Authors: Cheikh Hamidou Kane
“If I did not know you as such an old Turk I should have sworn that you had been drinking,” the girl said, with the gravity of a doctor announcing a diagnosis.
“But, see, I have not yet had anything to drink. However, I am about to have something.”
He signalled to the waiter and ordered coffee. Then he turned toward Lucienne.
“Coffee does me no good, I know, but I do not stop
drinking it. It is by this sign, along with others, that I recognize the presence of Fatality among us.…”
Lucienne, her elbows on the table, her chin in her open hands, was now fixing upon him a gaze which expressed resignation.
“Good,” he said, “here is my coffee. I shall say nothing more. I am listening to you.”
The waiter set down the coffee and Samba Diallo began to drink it, while he watched Lucienne.
He had dreaded this meeting a little. Since the evening when he had dined at the girl’s house they had seen each other very little, principally on the occasion of the examinations at the end of the year’s work. There was, to be sure, an excuse which Samba Diallo could plead for that: the inspections. But Lucienne knew how he made use of his time, and she knew that the approach of the examinations had changed that program very little. She knew that, whatever the circumstances, if he had wanted to see her he would have found the necessary time. He felt that she had not been deceived.
But no more could he avow the reason for his sudden withdrawal: the impossibility of enduring any longer the calm inquiry of those blue eyes which the girl had fixed on him since the first moments of their meeting. What did Lucienne want?
One day, after the examinations in which they had both been successful, he had received a note from her:
“If the distinction with which you passed the examinations has not turned your head, perhaps you will remember me?” Then the letter continued:
“You see, I am forcing myself to joke. Unfortunately, I have every reason to believe that the reason I have not
seen you is, rather, my stupid attitude when you came to dinner at the house. I had merely believed that with a philosopher I could argue in complete freedom, without fear of bringing old susceptibilities out of ambush. I should like to explain myself about all that, if you are available. Make an appointment for me.”
He had fixed this rendezvous and had come to it not without apprehension, afraid of all that she might divine in him. He had hoped to maintain the conversation on the playful level they had adopted, but it seemed that Lucienne, for her part, had no such intention this time.
“I have never seen you in such an amiable mood,” she stated, with a smile.
“I was working on you. I have other talents, and if you wish—”
She grasped his hand.
“Samba Diallo, did I really vex you, in speaking as I did, the other evening?”
“Certainly not! Besides, I don’t see what could have vexed me.”
“I don’t know. Afterward, I thought that I had been a little quick-tempered. In any case, I didn’t want to offend you.”
She hesitated, as if she were seeking to add something more, in order to win forgiveness from her companion.
“Lucienne, Lucienne, you do not know how to arrange your effects. There, by all the evidence, we must go back to Shakespeare: ‘If, in shooting my arrow over the roof,’ and so on. See
“Are you going to listen until I have finished?” she demanded, stamping her foot.
He became serious again.
“Yes, Lucienne, I am listening.”
“Here, then.… I want to tell you also that I am a member of the Communist Party.”
“I knew that.”
“You knew it?”
“Yes, I have seen you distributing leaflets.”
One day, in fact, he had caught sight of her distributing some leaflets at the door of the Sorbonne. He had hastened his steps, taken a leaflet from the hand of another girl who was also distributing them, and had gone quickly away, for fear of Lucienne’s seeing him. At the corner of the street he had opened up the paper. It was signed by the Communist Party. At the same instant, an infinity of little actions he had observed, words he had noted, had converged in his memory and had ended by convincing him. He realized, nevertheless, that this discovery was not surprising him very much, as if since their meeting he had thought that this girl could be moved only by loyalties of this order. He had felt a new upswelling of esteem for her. He wondered that a Protestant minister’s own daughter, child of M. Martial’s wide-sweeping intelligence, should have lived through the aridity of this Damascus road in reverse. What Samba Diallo knew of Lucienne’s intelligence and culture convinced him that this spiritual adventure had not been banal on the one hand or something to be conjured away on the other, but that it had indeed been arduous, lived through in clarity from beginning to end. It did not seem to Samba Diallo that he would have had the sweep of mind to go through such an adventure.
