The Promised Land
On this morning in late June 1958 the thoughts of the people in two cars speeding towards Antibes were not on the fate of the French Republic nor on the future of Algeria, nor on the other territories under the colonial yoke. The two cars turned into the Chemin de l’Ermitage, then stopped with a shriek of brakes. The men jumped out and walked swiftly up the gravel drive of a villa. To the left of the villa was the open door of a garage; a weather-worn panel gave the name of the villa—Le Bonheur Vert. The leading man was the examining magistrate of Grasse, the administrative center of this area bordering the Mediterranean; he was followed by a police doctor, two inspectors and a couple of policemen.
The only thing green about Le Bonheur Vert was its name. The formal garden had gravel paths that curved round two palm-trees with drooping leaves. The examining magistrate stopped to gaze at the front of the villa, noting the window with its broken pane and the ladder leaning against the wall.
Inside the villa were several other police inspectors, a police photographer, and some men who appeared to be journalists; these last were gazing idly at the African statuettes, the masks, skins of wild animals and ostrich eggs which were displayed here and there. On entering the living-room the new arrivals had the impression of penetrating a hunter’s den.
Two women were sitting there, sobbing. They were very much alike, having the same narrow forehead and arched nose; and now their dark-ringed eyes were red from weeping.
‘After my siesta, I felt like having a bath,’ the one in the light dress began to tell the examining magistrate. ‘The bathroom door was locked from the inside (she blew her nose). I thought it must be the maid having a bath. I say “the maid”,’ she explained, ‘but we always called her by her name - Diouana. I waited for over an hour, but I didn’t see her come out. So I went back. I called, I tried the door, but it was still locked. And there was no sound from inside. So then I called our neighbor, the captain here . . .’
She stopped and wiped her nose, then began weeping again. Her sister, who was younger and had her hair cut short, bent towards her.
The magistrate turned to the man. ‘It was you who found the body?’
‘Yes. Well, when Madame called me, saying that the black woman had locked herself in the bathroom, I thought it was some sort of a joke. I was in the navy for thirty-five years, you know. I’ve sailed all the oceans. But I’m retired now.’
‘Yes, yes. We know that, captain.’
‘Well, when Madame called me, I brought my ladder along.’
‘So it was you who thought of the ladder?’
‘Well, it was Mademoiselle, Madame’s sister, who suggested that I should bring it. When I climbed up to the window, I saw the black woman lying in a pool of blood.’
‘Where is the key of the door?’
‘I have it, sir,’ said the inspector.
‘I only wanted to see it.’
‘I’ve looked at the window,’ said the other inspector.
‘I opened it after breaking the pane,’ said the retired sailor.
‘Which pane did you break?’
‘Which pane?’ repeated the old sea-dog. (He was wearing white linen trousers and a blue jacket.)
‘Yes. I’ve seen it, but I’d like you to tell me exactly.’
‘The second pane from the top,’ Mademoiselle replied for him.
Just then two men came down the stairs with a stretcher on which lay a body covered with a blanket. Blood was dripping on to the stairs. The magistrate stepped forward and lifted a corner of the blanket. He frowned as he looked down at a black woman with her throat cut from ear to ear.
‘It was done with this knife. A kitchen knife,’ said a man at the top of the stairs.
‘Did you bring her back with you from Africa or did you engage her here?’
‘We brought her from Africa, in April this year,’ the elder woman replied. ‘She came by sea. My husband is employed by Dakar Aeronautics, and the company only gives free transport to our family. She had been with us in Dakar for two and a half years, or it might be three.’
‘How old was she?’
‘I don’t know exactly.’
‘According to her identity-card she was born in 1927.’
‘Oh, the natives don’t know their date of birth,’ put in the retired captain, thrusting his hands into his pockets.
‘I can’t think why she killed herself. She was well treated here; she ate what we did, and slept in the same room as my children.’
‘Where is your husband?’
‘He went to Paris the day before yesterday.’
‘Ah!’ said the inspector, still gazing round at the ornaments. ‘Why do you think it was suicide?’
‘Why?’ echoed the captain. ‘Oh, who do you think is going to take the life of a black woman? She never went out. She knew nobody, except Madame’s children.’
