A.C. Gunter: Baron Montez of Panama and Paris

A.C. Gunter’s Baron Montez: 2. A Toboga Breakfast in ’56

Our narrator is at it again, delighting us with wonderful descriptions of island scenery and life, while never missing an opportunity to take a swipe at Montez. Fernando is now increasingly referred to as ‘little’. When a Narrator becomes a character in a story, as I explored in the previous introduction, expressing opinions, deriding or debasing characters, a question arises: can he be trusted? Were it not for the intimations of the Narrator, the previous chapter would seem idyllic. Hasn’t our kind host, Fernando rescued the ill Alice and her husband George from the pestilence of Panama, for the sweet aromatic breezes of his island retreat, treated them to excellent care and wonderful cuisine, travelled to the Isle of Pearls for them, at all times been a perfect gentleman? Yet our American Narrator’s insights into Montez’s character are ringing true, and his credibility appears intact for the time being.

Village on Taboga Island, Republic of Panama, from postcard c. 1927

While providing an unsympathetic history of young Fernando, at the same time the Narrator covers some of the history of the Isthmus and the crossing before the railway. Prior to this, for three hundred years the Isthmus was a possession of the Spanish. They first sought to improve the way across it for the passage of South American gold and treasure back to Spain.

Through Fernando’s memory, his first engagement with the Americans, George Ripley and his wife, is related. It is clear he holds some disdain for Americanos, apart from their potential as marks in a confidence trick, which is likely shared amongst the local population. American presence and involvement in the Isthmus had been going on for some time. In 1846, the United States and The Republic of New Granada negotiated a treaty of “peace, amity, navigation and commerce” that included a guarantee of the US right of way across the Isthmus of Panama. The country of New Granada consisted mostly of present-day Colombia, and also Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela (Encycl. Britannica).

Background is provided on George Riley, and his wife, Alice’s, contraction of yellow fever. Yellow fever, malaria and other mosquito borne diseases were rife in Panama due to the port being surrounded by swamp. Direct off-loading of passengers by steam ships was not possible which is why they disembarked at Taboga Island and later transferred to Panama by smaller boat or canoe.

Most infections of yellow fever lead to serious illness. At first the sufferer experiences a high temperature, a slow pulse, muscle pain, nausea, shivers and vomiting. About 15 percent of people progress to a toxic stage, with life threatening symptoms such as bleeding, jaundice and liver and kidney failure. Half of these sufferers die within two weeks of onset. In 1887, the artist Paul Gauguin contracted yellow fever and malaria after working on the Panama Canal and spent time on Taboga Island recovering, as does Alice Ripley.

Fernando‘s aspirations for Alice Ripley have grown, though his vision varies not, and she remains a beautiful object to him, second only to the old chest of George Ripley. In this chapter, Fernando’s disarming ways take on a new definition, and he moves one step closer to achieving his goal.


CHAPTER 2

A TOBOGA BREAKFAST IN ‘56

Then this little disciple of Satan runs over what has brought him this great chance of good luck. He thinks of his earlier days.

He is scarce twenty now, but people develop rapidly under the hot sun of the Equator. He remembers the quiet little town of Cruces, in the mountains—at the head of navigation of the Chagres, where the good priest taught him his Paternosters, and where he chanted them each day in his class, mingling his Latin with howls produced by blows of a cutting rawhide in the hands of the padre’s athletic and vigilant assistant.

This mixture of penance and prayer pleased the young Montez but little. His mother, who lived in a palm hut by the rapids of the Chagres, did the padre’s washing; his father was—Heaven knows where or who. There seemed no way of escape. They were about to make him an altar boy, and rebellious little Fernando cursed as he chanted and saw no prospect save of a life of prayer and penance, and candle carrying behind a decorated image of the Virgin, in its daily religious procession through the lanes of the little town. But just at this moment Cruces—buried from the world in the hills of the Cordilleras in the deadly slumber that had fallen upon the Isthmus when the route to Chili and Peru round Cape Horn succeeded the route via Panama, and the jingling bells of its mule trains were no longer heard crossing the mountain paths between Panama and Porta Bella—awoke and lived again.

The first rush of the gold seekers for California in ’49 crossed the Isthmus.

Flying from church and prayer and penance, young Montez dodged fasting and discipline in the hurly-burly of that early Isthmus excitement.

At thirteen he peddled water, for ten cents a glass, to thirsty Gringos. A year after he did a thriving business in unripe bananas, oranges, and pineapples in the streets of Chagres. Next taking up with a monte shop, became “muchacho diablo” in a gambling establishment at Gargona, where he learned card sharping and thimble rigging. In the years 1851, 1852, and 1853 he was a handler of bad mules, which he leased out at exorbitant prices to the embryo pioneers and argonauts of California to cross worse roads from Gargona in the dry season, and from Cruces in the wet time, to Panama.

