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

A.C. Gunter’s Baron Montez: 3. The Railroad Station At Panama

As we begin this chapter, Fernando Gomez Montez, having tampered with George Ripley’s revolver, has new confidence, and commences putting in place other components in his plan to relieve the American of his gold-filled chest, and fair-skinned wife. Montez arranges boat transport for himself and the Ripleys to Panama where they find it crowded with travellers recently offloaded from steamers awaiting the train across the Isthmus and also those joining vessels to travel up the West Coast of the United States. Panama has become a busy hub for trans-continental travellers.

Even before the railroad was completed, Americans eager to join the gold rush in California were paying to have themselves and their luggage transported across the extent of the completed track. The Californian Goldfields would generate nearly twelve million ounces of gold, most of which would pass through Panama on the way to the Eastern United States. George and Alice can expect to pay a hefty twenty-five dollars each to travel on the recently completed railway to Aspinwall.

Old rail route across the Isthmus of Panama (panamarailroad.org)

Seven years earlier, in 1848, the United States signed the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty, ending the long running Mexican War. The treaty gave the U.S. undisputed control of Texas, established the U.S.-Mexican border of the Rio Grande, and ceded to the United States the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. This expansion completed control of continental United States complementing central lands transferred through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The removal of the threat of warring Mexican forces, and mitigation of dangerous Native Indian tribes encouraged settlers like those awaiting the steamships to venture to the Western States.

During the construction of the railroad, the Americans used workers who had come from the United States, Europe, Columbia, China, the Caribbean islands, and also African Slaves, a great many of them who died of Cholera, Malaria and Yellow Fever. Once the Railway was completed the majority of these remaining poorly paid workers were dumped and left to their own devices for survival. The US used troops to suppress separatist uprisings and social disturbances on many occasions. The first time will occur on the fifteenth of April, 1856.

Unlike the narrator, who reminds the reader of the date, Fernando is unaware of any significance attached to it and goes about his connivances, which remarkably are designed to precipitate an historical event.


CHAPTER 3

THE RAILROAD STATION AT PANAMA

On the veranda once more, George Ripley suggests: “Would you mind showing us your pearls? My wife is anxious to see your jewels, and we must be soon getting under way for the mainland.”

“Yes, the Illinois arrived this morning at Aspinwall,” returns Montez. “Her passengers will soon reach Panama. Soon there will be a Pacific Mail steamship in the bay. The Golden Age from San Francisco is one day overdue. When she comes in, her passengers will be moved eastward rapidly. If you are not at the railway station you may be left to spend ten days more with us. That would please me, mi amigo; but you—you are an American, and in a hurry. You do not enjoy life. You fly through it.”

“And you dream through it, I imagine, Señor Montez,” laughs Alice, coming on the veranda to meet the returning bathers. Then she says archly, “Dream no more; show us your pearls, and become a man of business.”

“That I will!” cries Montez, as he displays his jewels, and descants on the beauties of the large pink pearl he has, and the perfection of the white ones he holds caressingly in his hands, with the vehemence and volubility of an Armenian in the bazaar at Constantinople, and the shrewdness of a Hebrew pawnbroker in Seven Dials.

Fernando’s trading powers, however, are thrown away; for the American takes all the pearls at the seller’s own prices, which though exorbitant for Panama, are cheap for New York.

“Come in and get our business over,” says George; and Montez following him and Alice into the bamboo cottage, the affair is completed. Opening a large buckskin bag, that is part of his belt, after the manner of early Californians, Ripley makes payment in gold dust; for at that time gold was plenty, though coin was scarce, in the Western world.

Upon this yellow dross, Fernando’s eyes linger lovingly, and from it roam gloatingly to the heavy ironbound trunk of the Californian, and turning from this to the beautiful Americana, who had thrown her pearls in a string of white radiance around her fair white neck, his glance becomes more longing than ever.

Antique French postcard (n.d.)

Here George laughingly suggests: “Montez, you think jewels become her? Alice should have had these pearls when she stood in Edouart’s gallery in Washington Street, San Francisco, and had this taken,” producing from his pocket a tintype of his wife, a style of picture just come into fashion.

“Yes, I had two of them taken; one for my husband, the other for my daughter; Mary’s was sent to her two months ago. It will remind her of my coming,” replies the lady; then blushes a little, for Montez, in his native way, has cried out: “Ah, Dios! It is celestial—but the sun has not done you justice, Señora Ripley!”

The sun, however, has done very well, and the tintype has the blue eyes and fair hair of this charming American.

So charming, Montez fears to stay; his passion may betray itself. He mutters, “I will go and engage your boat, Señor Ripley.”