The newspaper reporters were becoming impatient. A servant’s suicide, even though she was a black, would never make the front page. It was not a sensation.
‘I think she was homesick,’ said the wife. ‘A change came over her in recent weeks, and she was quite peculiar.’
The examining magistrate went upstairs with an inspector. They examined the bathroom and the window, while the others waited down below.
‘ You will be informed when the doctor has completed his examination,’ the inspector told the wife and her sister when he came down again.
He and the examining magistrate then left together; they had been barely an hour at the villa. The others followed them; the cars and the ambulance sped away, leaving the two women to their thoughts.
The wife’s mind went back to her charming villa just outside Dakar. She saw Diouana pushing open the gate, telling the Alsatian to stop barking . . .
It all began out there in Africa. Three times a week Diouana used to trudge the four miles there and back. But for the past month she had been happy and gay, her heart beating as though she had fallen in love. The road was long between her home and her employers’ villa. On the outskirts of Dakar was a spread of new houses in a flowery setting of cacti, bougainvillaea and jasmine, and the asphalted Avenue Gambetta stretched ahead like a long black ribbon. The little housemaid no longer cursed this road and her employers as in the past. It was a long way to walk, but for the past month it had not seemed so, not since Madame had said she would take her to France. The name ‘France’ constantly hammered in her mind. All living things around her had become ugly, and the splendid villas she had admired so often now seemed shabby.
In order to travel, to go to France, she needed an identity-card, as she came from the Upper Casamance. It took the whole of her scanty savings. That doesn’t matter, she said to herself, I’m going to France.
‘Is that you, Diouana?’
‘Yes, Madame,’ she answered as she entered the hall, looking neat in her light dress and with her straight hair carefully combed.
‘Good. The master has gone into town. Go and look after the children.’
‘Yes, Madame,’ she said in her childish voice.
Diouana was not quite thirty; on her identity-card her year of birth was given as 1927. She must have been of age. She went to find the children. In all the rooms there were crates and bundles; everything was packed, tied up and ready. There was little left for Diouana to do. For the past ten days she had been washing clothes and linen. Strictly speaking, that was her function—a washerwoman. The family had three servants; a cook, a kitchen-boy and herself.
‘Diouana . . . Diouana.’ Madame was calling her.
‘Yes, Madame?’ she answered, coming out of the children’s bedroom.
Notebook in hand, Madame was checking all the luggage once again. The men should be coming to collect it at any moment.
‘Have you seen your family? Do you think they’ll be pleased?’
‘Yes, Madame. All very glad. I ask mama for me, ask papa Boutoupa too,’ she said.
Her eyes, glowing with pleasure, gazed at the bare wall. Her heart almost stopped beating. She could not bear it if Madame changed her mind. The joy went from her ebony-black face as she looked down, prepared to implore her mistress to take her.
‘I don’t want you to let me down at the last minute.’
‘No, Madame. Me go. Go to France!’
The two were thinking about it in very different ways. Diouana wanted to visit France and return home from that country so renowned for its beauty, wealth and pleasant living. You made your fortune there. Already, even before leaving African soil, she could see herself on the quayside, just back from France, rolling in money and with clothes for everyone. She dreamed of the freedom she would have to go where she wanted, of not having to work like a horse. She could not bear it if Madame refused to take her.
Madame remembered her last leave in France, three years before. She had only two children then. In Africa, she had acquired bad habits in her attitude towards servants. When she had engaged a housemaid in France, not only were the wages high but the maid even insisted upon a day off each week. She had been obliged to dismiss her and engage another. The second was no different from the first; worse, in fact. That young woman had even stood up to her, saying ‘If you are able to have children, you ought to be able to look after them yourself. I’ll do the housework, but I’m not going to live in. I’ve got my own children to look after, and my husband too.’
It had been a great change from being waited on hand and foot. Instead of having a holiday, she had found herself with burdensome family duties. Soon she was urging her husband to return to Africa.
