painted with white letters, looking like funeral trappings as they float in the wind from the tops of their tall flagstaffs. Thither we turn our steps, as soon as our mousmes have ended their orisons and bestowed their alms.

In one of the booths a man, stretched on a table, flat on his back, is alone on the stage; puppets of almost human size, with horribly grinning masks, spring out of his body; they speak, gesticulate, then fall back like empty rags; with a sudden spring they start up again, change their costumes, change their faces, tearing about in one continual frenzy. Suddenly three, even four, appear at the same time; they are nothing more than the four limbs of the outstretched man, whose legs and arms, raised on high, are each dressed up and capped with a wig under which peers a mask; between these phantoms tremendous fighting and battling take place, and many a sword-thrust is exchanged. The most fearful of all is a certain puppet representing an old hag; every time she appears, with her weird head and ghastly grin, the lights burn low, the music of the accompanying orchestra moans forth a sinister strain given by the flutes, mingled with a rattling tremolo which sounds like the clatter of bones. This creature evidently plays an ugly part in the piece — that of a horrible old ghoul, spiteful and famished. Still more appalling than her person is her shadow, which, projected upon a white screen, is abnormally and vividly distinct; by means of some unknown process this shadow, which nevertheless follows all her movements, assumes the aspect of a wolf. At a given moment the hag turns round and presents the profile of her distorted snub nose as she accepts the bowl of rice which is offered to her; on the screen at the very same instant appears the elongated outline of the wolf, with its pointed ears, its muzzle and chops, its great teeth and hanging tongue. The orchestra grinds, wails, quivers; then suddenly bursts out into funereal shrieks, like a concert of owls; the hag is now eating, and her wolfish shadow is eating also, greedily moving its jaws and nibbling at another shadow easy to recognize — the arm of a little child.

We now go on to see the great salamander of Japan, an animal rare in this country, and quite unknown elsewhere, a great, cold mass, sluggish and benumbed, looking like some antediluvian experiment, forgotten in the inner seas of this archipelago.

Next comes the trained elephant, the terror of our mousmes, the equilibrists, the menagerie.

It is one o’clock in the morning before we are back at Diou-djen-dji.

We first get Yves to bed in the little paper room he has already once occupied. Then we go to bed ourselves, after the inevitable preparations, the smoking of the little pipe, and the tap! tap! tap! tap! on the edge of the box.

Suddenly Yves begins to move restlessly in his sleep, to toss about, giving great kicks on the wall, and making a frightful noise.

What can be the matter? I imagine at once that he must be dreaming of the old hag and her wolfish shadow. Chrysanthème raises herself on her elbow and listens, with astonishment depicted on her face.

Ah, happy thought! she has guessed what is tormenting him:

“Ka!” (“mosquitoes”) she says.

And, to impress the more forcibly her meaning on my mind, she pinches my arm so hard with her little pointed nails, at the same time imitating, with such an amusing play of her features, the grimace of a person who is stung, that I exclaim:

“Oh! stop, Chrysanthème, this pantomime is too expressive, and indeed useless! I know the word ‘Ka’, and had quite understood, I assure you.”

It is done so drolly and so quickly, with such a pretty pout, that in truth I can not think of being angry, although I shall certainly have tomorrow a blue mark on my arm; about that there is no doubt.

“Come, we must get up and go to Yves’s rescue; he must not be allowed to go on thumping in that manner. Let us take a lantern, and see what has happened.”

It was indeed the mosquitoes. They are hovering in a thick cloud about him; those of the house and those of the garden all seem collected together, swarming and buzzing. Chrysanthème indignantly burns several at the flame of her lantern, and shows me others (Hou!) covering the white paper walls.

He, tired out with his day’s amusement, sleeps on; but his slumbers are restless, as may be easily imagined. Chrysanthème gives him a shake, wishing him to get up and share our blue mosquito-net.

After a little pressing he does as he is bid and follows us, looking like an overgrown boy only half awake. I make no objection to this singular hospitality; after all, it looks so little like a bed, the matting we are to share, and we sleep in our clothes, as we always do, according to the Nipponese fashion. After all, on a journey in a railway, do not the most estimable ladies stretch themselves without demur by the side of gentlemen unknown to them?

I have, however, placed Chrysanthème’s little wooden block in the centre of the gauze tent, between our two pillows.

Without saying a word, in a dignified manner, as if she were rectifying an error of etiquette that I had inadvertently committed, Chrysanthème takes up her piece of wood, putting in its place my snake-skin drum; I shall therefore be in the middle between the two. It is really more correct, decidedly more proper; Chrysanthème is evidently a very decorous young person.

Returning on board next morning, in the clear morning sun, we walk through pathways full of dew, accompanied by a band of funny little mousmes of six or eight years of age, who are going to school.

Needless to say, the cicalas around us keep up their perpetual sonorous chirping. The mountain smells delicious. The atmosphere, the dawning day, the infantine grace of these little girls in their long frocks and shiny coiffures-all is redundant with freshness and youth. The flowers and grasses on which we tread sparkle with dewdrops, exhaling a perfume of freshness. What undying beauty there is, even in Japan, in the fresh morning hours in the country, and the dawning hours of life!

Besides, I am quite ready to admit the attractiveness of the little Japanese children; some of them are most fascinating. But how is it that their charm vanishes so rapidly and is so quickly replaced by the elderly grimace, the smiling ugliness, the monkeyish face?

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