The LeComte Imperative
Margrave of Belgrave
Fifth Earl of Shrimpton
I know you are accustomed to the most frightful rubbish from your newspapers, with their florid folderol and glittering grotesques, but I can assure you, friend, that everything herein is true, and furthermore it’s ripping stuff.
There won’t be (sadly) any chippies or cocksmen (for that you will need to look elsewhere), yet you’ll nonetheless be amply rewarded by your stay.
Major Alastair Ludlow “Naughty” Bitts II
For Niall and Athol, two lads who could turn a phrase.
The old Route Desmarais served as a mail road between the bustle of New Orleans and the outlying areas still being hacked from the marshlands. After initially establishing a trail northward to Gentilly, other routes followed which served areas to the east, including Chalmette and later—after the construction of the Pont Blanc—crossed the River to include Algiers. If one were to begin the route in the Fauborg-Marigny and accompany the post-carriage on its northward leg (and if indeed one could tolerate the endless chatter of the postman, Dupuis), then one would see, a furlong past the eight-mile mark, the winding oak-lined trail which leads from the main road to the leafy grandeur of the LeComte estate.
Maurice LeComte was a tall, fair-haired man of stately bearing, his temperament equal parts wit and wrath. After leaving a successful sugar concern in either Cuba or Hayti (it’s unclear), he found his way to Nouvelle Orléans and began the construction of a house and the cultivation of the fecund acreage roundabout for sugar cane. Thrice did his past hamper these plans: two burnings of this house-in-progress during uprisings by marauding bands of slaves and freedmen working in mercenary league, and once by the attempted sacking of his grounds by the leader of one such group, the fierce and charismatic Adula.
At all events, by the time the British had later been put to rout he’d attained not only stability but a considerable acreage trod morning ‘til night by slaves chopping, gathering, weighing and loading first cane, then later cotton and even a bright new commodity…a useful and plentiful crop known as soy-beans.
It was onto these grounds that a son was born to Maurice and Edelgard on March 12th, 1826.
Stefan LeComte manifested a fiery spirit that—while being inquisitive at its core—also sought out the provocative and the petulant. His father tolerated this spirit, but only just. There were instances of his strap being applied to young Stefan, and that of the butler, Holcomb, as well. Regrettably, these applications were frequent enough for discipline, but not enough to deter the boy from his mischief. He remained a wiry, black-haired imp who delighted in the singular thrill of a well-wrought disturbance.
He gamboled over the estate, through the oppressive heat of summer and the bleak chill of winter, until his tenth year. A fire in the fields threatened to grow, and as the pickers battled it Stefan was sent to fetch help. He trotted away, making no haste in delivering his message to the household staff. Holcomb’s horror was met with a scarcely concealed giggle, at which point the old Englishman had reached his limit. Hauling the child by the arm, he made his way down the corridor toward the quarters of Stefan’s instructor, Corbush, and fairly hurled his burden into the man’s arms.
“Insolent little wretch!” he cried. “You have a go. I’m finished!” Old Corbush (his Christian name, Patrick, all but forgotten by the family he served) waited until Holcomb was gone, then looked down at the boy, who stood in a knot of fear and impetuous defiance. So much had happened in the small span between the morning’s lessons and the fire of the waning day. His expression must have betrayed a disappointment that reached the child, as young Stefan suddenly hung his head.
“Walk with me, Master Stefan,” his teacher said, and led the boy out the doors of his quarters. “Where are we going?” asked Stefan, with no answer but a forward nod of the head from Corbush. By the time they’d traversed the grounds of the LeComte estate, to include a delicate circumnavigation of the still-smouldering section of field, the two were somewhat fatigued, but more importantly they’d gotten to grips with Stefan’s doings. There was no great mystery, thought Corbush to himself: the lad simply pushed, to see what would happen as much as for any other reason. Once he was shown the grounds, his father’s holdings…why, he’d come to his senses. It was simple stuff, really.
For his part, Stefan (nodding thoughtfully the while) decided that his provocations were unacceptable, and that he must put on quite a different face. To do otherwise would be to one day take the reins of ruin, of dissolution, and he knew that he was destined for no dissolution, but for large things.
Large, splendid things.
So went the days thereafter, with a penitent Stefan close by his teacher’s side, taking in the man’s words, his manner. On a dreary afternoon in the October of his eleventh year, he sat, withdrawn, as Corbush snapped briskly through a battery of conjugations and declensions.