Back in Dakar, tired out and deeply annoyed, her pride wounded, she had laid plans for the next leave. She advertised for a housemaid in all the papers. About a hundred girls came in reply. Her choice fell upon Diouana, who had just arrived in Dakar from her ‘native bush’; and for three years she kept dangling the trip to France before Diouana’s eyes. For three thousand francs a month - a miserly wage by European standards - any African girl would have followed her to the ends of the earth. As an additional bait, when the time of departure drew near, she gave Diouana a few extra coins now and again, or some old clothes and worn-out shoes.
Such was the unbridgeable gulf that separated the maid from her mistress.
‘You’ve given your identity-card to the master?’
‘Go on with your work then. Tell the cook to get a good meal for the three of you.’
‘Thank you, Madame,’ Diouana answered, and went to the kitchen.
Her mistress continued checking the luggage.
The husband returned at midday, his arrival being announced by the dog’s barking. He found his wife still with pencil in hand. ‘Isn’t the van there yet, to take our luggage?’ she asked irritably.
‘It’s coming at a quarter to two. Our things will go aboard last of all, on top of the others’, so we shall have them first at Marseilles. Where’s Diouana? Diouana!’
The eldest of the children ran to fetch her. She was under the trees with the baby.
‘The master wants to see you.’
‘It’s all fixed up,’ he told her. ‘Here are your ticket and your identity-card.’
Diouana held out her hand to take them.
‘Keep your identity-card, and I’ll take care of the ticket. The Duponts are going back by ship and they’ll look after you. Are you pleased to be going to France?’
‘Yes, Missie (the nearest she could get to Monsieur).’
‘Good! Where’s your luggage?’
‘At home, rue Escarfait, Missie.’
‘Right. I’ll just have lunch, then I’ll take you in the car.’
‘Bring the children in, Diouana, it’s time for their siesta.’
Diouana did not feel hungry. The kitchen-boy, who was two years younger than her, kept going noiselessly between dining-room and kitchen, taking full plates and bringing away the empty ones. The cook was perspiring freely. He was not feeling happy, for he would soon be out of work; this, for him, was the consequence of his employers’ departure for France. And for that reason, he bore a grudge against the maid. But Diouana, looking out of the big window with its wide view of the sea, was mentally following the birds flying high over the vast blue expanse. The offshore island of Gorea was only just visible. She turned her identity-card over and over in her hand, looking at it and smiling to herself. She was not quite satisfied with the photograph; it did not stand out clearly enough. But never mind, she thought, I’m going, and that is what matters.
‘Samba,’ said the master, coming into the kitchen. ‘We’ve had an excellent meal today. You really surpassed yourself. The mistress is very pleased with you.’
The kitchen-boy had straightened himself; the cook put a hand to his tall white toque and tried to raise a smile.
‘Thank you very much, Missie,’ he said. ‘Me pleased too, very pleased, because Missie and Madame pleased. Missie very kind. My family very sad. Missie gone, me no work.’
‘We’ll be back again, poor old boy. Anyway, you’ll find work, a good cook like you.’
Samba was not so sure. The whites are stingy, he knew well. And Dakar was swarming with up-country people claiming to be accomplished cooks, so it was not easy to find a job, he thought.
‘We’ll be back, Samba. Sooner than you think, perhaps. The last time we only stayed two and a half months.’
These consoling remarks came from the mistress, who had just joined her husband in the kitchen, and to them Samba could but reply, ‘Thank you, Madame. Madame, good lady.’
Madame was pleased, too. She knew from experience what it meant to have a good reputation among the servant class.
‘You can finish at four o’clock, and the master will take you back to town with him then. I’ll pack the rest of the luggage. When we come back to Dakar, I promise I’ll take you on again. Does that satisfy you?’
‘Thank you, Madame.’
She and her husband left the kitchen, and Samba gave Diouana a playful slap; she turned to retaliate.
‘Hey, steady on! You’re going away today. We mustn’t end up by having a scrap.’
‘You hurt me,’ she said.
‘And what about Missie? Doesn’t he hurt you?’
Samba suspected there was something between the master and Diouana.
‘They’re calling you, Diouana. I can hear the car.’
She went off without even saying good-bye.
