Authors: Cheikh Hamidou Kane
At least his companions in the group had refrained up to the present from making disagreeable remarks. He was silently grateful to them for that, although he had no illusions as to what some of them actually thought. He knew that Demba, notably, was envious of him. This peasant’s son, patient and stubborn, harbored the ambition of a sturdy and uncompromising adolescent. “But at least,” Samba Diallo was thinking, “Demba has known how to keep quiet up to now. Why should he seek a quarrel with me this morning?”
“Tell me, boys, which one among the other group leaders ought I to follow? Since I am receiving my dismissal from Samba Diallo, I should limit the resultant damage by making a good choice. Let us see …”
“Be quiet, Demba; I beg of you, be quiet,” Samba Diallo cried.
“Let us see,” Demba continued imperturbably. “It is sure, at any rate, that my new leader will not be able to get the best of Samba Diallo in the art of imprecation. For take notice,” he went on, always addressing the group, “your prince is not only a prince of the blood. Nothing is lacking to him. He is also a prince of the mind and spirit. What is more, the great teacher himself knows it. You have remarked that? He has a weakness for Samba Diallo.”
“You are lying! Be still, Demba—you know very well that you are lying! The teacher cannot have any preference for me, and—”
He broke off and shrugged his shoulders.
He was a few steps away from Demba. The two boys were almost of the same height, but while Samba
Diallo—who was now impatiently shifting from one foot to the other—was all long and sinewy lines, Demba was rather inclined to stoutness; he was now standing calm and motionless.
Samba Diallo slowly turned around, walked again to the portal, and went out. In the little street he felt behind him the slow movement of his companions, who were following.
“He has all the qualities, except only one: he is not courageous.”
Samba Diallo stopped short, set his wooden bowl on the ground, and went back to Demba.
“I’m not going to fight with you, Dembel,” he said.
“No!” the other boy screamed. “Don’t call me Dembel. I want no familiarity.”
“So be it, Demba. But I do not want to fight. Go or stay, but let us not talk any more about it.”
As he spoke, Samba Diallo was standing guard over himself, bent on mastering that vibration which was coursing through his body, and on dissipating that odor of brush fire which was tickling his nostrils.
“Go or stay,” he repeated slowly, as if he were speaking in a dream.
Once more he turned his back on Demba and walked away. At this moment his foot struck an obstacle, like a trap set for him. He fell full length on the ground. Someone—he never knew who—had tripped him up.
When he got up, none of those who were there had stirred, but he saw no other person than the one who, before him and still motionless, bore an outline which in a few moments came to represent Demba, but which at present was only the target which his body and all
his being had chosen. He was no longer conscious of anything, except that his body, like a butting ram, had catapulted itself upon the target, that the knot of the two entwined bodies had fallen to the ground, and that there was under him something which was struggling and panting, and which he was hitting. His own body, now, was not vibrating any more, but, marvellously supple, was bending and unbending with the blows he was striking, and the mutiny of his body was calmed somewhat with every blow, as every blow restored a little clarity to his benumbed intelligence. Beneath him, the target continued to struggle and pant and was perhaps also striking, but he felt nothing, other than the mastery which his body was progressively imposing upon the target, the peace which the blows he was striking were bringing back to his body, the clarity which they were restoring to his mind. Suddenly the target ceased to move, the clarity was complete. Samba Diallo perceived that silence had fallen, and that two powerful arms had seized him and were forcing him to let his target go.
When he raised his head, his gaze encountered a haughty and imposing visage, muffled in a light veil of white gauze.
They called her the Most Royal Lady. She was sixty years old, and she would have been taken for scarcely forty. Nothing was to be seen of her except her face. The big blue boubou that she wore fell to the ground, and let nothing be seen except the pointed toes of her golden-yellow Turkish slippers, when she walked. The little gauze veil was wound around her throat, covered her head, passed again under her chin, and hung behind. The Most Royal Lady, who could well have been six feet tall, had lost none of her impressive bearing, in spite of her age.
