After a drawing by Delacroix
THE schoolmaster was watching the two men climb toward him. One was on horseback, the other on foot. They had not yet tackled the abrupt rise leading to the schoolhouse built on the hillside. They were toiling onward, making slow progress in the snow, among the stones, on the vast expanse of the high, deserted plateau. From time to time the horse stumbled. He could not be heard yet but the breath issuing from his nostrils could be seen. The schoolmaster calculated that it would take them a half hour to get onto the hill. It was cold; he went back into the school to get a sweater.
He crossed the empty, frigid classroom. On the blackboard the four rivers of France, drawn with four different colored chalks, had been flowing toward their estuaries for the past three days. Snow had suddenly fallen in mid-October after eight months of drought without the transition of rain, and the twenty pupils, more or less, who lived in the villages scattered over the plateau had stopped coming. With fair weather they would return. Daru now heated only the single room that was his lodging, adjoining the classroom. One of the windows faced, like the classroom windows, the south. On that side the school was a few kilometers from the point where the plateau began to slope toward the south. In clear weather the purple mass of the mountain range where the gap opened onto the desert could be seen.
Somewhat warmed, Daru returned to the window from which he had first noticed the two men. They were no longer visible. Hence they must have tackled the rise. The sky was not so dark, for the snow had stopped falling during the night. The morning had dawned with a dirty light which had scarcely become brighter as the ceiling of clouds lifted. At two in the afternoon it seemed as if the day were merely beginning. But still this was better than those three days when the thick snow was falling amidst unbroken darkness with little gusts of wind that rattled the double door of the classroom. Then Daru had spent long hours in his room, leaving it only to go to the shed and feed the chickens or get some coal. Fortunately the delivery truck from Tadjid. the nearest village to the north, had brought his supplies two days before the blizzard. It would return in forty-eight hours.
Besides, he had enough to resist a siege, for the little room was cluttered with bags of wheat that the administration had left as a supply to distribute to those of his pupils whose families had suffered from the drought. Actually they had all been victims because they were all poor. Every day Daru would distribute a ration to the children.
They had missed it, he knew, during these bad days. Possibly one of the fathers or big brothers would come this afternoon and he could supply them with grain. It was just a matter of carrying them over to the next harvest. Now shiploads of wheat were arriving from France and the worst was over. But it would be hard to forget that poverty, that army of ragged ghosts wandering in the sunlight, the plateaus burned to a cinder month after month, the earth shriveled up little by little, literally scorched, every stone bursting into dust under one’s foot. The sheep had died then by thousands, and even a few men, here and there, sometimes without anyone’s knowing.
In contrast with such poverty, he who lived almost like a monk, in his remote schoolhouse, had felt like a lord with his whitewashed walls, his narrow couch, his unpainted shelves, his well, and his weekly provisioning with water and food. And suddenly this snow, without warning, without the foretaste of rain. This is the way the region was, cruel to live in, even without men, who didn’t help matters either. But Daru had been born here. Everywhere else, he felt exiled.
HE WENT out and stepped forward on the terrace in front of the schoolhouse. The two men were now halfway up the slope. He recognized the horseman to be Balducci, the old gendarme he had known for a long time. Balducci was holding at the end of a rope an Arab walking behind him with hands bound and head lowered. The gendarme waved a greeting to which Daru did not reply, lost as he was in contemplation of the Arab dressed in a faded blue jellaba, his feet in sandals but covered with socks of heavy raw wool, his head crowned with a narrow, short chèche. Balducci was holding back his horse in order not to hurt the Arab, and the group was advancing slowly.
Within earshot, Balducci shouted, “One hour to do the three kilometers from El Ameur!” Daru did not answer. Short and square in his thick sweater, he watched them climb. Not once had the Arab raised his head. “Hello,” said Daru when they got up onto the terrace. “Come in and warm up.” Balducci painfully got down from his horse without letting go of the rope. He smiled at the schoolmaster from under his bristling mustache. His little dark eyes, deep-set under a tanned forehead, and his mouth surrounded with wrinkles made him look attentive and studious. Daru took the bridle, led the horse to the shed, and came back to the two men who were now waiting for him in the school. He led them into his room. “I am going to heat up the classroom,” he said. “We’ll be more comfortable there.”