The car sped along the main road. It was not often that Diouana had the honor of being driven by the master. Her eyes implored the pedestrians to look at her, not daring to wave to them or call out ‘I’m off to France’. Yes, France. She was convinced that her pleasure must be evident to all. The hidden springs of her bubbling joy were throwing her off balance. When the car drew up in front of the house in the rue Escarfait she was taken aback. ‘So soon,’ she said to herself. To the right of their modest house, a few men were drinking at tables outside the bar Le Gai Navigateur, and four others were standing on the pavement having a quiet talk.
‘So you’re off today, little cousin?’ said Tive Correa, swaying drunkenly, his legs astride and holding a bottle by its neck. His clothes were shabby and crumpled.
Diouana refused to listen to him; she had no need of advice from a drunkard. She hurried into the house. Tive Correa was an old sailor who had returned from Europe after being away for twenty years. He had sailed away in the fullness of his youth, bursting with ambition, and had returned a wreck of a man. He had wanted all that life could offer, and had brought back nothing but an immoderate love of the bottle. He prophesied nothing but woe. Diouana had asked his advice, and he had been against her going to France.
He took a few hesitant steps towards the car, still clutching his bottle.
‘Is it true that she’s going to France with you, Monsieur?’
Monsieur made no reply. He lit a cigarette, and as he blew the smoke out of the window he looked Tive Correa up and down. The man really was a poor specimen in his greasy clothes, smelling of palm wine.
‘I lived in France for twenty years,’ Tive said with a trace of pride in his voice, leaning a hand on the car door. ‘You see me like this, but I know France better than you do. During the war I was living in Toulon, and when the Germans arrived they sent me and other Africans to Aix-en-Provence, to work in the Gardanne mines. I was against Diouana going to France.’
‘We didn’t force her, did we? She wants to go,’ Monsieur coldly retorted.
‘Of course. Is there any young African who doesn’t long to go to France? Alas, the youngsters don’t know the difference between living in France and being a servant there. We come from neighboring villages in Upper Casamance, Diouana and me. There, we don’t say as you do that the light attracts moths; where I live in the Casamance country we say that it’s the darkness that drives the moths away.’
Just then, Diouana came out of the house with several women. They were chattering away, each asking her to bring back a little souvenir. Diouana promised gaily, smiling and showing her white teeth.
‘The others are down at the quayside,’ said one. ‘Don’t forget about a dress for me.’
‘I should like shoes for the children. I’ve put the sizes in your suitcase. Remember to get a sewing-machine.’
‘And some nice slips for me.’
‘Write and tell me the price of irons for getting the crinkle out of hair, and I’d like a red jacket with big buttons, size forty-four.’
‘Don’t forget to send some money to your mother and Boutoupa.’
They all had something to tell her, to ask her to get. Diouana promised everything, her face beaming. Tive Correa picked up her case and pushed her into the car with a drunken but not unkind movement.
‘Let her get away, women! Do you think money is easy to come by in France? She’ll be able to tell you a thing or two when she comes back.’
‘O . . . Oh!’ the women shrieked at him.
‘Good-bye, little cousin. Look after yourself. You have the address of your cousin in Toulon. Write to him as soon as you can. He’ll be useful to know. Let me kiss you.’
Monsieur was growing impatient; he revved up the engine as a polite way of indicating that he’d had enough and it was time to go.
The car drove off to much waving of arms. At the quayside there was a repetition of it all—friends and relatives crowded round her to say farewell and give her instructions as to what to bring back, while Monsieur hovered impatiently in the background. At last he saw her on board.
She had a week at sea. Nothing to report, she would have written if she had kept a diary - and if she had been able to read and write. There was just the sea in front and behind, to port and to starboard, just a watery sheet and the sky above.
Monsieur was there waiting for her when she landed and had completed the formalities. He drove fast towards the Riviera. Her eyes took everything in and she gazed in wonder and admiration. Her mind became filled with these first impressions. How beautiful it was! Africa now seemed no more than a sordid slum. The coast road led through one town after another, with a stream of buses, cars and lorries in both directions. This dense traffic amazed her.
‘Did you have a good passage?’
‘Yes, Missie,’ she would have answered if he had asked.
They arrived at Antibes after a two hours’ drive.