“What’s the matter, Master Stefan?”
“It’s Hetty. I’m not to speak to her.” Corbush sighed, nodding slowly, at the mention of the young quadroon whose large family were among those who worked the fields. He sat down in a great red armchair, lit his pipe and considered his words.
“Master Stefan…” he began haltingly. “Your father, he merely seeks to, er, protect you…” It was no good. He wasn’t able to summon a defence for the admonition not to speak to a small, smiling child.
“Her people practice vodoun,” he said at length. Stefan shifted in his seat and waited for his teacher to continue. Corbush had lost his coal and tapped his pipe sharply against the lip of a small urn. “There are,” he began anew, “methods to summon power toward oneself. Some are familiar: some we understand. Others are not so familiar, and may thus seem frightening.” The boy nodded.
Perhaps, thought Corbush…perhaps he is ready for not just the languages of the ancients, but for their vast knowledge as well…
“It is only the waking man,” said Corbush as he and Stefan put away their masks and foils, “that can truly see.” The boy swiped at a bit of perspiration and regarded his teacher quizzically. “How’s that?” he asked.
Corbush locked the cabinet and lowered the wick on the lantern which hung on the wall of the impromptu gymnasium. He gestured for Stefan to sit. “Do you have interest, Master Stefan, for the world that lies both within and without our eyes, our hearts?”
“Within us?” asked the boy.
“Yes. Wisdom which we may grasp if we will but truly see.” Stefan sensed the import of his teacher’s words, and immediately responded “Yes. I have interest.”
“Very well,” was all the old man said, leaving his words to sit in the boy’s ears for a day or two, prodding, roiling, pressing him to demand answers. The answers came…salted among Han Fei Tzu, among the naming of the planets and their orbits, among the studies of the world’s capitals and their peoples. The Egyptians, the Rig Veda, the Harmonic Laws, Paracelsus, the magi of Persia and Britain and the Pistis Sophia…these the boy absorbed, pondered, drew inside himself.
“See!” compelled his teacher. “Under your feet, into the stars and beyond. See the mathematics in the bough and the heavens besides!” These words were struck with fire when Corbush one day said naught but “Sometimes you must let it flow. Others, you must be the flow.”
So began the studies.
Stefan increased in wisdom, and Corbush found himself able to delve ever further with the lad into the properties of the physical world—of sound, even of light.
“Would you call yourself different?” he asked of Stefan. As no answer seemed readily forthcoming, he repeated, insistent: Would you call yourself different?!” “Y-yes,” came the stammered reply.
“Be what the other man is not. Go where he cannot go…will not go.” Stefan struggled with the words, and asked, finally, “Why not you?”
“Eh?” said Corbush.
“Why not you? Why have you not struck out upon such a life?” Corbush betrayed a fleeting sadness before answering, boldly and with a clasp of the boy’s shoulder, “Some are born to tread the path…others, to light it.”
At twenty-seven, with Corbush’s foundations well-laid, Stefan LeComte cast about for something beyond his father’s fields. He peered through the window on a dim March morning and watched as his father berated a picker, going so far as to cuff the man twice, smartly, before stalking back to his horse. Enough. He entered his father’s study that evening and sought a word. He was striking out for the territories, opportunities lay plentiful there for the asking—why, he’d only just read in Petteway’s Monthly of the men who sought their fortunes in the great, vast West.
His father, reckoning the time due, granted a distant assent and returned to his book.
“Will you help me to prepare my things?”
“Certainly, Master Stefan.” Corbush looked over the bedchamber, from the armoire to the three large bureaus which stood across from it.
“Hmm,” offered LeComte, considering the task. “I’ll travel in the brown twill, with perhaps…” He noted Corbush’s face, on which sat concern (with possibly a soupçon of mirth). “Yes?” he queried.
“Might I suggest, sir, simpler garb for your travels? There is every manner of bandit from—from shipboard to dock and back, and yours will be a considerable journey.” LeComte nodded in agreement.
“You’ve called the tune, Corbush,” he smiled. The two selected trousers and jacquet of hopsack, with rugged boots and a modest white shirt (sans collar) to complete the dress. They then collected as much clothing as two sturdy trunks could accommodate: the larger of the two, a vast portmanteau of advanced years, held much indeed. A slender valise and money-belt were chosen, and thus were the preparations complete. To these effects the teacher added a long, slender, fiercely sharp dagger which the young man was instructed to keep on his person at all times.
