3. The Departure
Through the attentions of Murph and Rodolphe, who with some difficulty managed to calm his agitation, Chourineur returned fully to his senses after a long crisis. He found himself alone with Rodolphe in one of the rooms on the first floor of the butcher shop.
“Highness,” he said despondently, “you’ve been very good to me, but I would prefer to be a thousand times worse off than I’ve been rather than accept the position you’re offering me.”
“Your Highness, when I heard the cry of that poor animal, unable to defend itself, when I felt the blood on my face, hot and almost alive. . . You have no idea what it’s like. I relived the dream—the sergeant and those poor, young soldiers I cut, who did not defend themselves and who looked at me as they died with an expression that was so gentle, so gentle, as if they were reproaching me. It’s driving me mad!”
Chourineur hid his face in his hands with a convulsive gesture.
“Come on, calm yourself.”
“Forgive me, Your Highness, but the blood, the knife—I just couldn’t take it any longer. It brought back the dreams, just as I was beginning to forget. With my hands and feet steeped in blood every day, killing those poor, defenseless animals. No, no, I couldn’t. I’d rather be blind like the Schoolmaster than continue with this job.”
At that moment, the forcefulness of Chourineur’s gestures, his tone of voice, his features were such that they would be impossible to depict. Rodolphe was deeply moved and understood how terrifying an impression the sight of blood had had upon his protégé. For a moment, like a savage beast, some bloodthirsty instinct had overcome the man, but now remorse had overcome instinct. There was beauty in this, a great and important lesson. To Rodolphe’s praise, he did not despair at the man’s alteration. It was his will, not chance, that had brought them to the abattoir.
“Forgive me, Your Highness, I’m grateful for all you’ve done for me, but . . .”
“Not at all, you’ve fully satisfied my expectations. However, I admit, I wasn’t certain you would manifest such an exalted sense of remorse.”
“Listen, here’s what I was thinking. I chose this shop because of your inclinations, thinking it would appeal to you.”
“Unfortunately, that’s true. I was just telling Murph that if it hadn’t been for what just happened, I would have been very happy here.”
“I know. My poor Francoeur—your name is well chosen—had you accepted my offer—and you certainly could have without losing my esteem—everything you see here would be yours; I would have repaid a sacred debt. I would have freed you from a terrible situation and turned you into a fine, a striking and salutary example. And I would have continued to take an interest in your future. If, on the contrary, the sight of blood you were so thoughtlessly preparing to spill reminded you of your crime, if some involuntary disorder proved to me that you still harbored some remorse in the depths of your soul, my plans for you would change, for the position I offered you would be one of daily anguish.”
“Oh, how true, Monsieur Rodolphe, a horrible kind of torture.”
“Here’s what I propose. I believe you will accept, for I have acted on the basis of this certainty. An acquaintance of mine who owns a great deal of land in Algeria has transferred to me a large farm—all that remains is to sign the deed, which is in your name.
The land is very fertile and is currently being cultivated. But, and I cannot hide this from you, knowing your courage and your need to exercise it, I have purchased this land conditionally, for it is situated near the perimeter of the Atlas mountains, not far from a military outpost and exposed to frequent Arab raids. In those regions a man must be a soldier as much as a farmer. And the place is a fort as much as it is a leasehold. In the owner’s absence, the current caretaker will bring you up to date. He is said to be an honest man, devoted. Keep him in your service as long as necessary. Once you’re settled, you’ll not only be able to increase your income through your hard work and intelligence, you’ll render a great service to the country through your courage. The colonists are forming a militia. The size of your property and the number of tenant farmers will put you in charge of a rather large armed force. Once disciplined and encouraged by your bravery, it could be extremely useful in protecting the farms scattered across the plain. Now, I have made my decision in spite of the danger or, rather, because of it, for I wished to make use of your natural courage and because you have paid for, have redeemed your crime, your rehabilitation will be more complete, more noble, more heroic if it is concluded amid the perils of an unconquered land than among the peaceful dwellings of a small town. I did not make you this offer earlier because it was very likely that the other would satisfy you; and this situation entails such risk that I did not wish to expose you to it without making the choice yours. Of course, there is still time. If this arrangement doesn’t suit you, be frank and we’ll look for something else. Otherwise, the papers will be signed tomorrow. I’ll give you the deeds to your property and you’ll travel to Algiers with someone appointed by the former owner of the leasehold, who will make the transfer. There are two years of rent due; these will be turned over to you upon your arrival. The land brings in about three thousand francs. Work, make improvements, be vigilant, and you will easily increase your well-being and that of the colonists you will be in a position to assist. I have no doubt that you shall always be charitable, generous; wealth implies great generosity. Although I shall be far away, I shall not lose sight of you. I shall never forget that I and my best friend owe you our lives. The only proof of your attachment and recognizance I ask is that you learn to read and write so you can inform me of your activities on a weekly basis and inquire of me should you need my advice or support.”
Upon hearing this, Chourineur was overwhelmed with joy. His character and instinct being by now sufficiently well known, the reader will easily understand that nothing could have pleased him more. And on the following day, Chourineur departed for Algiers.