Spanish muchacho. Anonymous photo c. 1920

Perchance, he took a flyer or two, with one or two successful bandits, and some looted treasure came to him.

He had a knack of recovering lost children who disappeared together with their native carriers in this rush across the Isthmus, and restoring them to fond parents for large sums of money.

And during this time he learned one great principle that has been of much use to Napoleons of finance both in America and Europe—that is, not to steal often, but to steal much. The first invariably leads to disgrace and a prison—the second often to honor and a palace.

While doing all this, his facile mind became educated. He picked up French, from some Parisians crossing the Isthmus. Spanish was his native tongue. A smattering of Latin he had from the priest. English came to him from his vocation with the Californian adventurers; and by devoting himself to one or two Portuguese, who travelled tremblingly across the Isthmus in those days, he stole from them a smattering of their language and any doubloons and Spanish dollars they might leave within reach of his grasping paws.

At length, the railroad completed in 1855 destroyed young Montez’s means of livelihood; but by this time he had sufficient to engage in other occupations, and turned his attention to dealing in pearls, precious stones, and other valuables he could pick up about the Isthmus, sometimes making trips to the Pearl Islands, and once or twice going as far as Ecuador and Peru, upon the English steamers that were now running down the coast of South America, and to Acapulco to the north, on the Pacific Mail boats, trading always with a rare facility and shrewdness that had come to him in a drop of Yankee blood left by a New Bedford whaler at Darien some hundred years before, and by a globule of the vital fluid of Israel, that had entered his poly-nation veins from an unfortunate Jewish pedler the Inquisition had burned, before the time of Morgan.

He was even now considered well to do, and his orders were good in the Hotel Francais in Panama, or in the restaurant of Monsieur Victor, the Isthmus Delmonico those days, but still as yet no grand coup had come to him.

Some ten days before the time he sits upon the veranda of the villa on the Island of Toboga, the steamer John L. Stevens, from San Francisco, brought its lot of passengers from California, to take route across the Isthmus by railway to Aspinwall, and so on to New York; among them this American gentleman and his wife, who are occupying the pretty palm cottage this morning—Ripley ruddy in health, Alice beautiful as a pale lily, stricken with the fever picked up during a six hours’ stay in Acapulco, and too ill to proceed on her journey. But for this, the American would have been the happiest of men, for he was a successful pioneer to California.

George Merritt Ripley had left a clerkship in Baltimore, and taken his wife with him, leaving his little daughter of twelve at school in the East, and had gone to California in 1852. He had made his first start in gold mining in Calaveras County, at Mokelumne Hill, and being sensible enough to see that placer digging was uncertain, and that trade in California at that time was a sure road to wealth, had taken his few thousand dollars, and entered into business in the thriving town of Stockton on the San Joaquin. In three years he had accumulated some sixty thousand dollars, which, in those days of cheap prices, large interest, and small capital, was the equivalent to half a million at the present.

Having enough to live upon in the East, his money properly invested in the growing towns of New York or Boston would in time make him even wealthy.

His wife, anxious to see her child (for four years is a long time to a mother’s heart), had implored him to return to the Eastern States, which in those days all Californians called “home.”

So, though his life on the plains of the San Joaquin had been a pleasant one, Ripley was delighted to turn his face from the crudities of the early California, to the more civilized existence of the Eastern world.

He had come on his way rejoicing, until the fever struck the woman he loved, so he had brought her to Panama to rest there—perchance to die there.

His trunks, checked through to the East, had gone on, all save one that contained their immediate necessities of apparel, and the other one; the one that never left his eye—the heavy one—the one that took three natives to handle. These, together with his wife, were in Panama, when he chanced to meet Montez, who, having many arts and graces of a gentleman, had soon made George Ripley think him his friend.

Montez had recommended the change from the pestilent miasma of the mainland to the breezes that came fresh up the Gulf to the Island of Toboga, and in these zephyrs, health had come to George’s wife, and despair had left the heart of the strong man who loved her.

During these days of his wife’s convalescence, in one of his conversations with Montez, Ripley had mentioned a desire to invest a little of the gold he was bringing with him in the pearls of the Isthmus—which were cheap at Panama compared to New York. This treasure was all in his own care, for Wells Fargo’s charges in these days, for the transmission of specie, were very high, and George Ripley thought himself strong enough to take care of his own money, having stood off bandits from his Mokelumne Hill mine and possessing that peculiar self-confidence that seemed to come with the air of the Sierras to all Californians in those early days. Therefore this foolish Ripley had evaded Wells, Fargo & Co.’s charges, and had everything he held valuable in this world with him in Toboga this sunny day—save his daughter in her Eastern school.

