Authors: Cheikh Hamidou Kane
Thus, behind the gunboats, the clear gaze of the Most Royal Lady of the Diallobé had seen the new school.
The new school shares at the same time the characteristics of cannon and of magnet. From the cannon it draws its efficacy as an arm of combat. Better than the cannon, it makes conquest permanent. The cannon compels the body, the school bewitches the soul. Where the cannon has made a pit of ashes and of death, in the sticky mold of which men would not have rebounded from the ruins, the new school establishes peace. The morning of rebirth will be a morning of benediction through the appeasing virtue of the new school.
From the magnet, the school takes its radiating force. It is bound up with a new order, as a magnetic stone is bound up with a field. The upheaval of the life of man within this new order is similar to the overturn of certain physical laws in a magnetic field. Men are seen to be composing themselves, conquered, along the lines of invisible
and imperious forces. Disorder is organized, rebellion is appeased, the mornings of resentment resound with songs of a universal thanksgiving.
Only such an upheaval in the natural order can explain how, without either of them wanting it, the new man and the new school come together just the same. For neither of them wants the other. The man does not want the school because in order that he may live—that is, be free, feed and clothe himself—it imposes upon him the necessity of sitting henceforth, for the required period, upon its benches. No more does the school want the man because in order to survive—that is, extend itself and take roots where its necessity has landed it—it is obliged to take account of him.
When the Lacroix family arrived in the little Negro town of L., they found a school there. It was on the classroom benches of this school filled with little black children that Jean Lacroix made the acquaintance of Samba Diallo.
On the morning of their fifteenth day at L., M. Lacroix had taken his two children, Jean and Georgette, to the school of the little town. At Pau, the little boy and girl had not gone above the lower grades. Here, the class of M. N’Diaye corresponded broadly to what they needed.
The story of Samba Diallo is a serious story. If it had been a gay recital, we should have told you of the bewilderment of the two white children, on the first morning of their sojourn among little Negroes, in finding themselves in the presence of so many black faces. Such were the peripheries of this vast movement of approach that Jean and his sister felt it was closing in about them, little by little, like some fantastic and patient ballet. What was
their childish surprise, one might have said, to realize after some time, how much, under their kinky heads and their dark skins, their new schoolmates resembled those they had left behind in Pau …
But nothing more will be said of all that, because these memories would revive others, all of them also happy, and would bring gayety to this recital of which the profound truth is wholly sad.
Long afterward, thinking of this, Jean Lacroix believed that he remembered perceiving this sadness—though in a diffuse and imprecise way—from his first moments of contact with Samba Diallo.
It was in M. N’Diaye’s class that he first felt this. In this class he had had, as it were, the impression of a point where all noises were absorbed, where all rustling sounds were lost. One might have said that somewhere in the ambient air there was a break in continuity. So, when it happened that the whole class would be laughing or shrieking, his attentive ear would perceive something like a pit of silence not far from where he sat. As the hour of dismissal approached, and a quiver would run through all the benches, slates would be shaken and then surreptitiously put away, and there would be a dropping of things that had been gathered together, Jean’s whole person would feel at the heart of this agitation something like a break of peace.
As a matter of fact, although he might have noticed it from the outset, it was only after some ten days in M. N’Diaye’s classroom that Jean became clearly conscious of this universal false note. From that moment, all his senses were on the alert.
One morning M. N’Diaye was questioning the class
and had—fairly enough—taken the presence of Jean and Georgette as pretext for an interrogation on the geography and history of France. The interchange between master and pupils was sustained and swift. Then suddenly a silence, an embarrassed silence, fell upon the class.
“Let us see, my children,” M. N’Diaye insisted, “Pau is in a department of which it is the capital. What is this department? You remember Pau?”