“Yes! Get a safe one, I don’t care for speed. Something there is no chance of capsizing,” calls the Californian after him.

“I will be sure of that for my own sake, as well as yours,” cries back the little gentleman, as he glides down the pathway, brushing with a bamboo switch the dust from his patent leather boots.

At the white glistening beach he selects carefully a boat, and is delighted to find among its crew a swarthy boatman, who is called Domingo.

Addressing him familiarly, and slapping him on the back, Montez says in his ear: “Old bravo, are you still up to banditti work as in ’52, on the Cruces roads?”

To this, Domingo, a gentleman with a pirate countenance adorned by two fearful scars, with a stalwart black frame, and a stout black heart beating in his black body, replies: “Si, Señor, mouches dinero, mouches sangui, mouches Domingo.”

So Fernando knows he has at his hand, for this night’s work, a man who will not be turned back for pity, nor blood, nor danger, from doing any wickedness that may come to his hand.

While this has been taking place on the beach, Ripley and his wife, during hurried preparations for their departure, are holding a conversation that makes the Californian open his honest eyes in astonishment.

His wife says to him, under her breath: “Now that Montez is away, I wish to tell you something: I am glad we are going!”

“Of course! Tomorrow we will be one day nearer our daughter.”

“It is not entirely that,” whispers the lady, nervously, “but I fear to stay here.”

“Why?”

“Anita hates me.”

“Impossible! No one could have nursed you more faithfully during the fever, than the bright-eyed Indian girl.”

“It is her bright eyes that make me fear her. Something new has come into them. Besides that, while you were taking your bath she told me that we had better go away as soon as possible. She told me.”

“Well, what?” says the American impatiently.

“Only—that—if the fever returned to me here—I would not throw it off again. Toboga breezes are good for the first attack,—but after that,—like other medicines,—they lose their value.”

While she says this in a hesitating, disjointed manner, a bright red flush has come over the features of the beautiful American lady, for Alice Ripley is telling her husband her first falsehood.

Anita’s words had been to her: “Beware of Montez! Montez loves you!” and suspicion coming to her quick feminine mind at these words, Alice had noted some of the uncanny glances the polyhæma gentleman at times could not restrain himself from indulging in. But at the last moment, even when warning was on her lips, she has hesitated to tell her husband what she has heard and suspects—because the very thought of the thing brings blushing shame upon her.

So the modesty of this beautiful woman takes from her husband one of his ropes of safety this day—his one chance of suspecting the man he thinks his friend, but who is even now bent upon his robbery and ruin.

“Well, let us give Anita her pearl—perhaps that will reconcile her to our going away,” laughs the Californian.

This being done, they leave the palm-thatched bamboo villa, and come down the little rocky pathway to the beach at Toboga, to take departure for Panama.

Three stalwart natives carry the ironbound trunk, and find it all they can handle; another swings easily the lighter one that contains the wardrobe of George Ripley and his wife.

Looking around, Montez is happy; for there is only a steamer of the English Steam Navigation Company in the harbor, one or two trading brigs and schooners, and the Columbus just returned from her voyage to the Islas de las Perles, and no vessels of war of any nation. No blue jackets can be landed to interfere with a plan that he has already set on foot among the desperate native classes of the town of Panama this fifteenth day of April, 1856.

Toboga is slumbering in the midday sun, as they stand upon the sandy beach. A lazy steward from the English steamer is buying fish and fruit from a big Indian bongo that has come from a neighboring island. There is a drowsy hum from a few bamboo huts, and pine board edifices that do duty as shops, and ship chandlers’ stores, for this Island of Toboga is really the port of Panama, as the depth of water permits vessels to lie there at all times; while off the mainland, the tremendous rise and fall of the ocean compels ships of burden to keep three or four miles out in the bay.

“I am glad you got a good, big, safe boat,” remarks the Californian, “and I hope competent boatmen.”

“Yes, that is all arranged. On board, mi amigo,” cries Montez, offering a gallant hand to assist the pretty Americana.

But what the Indian girl has said to her makes this lady blind to his attentions, and she carelessly and lightly steps over the gunwale of the boat, and tripping to its stern, takes seat under its awning of many colors, ignoring the gentleman whose eyes follow her, an unknown suspicion in them.

A moment after, they are under way, black Domingo pulling a strong stroke oar, and three lithe natives keeping time with him, and dashing foam that looks like pearls and diamonds from the water, as they glide over this aquarium, in which Alice looking down sees countless fish.

As they move, she carelessly drops a dainty hand into the cool water, playing with its ripples. The next instant Montez quietly takes it in his and replaces it in the boat.

Perchance, unable to control himself, he has given its delicate fingers a tender pressure, for the lady’s face grows angry.

