Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 42

An Oriental Vision

September 4th.

Yesterday I encountered, in an ancient and ruined quarter of the town, a perfectly exquisite mousme, charmingly dressed; a fresh touch of color against the sombre background of decayed buildings.

I met her at the farthest end of Nagasaki, in the most ancient part of the town. In this region are trees centuries old, antique temples of Buddha, of Amiddah, of Benten, or Kwanon, with steep and pompous roofs; monsters carved in granite sit there in courtyards silent as the grave, where the grass grows between the stones. This deserted quarter is traversed by a narrow torrent running in a deep channel, across which are thrown little curved bridges with granite balustrades eaten away by lichen. All the objects there wear the strange grimace, the quaint arrangement familiar to us in the most antique Japanese drawings.

I walked through it all at the burning hour of midday, and saw not a soul, unless, indeed, through the open windows of the bonze-houses, I caught sight of some few priests, guardians of tombs or sanctuaries, taking their siesta under dark-blue gauze nets.

Suddenly this little mousme appeared, a little above me, just at the point of the arch of one of these bridges carpeted with gray moss; she was in full sunshine, and stood out in brilliant clearness, like a fairy vision, against the background of old black temples and deep shadows. She was holding her robe together with one hand, gathering it close round her ankles to give herself an air of greater slimness. Over her quaint little head, her round umbrella with its thousand ribs threw a great halo of blue and red, edged with black, and an oleander-tree full of flowers, growing among the stones of the bridge, spread its glory beside her, bathed, like herself, in the sunshine. Behind this youthful figure and this flowering shrub all was blackness. Upon the pretty red and blue parasol great white letters formed this inscription, much used among the mousmes, and which I have learned to recognize: ‘Stop! clouds, to see her pass!’ And it was really worth the trouble to stop and look at this exquisite little person, of a type so ideally Japanese.

However, it will not do to stop too long and be ensnared — it would only be another delusion. A doll like the rest, evidently, an ornament for a china shelf, and nothing more. While I gaze at her, I say to myself that Chrysanthème, appearing in this same place, with this dress, this play of light, and this aureole of sunshine, would produce just as delightful an effect.

For Chrysanthème is pretty, there can be no doubt about it. Yesterday evening, in fact, I positively admired her. It was quite night; we were returning with the usual escort of little married couples like ourselves, from the inevitable tour of the tea-houses and bazaars. While the other mousmes walked along hand in hand, adorned with new silver topknots which they had succeeded in having presented to them, and amusing themselves with playthings, she, pleading fatigue, followed, half reclining, in a djin carriage. We had placed beside her great bunches of flowers destined to fill our vases, late iris and long-stemmed lotus, the last of the season, already smelling of autumn. And it was really very pretty to see this Japanese girl in her little car, lying carelessly among all these water-flowers, lighted by gleams of ever-changing colors, as they chanced from the lanterns we met or passed. If, on the evening of my arrival in Japan, any one had pointed her out to me, and said: “That shall be your mousme,” there can not be a doubt I should have been charmed. In reality, however, I am not charmed; it is only Chrysanthème, always Chrysanthème, nothing but Chrysanthème: a mere plaything to laugh at, a little creature of finical forms and thoughts, with whom the agency of M. Kangourou has supplied me.

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