Of the many queer characters who took up land in the brush hills near our ranch none excited greater tongue-wagging than the Baron. The squatters called him the Baron. He signed his name–I had to witness his signature–Réné Bourgueil.
The Baron built himself a bungalow on a small hill overlooking a pretty lake which dried up in summer and smelled evilly. Also, he spent money in planting out a vineyard and orchard, and in making a garden. What he did not know about ranching in Southern California would have filled an encyclopaedia, but what he did know about nearly everything else filled us and our neighbours with an ever-increasing amazement and curiosity.
Why did such a man bury himself in the brush hills of San Lorenzo County?
More, he was past middle-age: sixty-five at least, not a sportsman, nor a naturalist, but obviously a gentilhomme, with the manners of one accustomed to the best society.
Of society, however, he spoke mordant words–
“Soziety in Europe, to-day,” he said to me, shortly after his arrival, “ees a big monkey-house, and all ze monkeys are pulling each ozer’s tails. I pull no tails, moi, and I allow no liberties to be taken wiz my person.”
About a month later the Baron was dining with us, and I reminded him of what he had said. He laughed, shrugging his shoulders.
“Mon cher, ze monkeys in your backwoods are more– diable!–moch more aggr-r-ressive zan ze monkeys in ze old world.”
“They pull tails there,” said Ajax, “but here they pull legs as well– eh?”
The Baron smiled ruefully, sticking out a slender, delicately formed foot and ankle.
“Yes,” he said thoughtfully, “old man Dumble, he pull my leg.”
The Dumbles were neighbours of the Baron, and their sterile acres marched with his. John Jacob Dumble’s word might be as good or better than his bond, but neither was taken at par. It was said of him that he preferred to take cash for telling a lie rather than credit for telling the truth. Dumble, as we knew, had sold the Baron one horse and saddle, one Frisian-Holstein cow, and an incubator. The saddle gave the horse a sore back, the horse fell down and broke its knees, the cow dried up in a fortnight, and the incubator cooked eggs to perfection, but it wouldn’t incubate them.
“I use it as a stove,” said the Baron.
Next summer, when the pretty lake dried up and began to smell, we advised the Baron to take a holiday. We told him of pleasant, hospitable people in San Francisco, in Menlo, and at Del Monte, who would be charmed to make his acquaintance.
“San Francisco? Jamais, jamais de la vie!”
“Come with us to Del Monte?”
We explained that Del Monte was a huge hotel standing in lovely gardens which ran down to the sea.
“Jamais–jamais,” repeated the Baron.
“We don’t like to leave you at the mercy of John Jacob Dumble,” said Ajax.
“You have right. I make not harmony wiz ze old man Dumble.”
We went home sorely puzzled. Obviously the Baron had private reasons, and strong ones, for keeping out of San Francisco and Del Monte. And it was significant–as Ajax said to me–that a man who could talk so admirably upon art, politics, and literature never spoke a word concerning himself.
At Del Monte we happened to meet the French Consul. From him we learned that there was a certain Réné, Comte de Bourgueil-Crotanoy. The Château Bourgueil-Crotanoy in Morbihan is nearly as famous as Chaumont or Chénonceau. The Consul possessed an Almanack de Gotha. From this we gleaned two more facts. Réné, Comte de Bourgueil, had two sons, and no kinsmen whatever.
“Your man,” said the Consul discreetly, “must be somebody–you say he is somebody–well, somebody else!”
“Another Wilkins,” said I.
“Pooh!” ejaculated Ajax.
“No Frenchman of the Comte de Bourgueil’s position and rank–he is a godson, you know, of the Comte de Chambord–would come to California without my knowledge,” said the Consul.
The day after our return to the ranch we rode over to see how the Baron fared. We found him in a tent pitched as far as possible from the evil-smelling lake. Passing the bungalow, we had noted that six weeks’ uninterrupted sunshine had played havoc with the Baron’s garden. The man himself, moreover, seemed to have wilted. The sun had sucked the colour from his eyes and cheeks. Of a sudden, old age had overtaken him.
He greeted us with his usual courtesy, and asked if we had enjoyed our holiday. We told him many things about Del Monte, but we didn’t mention the French Consul. Then, in our turn, we begged for such news as he might have. He replied solemnly–
“I speak no more wiz ze Dumbles. Old man Dumble ees a fraud. Moi, I abominate frauds–hein? He obtain my money onder false pretences, is it not so? Ah, yes; but I forgive ‘im, because he is poor. But also, since you go, he obtain my secret–I haf a secret– under false pretences. Oh, ze canaille! I tell ‘im that if ‘e were my equal I would wiz my sword s-spit ‘im. Because ‘e is canaille I s-s-spit at ‘im. Voilà!”