When he entered the room again, Balducci was on the couch. He had undone the rope tying him to the Arab, who had squatted near the stove. His hands still bound, the chèche pushed back on his head, the Arab was looking toward the window. At first Daru noticed only his huge lips, fat, smooth, almost Negroid; yet his nose was straight, his eyes dark and full of fever. The cheche uncovered an obstinate forehead and, under the weathered skin now rather discolored by the cold, the whole face had a restless and rebellious look. “Go into the other room,” said the schoolmaster, “and I’ll make you some mint tea.” “Thanks,” Balducci said. “What a chore! How I long for retirement. ” And addressing his prisoner in Arabic, he said, “Come on, you.” The Arab got up and, slowly, holding his bound wrists in front of him, went into the classroom.
With the tea, Daru brought a chair. But Balducci was already sitting in state at the nearest pupil’s desk, and the Arab had squatted against the teacher’s platform facing the stove, which stood between the desk and the window. When he held out the glass of tea to the prisoner, Daru hesitated at the sight of his bound hands. “He might perhaps be untied.” “Sure,” said Balducci. “That was for the trip.” He started to get to his feet. But Daru, setting the glass on the floor, had knelt beside the Arab. Without saying anything, the Arab watched him with his feverish eyes. Once his hands were free, he rubbed his swollen wrists against each other, took the glass of tea and sucked up the burning liquid in swift little sips.
“Good.” said Daru. “And where are you headed?”
Balducci withdrew his mustache from the tea. “Here, son.”
“Odd pupils! And you’re spending the night?”
“No. I’m going back to El Ameur. And you will deliver this fellow to Tinguit. He is expected at police headquarters.”
Balducci was looking at Daru with a friendly little smile.
“What’s this story?” asked the schoolmaster. “Are you pulling my leg?”
“No, son. Those are the orders.”
“The orders? I’m not . . .” Daru hesitated, not wanting to hurt the old Corsican, “I mean, that’s not my job.”
“What! What’s the meaning of that? In wartime people do all kinds of jobs.”
“Then I’ll wait for the declaration of war!”
Balducci nodded. “O.K. But the orders exist and they concern you too. Things are bubbling, it appears. There is talk of a forthcoming revolt. We are mobilized, in a way.”
Daru still had his obstinate look.
“Listen, son.” Balducci said. “I like you and you’ve got to understand. There’s only a dozen of us at El Ameur to patrol the whole territory of a small department and I must be back in a hurry. He couldn’t be kept there. His village was beginning to stir; they wanted to take him back. You must take him to Tinguit tomorrow before the day is over. Twenty kilometers shouldn’t faze a husky fellow like you. After that, all will be over. You’ll come back to your pupils and your comfortable life.”
BEHIND the wall the horse could be heard snorting and pawing the earth. Daru was looking out the window. Decidedly the weather was clearing and the light was increasing over the snowy plateau. When all the snow was melted, the sun would take over again and once more would burn the fields of stone. For days still, the unchanging sky would shed its dry light on the solitary expanse where nothing had any connection with man.
“After all.” he said, turning around toward Balducci, “what did he do?” And, before the gendarme had opened his mouth, he asked, “Does he speak French?”
“No, not a word. We had been looking for him for a month, but they were hiding him. He killed his cousin.”
“is he against us?”
“I don’t think so. But you can never be sure.”
“Why did he kill?”
“A family squabble, I think. One owed grain to the other, it seems. It’s not at all clear. In short, he killed his cousin with a billhook. You know, like a sheep, kreezk!”
