Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 51

The Last Day

September 17th

At the hour of siesta, a peremptory order arrives to start tomorrow for China, for Tche-fou (a terrible place, in the gulf of Pekin). Yves comes to wake me in my cabin to bring me the news.

“I must positively get leave to go on shore this evening,” he says, while I endeavor to shake myself awake, “if it is only to help you to dismantle and pack up.”

He gazes through my port-hole, raising his glance toward the green summits, in the direction of Diou-djen-dji and our echoing old cottage, hidden from us by a turn of the mountain.

It is very nice of him to wish to help me in my packing; but I think he counts also upon saying farewell to his little Japanese friends up there, and I really can not find fault with that.

He finishes his work, and does in fact obtain leave, without help from me, to go on shore at five o’clock, after drill and manoeuvres.

As for myself I start at once, in a hired sampan. In the vast flood of midday sunshine, to the quivering noise of the cicalas, I mount to Diou-djen-dji.

The paths are solitary, the plants are drooping in the heat. Here, however, is Madame Jonquille, taking the air in the bright, grasshoppers’ sunshine, sheltering her dainty figure and her charming face under an enormous paper parasol, a huge circle, closely ribbed and fantastically striped.

She recognizes me from afar, and, laughing as usual, runs to meet me.

I announce our departure, and a tearful pout suddenly contracts her childish face. After all, does this news grieve her? Is she about to shed tears over it? No! it turns to a fit of laughter, a little nervous perhaps, but unexpected and disconcerting — dry and clear, pealing through the silence and warmth of the narrow paths, like a cascade of little mock pearls.

Ah, there indeed is a marriage-tie which will be broken without much pain! But she fills me with impatience, poor empty-headed linnet, with her laughter, and I turn my back upon her to continue my journey.

Above-stairs, Chrysanthème sleeps, stretched out on the floor; the house is wide open, and the soft mountain breeze rustles gently through it.

That same evening we had intended to give a tea-party, and by my orders flowers had already been placed in every nook and corner of the house. There were lotus in our vases, beautifully colored lotus, the last of the season, I verily believe. They must have been ordered from a special gardener, out yonder near the Great Temple, and they will cost me dear.

With a few gentle taps of a fan I awake my surprised mousme; and, curious to catch her first impressions, I announce my departure. She starts up, rubs her eyelids with the backs of her little hands, looks at me, and hangs her head: something like an expression of sadness passes in her eyes.

This little sinking at the heart is for Yves, no doubt!

The news spreads through the house.

Mademoiselle Oyouki dashes upstairs, with half a tear in each of her babyish eyes; kisses me with her full red lips, which always leave a wet ring on my cheek; then quickly draws from her wide sleeve a square of tissue-paper, wipes away her stealthy tears, blows her little nose, rolls the bit of paper in a ball, and throws it into the street on the parasol of a passer-by.

Then Madame Prune makes her appearance; in an agitated and discomposed manner she successively adopts every attitude expressive of dismay. What on earth is the matter with the old lady, and why does she keep getting closer and closer to me, till she is almost in my way?

It is wonderful to think of all that I still have to do this last day, and the endless drives I have to make to the old curiosity-shops, to my tradespeople, and to the packers.

Nevertheless, before my rooms are dismantled, I intend making a sketch of them, as I did formerly at Stamboul. It really seems to me as if all I do here is a bitter parody of all I did over there.

This time, however, it is not that I care for this dwelling; it is only because it is pretty and uncommon, and the sketch will be an interesting souvenir.

I fetch, therefore, a leaf out of my album, and begin at once, seated on the floor and leaning on my desk, ornamented with grasshoppers in relief, while behind me, very, very close to me, the three women follow the movements of my pencil with astonished attention. Japanese art being entirely conventional, they have never before seen any one draw from nature, and my style delights them. I may not perhaps possess the steady and nimble touch of M. Sucre, as he groups his charming storks, but I am master of a few notions of perspective which are wanting in him; and I have been taught to draw things as I see them, without giving them an ingeniously distorted and grimacing attitudes; and the three Japanese are amazed at the air of reality displayed in my sketch.

With little shrieks of admiration, they point out to one another the different things, as little by little their shape and form are outlined in black on my paper. Chrysanthème gazes at me with a new kind of interest “Anata itchiban!” she says (literally “Thou first!” meaning: “You are really quite wonderful!")

Mademoiselle Oyouki is carried away by her admiration, and exclaims, in a burst of enthusiasm:

“Anata bakari!” (“Thou alone!” that is to say: “There is no one like you in the world, all the rest are mere rubbish!")

Madame Prune says nothing, but I can see that she does not think the less; her languishing attitudes, her hand that at each moment gently touches mine, confirm the suspicions that her look of dismay a few moments ago awoke within me: evidently my physical charms speak to her imagination, which in spite of years has remained full of romance! I shall leave with the regret of having understood her too late!