“Would you like to leave your arm in that fellow’s maw?” is Fernando’s reply to her indignant glance, and he points to a huge white shark that is lazily patrolling the water a cable’s length or so from the English steamer’s stern.

Following his gesture with their eyes, the crew start and Domingo mutters: “Diablo! Toboga Bill!”

“Yes, that is the gentleman!” laughs Montez. “This desperado has just come up after the Peruvian steamer from a trip down the coast to Callao.”

“So that is the terror of Panama Bay?” queries George, turning his eyes upon the great fish, who is as long as a ship’s cutter, and whose dorsal fin makes a big swash of foam with every movement.

Bay of Panama, lantern slide c. 1900–20 (cropped), Art Gallery of South Australia

“Yes! There will be one or two less native boatmen, perhaps, before he leaves harbor!” returns Montez. Then he suddenly cries: “For your life, No!” and places a deterring hand upon the Californian’s pistol, for Ripley is about to draw it.

“There is no danger in this big boat. Let me have a pop at the desperado,” says George, still fingering his ready revolver.

“No, no! Your wife is here. He might charge the boat. He has upset canoes! Don’t use your pistol!” murmurs the little every-nation rascal, his lips trembling and growing white.

“If he is so awful—don’t shoot at him!” gasps Alice to her husband.

“If you tremble, of course not!” says the American, returning his revolver to his belt. “Though I had imagined Montez had better nerves.”

This idea is that of the boatmen; for one of them says in Spanish to his fellow: “Caramba! I never saw the muchacho diablo tremble before—at a shark, too!”

But Domingo knows his old master better, and chuckles to himself: “What was there about that pistol of the Americano that Fernando did not wish him to use it? Ah! It has been tampered with. This man and this woman are to be our prey.” And from now on, the whites of his eyes grow bloodshot when they look on the Californian and his fair-haired wife.

As they leave “Toboga Bill” behind them, fear seems to depart from Montez; he regains his spirits, but whenever a stray gull offers a tempting shot he looks nervous; perchance Ripley will test his pistol.

Three hours after, they make the landing at Panama, having been assisted by the incoming tide, which has just turned, and is here tremendous.

They come to the end of the long wharf of the railroad, finding there a little light-draft iron steamboat—the Toboga—used in transferring passengers and mail to the great Pacific steamers that cannot come nearer than three miles of the town. Not six inches of water is under the Toboga’s keel. It must wait for the incoming tide to free it, and make it float again, which will be somewhere about ten or eleven o’clock this evening.

Clambering upon this wharf, which rises at this stage of the tide quite high above the boat, Montez and Ripley assist the American lady, who soon stands beside them.

“There will probably be no train for Aspinwall before tomorrow morning. I think we had better go to one of the hotels in the main town. It will be more comfortable,” remarks Ripley.

“Very well,” answers Montez, a shade of disappointment crossing his face, “the Hotel Francais. But what will you do with your trunk—the heavy fellow? It seems all that the three boatmen can manage.”

“Of course, George, they can never carry it into the town in this hot sun,” remarks Alice, who, having hoisted a dainty parasol over her head, stands watching the men.

“Let me suggest the Pacific House,” returns Fernando, pointing to a white board hotel just across the road from the station. “It is but a step for your wife—and your trunk.”

To this proposition George assents, and they walk up the wharf, followed by three of the boatmen, who struggle under the heavy ironbound chest, upon which the Californian, turning ever and anon, casts a wary glance. Behind them tramps old Domingo, slinging easily upon his stalwart shoulder the light trunk containing the wardrobe of the Californian, which does not seem to interest Ripley at all.

Walking along the tracks of the Panama road, which run upon this wharf, they soon come to dusty terra firma, and find themselves in quite a crowd of passengers from the Illinois, which has landed them at Aspinwall, on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus, some few hours before. These are making their preparations for departure, some of them checking their baggage, and others having their tickets examined; a few, even now (fortunately for themselves), are taking their families on board the Toboga, as the Golden Age, the incoming Pacific Mail steamer, has been sighted.

Hearing this, Montez whispers to the Californian: “The train for Aspinwall will be sure to leave early in the morning. The Pacific House is the one for you, it is so near the railroad depot.”

Railroad Station at Panama, antique postcard (n.d.) (panamarailroad.org)

So they pass in, and registering their names with McFarlane, the proprietor, soon find themselves in a little room on the eastern, and now shady, side of the house, for the sun is already declining in the heavens. This chamber is one flight up, retired and quiet as any room can be in a house made of thin boards with partitions of canvas and paper. To this the three natives stagger with the heavy trunk, Domingo accompanying them with the lighter one.

