Madame Chrysantheme by Pierre Loti


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Page 3

Some day, when man shall have made all things alike, the earth will be
a dull, tedious dwelling-place, and we shall have even to give up
traveling and seeking for a change which shall no longer be found.

At about six o'clock, we dropped anchor noisily amid the mass of
vessels already there, and were immediately invaded.

Invaded by a mercantile, bustling, comical Japan, which rushed upon us
in full boat-loads, full junks, like a rising sea; little men and
little women coming in a continuous, uninterrupted stream, without
cries, without squabbles, noiselessly, each one making so smiling a
bow that it was impossible to be angry with them, and that indeed by
reflex action we smiled and bowed also. They all carried on their
backs little baskets, little boxes, receptacles of every shape,
fitting into each other in the most ingenious manner, each one
containing several others, and multiplying till they filled up
everything, in endless number; from these they drew forth all manners
of curious and unexpected things, folding screens, slippers, soap,
lanterns, sleeve-links, live cicalas chirping in little cages,
jewelry, tame white mice turning little cardboard mills, quaint
photographs, hot soups and stews in bowls ready to be served out in
rations to the crew;--china, a legion of vases, teapots, cups, little
pots and plates. In one moment, all this was unpacked, spread out with
astounding rapidity and a certain talent for arrangement; each seller
squatting monkey-like, hands touching feet, behind his fancy
ware--always smiling, bending low with the most engaging bows. Under
the mass of these many-colored things, the deck presented the
appearance of an immense bazaar; the sailors, very much amused and
full of fun, walked among the heaped-up piles, taking the little women
by the chin, buying anything and everything, throwing broadcast their
white dollars. But, good gracious, how ugly, mean and grotesque all
those folk were. Given my projects of marriage, I began to feel
singularly uneasy and disenchanted.

* * * * *

Yves and myself were on duty till the next morning, and after the
first bustle, which always takes place on board when settling down in
harbor--(boats to lower, booms to swing out, running rigging to make
taut)--we had nothing more to do but to look on. We said to one
another: "Where are we in reality?--In the United States?--In some
English Colony in Australia, or in New Zealand?"

Consular residences, custom-house offices, manufactories; a dry dock
in which a Russian frigate was lying; on the heights the large
European concession, sprinkled with villas, and on the quays, American
bars for the sailors. Further off, it is true, further off, far away
behind these common-place objects, in the very depths of the immense
green valley, peered thousands upon thousands of tiny black houses, a
tangled mass of curious appearance, from which here and there emerged
some higher, dark red, painted roofs, probably the true old Japanese
Nagasaki which still exists. And in those quarters, who knows, there
may be, lurking behind a paper screen, some affected cat's-eyed little
woman, whom perhaps in two or three days (having no time to lose) I
shall marry!! But no, the picture painted by my fancy has faded. I can
no longer see this little creature in my mind's eye; the sellers of
the white mice have blurred her image; I fear now, lest she should be
like them.

At nightfall, the decks were suddenly cleared as by enchantment; in a
second, they had all shut up their boxes, folded their sliding
screens, their trick fans, and, humbly bowing to each of us, the
little men and little women disappeared.

Slowly, as the shades of night closed around us mingling all things in
the bluish darkness, this Japan surrounding us, became once more, by
degrees, little by little, a fairy-like and enchanted country. The
great mountains, now all black, were mirrored and doubled in the still
water at their feet on which we floated, reflecting therein their
sharply reversed outlines, and presenting the mirage of fearful
precipices, over which we hung:--- the stars also were reversed in
their order, making, in the depths of the imaginary abyss, a
sprinkling of tiny phosphorescent lights.

Then all Nagasaki became profusely illuminated, covering itself with
multitudes of lanterns: the smallest suburb, the smallest village was
lit up; the tiniest hut perched up on high among the trees, and which
in the daytime was invisible, threw out its little glow-worm glimmer.
Soon there were numberless lights all over the country, on all the
shores of the bay, from top to bottom of the mountains; myriads of
glowing fires shone out in the darkness, conveying the impression of
a vast capital, rising up around us in one bewildering amphitheater.
Beneath, in the silent waters, another town, also illuminated, seemed
to descend into the depths of the abyss. The night was balmy, pure,
delicious; the atmosphere laden with the perfume of flowers came
wafted to us from the mountains. From the "tea houses" and other
nocturnal resorts, the sound of guitars reached our ears, seeming in
the distance the sweetest of music. And the whirr of the
cicalas--which, in Japan, is one of the continuous noises of life, and
which in a few days we shall no longer even be aware of, so completely
is it the background and foundation of all the other terrestrial
sounds--was sonorous, incessant, softly monotonous, just like the
cascade of a crystal waterfall.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 28th Feb 2020, 12:06