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Titel: Madame Chrysantheme — Complete
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LOUIS-MARIE-JULIEN VIAUD, "Pierre Loti," was born in Rochefort, of an old French-Protestant family, January 14, 1850. He was connected with the. French Navy from 1867 to 1900, and is now a retired officer with full captain's rank. Although of a most energetic character and a veteran of various campaigns—Japan, Tonkin, Senegal, China (1900)—M. Viaud was so timid as a young midshipman that his comrades named him "Loti," a small Indian flower which seems ever discreetly to hide itself. This is, perhaps, a pleasantry, as elsewhere there is a much more romantic explanation of the word. Suffice it to say that Pierre Loti has been always the nom de plume of M. Viaud.
Lod has no immediate literary ancestor and no pupil worthy of the name. He indulges in a dainty pessimism and is most of all an impressionist, not of the vogue of Zola—although he can be, on occasion, as brutally plain as he—but more in the manner of Victor Hugo, his predecessor, or Alphonse Daudet, his lifelong friend. In Loti's works, however, pessimism is softened to a musical melancholy; the style is direct; the vocabulary exquisite; the moral situations familiar; the characters not complex. In short, his place is unique, apart from the normal lines of novelistic development.
The vein of Loti is not absolutely new, but is certainly novel. In him it first revealed itself in a receptive sympathy for the rare flood of experiences that his naval life brought on him, experiences which had not fallen to the lot of Bernardin de St. Pierre or Chateaubriand, both of whom he resembles. But neither of those writers possessed Loti's delicate sensitiveness to exotic nature as it is reflected in the foreign mind and heart. Strange but real worlds he has conjured up for us in most of his works and with means that are, as with all great artists, extremely simple. He may be compared to Kipling and to Stevenson: to Kipling, because he has done for the French seaman something that the Englishman has done for "Tommy Atkins," although their methods are often more opposed than similar; like Stevenson, he has gone searching for romance in the ends of the earth; like Stevenson, too, he has put into all of his works a style that is never less than dominant and often irresistible. Charm, indeed, is the one fine quality that all his critics, whether friendly or not, acknowledge, and it is one well able to cover, if need be, a multitude of literary sins.
Pierre Loti was elected a member of the French Academy in 1891, succeeding to the chair of Octave Feuillet. Some of his writings are: 'Aziyade,' written in 1879; the scene is laid in Constantinople. This was followed by 'Rarahu,' a Polynesian idyl (1880; again published under the title Le Mariage de Loti, 1882). 'Roman d'un Spahi (1881) deals with Algiers. Taton-gaye is a true 'bete-humaine', sunk in moral slumber or quivering with ferocious joys. It is in this book that Loti has eclipsed Zola. One of his masterpieces is 'Mon Freye Yves' (ocean and Brittany), together with 'Pecheur d'Islande' (1886); both translated into German by Elizabeth, Queen of Roumania (Carmen Sylva). In 1884 was published 'Les trois Dames de la Kasbah,' relating also to Algiers, and then came 'Madame Chrysantheme' (1887), crowned by the Academy. 'Japoneries d'automne' (1889), Japanese scenes; then 'Au Maroc' (Morocco; 1890). Partly autobiographical are 'Le Roman d'un Enfant' (1890) and 'Le Livre de la Pitie et de la Mort' (1891). Then followed 'Fantomes d'Orient (1892), L'Exilee (1893), Le Desert (Syria; 1895), Jerusalem, La Galilee (Palestine; 1895), Pages choisies (1896), Ramuntcho (1897), Reflets sur la Sombre Route' (1898), and finally 'Derniers Jours de Pekin' (1903). Many exquisite pages are to be found in Loti's work. His composition is now and then somewhat disconnected; the impressions are vague, almost illusory, and the mirage is a little obscure, but the intense and abiding charm of Nature remains. Loti has not again reached the level of Madame Chrysantheme, and English critics at least will have to suspend their judgment for a while. In any event, he has given to the world many great books, and is shrined with the Forty "Immortals."
Permit me to beg your acceptance of this work, as a respectful tribute of my friendship.