Here Montez says to the American, “Au revoir!” but while doing this, suggests: “Won’t you take a stroll with me into the town? You will find lots of the passengers who are bound for California, seeing the sights. Why not make an evening of it with me? Dinner at the Cafe Victor, and then, I believe, we have a circus in town tonight.”

“That would be delightful!” cries Alice. A moment after, she says thoughtfully, “but I am afraid I am too fatigued for it.”

“No thank you, Montez, old boy,” answers George. “I think I’ll stay here with my baggage and my tired wife.”

“Then au revoir again!” murmurs Fernando, and turns to go, but the Californian comes after him, and seizing his little fingers in his stalwart grip, says gratefully; “This must not be the last we shall see of you! Promise to come back here this evening. My wife and I must thank you again for your hospitality, and what you have done for us. I’ll not forget to express the revolver to you from New York.”

“Oh, do not fear—I’ll return to you!” answers Montez, the Armenian drop in his blood coming to the fore, and giving his eyes a farseeing, peculiar, subtle look. “Until this evening!” and whispering these words, he skips down the steps, giving one last longing parting glance at the fair American lady, who makes a pretty picture, her bright beauty being in strong contrast to the bareness of the room, as she carelessly sits upon the ironbound trunk. Thus grouped these two treasures of the American look very beautiful to Señor Montez—they are now, he thinks, so nearly his.

As he reaches the doorway of the hotel he suddenly starts and says: “But I have much to do!” and so passes rapidly out of the Pacific House, where there is a good deal of drinking going on, and many glasses are being emptied to the first sight of the Pacific, by passengers eager to reach the land of gold.

Left together Ripley turns to Alice, saying: “It looks as if you would have a dull time, little woman, till tomorrow morning when we get upon the railroad for Aspinwall.”

“Oh, I’ll pass a little of it writing to Mary.”

“Why, the child’ll see us as soon as the letter!”

“Not quite. We’ll have to remain a day in New York probably. The letter will go right on. I’ll tell her of our week in Toboga,” returns the lady, taking from her trunk the articles for a hasty epistle. “Had you not better see about our tickets?”

“They’ll do in the morning,” replies the gentleman who is looking out of the hotel window. “Besides, the crowd bound for California are giving the railroad officials all they want to attend to just now.” And George amuses himself inspecting the movements of the throng outside as the sun goes down upon Panama.

After a little, his wife closes an epistle full of a mother’s love to her absent dear one, telling her the day after she receives it she will be in her arms, and says, “George, just step down and put this in the mail at the railroad depot, before you forget as usual.”

“Then the usual bribe,” laughs her husband.

“Two, if you like,” and the lady’s lips receive his kisses, for these two are as much lovers as when they first became man and wife.

“Now hurry. For Mr. McFarlane’s gong is going to sound for dinner soon,” cries Alice.

So George Ripley goes down and posts the letter to Mary, his daughter, putting it in the strong grip of Wells, Fargo & Co., but does not come back to dinner with his wife—for this is the night of the fifteenth day of April, 1856—a night that at Panama severed husbands from wives and parted children from parents’ love.


Notes, References, Further Reading

  • Aspinwall: City founded in 1850 on the northern shoulder of the Isthmus. Named after co-founder of the Panama Railroad, American businessman William Henry Aspinwall (1807–1875), it was the Atlantic terminal of the railroad. The name was changed to Colón, after Christopher Columbus, whose Spanish name was Cristóbal Colón. See “How Did Colón Become Columbus?: Explorer’s name varies from country to country” (thoughtco.com).
  • dross: “waste product taken off molten metal during smelting, essentially metallic in character” (wordreference.com).
  • descants: to comment or discourse at great length.
  • tintype: Photographic image produced on a thin metal plate. See “Tintype Photographs” at phototree.com.
  • mouches dinero, mouches sangui: much money, much blood.
  • set on foot: to initiate, start something.
  • polyhæma: many bloods.
  • bongo: “[T]he small schooner-rigged market craft of Panama are […] called bongos.” Man, Vol. 28 (1928), p. 122, at Internet Archive.
  • Caramba!: good heavens.

Bishop, F., Panama Past and Present (NY: Century, 1916). wikisource.org .

Daley, M.C., “The Watermelon Riot: Cultural Encounters in Panama City, April 15, 1856,” Hispanic American Historical Review 70:1, Feb 1990. Available Duke U Press.

Haskin, F.J., The Panama Canal (NY: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1913) Project Gutenberg eBook.

Musicant, I., The Banana Wars (New York: Macmillan, 1990).

Schott, Joseph L., Rails across Panama; the story of the building of the Panama Railroad, 1849-1855 (Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1967. Borrow from Internet Archive.

This edition © 2021 Furin Chime, Brian Armour

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