Balducci made the gesture of drawing a blade across his throat, and the Arab, his attention attracted, watched him with a sort of anxiety. Daru felt a sudden wrath against the man, against all men with their rotten spite, their tireless hates, their blood lust.
But the kettle was singing on the stove. He served Balducci more tea, hesitated, then served the Arab again, who drank avidly a second time. His raised arms made the jellaba fall open, and the schoolmaster saw his thin, muscular chest.
“Thanks, son,” Balducci said. “And now I’m off.”
He got up and went toward the Arab, taking a small rope from his pocket.
“What are you doing?" Daru asked dryly.
Balducci, disconcerted, showed him the rope.
The old gendarme hesitated. “It’s up to you.
Of course, you are armed? ”
“I have my shotgun.”
“In the trunk.”
“You ought to have it near your bed.”
“Why? I have nothing to fear.”
“You’re crazy, son. If there’s an uprising, no one is safe; we’re all in the same boat.”
“I’ll defend myself. I’ll have time to sec them coming.”
Balducci began to laugh, then suddenly the mustache covered the white teeth. “You’ll have time? O.K. That’s just what I was saying. You always have been a little cracked. That’s why I like you; my son was like that.”
At the same time he took out his revolver and put it on the desk. “Keep it; I don’t need two weapons from here to El Ameur.”
The revolver shone against the black paint of the table. When the gendarme turned toward him, the schoolmaster caught his smell of leather and horseflesh.
“Listen, Balducci,” Daru said suddenly, “all this disgusts me, beginning with your fellow here. But I won’t hand him over. Fight, yes, if I have to. But not that.”
The old gendarme stood in front of him and looked at him severely.
“You’re being a fool,” he said slowly. “I don’t like it either. You don’t get used to putting a rope on a man even after years of it, and you re even ashamed — yes, ashamed. But you can’t let them have their way.”
“I won’t hand him over,” Daru said again.
“It’s an order, son, and I repeat it.”
“That’s right. Repeat to them what I’ve said to you: I won’t hand him over.”
Balducci made a visible effort to reflect. He looked at the Arab and at Daru. At last he decided.
“No, I won’t tell them anything. If you want to drop us, go ahead; I’ll not denounce you. I have an order to deliver the prisoner and I’m doing so. And now you’ll just sign this paper for me.
“There’s no need. I’ll not deny that you left him with me.”
“Don’t be mean with me. I know you’ll tell the truth. You’re from around these parts and you arc a man. But you must sign; that’s the rule.”
Daru opened his drawer, took out a little square bottle of purple ink, the red wooden penholder with the “sergeant-major” pen he used for models of handwriting, and signed. The gendarme carefully folded the paper and put it into his wallet. Then he moved toward the door.
“I’ll see you off,”Daru said.
“No,” said Balducci. “There’s no use being polite. You insulted me.”
He looked at the Arab, motionless in the same spot, sniffed peevishly, and turned away toward the door. “Good-by, son,” he said. The door slammed behind him. His footsteps were muffled by the snow. The horse stirred on the other side of the wall and several chickens fluttered in fright. A moment later Balducci reappeared outside the window leading the horse by the bridle. He walked toward the little rise without turning around and disappeared from sight with the horse following him.
Daru walked back toward the prisoner, who, without stirring, never took his eyes off him. “Wait,” the schoolmaster said in Arabic and went toward the bedroom. As he was going through the door, he had a second thought, went to the desk, took the revolver, and stuck it in his pocket. Then, without looking back, he went into his room.