LeComte and his burdens were loaded aboard the family coach the following morning, and with surprisingly little fuss he was underway. He carried well-wishes from his mother and father: from Corbush a selection of books and an admonition to adamantly continue his studies and pursuits.
The Perceval was sleek and long, and the schooner’s masts stood proudly. As he boarded—feeling the gentle sway under his feet—he found himself flushed with excitement.
The ship dropped anchor but twice for provisions: once in Brazil for a load of rabbits, chickens and quail and again (after clearing Cape Horn), on the northward approach to Acapulco, where a load of salted fish was laid on. Such stocks were soon expended, however, and so it was with great relief that LeComte—sick unto death of beans—stood at the ship’s railing as the mists lessened and San Francisco hove into view.
After a night spent sleeping adjacent his luggage in a mission (from which he emerged seemingly coated with a fine dust), he arranged for a stage to convey him to Sacramento, then further still to the Cullumah Valley. His attempts to both settle into the carriage and converse with his driver (a baleful-looking fellow with one eye and a soiled, drooping cap), both met with failure. He was jostled this way and that, and he squinted against the brilliant, cloudless blue sky.
After a particularly harsh stretch of not-quite-road LeComte produced a small serviette from his pocket and opened it. He’d been given several sausages at the mission, as well as a loaf and a flask of water. These he offered to share with the driver, but the man merely slapped a haversack that rode behind him. He’d obtained the same fare. Very well. At the end of the first day, he announced simply: “We sleep.” At the next day’s close the driver indicated the trip’s seeming conclusion with a gesture toward the approaching ramble of trees with a terse “We are here.” Spring sunlight had by now settled into LeComte’s eyes—a situation he found quite agreeable.
He had chosen well, it seemed. He looked north, at the point where the American River curved and then began a southward flow. Great stands of fir, walnut, pine and aspen had been cleared adjacent the river, and stakes were being driven to indicate property lines as well as demarcations for vegetable beds and other such uses. Stefan stood at the way-station and loosened his collar in anticipation of the morning’s warmth. He’d no idea what sort of accommodations there might be in these new lands, but he hadn’t anticipated there being nothing.
There were two men in charge of the station, the older of which he now addressed.
“Good morning sir,” he began. The fellow was focusing intently on a sheet of tables, and (suppressing irritation) answered “Yes.”
“Where might I find lodgings?” asked LeComte.
“No lodgings here.” LeComte cast a glance backward toward the crewmen, already beginning to mop their brows in the hazy distance. The station master followed his eyes.
“The men stay in the work camp. It’s up-river.” LeComte thought of his trunks, and knew that even though they were locked a blow or two could break their aged hasps.
“I’ll need a place to sleep,” he said simply. “If I may leave my parcels here, I’ve three ten-dollar pieces for your trouble.” The man’s disposition changed noticeably, and he was soon not only hauling in the burdens but also setting up a small side board upon which he placed cuttings of roast bird, cabbage, carrots and several rudely sliced pieces of dark bread, and even a bottle of whiskey.
Remarkable, LeComte thought. Apparently, there is a thirty-dollar difference between interloper and bosom friend.
After two dreadful nights in the crewmens’ quarters, he discerned the abilities and seeming natural leadership of one of the bosses: a tall, lean, good-humoured chap named Reilly. This man he conversed with at the end of a particularly gruelling day, and hired him away (poached, really, but what’s in a word?) to build a house.
Reilly set to the task, and soon had the plat surveyed and prepared for staking. “I’ve three brothers in Sacramento who work well,” he mentioned of an afternoon. “Together, we’d have ye the finest of houses.” LeComte was amenable to this idea, and instructed the man to send for his brothers. If they could make haste, the house could at least be enclosed by the arrival of the cold weather.
He had the further good fortune to employ Tinca, a californio, who stood tall and stout and secured his jet-black hair under a large kerchief with a wide-brimmed hat atop. This man brought several other fellows along, and as Tinca spoke serviceable English was able to ensure adequate communication for all involved. This crew was to seek out springs, dig wells, and assist with the house’s construction and aid LeComte in his surveys in order to ascertain the best uses for the land. Crops, and even grazing were considered: the latter with a vague eye toward the possible purchase and tending of cattle.
