Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 44

Tender Ministrations

September 11th.

A week has passed very quietly, during which I have written nothing.

By degrees I am becoming accustomed to my Japanese household, to the strangeness of the language, costumes, and faces. For the last three weeks no letters have arrived from Europe; they have no doubt miscarried, and their absence contributes, as is usually the case, to throw a veil of oblivion over the past.

Every day, therefore, I climb up to my villa, sometimes by beautiful starlit nights, sometimes through downpours of rain. Every morning as the sound of Madame Prune’s chanted prayer rises through the reverberating air, I awake and go down toward the sea, by grassy pathways full of dew.

The chief occupation in Japan seems to be a perpetual hunt after curios. We sit down on the mattings, in the antique-sellers’ little booths, taking a cup of tea with the salesmen, and rummage with our own hands in the cupboards and chests, where many a fantastic piece of old rubbish is huddled away. The bargaining, much discussed, is laughingly carried on for several days, as if we were trying to play off some excellent little practical joke upon each other.

I really make a sad abuse of the adjective little; I am quite aware of it, but how can I do otherwise? In describing this country, the temptation is great to use it ten times in every written line. Little, finical; affected — all Japan is contained, both physically and morally, in these three words.

My purchases are accumulating in my little wood and paper house; but how much more Japanese it really was, in its bare emptiness, such as M. Sucre and Madame Prune had conceived it. There are now many lamps of sacred symbolism hanging from the ceiling; many stools and many vases, as many gods and goddesses as in a pagoda.

There is even a little Shintoist altar, before which Madame Prune has not been able to restrain her feelings, and before which she has fallen down and chanted her prayers in her bleating, goat-like voice:

“Wash me clean from all my impurity, O Ama-Terace-Omi-Kami! as one washes away uncleanness in the river of Kamo.”

Alas for poor Ama-Terace-Omi-Kami to have to wash away the impurities of Madame Prune! What a tedious and ungrateful task!!

Chrysanthème, who is a Buddhist, prays sometimes in the evening before lying down; although overcome with sleep, she prays clapping her hands before the largest of our gilded idols. But she smiles with a childish disrespect for her Buddha, as soon as her prayer is ended. I know that she has also a certain veneration for her Ottokes (the spirits of her ancestors), whose rather sumptuous altar is set up at the house of her mother, Madame Renoncule. She asks for their blessings, for fortune and wisdom.

Who can fathom her ideas about the gods, or about death? Does she possess a soul? Does she think she has one? Her religion is an obscure chaos of theogonies as old as the world, treasured up out of respect for ancient customs; and of more recent ideas about the blessed final annihilation, imported from India by saintly Chinese missionaries at the epoch of our Middle Ages. The bonzes themselves are puzzled; what a muddle, therefore, must not all this become, when jumbled together in the childish brain of a sleepy mousme!

Two very insignificant episodes have somewhat attached me to her —(bonds of this kind seldom fail to draw closer in the end). The first occasion was as follows:

Madame Prune one day brought forth a relic of her gay youth, a tortoise-shell comb of rare transparency, one of those combs that it is good style to place on the summit of the head, lightly poised, hardly stuck at all in the hair, with all the teeth showing. Taking it out of a pretty little lacquered box, she held it up in the air and blinked her eyes, looking through it at the sky — a bright summer sky — as one does to examine the quality of a precious stone.

“Here is,” she said, “an object of great value that you should offer to your little wife.”

My mousme, very much taken by it, admired the clearness of the comb and its graceful shape.

The lacquered box, however, pleased me more. On the cover was a wonderful painting in gold on gold, representing a field of rice, seen very close, on a windy day; a tangle of ears and grass beaten down and twisted by a terrible squall; here and there, between the distorted stalks, the muddy earth of the rice-swamp was visible; there were even little pools of water, produced by bits of the transparent lacquer on which tiny particles of gold seemed to float about like chaff in a thick liquid; two or three insects, which required a microscope to be well seen, were clinging in a terrified manner to the rushes, and the whole picture was no larger than a woman’s hand.

As for Madame Prune’s comb, I confess it left me indifferent, and I turned a deaf ear, thinking it very insignificant and expensive. Then Chrysanthème answered, mournfully:

“No, thank you, I don’t want it; take it away, dear Madame Prune.”

And at the same time she heaved a deep sigh, full of meaning, which plainly said:

“He is not so fond of me as all that. — Useless to bother him.”

I immediately made the wished-for purchase.

Later when Chrysanthème will have become an old monkey like Madame Prune, with her black teeth and long orisons, she, in her turn, will retail that comb to some fine lady of a fresh generation.

On another occasion the sun had given me a headache; I lay on the floor resting my head on my snake-skin pillow. My eyes were dim; and everything appeared to turn around: the open veranda, the big expanse of luminous evening sky, and a variety of kites hovering against its background. I felt myself vibrating painfully to the rhythmical sound of the cicalas which filled the atmosphere.

She, crouching by my side, strove to relieve me by a Japanese process, pressing with all her might on my temples with her little thumbs and turning them rapidly around, as if she were boring a hole with a gimlet. She had become quite hot and red over this hard work, which procured me real comfort, something similar to the dreamy intoxication of opium.

Then, anxious and fearful lest I should have an attack of fever, she rolled into a pellet and thrust into my mouth a very efficacious prayer written on rice-paper, which she had kept carefully in the lining of one of her sleeves.

Well, I swallowed that prayer without a smile, not wishing to hurt her feelings or shake her funny little faith.

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