Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 50

A Dolls’ Duet

September 16th.

Seven o’clock in the evening. We shall not go down into Nagasaki tonight; but, like good Japanese citizens, remain in our lofty suburb.

In undress uniform we shall go, Yves and I, in a neighborly way, as far as the fencing-gallery, which is only two steps away, just above our villa, and almost abutting on our fresh and scented garden.

The gallery is closed already, and a little mousko, seated at the door, explains, with many low bows, that we come too late, all the amateurs are gone; we must come again tomorrow.

The evening is so mild and fine that we remain out of doors, following, without any definite purpose, the pathway which rises ever higher and higher, and loses itself at length in the solitary regions of the mountain among the upper peaks.

For an hour at least we wander on — an unintended walk — and finally find ourselves at a great height commanding an endless perspective lighted by the last gleams of daylight; we are in a desolate and mournful spot, in the midst of the little Buddhist cemeteries, which are scattered over the country in every direction.

We meet a few belated laborers, who are returning from the fields with bundles of tea upon their shoulders. These peasants have a half-savage air. They are half naked, too, or clothed only in long robes of blue cotton; as they pass, they salute us with humble bows.

No trees in this elevated region. Fields of tea alternate with tombs: old granite statues which represent Buddha in his lotus, or else old monumental stones on which gleam remains of inscriptions in golden letters. Rocks, brushwood, uncultivated spaces, surround us on all sides.

We meet no more passers-by, and the light is failing. We will halt for a moment, and then it will be time to turn our steps homeward.

But, close to the spot where we stand, a box of white wood provided with handles, a sort of sedan-chair, rests on the freshly disturbed earth, with its lotus of silvered paper, and the little incense-sticks, burning yet, by its side; clearly some one has been buried here this very evening.

I can not picture this personage to myself; the Japanese are so grotesque in life that it is almost impossible to imagine them in the calm majesty of death. Nevertheless, let us move farther on, we might disturb him; he is too recently dead, his presence unnerves us. We will go and seat ourselves on one of these other tombs, so unutterably ancient that there can no longer be anything within it but dust. And there, seated in the dying sunlight, while the valleys and plains of the earth below are already lost in shadow, we will talk together.

I wish to speak to Yves about Chrysanthème; it is indeed somewhat in view of this that I have persuaded him to sit down; but how to set about it without hurting his feelings, and without making myself ridiculous, I hardly know. However, the pure air playing round me up here, and the magnificent landscape spread beneath my feet, impart a certain serenity to my thoughts which makes me feel a contemptuous pity, both for my suspicions and the cause of them.

We speak, first of all, of the order for departure, which may arrive at any moment, for China or for France. Soon we shall have to leave this easy and almost amusing life, this Japanese suburb where chance has installed us, and our little house buried among flowers. Yves perhaps will regret all this more than I. I know that well enough; for it is the first time that any such interlude has broken the rude monotony of his hard-worked career. Formerly, when in an inferior rank, he was hardly more often on shore, in foreign countries, than the sea-gulls themselves; while I, from the very beginning, have been spoiled by residence in all sorts of charming spots, infinitely superior to this, in all sorts of countries, and the remembrance still haunts me pleasurably.

In order to discover how the land lies, I risk the remark:

“You will perhaps be more sorry to leave little Chrysanthème than I.”

Silence reigns between us.

After which I go on, and, burning my ships, I add:

“You know, after all, if you have such a fancy for her, I haven’t really married her; one can’t really consider her my wife.”

In great surprise he looks in my face.

“Not your wife, you say? But, by Jove, though, that’s just it; she is your wife.”

There is no need of many words at any time between us two; I know exactly now, by his tone, by his great good-humored smile, how the case stands; I understand all that lies in the little phrase: “That’s just it, she is your wife.” If she were not, well, then, he could not answer for what might happen — notwithstanding any remorse he might have in the depths of his heart, since he is no longer a bachelor and free as air, as in former days. But he considers her my wife, and she is sacred. I have the fullest faith in his word, and I experience a positive relief, a real joy, at finding my stanch Yves of bygone days. How could I have so succumbed to the demeaning influence of my surroundings as to suspect him even, and to invent for myself such a mean, petty anxiety?

We never shall even mention that doll again.

We remain up there very late, talking of other things, gazing at the immense depths below, at the valleys and mountains as they become, one by one, indistinct and lost in the deepening darkness. Placed as we are at an enormous height, in the wide, free atmosphere, we seem already to have quitted this miniature country, already to be freed from the impression of littleness which it has given us, and from the little links by which it was beginning to bind — us to itself.

Seen from such heights as these, all the countries of the globe bear a strong resemblance to one another; they lose the imprint made upon them by man, and by races; by all the atoms swarming on the surface.

As of old, in the Breton marshes, in the woods of Toulven, or at sea in the night-watches, we talk of all those things to which thoughts naturally revert in darkness; of ghosts, of spirits, of eternity, of the great hereafter, of chaos — and we entirely forget little Chrysanthème!

When we arrive at Diou-djen-dji in the starry night, the music of her ‘chamecen’, heard from afar, recalls to us her existence; she is studying some vocal duet with Mademoiselle Oyouki, her pupil.

I feel myself in very good humor this evening, and, relieved from my absurd suspicions about my poor Yves, am quite disposed to enjoy without reserve my last days in Japan, and to derive therefrom all the amusement possible.

Let us then repose ourselves on the dazzling white mats, and listen to the singular duet sung by those two mousmes: a strange musical medley, slow and mournful, beginning with two or three high notes, and descending at each couplet, in an almost imperceptible manner, into actual solemnity. The song keeps its dragging slowness; but the accompaniment, becoming more and more accentuated, is like the impetuous sound of a far-off hurricane. At the end, when these girlish voices, usually so soft, give out their hoarse and guttural notes, Chrysanthème’s hands fly wildly and convulsively over the quivering strings. Both of them lower their heads, pout their underlips in the effort to bring out these astonishingly deep notes. And at these moments their little narrow eyes open, and seem to reveal an unexpected something, almost a soul, under these trappings of marionettes.

But it is a soul which more than ever appears to me of a different species from my own; I feel my thoughts to be as far removed from theirs as from the flitting conceptions of a bird, or the dreams of a monkey; I feel there is between them and myself a great gulf, mysterious and awful.

Other sounds of music, wafted to us from the distance, interrupt for a moment those of our mousmes. From the depths below, in Nagasaki, arises a sudden noise of gongs and guitars; we rush to the balcony of the veranda to hear it better.

It is a ‘matsouri’, a fete, a procession passing through the quarter which is not so virtuous as our own, so our mousmes tell us, with a disdainful toss of the head. Nevertheless, from the heights on which we dwell, seen thus in a bird’s-eye view, by the uncertain light of the stars, this district has a singularly chaste air, and the concert going on therein, purified in its ascent from the depths of the abyss to our lofty altitudes, reaches us confusedly, a smothered, enchanted, enchanting sound.

Then it diminishes, and dies away into silence.

The two little friends return to their seats on the mats, and once more take up their melancholy duet. An orchestra, discreetly subdued but innumerable, of crickets and cicalas, accompanies them in an unceasing tremolo — the immense, far-reaching tremolo, which, gentle and eternal, never ceases in Japan.

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