Each morning as LeComte breakfasted—often amid the clangor of Reilly’s carpenters—he watched Tinca’s men strike out for the lower end of the plat, laden with tools and water and one stoic burro. He knew he had reason to expect their daily ministrations would yield substantial result, and one day they in fact did.
The house progressed wonderfully, with more of Reilly’s fellows following the grimy bricklayers with the floors, great stone hearth, then walls laid over with toile and flocked damask. He’d seen to it that his study was completed first, as he wished to begin his studies anew. Yours is the sun…yours are the winds, old Corbush had said. Yes, very well.
He issued a small groan of realization that he’d only just unlimbered his books, and seen to it that they now rested on the heavy oaken shelves. They must now be assembled for work, and this he now undertook, gathering journals and a heavy ink-well onto the large table which sat before his chair. Damnable malaise! He poured a measure of brandy to gather himself, yet there was Corbush again: First the man takes the bottle, and then the bottle takes the man. Utter damnation! Yes, he was setting to…preparing for study. Let the old man hold his tongue, and return to his creaking cloisters…
The study continued, even as he broke concentration to stride the grounds, inspecting, watching with quiet respect as Reilly, cap and shirt begrimed with exertion gave shape to his house.
“Bejaysus,” exclaimed the beaming foreman. “We’re finished by November, so we are.” And they were. Winter stole into the valley, borne on winds and frosts laid down on clear nights, yet LeComte watched it from the warmth of his heavy, ornate walls.
Stefan sat in his study, tea forgotten and cooled to a chill, and was drawn deeper into The Decameron of Bocacchio. His ears heard the knock at the door before he registered the sound—once, then again a bit louder. He scowled, closed the book against his thumb and somewhat sharply bid the supplicant enter. It was Tinca.
His foreman entered and walked toward Stefan tentatively. “Yes, Tinca,” then—noting that the man held something—“What have you there?” Tinca took another step toward Stefan then extended his hand slowly, opening his fingers, his eyes widening.
“Oro,” he said softly. Stefan rose to inspect the offering. There, cradled in the spadelike, craggy hand of Tinca sat a mass the size of an oddly shaped apple, with the soil still clinging to its crevices and face.
O! the face…a smooth plane of dull, deep yellow that caused Stefan to reach backward and raise the wick on his lamp, his eyes never leaving the piece.
“Tinca,” he said steadily, “a basin of water. A cloth, a brush.” The old laborer nodded, handed Stefan the nugget, and went to gather Stefan’s needs. Turning the find over and over in his hands, LeComte took a small knife from his waistcoat and thumbed open its blade. This he pressed, squared edge outward, onto the surface of the nugget. He exerted a bit of pressure as he drove into the piece’s face. The action left an impression of the precise shape of the knife-edge, whereupon Stefan realized he’d been holding his breath. He exhaled, as Tinca reappeared with the cleaning materials and set them down upon Stefan’s chairside table.
“Tinca…you’ve done well,” he managed. The man nodded, his eyes deeply alert. “Have you and the other fellows here tonight, after supper.” Tinca nodded, turning to go.
“Oh, and furthermore…not a word, eh?”
That night seven men, the worst of their dust brushed away, convened in LeComte’s study and stood roundabout Tinca. There was a metal tub by LeComte’s table into which they’d each dumped a sack with their findings, and the tub now held a hillock of precious yellow ore. He now considered this collection, then regarded the crew.
“Gentlemen,” he began genially, “thank you for coming. You have my gratitude for your efforts, and for your disclosure of this—“ Tinca’s face betrayed a small frown. LeComte would need to simplify things. “Ah, Tinca,” he began anew. “Enough of talk…please tell the men that they’ve done well.” Tinca did so. “Tell them…that if they remain silent, that they’ll each receive one hundred dollars from their employ.” This further word caused great excitement indeed. LeComte felt that some small recognition was in order, so he fetched a bottle and poured measures for all. Tinca smiled as he and his crew departed, expectant of the new day’s dawning.
LeComte did not wait for the sun.
Reilly had constructed a pantry at the back wall of the office with a trap-door which concealed a small chamber beneath. LeComte now hauled the tub over to this aperture and then—carefully stepping down into the dark recess—secreted the ore. After closing the pantry again he donned his hopsack trousers and collected a spade, lantern and two sturdy canvas bags and opened the door onto the chill of the night.
The road to Sacramento remained a challenge, but LeComte undertook the course again in December.