Although the ladies are satisfied with my sketch, I am far from being so. I have put everything in its place most exactly, but as a whole, it has an ordinary, indifferent, French look which does not suit. The sentiment is not given, and I almost wonder whether I should not have done better to falsify the perspective — Japanese style — exaggerating to the very utmost the already abnormal outlines of what I see before me. And then the pictured dwelling lacks the fragile look and its sonority, that reminds one of a dry violin. In the pencilled delineation of the woodwork, the minute delicacy with which it is wrought is wanting; neither have I been able to give an idea of the extreme antiquity, the perfect cleanliness, nor the vibrating song of the cicalas that seems to have been stored away within it, in its parched-up fibres, during hundreds of summers. It does not convey, either, the impression this place gives of being in a far-off suburb, perched aloft among trees, above the drollest of towns. No, all this can not be drawn, can not be expressed, but remains undemonstrable, indefinable.

Having sent out our invitations, we shall, in spite of everything, give our tea-party this evening — a parting tea, therefore, in which we shall display as much pomp as possible. It is, moreover, rather my custom to wind up my exotic experiences with a fete; in other countries I have done the same.

Besides our usual set, we shall have my mother-in-law, my relatives, and all the mousmes of the neighborhood. But, by an extra Japanese refinement, we shall not admit a single European friend — not even the “amazingly tall” one. Yves alone shall be admitted, and even he shall be hidden away in a corner behind some flowers and works of art.

In the last glimmer of twilight, by the light of the first twinkling star, the ladies, with many charming curtseys, make their appearance. Our house is soon full of the little crouching women, with their tiny slit eyes vaguely smiling; their beautifully dressed hair shining like polished ebony; their fragile bodies lost in the many folds of the exaggerated, wide garments, that gape as if ready to drop from their little tapering backs and reveal the exquisite napes of their little necks.

Chrysanthème, with somewhat a melancholy air, and my mother-in-law, Madame Renoncule, with many affected graces busy themselves in the midst of the different groups, where ere long the miniature pipes are lighted. Soon there arises a murmuring sound of discreet laughter, expressing nothing, but having a pretty exotic ring about it, and then begins a harmony of tap! tap! tap! — sharp, rapid taps against the edges of the finely lacquered smoking-boxes. Pickled and spiced fruits are handed round on trays of quaint and varied shapes. Then transparent china teacups, no larger than half an egg-shell, make their appearance, and the ladies are offered a few drops of sugarless tea, poured out of toy kettles, or a sip of ‘saki’—(a spirit made from rice which it is the custom to serve hot, in elegantly shaped vases, long-necked like a heron’s throat).

Several mousmes execute, one after another, improvisations on the ‘chamecen’. Others sing in sharp, high voices, hopping about continually, like cicalas in delirium.

Madame Prune, no longer able to make a mystery of the long-pent up feelings that agitate her, pays me the most marked and tender attentions, and begs my acceptance of a quantity of little souvenirs: an image, a little vase, a little porcelain goddess of the moon in Satsuma ware, a marvellously grotesque ivory figure; — I tremblingly follow her into the dark corners whither she calls me to give me these presents in tete-a-tete.

About nine o’clock, with a silken rustling, arrive the three geishas in vogue in Nagasaki: Mesdemoiselles Purete, Orange, and Printemps, whom I have hired at four dollars each — an enormous price in this country.

These three geishas are indeed the very same little creatures I heard singing on the rainy day of my arrival, through the thin panelling of the Garden of Flowers. But as I have now become thoroughly Japanized, today they appear to me more diminutive, less outlandish, and in no way mysterious. I treat them rather as dancers that I have hired, and the idea that I ever had thought of marrying one of them now makes me shrug my shoulders — as it formerly made M. Kangourou.

The excessive heat caused by the respiration of the mousmes and the burning lamps, brings out the perfume of the lotus, which fills the heavy-laden atmosphere; and the scent of camellia-oil, which the ladies use in profusion to make their hair glisten, is also strong in the room.

Mademoiselle Orange, the youngest geisha, tiny and dainty, her lips outlined with gilt paint, executes some delightful steps, donning the most extraordinary wigs and masks of wood or cardboard. She has masks imitating old, noble ladies which are valuable works of art, signed by well-known artists. She has also magnificent long robes, fashioned in the old style, with trains trimmed at the bottom with thick pads, in order to give to the movements of the costume something rigid and unnatural which, however, is becoming.

Now the soft balmy breezes blow through the room, from one veranda to the other, making the flames of the lamps flicker. They scatter the lotus flowers faded by the artificial heat, which, falling in pieces from every vase, sprinkle the guests with their pollen and large pink petals, looking like bits of broken, opal-colored glass.

The sensational piece, reserved for the end, is a trio on the ‘chamecen’, long and monotonous, that the geishas perform as a rapid pizzicato on the highest strings, very sharply struck. It sounds like the very quintessence, the paraphrase, the exasperation, if I may so call it, of the eternal buzz of insects, which issues from the trees, old roofs, old walls, from everything in fact, and which is the foundation of all Japanese sounds.

Half-past ten! The programme has been carried out, and the reception is over. A last general tap! tap! tap! the little pipes are stowed away in their chased sheaths, tied up in the sashes, and the mousmes rise to depart.