I feel some hesitation in offering it, for its theme can not be deemed altogether correct; but I have endeavored to make its expression, at least, in harmony with good taste, and I trust that my endeavors have been successful.
This record is the journal of a summer of my life, in which I have changed nothing, not even the dates, thinking that in our efforts to arrange matters we succeed often only in disarranging them. Although the most important role may appear to devolve on Madame Chrysantheme, it is very certain that the three principal points of interest are myself, Japan, and the effect produced on me by that country.
Do you recollect a certain photograph—rather absurd, I must admit—representing that great fellow Yves, a Japanese girl, and myself, grouped as we were posed by a Nagasaki artist? You smiled when I assured you that the carefully attired little damsel placed between us had been one of our neighbors. Kindly receive my book with the same indulgent smile, without seeking therein a meaning either good or bad, in the same spirit in which you would receive some quaint bit of pottery, some grotesquely carved ivory idol, or some fantastic trifle brought to you from this singular fatherland of all fantasy.
We were at sea, about two o'clock in the morning, on a fine night, under a starry sky.
Yves stood beside me on the bridge, and we talked of the country, unknown to both, to which destiny was now carrying us. As we were to cast anchor the next day, we enjoyed our anticipations, and made a thousand plans.
"For myself," I said, "I shall marry at once."
"Ah!" said Yves, with the indifferent air of one whom nothing can surprise.
"Yes—I shall choose a little, creamy-skinned woman with black hair and cat's eyes. She must be pretty and not much bigger than a doll. You shall have a room in our house. It will be a little paper house, in a green garden, deeply shaded. We shall live among flowers, everything around us shall blossom, and each morning our dwelling shall be filled with nosegays—nosegays such as you have never dreamed of."
Yves now began to take an interest in these plans for my future household; indeed, he would have listened with as much confidence if I had expressed the intention of taking temporary vows in some monastery of this new country, or of marrying some island queen and shutting myself up with her in a house built of jade, in the middle of an enchanted lake.
I had quite made up my mind to carry out the scheme I had unfolded to him. Yes, led on by ennui and solitude, I had gradually arrived at dreaming of and looking forward to such a marriage. And then, above all, to live for awhile on land, in some shady nook, amid trees and flowers! How tempting it sounded after the long months we had been wasting at the Pescadores (hot and arid islands, devoid of freshness, woods, or streamlets, full of faint odors of China and of death).
We had made great way in latitude since our vessel had quitted that Chinese furnace, and the constellations in the sky had undergone a series of rapid changes; the Southern Cross had disappeared at the same time as the other austral stars; and the Great Bear, rising on the horizon, was almost on as high a level as it is in the sky above France. The evening breeze soothed and revived us, bringing back to us the memory of our summer-night watches on the coast of Brittany.
What a distance we were, however, from those familiar coasts! What a tremendous distance!
Precisely at the foretold moment the mysterious land arose before us, afar off, like a black dot in the vast sea, which for so many days had been but a blank space.
At first we saw nothing by the rays of the rising sun but a series of tiny pink-tipped heights (the Fukai Islands). Soon, however, appeared all along the horizon, like a misty veil over the waters, Japan itself; and little by little, out of the dense shadow, arose the sharp, opaque outlines of the Nagasaki mountains.
The wind was dead against us, and the strong breeze, which steadily increased, seemed as if the country were blowing with all its might, in a vain effort to drive us away from its shores. The sea, the rigging, the vessel itself, all vibrated and quivered as if with emotion.
By three o'clock in the afternoon all these far-off objects were close to us, so close that they overshadowed us with their rocky masses and deep green thickets.
We entered a shady channel between two high ranges of mountains, oddly symmetrical—like stage scenery, very pretty, though unlike nature. It seemed as if Japan were opened to our view through an enchanted fissure, allowing us to penetrate into her very heart.