The old fellow was trembling with rage and indignation. Ajax said gravely–
“We foreigners mustn’t spit at free-born American citizens. What spitting is done here, they do themselves.”
“You have right. Ze canaille say to me, to me, ‘Come,’ he say, ‘come, Baron, I have one six-shooter, one shot-gun, two pitchfork, three spade, and one mowing-machine. Take your choice,’ he say, ‘and we can fight till ze cows come home!’ He use zose words, mes amis, ’till ze cows come home!’ Tiens! Ze Frisian- Holstein cows, who go dry when zey do come home–hein?”
He was so furiously angry that we dared not laugh, but we were consumed with curiosity to know what secret Dumble had stolen. The Baron did not inform us.
Fortunately for our peace of mind, Dumble came to us early next morning. He went to the marrow of the matter at once.
“Boys,” said he, “I want you to fix up things between me an’ that crazy Frenchman. How’s that? Your friend. Wal, he is a Frenchy, an’ he’s crazy, as I’m prepared to prove. But I don’t want no trouble with him. He’s my neighbour, and there ought to be nothin’ between me an’ him.”
“There’ll always be a barbed wire fence,” said Ajax.
“Boys, when that ther’ pond o’ the Baron’s tuk to smellin’ like dead cats, he come to me and asks me to find someone to take keer o’ the bungalow. I undertook the job myself. I was to water them foreign plants o’ his, do odd chores, and sleep in the house nights. He offered good pay, and I got a few dollars on account. I aimed to treat the Baron right, as I treat all my neighbours. I meant to do more, more than was agreed on. That’s the right sperit–ain’t it? Yas. An’ so, when I found out that there was a room in that ther’ bungalow locked up, by mistake as I presoomed, and that the key o’ the little parlour opened it, why, naterally, boys, I jest peaked in to see if everything was O.K. As for pryin’ and spyin’, why sech an idee never entered my head. Wal, I peaked in an’ I saw—-”
“Hold on,” said Ajax. “What you saw is something which the Baron wished to be kept secret.”
“I reckon so, though why in thunder—-”
“Then keep it secret—-”
“But, mercy sakes! I saw nothing, not a thing, boys, save two picters and a few old sticks of furniture. An’ seeing that things was O.K., I shet the door, but doggone it! the cussed key wouldn’t lock it. Nex’ morning the Baron found it open, and, Jeeroosalem! I never seen a man git so mad.”
“And that’s all?”
“That’s all, but me an’ the Baron ain’t speakin’.”
We promised to do what we could, more, it must be confessed, on the Baron’s account than for the sake of old man Dumble. Accordingly, we tried to persuade the Baron that his secret at any rate was still inviolate. He listened incredulously.
“He says he saw nothing–but some pictures and old furniture.”
“Mon Dieu! an’ zey tell ‘im nossing. Saperlipopette! Come wiz me. I can trust you. You shall know my secret, too.”
We followed him in silence up the path which led to the bungalow, and into the house. The Baron unlocked a door and unbolted some shutters. We saw two portraits, splendid portraits of two handsome young men in uniform. Above the mantelpiece hung an emblazoned pedigree: the family tree of the Bourgueil-Crotanoy, peers of France. The Baron laid a lean finger upon one of the names.
“I am Réné de Bourgueil-Crotanoy,” he said.
We waited. When he spoke again his voice had changed. It was the voice of a very old man, tired out, indifferent, poignantly feeble.
“My boys,” said he, indicating the two young men, “zey are dead; no one of ze old Bourgueil-Crotanoy is left except me–and I, as you see, am half dead. Perhaps I was too proud; my confessor tell me so, always. I was–I am still–proud of my race, of my château. I was not permitted to serve Republican France, but I gave her my boys. They went to Tonquin; I remained at home, thinking of ze day when zey would return, and marry, and give me handsome grandchildren. Zey did–not– return. Zey died. One in battle, one of fever in ze hospital. What was left for me, mes amis? Could I live on in ze place where I had seen my children and my children’s children? No. Could I meet in Paris ze pitying eyes of friends?”
* * * * *
Years afterwards, Ajax and I found ourselves in Morbihan. We paid a pilgrimage to the Château de Bourgueil-Crotanoy, and entered the chapel where the last of the Bourgueil-Crotanoy is buried. A mural tablet records the names, and the manner of death, of the two sons. Also a line in Latin:
“‘Tis better to die young than to live on to behold the misfortunes and emptiness of an ancient house.”