FOR some time he lay on his couch watching the sky gradually close over, listening to the silence. It was this silence that had seemed painful to him during the first days here, after the war. He had requested a post in the little town at the base of the foothills separating the upper plateaus from the desert. There rocky walls, green and black to the north, pink and lavender to the south, marked the frontier of eternal summer. He had been named to a post farther north, on the plateau itself. In the beginning, the solitude and the silence had been hard for him on these wastelands peopled only by stones. Occasionally, furrows suggested cultivation, but they had been dug to uncover a certain kind of stone good for building. The only plowing here was to harvest rocks. Elsewhere a thin layer of soil accumulated in the hollows would be scraped out to enrich paltry village gardens. This is the way it was: bare rock covered three quarters of the region. Towns sprang up, flourished, then disappeared; men came by, loved one another or fought bitterly, then died. No one in this desert, neither he nor his guest, mattered. And yet, outside this desert neither of them, Daru knew, could have really lived.
When he got up, no noise came from the classroom. He was amazed at the unmixed joy he derived from the mere thought that the Arab might have fled and that he would be alone with no decision to make. But the prisoner was there. He had merely stretched out between the stove and the desk and he was staring at the ceiling. In that position, his thick lips were particularly noticeable, giving him a pouting look. “Come,” said Daru. The Arab got up and followed him. In the bedroom the schoolmaster pointed to a chair near the table under the window. The Arab sat down without ceasing to watch Daru.
“Arc you hungry?”
“Yes,” the prisoner said.
Daru set the table for two. He took flour and oil, shaped a cake in a frying pan, and lighted the little stove that functioned on bottled gas. While the cake was cooking, he went out to the shed to get cheese, eggs, dates, and condensed milk. When the cake was done he set it on the window sill to cool, heated some condensed milk diluted with water, and beat up the eggs into an omelette. In one of his motions he bumped into the revolver stuck in his right pocket. He set the bowl down, went into the classroom, and put the revolver in his desk drawer. When he came back to the room, night was falling. He put on the light and served the Arab. “Eat,” he said. The Arab took a piece of the cake, lifted it eagerly to his mouth, and stopped short.
“And you?” he asked.
“After you. Til eat too.”
The thick lips opened slightly. The Arab hesitated, then bit into the cake determinedly.
I he meal over, the Arab looked at the schoolmaster. “Are you the judge?”
“No, I’m simply keeping you until tomorrow.”
“Why do you eat with me?”
The Arab fell silent. Daru got up and went out. He brought back a camp cot from the shed and set it up between the table and the stove, at right angles to his own bed. From a large suitcase which, upright in a corner, served as a shelf for papers, he took two blankets and arranged them on the cot. Then he stopped, felt useless, and sat down on his bed. There was nothing more to do or to get ready. He had to look at this man. He looked at him therefore, trying to imagine his face bursting with rage. He couldn’t do so. He could see nothing but the dark yet shining eyes and the animal mouth.
“Why did you kill him?” he asked in a voice whose hostile tone surprised him.
The Arab looked away. “He ran away. I ran after him.”
He raised his eyes to Daru again and they were full of a sort of woeful interrogation. “Now what will they do to me?”
“Are you afraid?”
The Arab stiffened, turning his eyes away.
“Are you sorry?”
The Arab stared at him openmouthed. Obviously he did not understand. Daru’s annoyance was growing. At the same time he felt awkward and self-conscious with his big body wedged between the two beds.
“Lie down there,” he said impatiently. “That’s your bed.”
The Arab didn’t move. He cried out, “Tell me !”
The schoolmaster looked at him.
“Is the gendarme coming back tomorrow?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you coming with us?”
“I don’t know. Why?”
The prisoner got up and stretched out on top of the blankets, his feet toward the window. The light from the electric bulb shone straight into his eyes and he closed them at once.
“Why?” Daru repeated, standing beside the bed.
The Arab opened his eyes under the blinding light and looked at him, trying not to blink. “Come with us,” he said.
IN THE middle of the night, Daru was still not asleep. He had gone to bed after undressing completely; he generally slept naked. But when he suddenly realized that he had nothing on, he wondered. He felt vulnerable and the temptation came to him to put his clothes back on. Then he shrugged his shoulders; after all, he wasn’t a child and, if it came to that, he could break his adversary in two. From his bed, he could observe him lying on his back, still motionless, his eyes closed under the harsh light. When Daru turned out the light, the darkness seemed to congeal all of a sudden. Little by little, the night came back to life in the window where the starless sky was stirring gently. The schoolmaster soon made out the body lying at his feet. The Arab was still motionless but his eyes seemed open. A faint wind was prowling about the schoolhouse. Perhaps it would drive away the clouds and the sun would reappear.