Nagasaki, as yet unseen, must be at the extremity of this long and peculiar bay. All around us was exquisitely green. The strong sea-breeze had suddenly fallen, and was succeeded by a calm; the atmosphere, now very warm, was laden with the perfume of flowers. In the valley resounded the ceaseless whirr of the cicalas, answering one another from shore to shore; the mountains reechoed with innumerable sounds; the whole country seemed to vibrate like crystal. We passed among myriads of Japanese junks, gliding softly, wafted by imperceptible breezes on the smooth water; their motion could hardly be heard, and their white sails, stretched out on yards, fell languidly in a thousand horizontal folds like window-blinds, their strangely contorted poops, rising up castle-like in the air, reminding one of the towering ships of the Middle Ages. In the midst of the verdure of this wall of mountains, they stood out with a snowy whiteness.
What a country of verdure and shade is Japan; what an unlooked-for Eden!
Beyond us, at sea, it must have been full daylight; but here, in the depths of the valley, we already felt the impression of evening; beneath the summits in full sunlight, the base of the mountains and all the thickly wooded parts near the water's edge were steeped in twilight.
The passing junks, gleaming white against the background of dark foliage, were silently and dexterously manoeuvred by small, yellow, naked men, with long hair piled up on their heads in feminine fashion. Gradually, as we advanced farther up the green channel, the perfumes became more penetrating, and the monotonous chirp of the cicalas swelled out like an orchestral crescendo. Above us, against the luminous sky, sharply delineated between the mountains, a kind of hawk hovered, screaming out, with a deep, human voice, "Ha! Ha! Ha!" its melancholy call prolonged by the echoes.
All this fresh and luxuriant nature was of a peculiar Japanese type, which seemed to impress itself even on the mountain-tops, and produced the effect of a too artificial prettiness. The trees were grouped in clusters, with the pretentious grace shown on lacquered trays. Large rocks sprang up in exaggerated shapes, side by side with rounded, lawn-like hillocks; all the incongruous elements of landscape were grouped together as if artificially created.
When we looked intently, here and there we saw, often built in counterscarp on the very brink of an abyss, some old, tiny, mysterious pagoda, half hidden in the foliage of the overhanging trees, bringing to the minds of new arrivals, like ourselves, a sense of unfamiliarity and strangeness, and the feeling that in this country the spirits, the sylvan gods, the antique symbols, faithful guardians of the woods and forests, were unknown and incomprehensible.
When Nagasaki appeared, the view was rather disappointing. Situated at the foot of green overhanging mountains, it looked like any other ordinary town. In front of it lay a tangled mass of vessels, flying all the flags of the world; steamboats, just as in any other port, with dark funnels and black smoke, and behind them quays covered with warehouses and factories; nothing was wanting in the way of ordinary, trivial, every-day objects.
Some time, 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 travelling and seeking for a change which can no longer be found.
About six o'clock we dropped anchor noisily amid the mass of vessels already in the harbor, and were immediately invaded.
We were visited by a mercantile, bustling, comical Japan, which rushed upon us in full boat-loads, in waves, like a rising sea. Little men and little women came in a continuous, uninterrupted stream, but without cries, without squabbles, noiselessly, each one making so smiling a bow that it was impossible to be angry with them, so that by reflex action we smiled and bowed also. They carried on their backs little baskets, tiny boxes, receptacles of every shape, fitting into one another in the most ingenious manner, each containing several others, and multiplying till they filled up everything, in endless number. From these they drew forth all manner 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 how ugly, mean, and grotesque all those folk were! I began to feel singularly uneasy and disenchanted regarding my possible marriage.
Yves and I 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 look on. We said to each other: "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. Farther off, it is true, far away behind these commonplace objects, in the very depths of the vast 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 shut up their boxes, folded their sliding screens and 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, Japan became once more, little by little, a fairy-like and enchanted country. The great mountains, now black, were mirrored and doubled in the still water at their feet, reflecting therein their sharply reversed outlines, and presenting the mirage of fearful precipices, over which we seemed to hang. 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, sparkling with multitudes of lanterns: the smallest suburb, the smallest village was lighted up; the tiniest but perched up among the trees, which in the daytime was invisible, threw out its little glowworm glimmer. Soon there were innumerable 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 around us in one bewildering amphitheatre. 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 other terrestrial sounds—was sonorous, incessant, softly monotonous, like the murmur of a waterfall.