The little white gauze veil clung to the oval of a face of full contours. Samba Diallo had been fascinated by this countenance the first time he had beheld it: it was like a living page from the history of the Diallobé country. Everything that the country treasured of epic tradition could be read there. All the features were in long lines, on the axis of a slightly aquiline nose. The mouth was large and strong, without exaggeration. An extraordinarily luminous gaze bestowed a kind of imperious lustre upon this face. All the rest disappeared under the gauze, which, more than a coiffure would have done, took on here a distinct significance. Islam restrained the formidable turbulence of those features, in the same way that the little veil hemmed them in. Around the eyes and on the cheeks, over all this countenance, there was, as it were, the memory of a youth and a force upon which the rigid blast of an ardent breath was later brutally to blow.
The Most Royal Lady was the older sister of the Diallobé chief. It was said that it was she, more than her brother, whom the countryside feared. If she had ceased her indefatigable excursions on horseback, the memory of her tall silhouette continued no less to hold in obedience the northern tribes who were renowned for their haughty arrogance. The chief of the Diallobé was by nature more inclined to be peaceable. Where he preferred to appeal to understanding, his sister would cut through on the path of authority.
“My brother is not a prince,” she was in the habit of saying, “he is a sage.” Or, again, “The sovereign should never argue in the public light of day, and the people should not see his face in the night’s darkness.”
She had pacified the North by her firmness. The tribes subjugated by her extraordinary personality had been
kept in obedience by her prestige. It was the North that had given her the name “the Most Royal Lady.”
Now there was complete silence among the disciples, turned to stone as if by the Gorgon’s head.
“I have warned your great fool of a father that your place is not at the teacher’s hearth,” she said. “When you are not fighting like a yokel you are terrorizing all the region by your imprecations against life. The teacher is trying to kill the life in you. But I am going to put an end to all that. Go wait for me at the house …”
Having spoken, she went on her way.
When the teacher saw Samba Diallo come in that evening, covered with red spots and wearing new clothes, he fell into a terrible rage.
“Come here,” he summoned, when he saw the boy still at a distance. “Approach, son of a prince. I swear I will reduce the arrogance of the Diallobé in you!”
He took off his clothes as far as his belt and beat him slowly and furiously. Samba Diallo submitted, inert to the storm. Then the teacher called the poorest and most badly dressed of the boys at the Glowing Hearth, and ordered him to change his worn clothing for Samba Diallo’s new garments—which was done to the disciple’s great joy. Samba Diallo put on his comrade’s rags with indifference.
All the disciples had come back. Each of them had taken his writing-tablet again and, in his proper place, had rejoined the large circle. The Word, intoned by all the immature voices, rose, sonorous and beneficent to the heart of the teacher, as he sat in the centre of the group. He considered Samba Diallo.
The boy gave him complete satisfaction, save on one point. The old man’s piercing scrutiny had disclosed in
this youth what seemed to him—unless combatted early—the misfortune of the Diallobé nobility, and through them of the Diallobé country as a whole. The teacher believed profoundly that the adoration of God was not compatible with any exaltation of man. But, at the bottom of all nobility there is a basis of paganism. Nobility is the exaltation of man, faith is before all else humility, if not humiliation. The teacher thought that man had no reason to exalt himself, save definitely in the adoration of God. Now it was true—though he fought against the feeling—that he loved Samba Diallo as he had never loved any disciple. His harshness toward the boy was in ratio to his impatience to rid him of all his moral weaknesses, and to make him the masterpiece of his own long career. He had educated and developed numerous generations of adolescents, and he knew that he was now near death. But, at the same time as himself, he felt that the country of the Diallobé was dying from the assault of strangers come from beyond the sea. Before departing this life, the teacher would try to leave to the Diallobé such a man as the country’s great past had produced.
The teacher recalled former years. In the time of his adolescence the children of the great families—of whom he was one—would still be living their time of youth far from the aristocratic milieu from which they had sprung, anonymous and poor among the people, and on this people’s alms.
At the end of this period of companionship, they would return from their long peregrination among books and men, both learned and democratic, seasoned in body and clear of mind.
The teacher lingered in meditation, reawakened to the
memory of the vanished days when the country drew its sustenance from God and from the strong liquor of its traditions.