During the night the wind increased. The hens fluttered a little and then were silent. The Arab turned over on his side with his back to Daru, who thought he heard him moan. Then he listened for his guest’s breathing, which had become heavier and more regular. He listened to that breathing so close to him and mused without being able to go to sleep. In the room where he had been sleeping alone for a year, this presence bothered him. But it bothered him also because it imposed on him a sort of brotherhood he refused to accept in the present circumstances; yet he was familiar with it. Men who share the same rooms, soldiers or prisoners, develop a strange alliance as if, having cast off their armor with their clothing, they fraternized every evening, over and above their differences, in the ancient community of dream and fatigue. But Daru shook himself; he didn’t like such musings, and it was essential for him to sleep.
A little later, however, when the Arab stirred slightly, the schoolmaster was still not asleep. When the prisoner made a second move, he stiffened, on the alert. The Arab was lifting himself slowly on his arms with almost the motion of a sleepwalker. Seated upright in bed, he waited motionless without turning his head toward Daru, as if he were listening attentively. Daru did not stir; it had just occurred to him that the revolver was still in the drawer of his desk. It was better to act at once. Yet he continued to observe the prisoner, who, with the same slithery motion, put his feet on the ground, waited again, then stood up slowly. Daru was about to call out to him when the Arab began to walk, in a quite natural but extraordinarily silent way. He was heading toward the door at the end of the room that opened into the shed. He lifted the latch with precaution and went out, pushing the door behind him but without shutting it.
Daru had not stirred. “He is running away,”he merely thought. “Good riddance!” Yet he listened attentively. The hens were not fluttering; the guest must be on the plateau. A faint sound of water reached him, and he didn’t know what it was until the Arab again stood framed in the doorway, closed the door carefully, and came back to bed without a sound. Then Daru turned his back on him and fell asleep. Still later he seemed, from the depths of his sleep, to hear furtive steps around the schoolhouse, “I’m dreaming! I’m dreaming!” he repeated to himself. And he went on sleeping.
When he awoke, the sky was clear; the loose window let in a cold, pure air. The Arab was asleep, hunched up under the blankets now, his mouth open, utterly relaxed. But when Daru shook him he started dreadfully, staring at Daru with wild eyes as if he had never seen him and with such a frightened expression that the schoolmaster stepped back, “Don’t be afraid. It is I. You must cat.” The Arab nodded his head and said yes. Calm had returned to his face, but his expression was vacant and listless.
The coffee was ready. They drank it seated together on the cot as they munched their pieces of the cake. Then Daru led the Arab under the shed and showed him the faucet where he washed. He went back into the room, folded the blankets and the cot, made his own bed, and put the room in order. Then he went through the classroom and out onto the terrace. The sun was already rising in the blue sky; a soft, bright light enveloped the deserted plateau. On the ridge the snow was melting in spots. The stones were about to reappear. Crouched on the edge of the plateau, the schoolmaster looked at the deserted expanse. He thought of Balducci. He had hurt him, for he had sent him off as though he didn’t want to be associated with him. He could still hear the gendarme’s farewell and, without knowing why, he felt strangely empty and vulnerable.
At that moment, from the other side of the schoolhouse, the prisoner coughed. Daru listened to him almost despite himself and then, furious, threw a pebble that whistled through the air before sinking into the snow. That man’s stupid crime revolted him, but to hand him over was contrary to honor; just thinking of it made him boil with humiliation. He simultaneously cursed his own people who had sent him this Arab and the Arab who had dared to kill and not managed to get away. Daru got up, walked in a circle on the terrace, waited motionless, and then went back into the schoolhouse.