The next day the rain fell in torrents, merciless and unceasing, blinding and drenching everything—a rain so dense that it was impossible to see through it from one end of the vessel to the other. It seemed as if the clouds of the whole world had amassed themselves in Nagasaki Bay, and chosen this great green funnel to stream down. And so thickly did the rain fall that it became almost as dark as night. Through a veil of restless water, we still perceived the base of the mountains, but the summits were lost to sight among the great dark masses overshadowing us. Above us shreds of clouds, seemingly torn from the dark vault, draggled across the trees, like gray rags-continually melting away in torrents of water. The wind howled through the ravines with a deep tone. The whole surface of the bay, bespattered by the rain, flogged by the gusts of wind that blew from all quarters, splashed, moaned, and seethed in violent agitation.
What depressing weather for a first landing, and how was I to find a wife through such a deluge, in an unknown country?
No matter! I dressed myself and said to Yves, who smiled at my obstinate determination in spite of unfavorable circumstances:
"Hail me a 'sampan,' brother, please."
Yves then, by a motion of his arm through the wind and rain, summoned a kind of little, white, wooden sarcophagus which was skipping near us on the waves, sculled by two yellow boys stark naked in the rain. The craft approached us, I jumped into it, then through a little trap-door shaped like a rat-trap that one of the scullers threw open for me, I slipped in and stretched myself at full length on a mat in what is called the "cabin" of a sampan.
There was just room enough for my body to lie in this floating coffin, which was scrupulously clean, white with the whiteness of new deal boards. I was well sheltered from the rain, that fell pattering on my lid, and thus I started for the town, lying in this box, flat on my stomach, rocked by one wave, roughly shaken by another, at moments almost overturned; and through the half-opened door of my rattrap I saw, upside-down, the two little creatures to whom I had entrusted my fate, children of eight or ten years of age at the most, who, with little monkeyish faces, had, however, fully developed muscles, like miniature men, and were already as skilful as regular old salts.
Suddenly they began to shout; no doubt we were approaching the landing-place. And indeed, through my trap-door, which I had now thrown wide open, I saw quite near to me the gray flagstones on the quays. I got out of my sarcophagus and prepared to set foot on Japanese soil for the first time in my life.
All was streaming around us, and the tiresome rain dashed into my eyes.
Hardly had I landed, when there bounded toward me a dozen strange beings, of what description it was almost impossible to distinguish through the blinding rain—a species of human hedgehog, each dragging some large black object; they came screaming around me and stopped my progress. One of them opened and held over my head an enormous, closely-ribbed umbrella, decorated on its transparent surface with paintings of storks; and they all smiled at me in an engaging manner, with an air of expectation.
I had been forewarned; these were only the djins who were touting for the honor of my preference; nevertheless I was startled at this sudden attack, this Japanese welcome on a first visit to land (the djins or djin-richisans, are the runners who drag little carts, and are paid for conveying people to and fro, being hired by the hour or the distance, as cabs are hired in Europe).
Their legs were naked; to-day they were very wet, and their heads were hidden under large, shady, conical hats. By way of waterproofs they wore nothing less than mats of straw, with all the ends of the straws turned outward, bristling like porcupines; they seemed clothed in a thatched roof. They continued to smile, awaiting my choice.
Not having the honor of being acquainted with any of them in particular, I chose at haphazard the djin with the umbrella and got into his little cart, of which he carefully lowered the hood. He drew an oilcloth apron over my knees, pulling it up to my face, and then advancing, asked me, in Japanese, something which must have meant: "Where to, sir?" To which I replied, in the same language, "To the Garden of Flowers, my friend."
I said this in the three words I had, parrot-like, learned by heart, astonished that such sounds could mean anything, astonished, too, at their being understood. We started, he running at full speed, I dragged along and jerked about in his light chariot, wrapped in oilcloth, shut up as if in a box—both of us unceasingly drenched all the while, and dashing all around us the water and mud of the sodden ground.
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