Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 46

Grave Suspicions

September 13th.

Tonight Yves is off duty three hours earlier than I; occasionally this happens, according to the arrangement of the watches. At those times he lands first, and goes up to wait for me at Diou-djen-dji.

From the deck I can see him through my glass, climbing up the green mountain-path; he walks with a brisk, rapid step, almost running; what a hurry he seems in to rejoin little Chrysanthème!

When I arrive, about nine o’clock, I find him seated on the floor, in the middle of my rooms, with naked torso (this is a sufficiently proper costume for private life here, I admit). Around him are grouped Chrysanthème, Oyouki, and Mademoiselle Dede the maid, all eagerly rubbing his back with little blue towels decorated with storks and humorous subjects.

Good heavens! what can he have been doing to be so hot, and to have put himself in such a state?

He tells me that near our house, a little farther up the mountain, he has discovered a fencing-gallery: that till nightfall he had been engaged in a fencing-bout against Japanese, who fought with two-handed swords, springing like cats, as is the custom of their country. With his French method of fencing, he had given them a good drubbing. Upon which, with many a low bow, they had shown him their admiration by bringing him a quantity of nice little iced things to drink. All this combined had thrown him into a fearful perspiration.

Ah, very well! Nevertheless, this did not quite explain to me!

He is delighted with his evening; intends to go and amuse himself every day by beating them; he even thinks of taking pupils.

Once his back is dried, all together, the three mousmes and himself, play at Japanese pigeon-vole. Really I could not wish for anything more innocent, or more correct in every respect.

Charles N—— and Madame Jonquille, his wife, arrived unexpectedly about ten o’clock. (They were wandering about in the dark shrubberies in our neighborhood, and, seeing our lights, came up to us.)

They intend to finish the evening at the tea-house of the toads, and they try to induce us to go and drink some iced sherbets with them. It is at least an hour’s walk from here, on the other side of the town, halfway up the hill, in the gardens of the large pagoda dedicated to Osueva; but they stick to their idea, pretending that in this clear night and bright moonlight we shall have a lovely view from the terrace of the temple.

Lovely, I have no doubt, but we had intended going to bed. However, be it so, let us go with them.

We hire five djins and five cars down below, in the principal street, in front of Madame Tres-Propre’s shop, who, for this late expedition, chooses for us her largest round lanterns-big, red balloons, decorated with starfish, seaweed, and green sharks.

It is nearly eleven o’clock when we make our start. In the central quarters the virtuous Nipponese are already closing their little booths, putting out their lamps, shutting the wooden framework, drawing their paper panels.

Farther on, in the old-fashioned suburban streets, all is shut up long ago, and our carts roll on through the black night. We cry out to our djins: “Ayakou! ayakou!” (“Quick! quick!")and they run as hard as they can, uttering little shrieks, like merry animals full of wild gayety. We rush like a whirlwind through the darkness, all five in Indian file, dashing and jolting over the old, uneven flagstones, dimly lighted up by our red balloons fluttering at the end of their bamboo stems. From time to time some Japanese, night-capped in his blue kerchief, opens a window to see who these noisy madcaps can be, dashing by so rapidly and so late. Or else some faint glimmer, thrown by us on our passage, discovers the hideous smile of a large stone animal seated at the gate of a pagoda.

At last we arrive at the foot of Osueva’s temple, and, leaving our djins with our little gigs, we clamber up the gigantic steps, completely deserted at this hour of the night.

Chrysanthème, who always likes to play the part of a tired little girl, of a spoiled and pouting child, ascends slowly between Yves and myself, clinging to our arms.

Jonquille, on the contrary, skips up like a bird, amusing herself by counting the endless steps.

She lays a great stress on the accentuations, as if to make the numbers sound even more droll.

A little silver aigrette glitters in her beautiful black coiffure; her delicate and graceful figure seems strangely fantastic, and the darkness that envelops us conceals the fact that her face is quite ugly, and almost without eyes.

This evening Chrysanthème and Jonquille really look like little fairies; at certain moments the most insignificant Japanese have this appearance, by dint of whimsical elegance and ingenious arrangement.

The granite stairs, imposing, deserted, uniformly gray under the nocturnal sky, appear to vanish into the empty space above us, and, when we turn round, to disappear in the depths beneath, to fall into the abyss with the dizzy rapidity of a dream. On the sloping steps the black shadows of the gateways through which we must pass stretch out indefinitely; and the shadows, which seem to be broken at each projecting step, look like the regular creases of a fan. The porticoes stand up separately, rising one above another; their wonderful shapes are at once remarkably simple and studiously affected; their outlines stand out sharp and distinct, having nevertheless the vague appearance of all very large objects in the pale moonlight. The curved architraves rise at each extremity like two menacing horns, pointing upward toward the far-off blue canopy of the star-spangled sky, as if they would communicate to the gods the knowledge they have acquired in the depths of their foundations from the earth, full of sepulchres and death, which surrounds them.

We are, indeed, a very small group, lost now in the immensity of the colossal acclivity as we move onward, lighted partly by the wan moon, partly by the red lanterns we hold in our hands, floating at the ends of their long sticks.

A deep silence reigns in the precincts of the temple, even the sound of insects is hushed as we ascend. A sort of reverence, a kind of religious fear steals over us, and, at the same moment, a delicious coolness suddenly pervades the air, and passes over us.

On entering the courtyard above, we feel a little daunted. Here we find the horse in jade, and the china turrets. The enclosing walls make it the more gloomy, and our arrival seems to disturb I know not what mysterious council held between the spirits of the air and the visible symbols that are there, chimeras and monsters illuminated by the blue rays of the moon.

We turn to the left, and go through the terraced gardens, to reach the tea-house of the toads, which this evening is our goal; we find it shut up — I expected as much — closed and dark, at this hour! We drum all together on the door; in the most coaxing tones we call by name the waiting-maids we know so well: Mademoiselle Transparente, Mademoiselle Etoile, Mademoiselle Rosee-matinale, and Mademoiselle Margueritereine. Not an answer. Good-by, perfumed sherbets and frosted beans!

In front of the little archery-house our mousmes suddenly jump aside, terrified, declaring that there is a dead body on the ground. Yes, indeed, some one is lying there. We cautiously examine the place by the light of our red balloons, carefully held out at arm’s length for fear of this dead man. It is only the marksman, he who on the 4th of July chose such magnificent arrows for Chrysanthème; and he sleeps, good man! with his chignon somewhat dishevelled, a sound sleep, which it would be cruel to disturb.

Let us go to the end of the terrace, contemplate the harbor at our feet, and then return home. To-night the harbor looks like only a dark and sinister rent, which the moonbeams can not fathom — a yawning crevasse opening into the very bowels of the earth, at the bottom of which lie faint, small glimmers, an assembly of glowworms in a ditch — the lights of the different vessels lying at anchor.

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