Jean, to whom the question was not addressed, perceived very clearly, then, that someone not far from him was not embarrassed by this silence, someone was enjoying this silence and prolonging it at his pleasure, someone who could break it, who was about to break it. He slowly turned his head and, for the first time, observed his neighbor on the right, the pupil who with Georgette and himself shared the first table of the central row. It was like a revelation. The pit of silence, the break of peace—it was this boy! He who at this moment was attracting all glances by a sort of restrained radiation, he whom Jean had not noticed but whose presence in this class had troubled him from the first days …
Jean observed him in profile. He could do so at ease, for the other had raised his head and was fixing all his attention on M. N’Diaye. The class was looking at him, and he was looking at the teacher. He seemed tense. His countenance, the regularity of which Jean noted, was beaming. Jean had the impression that if he leaned over and looked straight at his companion, he could read on his face—so great was its effulgence—the answer that M. N’Diaye was expecting. But, one might say in spite of this tension and this radiation, nothing about the boy stirred. Jean was later to think back and realize that he never raised his
hand, though when a pupil wished to answer a question, it was the custom for him to raise his hand and snap his fingers. Jean’s neighbor remained motionless and tense, as if he had his heart in his mouth. M. N’Diaye turned toward him, and Jean noted something like a muscular relaxation on the other’s part. He smiled, and had the air of being confused. Then he got up.
“The department of which Pau is the capital is the Basses-Pyrénées. Pau is the city in which Henri IV was born.”
His voice was clear-cut and his language correct. He was speaking to M. N’Diaye, but Jean had the impression that he was speaking to the class, that it was to them that he was giving account.
When he had finished speaking he sat down again, on a sign from M. N’Diaye. Jean was still staring at him. He noticed that this embarrassed the other boy, and gave himself over to the contemplation of his slate.
Having paused for a moment, the class went back to its routine. Then only did Jean remember that it was not by chance that he was sitting near Samba Diallo. He recalled that when he arrived he had wished to lead his sister to a table where there were two vacant places, as he had noticed. M. N’Diaye had intervened, and had had them sit at the first table, next to Samba Diallo.
When the noon bell had rung, when M. N’Diaye had dismissed his pupils and Georgette and Jean had gone out, it was impossible for the latter to find Samba Diallo again. Jean was standing on his tiptoes, looking about him on all sides, when someone touched his shoulder. He turned around. It was Ammar Lô, the first boy in the class that he had made friends with.
“Who are you looking for, the Diallobé?”
“Who is that?”
“But that is your neighbor, Samba Diallo.”
Jean was surprised and a little put out that Ammar Lô should have guessed his thought. He did not reply.
“Don’t wait any longer for Samba Diallo. He has gone,” Ammar Lô volunteered. Then he turned his back and went away.
M. Lacroix had come in a car to get his children. When Jean went back to school in the afternoon Samba Diallo was not there, and he was conscious of some chagrin.
The next day was Thursday.
Jean did not go out in the morning, but in the afternoon he betook himself to his father’s office in the Résidence du Cercle. He knocked at the door and went in. There were two people in the room he entered, occupying two separate desks. One of them was his father. He made his way toward him, but he was looking at the other man, who was a Negro.
He was a tall man, something which one noticed at once, even though he was seated. The boubous he wore were white, and full-cut. Under his clothing one sensed a stature which was powerful without being fleshy. His hands were at once large and finely molded. His bearing helped to give a hieratic posture to his head, which one would have said was cut out of gleaming black sandstone. Why, on looking at him, did Jean think of a certain engraving in his history textbook, which showed a knight of the Middle Ages clad in his dalmatic vestments? The man, on whose face there was a lightly sketched smile, slowly turned his head so that his glance followed the boy.
Jean, for his part, was watching him so attentively that he almost bumped into a chair.
“Well, Jean, say good afternoon to this gentleman,” his father said.
Jean took a few steps toward the man, who smiled once more and held out his hand—a gesture which spread his wide boubou more amply about him.
“Well, young man, how are you?”
His hand enveloped Jean’s in a pressure which was vigorous but not rough. The man was looking at the child, and his face, his beautiful face of shadow set in light, was all smiles for him. Jean had the impression that this man had known him forever, and that while he was smiling at him nothing else existed, nothing else had any importance.