He sought to shore up his interests, and at the back of his mind were a number of ideas which jostled for further consideration. His wealth, as he played it out slowly and cautiously, wasn’t to sit idly by languishing in dim vaults: it was to work, and furthermore, work hard. At the end of the second day—fatigued yet bristling with plans—he entered Jenkel’s. The tavern was dim, constructed of dark wood and floors upon which sat a dozen utilitarian tables. The bar ran alongside the right wall. LeComte took a seat. The barman nodded from the far end of the bar and walked down, animatedly, his white beard quivering in welcome.
“Good day, sir!” he said. “Some warmth, sir?”
“Whiskey,” replied LeComte. The fellow poured, then placed before LeComte a fair measure indeed. He sized up his visitor, thumbs tucked into a great leather apron.
“Matthias Oberlies,” he said. “With the Forty-Eighters I come.” LeComte took a drink, found the liquor to be less foul than he’d feared, and nodded. “Yes,” he replied. Many left the Continent of late, seeking reformations…”
“I am a Prussian, but I wish to see my lands united. Others? Others are content with squabbles, fighting…with a lesser country. Division. Many did seek strength through a united bond…Österreichers, Swiss…ah, entschultig’,” he said briefly, turning to address a group of men who’d ducked in from the chill. Presently he returned, poured LeComte another measure and lit a clay pipe. “What do you do, Herr…”
“LeComte. I’ve purchased some land. I’ve a number of…special needs. His eyes met Oberlies’ briefly, and he continued. “I wish to employ a man with knowledge of assaying and smelting.”
“Smelting…of?” inquired the Prussian.
“Ore,” LeComte said simply. Oberlies nodded, feeling a bit of pride in LeComte’s sharing of the confidence.
“You speak with the Russian. Piotr. He comes here for a drink.”
“How often does he have a drink?”
“Why, whenever he wishes!” Oberlies chuckled to himself, then added “Tomorrow after he and his men finish at the bluffs, they will come.”
“Indeed!” exclaimed Stefan. Perhaps he and I may speak…” He tossed back the last of his whiskey and bid the German good evening.
Piotr was more than knowledgeable…he was a boon.
He was a short man, though made hardy and strong by a life often spent amid the elements, his face at ease under the buffeting winds. He assessed LeComte warily, but his tongue was freed rather considerably by that man’s instruction to Oberlies to tap his finest hogshead. His crew graciously enjoyed several rounds then the newly jovial Piotr dismissed them home.
“You have need for smelting,” he said directly, and by evening’s close an arrangement had been struck.
They met again the following day, and once again sat amid the shadows. Piotr took a deep pull from his mug and reached into a satchel. He produced several books, which he passed across the table to Stefan.
“These should be of some interest,” he said quietly. Stefan froze, hand halfway toward the volumes. The Russian looked over the room briefly, before adding “Perhaps I do not often speak as well as I am able.” LeComte, half-astonished, accepted the books and considered their spines: Book XI of Diodorus’ Biblioteca Historica, Pliny the Elder, The Guild of Nice, even the journals of the brilliant, reclusive Avram Weiss. “Gold, my friend…” said Piotr, “…of the seven metals of antiquity, only gold occurs in its native form—the form in which it is found. The others occur as minerals, and must be converted to oxides…these must be smelted to take the final form which we recognize.” Stefan nodded, transfixed. “The Serbs and the Turks first smelted copper. Then came bronze, through Asia Minor and Turkey, and so it progressed.” The Russian leaned back and folded his arms.
“What, finally, have you need of?”
“I’ve come into some gold.” Best to be out with it. “I’d like your assistance with the handling of it, the assay, and…the smelting as well.” Piotr considered Stefan’s words, before offering “This mustn’t be revealed, then.”
“I’m happy that you share my concerns,” said Stefan simply, then “You do understand that as a party to this endeavour, you’ll never need work another day in your life.” Piotr nodded slowly. Wealth. Not only wealth, but control of his life, his destiny. He would do Stefan’s work; he would guard Stefan’s confidence. Honor demanded as much. He nodded, then leaned forward to take LeComte’s hand.
“Agreed,” he said.
“Splendid,” said Stefan with a small smile. “We begin at the week-end.”
Tinca assembled a small crew which loaded the ore quickly onto a work-carriage, secured in place by rope over heavy tarpaulin, and the trek to Sacramento began.