The Arab, leaning over the cement floor of the shed, was washing his teeth with two fingers. Daru looked at him and said, “Come.”He went back into the room ahead of the prisoner. He slipped a hunting jacket on over his sweater and put on walking shoes. Standing, he waited until the Arab had put on his chèche and sandals. They went into the classroom, and the schoolmaster pointed to the exit saying, “Go ahead.” The fellow didn’t budge. “I’m coming,” said Daru. The Arab went out. Daru went back into the room and made a package with pieces of rusk, dates, and sugar in it. In the classroom, before going out, he hesitated a second in front of his desk, then crossed the threshold and locked the door. “That’s the way,” he said. He started toward the east, followed by the prisoner. But a short distance from the schoolhouse he thought he heard a slight sound behind him. He retraced his steps and examined the surroundings of the house; there was no one there. The Arab watched him without seeming to understand. “Come on,” said Daru.
They walked for an hour and rested beside a sharp needle of limestone. The snow was melting faster and faster and the sun was drinking up the puddles just as quickly, rapidly cleaning the plateau, which gradually dried and vibrated like the air itself. When they resumed walking, the ground rang under their feet. From time to time a bird rent the space in front of them with a joyful cry. Daru felt a sort of rapture before the vast familiar expanse, now almost entirely yellow under its dome of blue sky. They walked an hour more, descending toward the south. They reached a sort of flattened elevation made up of crumbly rocks. From there on, the plateau sloped down — eastward toward a low plain on which could be made out a few spindly trees, and to the south toward outcroppings of rock that gave the landscape a chaotic look.
Daru surveyed the two directions. Not a man could be seen. He turned toward the Arab, who was looking at him blankly. Daru offered the package to him. “Take it,” he said. “There are dates, bread, and sugar. You can hold out for two days. Here are a thousand francs too.”
The Arab took the package and the money but kept his full hands at chest level as if he didn’t know what to do with what was being given him.
“Now look,” the schoolmaster said as he pointed in the direction of the east, “there’s the way to Tinguit. You have a two-hour walk. At Tinguit are the administration and the police. They are expecting you.”
The Arab looked toward the east, still holding the package and the money against his chest. Daru took his elbow and turned him rather roughly toward the south. At the foot of the elevation on which they stood could be seen a faint path. “That’s the trail across the plateau. In a day’s walk from here you’ll find pasturelands and the first nomads. They’ll take you in and shelter you according to their law.”
The Arab had now turned toward Daru, and a sort of panic was visible in his expression. “Listen,” he said.
Daru shook his head. “No, be quiet. Now I’m leaving you.” He turned his back on him, took two long steps in the direction of the school, looked hesitantly at the motionless Arab, and started off again. For a few minutes he heard nothing but his own step resounding on the cold ground, and he did not turn his head. A moment later, however, he turned around. The Arab was still there on the edge of the hill, his arms hanging now, and he was looking at the schoolmaster. Daru felt something rise in his throat. But he swore with impatience, waved vaguely, and started off again. He had already gone a distance when he again stopped and looked. There was no longer anyone on the hill.
Daru hesitated. The sun was now rather high in the sky and beginning to beat down on his head. The schoolmaster retraced his steps, at first somewhat uncertainly, then with decision. When he reached the little hill, he was bathed in sweat. He climbed it as fast as he could and stopped, out of breath, on the top. The rock fields to the south stood out sharply against the blue sky, but on the plain to the east a steamy heat was rising. And in that slight haze, Daru, with heavy heart, made out the Arab walking slowly on the road to prison.
A little later, standing before the window of the classroom, the schoolmaster was watching the clear light bathing the whole surface of the plateau. Behind him on the blackboard, among the winding French rivers, sprawled the clumsily chalked up words he had just read: “You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.” Daru looked at the sky, the plateau, and, beyond, the invisible lands stretching all the way to the sea. In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone.