We talk first of one thing and then another. To the tranquil music of their little cascade, I launch out before them with phrases of the most erudite Japanese, I try the effect of a few tenses of verbs: ‘desideratives, concessives, hypothetics in ba’. While they chant they despatch the affairs of the church: the order of services sealed with complicated seals for inferior pagodas situated in the neighborhood; or trace little prayers with a cunning paint-brush, as medical remedies to be swallowed like pills by invalids at a distance. With their white and dimpled hands they play with a fan as cleverly as any woman, and when we have tasted different native drinks, flavored with essences of flowers, they bring up as a finish a bottle of Benedictine or Chartreuse, for they appreciate the liqueurs composed by their Western colleagues.
When they come on board to return our visits, they by no means disdain to fasten their great round spectacles on their flat noses in order to inspect the profane drawings in our illustrated papers, the ’Vie Parisienne’ for instance. And it is even with a certain complacency that they let their fingers linger upon the pictures representing women.
The religious ceremonies in their great temple are magnificent, and to one of these we are now invited. At the sound of the gong they make their entrance before the idols with a stately ritual; twenty or thirty priests officiate in gala costumes, with genuflections, clapping of hands and movements to and fro, which look like the figures of some mystic quadrille.
But for all that, let the sanctuary be ever so immense and imposing in its sombre gloom, the idols ever so superb, all seems in Japan but a mere semblance of grandeur. A hopeless pettiness, an irresistible effect the ludicrous, lies at the bottom of all things.
And then the congregation is not conducive to thoughtful contemplation, for among it we usually discover some acquaintance: my mother-in-law, or a cousin, or the woman from the china-shop who sold us a vase only yesterday. Charming little mousmes, monkeyish-looking old ladies enter with their smoking-boxes, their gayly daubed parasols, their curtseys, their little cries and exclamations; prattling, complimenting one another, full of restless movement, and having the greatest difficulty in maintaining a serious demeanor.
AN UNEXPECTED CALL
My little Chrysantheme for the first time visited me on board-ship to day, chaperoned by Madame Prune, and followed by my youngest sister in-law, Mademoiselle La Neige. These ladies had the tranquil manners of the highest gentility. In my cabin is a great Buddha on his throne, and before him is a lacquer tray, on which my faithful sailor servant places any small change he may find in the pockets of my clothes. Madame Prune, whose mind is much swayed by mysticism, at once supposed herself before a regular altar; in the gravest manner possible she addressed a brief prayer to the god; then drawing out her purse (which, according to custom, was attached to her sash behind her back, along with her little pipe and tobacco-pouch), placed a pious offering in the tray, while executing a low curtsey.