“… And you see,” he added slowly, “I have conceived a new upsurge of admiration for you.”
She blushed a little.
“I accept your admiration, and I shall wear it as an ornament henceforth,” she said. “But, it only enriches me.…”
She hesitated, lowered her eyes.
Her hands on the table were folding and unfolding the paper bill of fare left there by the waiter. Her cheeks were pink; but by the obstinacy of her little forehead, the regularity of her breathing, one guessed that she was determined to follow through her thought to the end.
It was Samba Diallo, however, who spoke. A light had suddenly come on in his mind. He understood what his fair-haired companion wanted of him. From then on, he took the offensive.
“Lucienne, my combat goes beyond yours in every sense.”
He had leaned down over the table, and thus he was taking on the appearance of some strange and enormous bird of prey, with wings spread. He seemed suddenly to be filled with profound exaltation.
“You have not only raised yourself above Nature. You have even turned the sword of your thought against her: you are fighting for her subjection—that is your combat, isn’t it? As for me, I have not yet cut the umbilical cord which makes me one with her. The supreme dignity to which, still today, I aspire is to be the most sensitive and the most filial part of her. Being Nature herself, I do not dare to fight against her. I never open up the bosom of the earth, in search of my food, without demanding pardon, trembling, beforehand. I never strike a tree, coveting its body, without making fraternal supplication to it. I am only that end of being where thought comes to flower.”
Lucienne’s big blue eyes were fixed, in all their wide
extent, upon Samba Diallo. Around those eyes her face was no more than a vague aureole of white and pink.
“In that way, my thought goes far behind yours, back into the penumbra of our origins,” he said.
Samba Diallo had relaxed in his chair. He seemed now to be speaking to himself, with deep melancholy.
Lucienne seized and pressed his hand, which was lying on the table. He gave a little shiver.
“But no, I am not afraid,” he protested, as if he wished to forestall words of compassion. “No, you see it is my good fortune that now you are standing there: I shall catch sight of your blonde head, and I shall know that I am not alone.”
He suddenly withdrew his hand, and leaned down over the table once more.
“Let us hide nothing, meanwhile. By your own avowal, you will consider your task completed when you have freed the last proletarian from his poverty and invested him with dignity again. You even say that your tools of action, become useless, will wither away, so that nothing stands between the naked body of man and liberty. As for me, I do not fight for liberty, but for God.”
Lucienne had to keep herself from bursting into laughter. He saw her smile nevertheless, and, paradoxically, smiled himself, relaxing still further. There was the same defiance in their two smiles.
“I should like to ask you an indiscreet question,” she said. “Don’t answer if it embarrasses you.”
He smiled again.
“I have no choice. Not to answer would be a confession. I shall answer, then.”
“If someone proposed to you—if a psychiatrist, for
instance, proposed curing your people of that part of themselves which weighs them down, would you accept?”
“Ah, because you think that that would be a matter for psychoanalysis? And, first of all, I am surprised at this appeal to psychoanalysis from a Marxist.”
“I didn’t say that. I said a doctor, as I would have said a priest or no matter who. Would you accept deliverance?”
“That does not seem to me possible.”
“In passing, I admire your impeccable defense. But please answer my question.”
Samba Diallo hesitated, and seemed embarrassed.
“I don’t know,” he said at last.
“Very well, that’s enough for me,” and Lucienne’s face brightened. “I know now that your heart is possessed by your being a Negro—your Negroness, if I may coin a word.”
“I confess that I do not like the word, and I don’t always understand what it would be meant to cover.”
“That you don’t like the word is proof of your good taste,” said Lucienne, simply.
She settled herself back on the banquette, leaned her head to one side, and smiled slightly.