That evening, as he was silently praying at the door of his little cabin, the teacher suddenly felt a presence near him. When he raised his eyes his gaze encountered “a noble and haughty countenance,” as men described her, “a woman’s head enveloped in a light little veil of white gauze.”
“Does peace reign in your dwelling, teacher of the Diallobé?” the woman asked.
“I give thanks to God, Most Royal Lady. Does peace reign in your house also?”
“May thanks be rendered to the Lord.”
She removed her shoes three steps away from the teacher and took the place on the rug which he pointed out to her.
“Master, I have come to see you in the matter of Samba Diallo. This morning I heard the litanies he was improvising.”
“I too heard them. They are beautiful and profound.”
“I was frightened by them. I know very well that the thought of death keeps the believer on guard, and I count the anxiety which it sets in our hearts as among Our Lord’s benefactions. I know also what pride I ought to feel in the gifts of intelligence which it has pleased Our Lord to impart to my young cousin.”
“Yes.” The teacher spoke slowly, as if he were talking to himself. “He is not one of the stupid believers wakened by his morning sermons, in the heart of whom there is a feeling of admiration mingled with the great terror he arouses.”
“Nevertheless, master, I am disturbed. This child speaks of death in terms which do not belong to his years. I come to ask you humbly, for the love of this disciple whom you cherish, to remember, in your work of edification, his age.”
Having said this, the Most Royal Lady fell silent. The teacher also remained silent for a long time. When he spoke, it was to ask a question:
“Most Royal Lady, do you remember your father?”
“Yes, master,” she responded simply—surprised nevertheless.
“Less well than I, for I knew him long before you, and I always approached him closely. But do you remember the state of mind in which he died?”
“Certainly I remember.”
“Less well than I, again, for it was I who spoke the prayer for the dying over him, and I who buried him. Permit me to call him to mind this evening—and this is not irrelevant to what we are talking about.”
Again, the teacher was silent for a moment. Then he went on:
“He suffered for a long time alone, without anyone’s knowing of it, for he had made no change in his way of life. One day he had me summoned. When I arrived, after he had given me a long greeting and we had talked as we were accustomed to do, he got up, went to a chest which he opened, and took out a large piece of cambric. “This is my shroud,’ he said to me, ‘and I should like you to tell me the ritual fashion in which it should be cut.’ I was seeking to probe his gaze. The peace and the gravity which I observed there reduced to nothing, in my mind, all the vain words of protest which I had been about to pronounce.
I congratulate myself for having done away with them, so much so, even today, that I feel the absurdity of such words in the presence of this man who dominated death with all his great stature. I obeyed him, then, and gave him the directions from the Book. He cut his shroud with his own hands. When he had finished, he asked me to accompany him to a retired spot in his house, and there asked me to indicate in his presence to his slave Mbara the motions and the details of the funeral dressing. We came back into his room, then, and talked together for a long time, as if pain were not visibly tormenting his body. When I got up to leave, he asked me to be kind enough to be present when the hour arrived.
“Two days later they came from him to seek me. I found a silent and dismayed family, a house full of people. Your father was in his bedroom, lying on a mat on the floor, surrounded by a number of persons. It was the only time when he did not rise as I entered. He smiled at me, and after greeting me he asked me to bring together all those whom he had called to his house. ‘I beg them to tell me before I die,’ he said, ‘what I could have owed to them and what I might have forgotten to render in payment. If there is one who holds the memory of an injustice from me, may I be told of it and may I make public apology. Of all, I ask that I may be pardoned for the private misdeeds which I may have committed and for the great misdeed stemming from my office as chief of the Diallobé. Hurry, if you please. I await you.’
“ ‘Have they forgiven me?’ he asked, as I returned, and everyone saw the anxiety that tore him at this time. I replied that all had been forgiven. He put that question to me three times. After that he had the strength to greet
all those who were around him. He begged that my arm might be strong, wishing that I would ask the same of his; and he died pronouncing the name of God. Most Royal Lady, that was a chief, your father, who showed to me—to me the interpreter of the Book—how a man should die. I should like to transmit this boon to his little nephew.”