“This is my son, Jean. He is not stupid, but he is very often on a trip to the moon.”
That deplorable habit his father had of always divulging the family secrets! Jean would still have endured it, under all circumstances, but before this man!
“Sh … Don’t make this big young man blush. I am sure that his journeys to the moon are thrilling—aren’t they?”
Jean’s confusion would have known no bounds if at this moment his attention had not been distracted by two light but firm raps on the door. Samba Diallo appeared. Jean’s confusion gave way to surprise. Wearing a long white caftan and white sandals, Samba Diallo entered the room with a graceful and silent step, and made his way first toward M. Lacroix, who smilingly held out his hand. Then, with his own hand open, he stepped up to Jean:
“How do you do, Jean?”
“How do you do, Samba Diallo?”
Their hands met. Then Samba Diallo turned away and greeted the knight in the dalmatic. Neither of them was
smiling any longer; they merely looked each other in the eyes for the space of several seconds, then, with the same movement, moved aside, their faces lighted up anew.
“I see that these young people are already acquainted,” M. Lacroix said.
“Samba Diallo is my son,” added the knight. “Where have you met, then—if that is not an indiscreet question?”
His tone was ironic as he spoke the last words.
“We sit at the same table in M. N’Diaye’s class,” Samba Diallo replied, without taking his eyes off Jean. “Only we have hardly had any opportunity to talk together, have we?”
Samba Diallo’s ease of manner, since he came into the room, left no doubt in Jean’s mind: the knight’s son had already met M. Lacroix. But none of this had been allowed to be seen at the school.
Blushing, Jean confirmed the fact that they had never spoken with each other.
Samba Diallo began to talk to his father in a low voice. Jean took advantage of this to go over to M. Lacroix.
The two boys left the office at the same time. Without speaking, they made their way into the white marl roadway, bordered with red flowers, which led to the portal of the Résidence. Samba Diallo snipped off a flower and began to look closely at it. After a short time he held it out to Jean.
“See, Jean, how beautiful this flower is,” he said. “It smells good.”
He was silent for an instant, then he added, unexpectedly,
“But it is going to die.”
His eyes had been sparkling, and his nostrils had quivered a little, when he said that the flower was beautiful. A
moment later he was obviously sad.
“It is going to die because you plucked it,” Jean ventured to say.
“Yes—and if I had not done that, look what would have happened to it.”
He picked a dry and spiny pod and showed it to Jean. Then, with a springlike motion, he turned clear around, threw the pod away, and turned back to Jean, smiling:
“You wouldn’t like to come and take a walk with me?”
“I should like it very much,” Jean answered.
They went away from the Résidence and took one of those long streets of white marl that furrow the red sand of the little town of L. They walked along for some time without speaking, and soon abandoned the white marl for the red sand, a broad stretch of which, surrounded by milky euphorbia, lay straight ahead of them. In the middle of it Samba Diallo stopped, sat down, then lay out flat on his back, his hands at the nape of his neck and his face to the sky. Jean seated himself.
The sun was setting in an immense sweep of sky. Its rays, which are golden at this time of the day, had been dyed purple in their passage through the clouds that were setting the west afire. Struck diagonally by the light, the red sand was like seething gold.
Samba Diallo’s basalt countenance had purple reflections. Basalt? It was a face of basalt because, also, it was as if turned to stone. No muscle in it, now, was moving. In his eyes the sky showed red. Since he lay down on the ground had Samba Diallo become riveted to it? Had he ceased to live? Jean was frightened.
“Tell me, Samba Diallo,” he ventured, “what is a Diallobé?”
He had spoken for the sake of saying something. The enchantment was shattered. Samba Diallo burst out laughing.
“Ah, they have been talking to you about me.… A Diallobé.… Well, my family, the Dialloubé, belong to the Diallobé people. We come from the banks of a great river. Our country is also called the Diallobé. I am the only one from this country in M. N’Diaye’s class. They take advantage of that to joke about me.”