Musing over this, Fernando chuckles to himself: “Brave Americano—fool Americano!

Just here he is awakened from his reverie by the brave Americano’s voice in his ear, and the hearty grasp of the fool Americano’s hand upon his shoulder. The voice says: “Come along, Don Fernando Montez! We are hungry. The odor of the breakfast is delicious—but my wife insists upon our waiting for our kind host.” The hand drags in friendly play the petite carcass of Fernando Gomez Montez to see the prettiest sight his sparkling, all nation eyes have ever gazed upon—the blonde beauty of the temperate zone contrasted with the dark loveliness of the Equator, surrounded by a tropic breakfast al fresco.

It is under the shade of the tamarind trees, the perfume from which is mingled with the odors of a feast for the gods!

The aroma of Costa Rica coffee just burnt and ground comes from a steaming urn that stands on the ground near the fire of perfumed orange wood, upon which turtle steaks are broiling, and luscious plantains and mealy yams are cooking in its ashes. A stew of rice and freshly killed Iguano lizard, made hot with Chili Colorado, and a slight suspicion of garlic—for Anita is an artist in the cooking line—stands ready to their hands; and fruits, gorgeous as the sun that gave them their ripe beauty, lie about them everywhere.

The American lady, lazily seated in a hammock, looks coolly beautiful under the leaves that shade her—the abandon of careless ease shows her still girlish figure in graceful motion. Her blue eyes would be very bright this morning, were they not wistful at times when gazing towards the East. Anita posed like a bronze statue stands near the fire, her orbs sparkling also, save when looking at la Americana they glow with soma unknown passion like those of a Voodoo priestess!

So breakfast passes, Anita the presiding goddess of the feast; for to this Indian girl all the beauty of the tropics has come in the fifteen years of her life. She is robed in white—some soft clinging Isthmus stuff, which drapes her lithe figure, and displays the beauties of her graceful limbs at every motion—and her little feet, bare as when she was born, step so lightly they hardly rustle the leaves under them.

The girl flits about, ministering to the appetites of Señor Montez and his guests, which seem to be very good, Montez apparently being happy, and a great joy beaming in the eyes of the American. His beautiful wife has roses on her fair cheeks, and in ten days they will be in their Eastern home; with them the one child of their love. Health and appetite are theirs, and their breakfast is almost like that of Arcady.

The coffee is of the sweetest aroma, the Iguano is done to a nicety, and the turtle steaks are juicy as those from a two-year old buffalo cow. These being finished, they revel in the fruits of the tropics—oranges green as an olive, thin-skinned as a lady’s glove, with one blood red shot upon each, to prove that it has ripened; melons, sweet limes, Avigado pears, and the mangoes for which Toboga is famous.

As appetite is appeased, conversation becomes easy.

“Why did you not ask Anita to tell me that I was keeping you from breakfast? It is such a good one,” laughs the every-nation gentleman.

“Anita did not seem to care for your coming.” returns the American lady. “Perhaps she did not think her breakfast was as perfect as it is.”

“Ah, Anita was sulky, eh?” says Fernando, a little mocking snarl curling over his white teeth. “Anita has an Indian temper and Indian moods.” He regards the girl with a sneer, and she returns him several flashes from her eyes, that would be reproachful, were they not almost vindictive.

“A little sullen, Anita—eh?” jeers the host.

His tone would drive the girl to frenzy, did not the American lady suddenly say, “Please don’t be cross with her. You do not know how kind she has been to me during your absence and my sickness!” Then she turns to her husband and suggests: “We must not forget Anita’s services when we leave her.”

“No,” cries the jovial Californian. “Anita shall have the biggest pearl that Montez has brought from the Islands.”

At this mention of personal adornment, a smile runs over the volatile features of the Indian girl.

Fernando smiles also. What is Anita’s is his. And everything is fish that comes to his net.

A second after, he gives a start. The American lady is remarking in grateful tones: “And what shall our offering be to you, Señor Montez, whose hospitality has given me health?”

“A present for me? Mia madre! you are too kind.”

“Yes, mention what you like and you have it,” interjects the Californian.

“Oh, if you wish me to say what I should regard with the greatest favor, it would be your—your beautiful revolver. There is none like it on the Isthmus,—none that shoots so truly, for I have seen your skill with it,” answers Fernando, looking with longing eyes upon the fatal weapon of the American.