The days and weeks had gone by and Diouana was starting on her third month. She was no longer a lively, laughing young woman. Her eyes were sunken and dulled, and her glance failed to take things in. She had far more work to do than ever she had in Africa. She was eating her heart out, and her old friends would hardly have recognized her. France, beautiful France, was but a vague image, a fleeting vision; all she knew of it was the unkempt garden, the evergreen hedges of the other villas, and their roofs poking up above the green trees and palm-trees. Everyone seemed to live his own life, shut away in his house. Her master and mistress often went out, leaving her with the four children. They had soon ganged up against her and were always plaguing her. You must keep them amused, Madame said. The eldest, a cheeky lad, brought in others of his kind and they played at being explorers; Diouana was the ‘savage’. The children tormented her. Sometimes the eldest was given a good hiding. He had picked up ideas about racial discrimination without properly understanding them, from hearing his parents talking with their neighbors in Africa, and now he gave his young friends a magnified version of them. Unknown to his parents, they would spring out on Diouana and run round her, chanting:
‘There’s the Negress,
This persecution preyed upon her mind. At Dakar, the problem of the color of her skin had never arisen. But the children’s baiting caused her to think about it, and she realized that here she was not only quite alone, but she had nothing in common with others. And this made her feel ill, it infected her whole life and the air she breathed.
Everything became blurred, dissolved and vanished—the life she had dreamed about, the happiness she had thought to have. She was worked off her feet. She was cook, nursemaid and laundress all in one. Madame’s sister had come to stay at the villa, so there were seven people to look after. When she was at last able to go up to bed, she fell asleep at once and slept like a log.
Venom entered her heart; she had never had any reason to hate people before. Everything became monotonous and dreary. She wondered where France was—the France of the fine cities she had seen on the screen in Dakar cinemas, of delicious food and dense crowds? The people of France were reduced to these unkind brats and to Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle, who had become strangers to her. The whole country contracted to the boundaries of the villa. Slowly but surely, she was sinking under it all. Her wide outlook in the past was narrowed down to the color of her skin, which suddenly instilled her with terror. Her skin; her blackness. Fearfully, she took refuge within herself.
Her mind ran on the subject; but as there was no one with whom she could exchange ideas, she talked to herself for hours on end.
One day her mistress had cunningly coaxed her to go and cook lunch for them all at her parents’ home in Cannes.
‘We’re going to Cannes tomorrow. My parents have never tasted African cooking. You’ll be a credit to us Africans,’ Madame had said while sunbathing almost naked in the garden.
‘I’ve ordered some rice and two chickens. But don’t put in too much spice.’
‘No, Madame,’ she replied, her heart heavy within her.
This would not be the first time by any means that she had been lugged out to someone’s villa to do the cooking. It was at the house of the ‘Captain’—as everyone called him—that she had first rebelled. He had invited to dinner some gushing people who came out to the kitchen, watched what she was doing and got in her way. Their presence was a pestering shadow to her every movement, making her feel that she did not know how to do anything. These selfish and sophisticated people never stopped asking her idiotic questions on how black women did their cooking. She had to make a great effort to control herself.
Even while she served at table, the three women had still twittered away about the food; they had tasted it suspiciously, then greedily devoured the lot.
‘You must do your very best this time, at my parents’.’
She went back into the kitchen and thought how kind her mistress had been to her in the past, in Dakar. She loathed that kindness now. It had been induced by self-interest; its only reason had been to bind her, to lay a claim to her, in order to get the utmost out of her later. She loathed everything. In Dakar she used to wrap up the food that her employers left and take it back to the rue Escarfait, and she had been proud of working for the ‘Grand Whites’. Now their food revolted her, in her loneliness. These feelings and this resentment affected and spoiled her relations with her employers. She kept to her place, they to theirs. No words passed between them except what was strictly necessary.
‘Diouana, I want you to do the washing today.’
‘Right. Go up and fetch my slips and Missie’s shirts.’
Later it would be, ‘Diouana, I want you to do the ironing this afternoon.’
‘Last time you ironed my slips badly. The iron was too hot. Missie’s shirt-collars were scorched, too. You really must pay attention to what you’re doing.’
‘Oh, I was forgetting - some buttons need sewing on Missie’s shirt and trousers.’