They light, at the end of short sticks, a quantity of red, gray, or blue lanterns, and after a series of endless bows and curtseys, the guests disperse in the darkness of the lanes and trees.

We also go down to the town, Yves, Chrysanthème, Oyouki and I— in order to conduct my mother-in-law, sisters-in-law, and my youthful aunt, Madame Nenufar, to their house.

We wish to take one last stroll together in our old familiar pleasure-haunts, to drink one more iced sherbet at the house of the Indescribable Butterflies, buy one more lantern at Madame Tres-Propre’s, and eat some parting waffles at Madame L’Heure’s!

I try to be affected, moved, by this leave-taking, but without success. In regard to Japan, as with the little men and women who inhabit it, there is something decidedly wanting; pleasant enough as a mere pastime, it begets no feeling of attachment.

On our return, when I am once more with Yves and the two mousmes climbing up the road to Diou-djen-dji, which I shall probably never see again, a vague feeling of melancholy pervades my last stroll.

It is, however, but the melancholy inseparable from all things that are about to end without possibility of return.

Moreover, this calm and splendid summer is also drawing to a close for us-since to-morrow we shall go forth to meet the autumn, in Northern China. I am beginning, alas! to count the youthful summers I may still hope for; I feel more gloomy each time another fades away, and flies to rejoin the others already disappeared in the dark and bottomless abyss, where all past things lie buried.

At midnight we return home, and my removal begins; while on board the “amazingly tall friend” kindly takes my watch.

It is a nocturnal, rapid, stealthy removal —“doyobo (thieves) fashion,” remarks Yves, who in visiting the mousmes has picked up a smattering of the Nipponese language.

Messieurs the packers have, at my request, sent in the evening several charming little boxes, with compartments and false bottoms, and several paper bags (in the untearable Japanese paper), which close of themselves and are fastened by strings, also in paper, arranged beforehand in the most ingenious manner — quite the cleverest and most handy thing of its kind; for little useful trifles these people are unrivalled.

It is a real treat to pack them, and everybody lends a helping hand — Yves, Chrysanthème, Madame Prune, her daughter, and M. Sucre. By the glimmer of the reception-lamps, which are still burning, every one wraps, rolls, and ties up expeditiously, for it is already late.

Although Oyouki has a heavy heart, she can not prevent herself from indulging in a few bursts of childish laughter while she works.

Madame Prune, bathed in tears, no longer restrains her feelings; poor old lady, I really very much regret. . . .

Chrysanthème is absent-minded and silent.

But what a fearful amount of luggage! Eighteen cases or parcels, containing Buddhas, chimeras, and vases, without mentioning the last lotus that I carry away tied up in a pink cluster.

All this is piled up in the djins’ carts, hired at sunset, which are waiting at the door, while their runners lie asleep on the grass.

A starlit and exquisite night. We start off with lighted lanterns, followed by the three sorrowful ladies who accompany us, and by abrupt slopes, dangerous in the darkness, we descend toward the sea.

The djins, stiffening their muscular legs, hold back with all their might the heavily loaded little cars which would run down by themselves if let alone, and that so rapidly that they would rush into empty space with my most valuable chattels. Chrysanthème walks by my side, and expresses, in a soft and winning manner, her regret that the “wonderfully tall friend” did not offer to replace me for the whole of my night-watch, as that would have allowed me to spend this last night, even till morning, under our roof.

“Listen!” she says, “come back to-morrow in the daytime, before getting under way, to bid one good-by; I shall not return to my mother until evening; you will find me still up there.”

And I promise.

They stop at a certain turn, whence we have a bird’s-eye view of the whole harbor. The black, stagnant waters reflect innumerable distant fires, and the ships — tiny, immovable objects, which, seen from our point of view, take the shape of fish, seem also to slumber — little objects which serve to bear us elsewhere, to go far away, and to forget.

The three ladies are about to turn back home, for the night is already far advanced and, farther down, the cosmopolitan quarters near the quays are not safe at this unusual hour.

The moment has therefore come for Yves — who will not land again — to make his last tragic farewells to his friends the little mousmes.

I am very curious to see the parting between Yves and Chrysanthème; I listen with all my ears, I look with all my eyes, but it takes place in the simplest and quietest fashion: none of that heartbreaking which will be inevitable between Madame Prune and myself; I even notice in my mousme an indifference, an unconcern which puzzles me; I positively am at a loss to understand what it all means.

And I muse as I continue to descend toward the sea. “Her appearance of sadness was not, therefore, on Yves’s account. On whose, then?” and the phrase runs through my head:

“Come back to-morrow before setting sail, to bid me goodby; I shall not return to my mother until evening; you will find me still up there.”

Japan is indeed most delightful this evening, so fresh and so sweet; and little Chrysanthème was very charming just now, as she silently walked beside me through the darkness of the lane.

It is about two o’clock when we reach the ‘Triomphante’ in a hired sampan, where I have heaped up all my cases till there is danger of sinking. The “very tall friend” gives over to me the watch that I must keep till four o’clock; and the sailors on duty, but half awake, make a chain in the darkness, to haul on board all my fragile luggage.

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