“My revolver,” echoes the Californian with a start. Then he says, after a pause of consideration: “I will send it to you by express from New York. Until this journey is over, I cannot part with it. It has guarded my life and my property before. I feel safer with it by my side.”

“Yes,” returns Alice, “at his side by day, near his hand at night. George is superstitious, I think, with regard to it.”

This conversation apparently does not please Señor Montez very greatly. The revolver has seemed to fascinate him. All through the meal his glances have sought the long Colt’s pistol that carries six lives in its six loaded chambers as it hangs in the Californian’s belt. A little spheroid of timid Cingales blood, poured into his veins from some East Indian ancestor, now brings a coward faltering into his bright eyes. He does not seem to enjoy the Avigado pear that he was eating with a good appetite a second before. Throwing it away with a “pish” of disgust, he cries: “Anita, quick, a cigar!” for nicotine soothes this gentleman’s excitable nerves.

The Indian girl, at his command, draws out from a bundle of fragrant Toboga tobacco a fresh leaf, and rolling it in her deft and agile fingers, in half a minute it becomes a cigar. Thirty seconds more, a second leaf becomes another cigar. This she offers to the American, who follows his host’s example. So lighting up, the two men puff away contentedly.

A moment after, Alice gives a start of amazement, for a third cigar has been tendered to her. and to her astonished refusal, Anita laughs: “You are not well enough yet to smoke. I had supposed now you are ill no longer you would enjoy it as I do.” Then throwing herself into a hammock, this lazy bird of the tropic surrounds herself with wreaths of smoke, puffing them out between her white teeth, and playing with them as a juggler does with his baubles.

The sensuous scene appeals to even the energetic Californian’s senses. He mutters: “This week at Toboga has seemed like a week ofof—”

“Of paradise! “interjects his wife. “Since I have become well again, we have made a fairy land of it. Daytime in the hammock, sipping coccanut milk and chicha under the tamarind leaves; dinners at Jacques’ petite restaurant in the cocoanut trees, and moonlight in a canoe on the water. George said,” here the lady blushes slightly, gazing at her husband with bride’s eyes, “that it was more romantic than our wedding tour.”

“A-ah, a—new honeymoon!” sighs Montez. Looking at the beauty of this Northern violet, as she sits before him in the ease of this tropic Arcady—for Alice Ripley has imitated Señorita Anita in the hammock business, and sits lazily under the green leaves, one perfect foot and one delicate ankle carelessly swinging from under her white laces and muslin and ribbons—this gentleman’s face suddenly flushes with a great delight, as he thinks: “A new honeymoon!—Yes—for me!” Then visions come to him, entrancing as the dreams of opium sleep, as he gazes at Alice Ripley through the clouds of his cigar smoke.

Woman in white. Anon., antique French postcard (n.d.)

Mingled with the rustling breezes in the tamarind groves, as they sit there, the “silence—of—the—smoker” coming on them, is heard the voice of a rushing stream, which issues gurgling and foaming from the hillside, and splashes into a little basin, a short hundred yards away, suggesting coolness.

The day is already burning, and the noise of this foaming stream apparently puts an idea into the fertile mind of little Montez, as he sits looking with sleepless eyes at the big Californian, through his wreaths of smoke.

He says: “How is a cool plunge this hot morning? Why not a bath, Señor Georgio Ripley?”

“A bath—delicious!” ejaculates the American. Then looking over the green water of the bay, he suggests, “But the sharks!”

“No sharks here,” and Fernando points with a little finger, adorned with some diamonds and a very delicately trimmed almond-shaped nail, to the cool, limpid basin worn in the rock by the unceasing flow of the living stream for centuries. “That is nature’s bathing place.”

So the two go off together, through the thickets to the shady pool, bearing with them handfuls of javoncilla leaves, that will act as vegetable soap and make their skins soft as those of children.

Looking on its limpid waters, dark under the palms and only golden where the sun steals in upon it through little breaks in the leaves, the American mutters: “This is perfection.”

Then Montez cries, “Quick, I’ll beat you into the water. You need not fear to undress here. Toboga has no deadly lance-vipers or coral snakes like the mainland.”

So undressing himself in the little thicket of broad leaved palms and feathery bamboos, George Merritt Ripley, as he takes his plunge into nature’s bathtub, for the first time in his journey really parts himself from his revolver.

It is but for a short fifteen minutes, and Montez bathes with him ten of them, but leaves the water first.

But in that five minutes, that one last plunge for Ripley, something has happened to his weapon of trust that had saved his life and his treasure from the bandits of the Sierras and the highwaymen of the Californian trails.

Not knowing this, George comes laughingly up the bank, crying, “That last plunge was the most refreshing of my life! I hope you enjoyed your bath as well as I did, Señor Montez.”

