Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 45

Two Fair Aristocrats

Today, Yves, my mousme and I went to the best photographer in Nagasaki, to be taken in a group. We shall send the picture to France. Yves laughs as he thinks of his wife’s astonishment when she sees Chrysanthème’s little face between us, and he wonders how he shall explain it to her.

“I shall just say it is one of your friends, that’s all!” he says to me.

In Japan there are many photographers like our own, with this difference, that they are Japanese, and inhabit Japanese houses. The one we intend to honor to-day carries on his business in the suburbs, in that ancient quarter of big trees and gloomy pagodas where, the other day, I met the pretty little mousme. His signboard, written in several languages, is posted against a wall on the edge of the little torrent which, rushing down from the green mountain above, is crossed by many a curved bridge of old granite and lined on either side with light bamboos or oleanders in full bloom.

It is astonishing and puzzling to find a photographer perched there, in the very heart of old Japan.

We have come at the wrong moment; there is a file of people at the door. Long rows of djins’ cars are stationed there, awaiting the customers they have brought, who will all have their turn before us. The runners, naked and tattooed, their hair carefully combed in sleek bands and shiny chignons, are chatting, smoking little pipes, or bathing their muscular legs in the fresh water of the torrent.

The courtyard is irreproachably Japanese, with its lanterns and dwarf trees. But the studio where one poses might be in Paris or Pontoise; the self-same chair in “old oak,” the same faded “poufs,” plaster columns, and pasteboard rocks.

The people who are being photographed at this moment are two ladies of quality, evidently mother and daughter, who are sitting together for a cabinet-size portrait, with accessories of the time of Louis XV. A strange group this, the first great ladies of this country I have seen so near, with their long, aristocratic faces, dull, lifeless, almost gray by dint of rice-powder, and their mouths painted heart-shape in vivid carmine. Withal they have an undeniable look of good breeding that strongly impresses us, notwithstanding the intrinsic differences of race and acquired notions.

They scanned Chrysanthème with a look of obvious scorn, although her costume was as ladylike as their own. For my part, I could not take my eyes off these two creatures; they captivated me like incomprehensible things that one never had seen before. Their fragile bodies, outlandishly graceful in posture, are lost in stiff materials and redundant sashes, of which the ends droop like tired wings. They make me think, I know not why, of great rare insects; the extraordinary patterns on their garments have something of the dark motley of night-moths. Above all, I ponder over the mystery of their tiny slits of eyes, drawn back and up so far that the tight-drawn lids can hardly open; the mystery of their expression, which seems to denote inner thoughts of a silly, vague, complacent absurdity, a world of ideas absolutely closed to ourselves. And I think as I gaze at them: “How far we are from this Japanese people! how totally dissimilar are our races!”

We are compelled to let several English sailors pass before us, decked out in their white drill clothes, fresh, fat, and pink, like little sugar figures, who attitudinize in a sheepish manner around the shafts of the columns.

At last it is our turn; Chrysanthème settles herself slowly in a very affected style, turning in the points of her toes as much as possible, according to the fashion.

And on the negative shown to us we look like a supremely ridiculous little family drawn up in a line by a common photographer at a fair.

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