“You have delved deeply into the Russian mind of the nineteenth century,” she said, “the Russian writers, poets, artists. I know that you love that century. It was filled with the same disquiet, the same impassioned and ambiguous torment. To be the extreme eastern end of Europe? Not to be the western bridgehead of Asia? The intellectuals could neither answer these questions nor avoid them. As you with the word I coined, so they did not like to hear talk of ‘Slavism.’ Yet who among them has not bent the knee, in filial devotion, before Holy Russia?”
Samba Diallo interrupted:
“I was saying just that to you! And no priest or doctor would be able to do anything for this torment.”
“Yes, but Lenin?”
Samba Diallo straightened himself in his chair and looked closely at Lucienne. The girl had continued to sit calmly in her place. She had simply ceased to smile, and was regarding Samba Diallo with, it seemed, a slight anxiety.
“Samba Diallo,” she said, “the milk that has nourished you, from the breast of the country of the Diallobé, is very sweet and very noble. Be indignant whenever anyone contests that, and correct the cretin who would doubt you because you are a Negro. But know also that the more tender the mother is, and the sooner comes the moment for thrusting her aside—”
Samba Diallo looked straight into Lucienne’s eyes and, with a beating heart, said, slowly but distinctly,
“I believe that I prefer God to my mother.”
In the middle of the stream, Samba Diallo suddenly stopped rowing and leaned back comfortably in his seat. Opposite him, at the other end of the boat, Lucienne, with her face lifted toward the sun, seemed to be asleep.
He took a long breath, stretched himself, looked at the sky, and smiled.
“I should have wished that the heat of the sun would suddenly abate, that the sky would become a little more blue, that the water of the river would flow more swiftly and make more sound. The universe ought to scintillate all around us. Lucienne, is that not possible? When I was a child I was master of that. I achieved new mornings whenever I wanted them. And you?”
She had opened her eyes and was looking at him, without moving nevertheless.
“Never,” she said, “except when I went to the country; and even there I just barely got mornings—‘ameliorated,’ but never those that you evoked.”
A long silence followed.
“Tell me, Lucienne—don’t laugh at me today—even if I seem to you ridiculous, don’t laugh. On this day I should like to plunge, plunge into myself, to the farthest depths of myself, shamelessly. I should so much like to know whether I have only dreamed that happiness I remember, or whether it existed.”
“I won’t laugh. What happiness?”
“The scene is the same. It has to do with the same house, hemmed in by a sky more or less blue, a countryside more or less animated, water running, trees growing, men and animals living there. The scene is the same, I still recognize it.”
She sat up straight and rested her elbow on the edge of the boat.
“What happiness?” she asked again.
“Lucienne, that scene, it is a sham! Behind it, there is something a thousand times more beautiful, a thousand times more true! But I can no longer find that world’s pathway.”
SAMBA DIALLO PRESSED THE BUTTON OF THE bell and waited. Behind the door he was conscious of the abrupt silence of voices that had been animated. The door opened.
“Come in, Monsieur.”
Before him stood a young girl, smiling. So fascinated was he by this apparition that in spite of being invited to enter Samba Diallo did not stir. She was tall, and well got up, so to speak, in a close-fitting jersey whose black color heightened the warm sunset tint of her throat, her face, and her arms. A heavy mass of black hair made an aureole around her head and flowed weightily down to her shoulders, where it mingled with, no more than it was distinguished from, the conspicuous black of the jersey. Her neck was slender without being thin, and its slimness emphasized the solidity of a firm throat. On the sunset glow of her face shone the black onyx of enormous eyes, their reflection alternately held back and offered forth in a timid smile.
“Come in, Monsieur,” she repeated. “We have been expecting you.”
Samba Diallo stammered, in confusion: “Excuse me.”
He went in and waited while the girl closed the door behind him. Then he followed her, and his glance lingered
on the slow undulation of head and shoulders that animated the rhythm of legs which were long and which he guessed to be delicately built, in their prolongation of small feet shod in moccasins.
At the door of the drawing-room, Samba Diallo was welcomed by a burst of laughter that he knew well.
“Ha, ha, ha! Here he is! Here is the new man. He is young, he is new, he—”
“Pierre-Louis, introduce us to this gentleman, and stop chattering like an old fool.”