“Perhaps better,” returns his companion, who has as yet hardly begun to dress. Fernando is apparently a lazy man, and he has had something to occupy him, and a little file that he has brought with him, during the five minutes of Ripley’s last plunge.

From now on, a confident air seems to come over this every nation gentleman; and when his eyes look at the revolver which the American is strapping around him again, they no longer shrink from it, but gaze at it in confident triumph. So, walking up the path to the tamarind grove and bamboo cottage, Fernando chuckles to himself: “I am sure now—treasure and beauty.”


Notes, References, Further Reading

  • Cover feauture image is a painting by Edward Gennys Fanshawe, ‘From a back window in Panama, March 10th 1850’.
  • Toboga: Taboga, volcanic island in the Gulf of Panama, known also as ‘the Island of Flowers’. See “Some History of Isla Taboga” at taboga.panamanow.com.
  • treaty: known as New Granada Treaty, Bidlack Treaty, or Bidlack Mallarino Treaty (see Dennis).
  • yellow fever: See “What’s to know about Yellow Fever”, medicalnewstoday.com
  • Chili: early variant spelling ‘Chile’.
  • monte shop:  monte is a gambling game played with a 40 card deck.
  • muchacho diablo:  Spanish ‘man-devil’
  • specie: coin, or money in kind.
  • Paternosters: in the Roman Catholic Church, The Lord’s Prayer usually in Latin.
  • Padre: Spanish ‘father’, ‘a priest’.
  • Delmonico: Opened 1837. “New York’s first a la carte restaurant on 2 South William Street, favored French cuisine, cloth-covered tables and a printed menu designed by the first “star chef,” Charles Ranhofer” (A Brief History of Delmonico’s)
  • Placer digging: “placer derives from the Spanish placer, meaning shoal or alluvial/sand deposit, from Catalan placer (shoal), from plassa (place) from Medieval Latin placea (place) the origin word for “place” and “plaza” in English. The word in Spanish is thus derived from placea and refers directly to an alluvial or glacial deposit of sand or gravel” (“Placer Mining” — Wikipedia).
  • Darien: Darién, province in eastern Panama. The Scots failed in an attempt to colonize it in the 17th century. (See Ben Johnson, “The Darien Scheme.”)
  • Arcady: Arcadia, a region of Greece, known through the ages as a beautiful, unspoiled wilderness.
  • Mia madre: Spanish `my mother’
  • Isle of Pearls: a group of islands in the Gulf of Panama, Isle del Rey being the largest.
  • Avigado pear: Avocados are widely cultivated in Panama.
  • Javoncilla: Luffa operculata.
  • John L. Stephens: “The [SS John L. Stephens] is 2500 tons register, 280 feet keel, 66-1/2 feet breadth of beam amidships, and 285 feet over all. Her engine was built in the Novelty Works, and is on the oscillating principle. It is suspended from a framing of wood similar to the frames usually employed in the construction of beam-engines, and is the first application of the kind ever introduced. She is built on the clipper model, and is believed to be the sharpest American steamer ever constructed. Her accommodations are for twelve hundred passengers and the ventilation throughout every part is believed to be superior to any steamship ever built. Her buoyancy is also very great, and with 650 tons of coal and 20,000 gallons of water, she draws less than 12 feet of water” (excerpt from March 25, 1853, Sacramento Daily Union, Sacramento, California). See maritimeheritage.org .
  • lance-viper: Fer-de-lance, venomous pit viper.

Anderson, Charles L.D., Old Panama and Castilla del Oro (np: Sudwarth, 1911 at Smithsonian Institute. “Narrative history of the discovery, conquest and settlement by the Spaniards.”

Dennis, William Cullen. “The Panama Situation in the Light of International Law. The Treaty of 1846 between
the United States and New Granada” The American Law Register (1898-1907) , May, 1904, Vol. 52, No. 5, Volume 43
New Series (May, 1904), pp. 265-306. Available at Jstor.

“América Central. Tierra Firme. Mapas generales. 1785” Historical Spanish maritime map of Central America. España en el Mundo.

Samuels, A.J., “Gauguin in Panama: A Forgotten Journey”. Culturetrip.com

This edition © 2021 Furin Chime, Brian Armour

9 replies »

  1. Hi Michael,

    Looks good. Images are great. Goodness you did some work on references.

    I’ve started on Chapter 9 (Great Blizzard of 1888) – and looking into Chapter 10- (Little Lord Fauntleroy – which is very interesting).

    Cheers

    Brian Armour Author of Future Crime, a science fiction novel. Sample or purchase of Future Crime:

    Liked by 1 person

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