At the end of two days LeComte and Tinca reached Piotr’s home. He’d constructed an impressive house, but larger still was the out-building at its rear: fully one half of its spaces were taken up with a number of large kilns which towered up above the very walls, opening outward in a series of heavy brick chimneys. A forge consumed the remainder of the space toward the rear of this arrangement.
LeComte and Tinca were met with the same impression upon surveying this operation…the Russian was no dabbler.
It had only been a week since his delivery to Piotr, and Stefan was tiring of the incessant journey between Coloma and Sacramento. He was at the dry-goods store in conversation with Spivey, who operated the Central Overland Freight and was thus privy to almost all goings-on in the town. The man who flung wide the door and burst inside missed tramping Stefan’s boot by inches.
“Gold!” he shouted, flushed and perspiring. The proprietor, Cavendish, stared at him in question.
“It’s out by Sutter’s place! Pebbles of it, chunks! I saw it with my own eyes!” Stefan started at the words. John Sutter was the chap who owned the acreage and sawmill near the river that was but three furlongs from Stefan’s demarcation. He saw the look in the entrant’s eyes, and knew that the word would be quickly spread. No time to wonder who’d let the cat out of the bag, much less determine a punishment. He needed to immediately ascertain what had happened thus far.
“Cavendish! I’ll leave my provisions again in your able hands. Spivey, wonderful to have spoken with you again.” Then, with a quick shake of Spivey’s hand and a nod toward the newsbearer—who stood in mid-exuberance—Stefan made for his carriage and home.
On a second visit to Piotr, LeComte travelled alone. The smelting was underway, and as Piotr led him round the grounds to inspect the operations LeComte several times stifled a grimace. The acrid pall seemed to fill the walls of the building, with the winds outside seemingly of little influence.
“We’ll produce a two-kilogramme brick,” Piotr said, “for ease of handling, transport, and storage.” LeComte nodded as his associate passed him a pair of heavy gloves. “The area adjacent the wall—those three pallets—there we’ll stack the bricks.” One pallet already stood a foot high with the dully shining treasure.
“The ancients,” said LeComte, “fancied themselves creating gold.”
“Yes,” smiled Piotr. “It simply wasn’t to happen. Yet there was much learned there, eh?, in the realm of conductivity and other such matters. Currents, not in the heavens alone. So much was lost.” The Russian brought to Stefan’s mind no one so much as Corbush, and he found himself comforted by the realisation.
After gathering and stacking a cord of wood the two sat, quaffed mugs of water drawn from Piotr’s well, and contemplated their trove and the implications it carried.
“The world does not know peace,” Piotr observed. “I feel that it can’t know peace.”
“Truth,” said LeComte.
“Have you heard…of the robota?” Piotr asked. LeComte returned a quizzical expression. “It is a worker, albeit a man-made worker,” and here LeComte leaned forward a bit. “Da Vinci envisioned a mechanical knight. Charles V commissioned a clockwork monk.” LeComte nodded, and his friend continued. “In 1206 al-Jazari created a fifty-player band, ah!, with their expressions included. King Mo of Zhou had an engineer which presented him with an automaton…”
“Han Fei Tzu!” LeComte broke in excitedly. “His writings spoke of mechanical birds!”
“Yes!” said Piotr animatedly. These men saw no limit to creation…”
“The only limit is resources—what can a fellow muster?” exclaimed LeComte, draining his mug. “Wonderfully, that is not a problem in this instance. If the world’s peoples would truly advance, there must be those that make those advances possible.”
LeComte caught himself up again. He wondered: could Piotr be a comrade? For all his sensibilities, for all the manner with which he brought to mind his teacher, no. Stefan must go it alone. For the gain? No, that was base…ignoble. He simply must see to his own deeds first. His own mark. Later, perhaps, he could align with others in some undertaking, some task. The night closed in on the two, and LeComte felt restless and small, hitched to the Earth yet thirsting for flight.
There was no need to introduce many new interests in his own name. Ostentation aside, it simply was too dangerous. He established Griffin Endeavor Ltd. as a firm which might allow needed expansions and further speculation. He opened the Coloma as a modest hotel, installing the way-station’s clerk as proprietor.
This establishment led to hotels in Placerville, Sacramento (a somewhat sprawling affair he christened the Splendide, which he spirited away Oberlies to manage) and then—as he had an odd feeling that nudged him toward it—San Francisco. A banker in Jenkel’s had struck up a conversation with LeComte, which resulted in curiosity toward that sooty, slap-dash town. He quietly invested accounts with a ship-works and a foundry, salting away resultant monies the while.