She had to do everything. Moreover, Madame usually said ‘Missie’ to her, even in front of guests. In order to make herself understood, she used the same jargon as the maid; it was the only thing she was honest about. The whole household ended up by referring to the maid as ‘Missie’. Bewildered by her small knowledge of French, Diouana withdrew into herself even more. She ruminated over her situation and came to the conclusion that she was nothing but a useful object and that her employers showed her off as if she were some trophy or other. When they had guests in for the evening they sometimes talked about the psychology of the ‘natives’, and took her as an example. The neighbors called her ‘their black servant’. But she was not black to herself, and that wounded her.
As time passed, everything got worse and she saw more clearly. She had more work than she could cope with, from one week’s end to the next. The Lord’s Day was Mademoiselle’s favorite time for inviting her friends, and the house became filled with them. One week ended with them, and the next began with them.
It was all quite plain to her now. Why had Madame been so anxious for her to come? There had been calculation behind the gifts and the little extras. Madame no longer looked after the children; she kissed them when they got up in the morning, and that was all. And what had happened to that beautiful France? Diouana had seen nothing of it. These questions kept going through her mind. I’m cook, nursemaid and chambermaid, I do all the washing and iron it, and all for a pittance, three thousand francs a month. I do the work of six people. So why am I here?
Diouana became immersed in her memories. She compared her native bush to this dead brushwood around her. What a difference between these trees and her Casamance forest, so far away! The memory of her village and the communal life there made her feel more cut off than ever. She bit her lip and deeply regretted having come. A thousand and one details flashed through her mind as she looked back at the past.
She became aware again of the present, of the reality of her life in France, where she was doubly a foreigner, and her mind hardened. She thought of Tive Correa, not for the first time; his words were proving only too true, cruelly so. She would have liked to write to him, but could not. She had only had two letters from her mother since her arrival in France. She had no time to reply, although Madame had promised to write for her. But was it possible to say to Madame all that went through her mind? She was angry with herself, for her ignorance silenced her. This impotence on her part made her foam with rage. Moreover, Mademoiselle had taken her stamps.
However, a pleasant thought crossed her mind and brought a smile to her lips. That evening, Monsieur was sitting alone in front of the television. She took advantage, went and stood where Madame could not help seeing her, then left the room.
‘Sold, sold ... bought, bought,’ she said to herself over and over again. ‘I’ve been bought, I do all the work here for three thousand francs. I was enticed here, bound, and now I’m chained here like a slave.’
She knew the real facts now. Later in the evening she opened her suitcase, looked at all the things in it and wept. No one bothered about her.
Still, she went on with her daily chores, the same routine, but remained as close as an oyster at low tide in the Casamance river back home.
‘Douna,’ called Mademoiselle. Of course, she could not possibly say ‘Di-ou-a-na.’
That made her still more wrathful. Mademoiselle was even lazier than Madame, with her ‘Come and take this away’ - ‘There’s that to be done, Douna’ - ‘Why don’t you get on with this, Douna?’ -‘You could rake the garden over now and again, Douna.’ To this, Diouana gave a fiery look for reply. Madame complained to her husband, who promised to have a word with the maid.
‘What’s the matter, Diouana? Are you ill or what?’ he asked.
Still slaving away, she remained silent.
‘You can tell me if there’s anything wrong. Perhaps you’d like to go to Toulon. I haven’t had the time yet, but we could go tomorrow.’
‘Anyone would think she loathes us,’ remarked Madame.
Three days after this incident, Diouana had a bath. Madame returned from a walk and then had a nap; afterwards she went to the bathroom but quickly came out again, calling for the maid.
‘Diouana, you really are dirty! You might have left the bathroom clean and tidy.’
‘Not me, Madame. The children, yes.’
‘The children? That’s not true. The children are clean. You may be fed up, that’s quite likely. But I’m not having you telling lies, just as the natives do. I don’t like liars, and that’s what you are.’
Diouana said nothing, but her lips quivered. She went up to the bathroom again and undressed. And that is where they found her, dead.
The police came to the conclusion that it was a case of suicide.
The next day, in the sixth column of the fourth page of the papers was a report which was barely noticeable: ‘At Antibes, a homesick black woman cut her throat.’