Soon, given the sheer numbers who arrived in the West from literally all points beyond, the route from Placerville to the coast was well-established and LeComte became, accordingly, very wealthy. Where there was wealth, there was power. Truly an ancient lesson, but one that the young man was only just realising for himself. With wealth, one could build one’s holdings and stature, and apparently—one’s adoptive home could join the United States.
It was through the languid South of these days that a certain Englishman travelled through those sprawling miles, in wonder at the seeming endlessness of it all, inspecting the cotton which turned the valleys a wonderful, dappled white. He considered himself steeled against the long days of travel, yet was amazed nonetheless at the panorama which spread out before him as he traversed the country, horizon giving way to verdant, bright horizon. He spoke with a number of singular fellows along his route, and he now sought out Stefan. His appearance at that man’s door, without the fuss and decorum and carte visite, was a welcome diversion for the pensive, restless LeComte.
“Monsieur LeComte. I am Arthur Buckley, a representative of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria,” and then “‘Deputy Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs.’ A bit cumbersome, I’m afraid, but there it is.” LeComte bid the man enter, followed him inside the great house and led the two of them toward the drawing room.
“Can I show you something in a refreshment?’
“I do take a drink,” replied Buckley, removing his hat. “If there’s a decent brandy to be had hereabouts, that would be splendid.”
“I’ve the very thing,” LeComte replied. “It’s from the family holdings.” Buckley took immediate note of LeComte’s service. No servants. The man seemed fit to rely upon himself, and he deftly observed as much.
“No need for servants underfoot at all times,” LeComte agreed pleasantly. “I’ve a man, Tinca, whose wife is my cook. Beyond that, it’s simply a chore.” Buckley nodded in assent and took a seat, gazing around the room. Tapestries covered fully two walls, while LeComte’s preferred oaken shelves lined the other two. Buckley understood the need for such a haven from the meddlesome world. He passed an hour with his host before getting down to cases.
“My friend…this country grows with every day. Her people press toward ever-greater things.” Buckley offered more impressions, then a curious query indeed:
“Have you thought of your place in all this?” The question hung between the two, a weighted dart. Have I thought of my place in all this? LeComte stifled a scowl. I’ve thought of little else.
“There is the world of the statesman, dear LeComte,” he began. “There are the worlds of the financier, the soldier. I should tell you that there are men—“ (and here Buckley chose his words with care), “who, by inhabiting more than one rôle, become something altogether different.” LeComte thought for a moment, then led “…to the outward eye.” Buckley nodded, pleased.
“To the outward eye they appear to occupy one world, one realm…but to those who would see…” and here LeComte’s guest smiled, “they inhabit a world seen by few.” LeComte sat thrilled and frozen by Buckley’s words, his brandy poised before his lips. To they that would see. Here was Corbush’s very utterance, come back in the form of this genial Englishman.
The two enjoyed a fine evening, and Buckley rose the following morning refreshed. He faced a further passage to Japan before his return home. The American Commodore, Perry, continued to face resistance from Edo and Kurihama and it was felt that perhaps Buckley could smooth some of the feathers in question.
“You’ll certainly pay us a visit, yes?” he asked LeComte as his coach was being loaded.
“It would be a pleasure,” said LeComte.
These were wondrous times, and LeComte—upon his next foray westward—left a message at the telegraph office, then retired to the Splendide for a bit of a rest.
GREETINGS. ALL IS WELL. POSTS FOR CORBUSH FORTHCOMING. S.
Two days later he was interrupted in the bath by a knock. A lad stood at the door, proffering a message. Stefan took the despatch and thanked the boy.
CORBUSH DEAD. MORE IF YOU’VE THE TIME.
Stefan stood, his feet still wet from his truncated bath, and considered the words. He rose early the next morning, and met Spivey as he opened his doors. His response was perhaps a bit terse:
REGRETS. PLEASE SHIP HIS PAPERS AND EFFECTS. S.
That night he sat at the window, twenty-eight years pent up into a knot which grew tighter (it seemed to him) with each passing day.
“One can’t pass the days…” he murmured, “swanning about with a money-belt, getting up to…up to what? Will I be a husk of 30, with nothing to show for it?”
He set his jaw and tightened his fist briefly.
“No. Nothing of the sort.”
Outside his window the moon rose as a pale, milky shard.