Gunter: Baron Montez of Panama and Paris

Gunter’s Baron Montez: 6. Jesse’s Letter

Although this chapter begins in 1880, it spans the years to 1887. The Baron Montez, Larchmont and his ward, Jessie, arrive in Paris at the centre of a glorious time which in the future will be known as the ‘Belle Epoque’. Imagine wide boulevards where bunches of flowers spill from vendors’ baskets onto the pavement before you, ladies in colorful flowing dresses with ornamented bustles parading, carrying equally beautiful parasols, gentlemen in tailored suits and top hats, the fragrance of coffee from the many cafes, the boulangerie and the sweet smell of fresh bread filling the air, artisan shops and vendors of all types, salons with art covering every inch of their walls. There is sunshine, fresh air and walks in the numerous squares and parks to be enjoyed, but these are only relatively recent additions to life in Paris.

Boulevard des Capucines (1873), Claude Monet

In 1853, the Emperor Napoleon III decided to continue the civil works of his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte. Many plans and attempts in the past to improve and modernize Paris had failed. Paris had been closed up and congested with numerous tenements and slums in which pestilence and disease prevailed. The average life expectancy of a Parisian was forty-six years versus a rural life expectancy of fifty-years (Kesztenbaum & Rosenthal). Louis Napoleon engaged Georges-Eugène Haussmann to carry out massive civil works while renovating and repairing landmark buildings and facilities damaged during the reign of the Commune. One of the first works completed is the restoration and extension of the Rue Rivoli where a special character in Gunter’s novel, Bastien Lefort, has his glove shop.

Napoleon III instructed Haussman to aérer, unifier, et embellir’ (ventilate, unify and beautify) Paris. Haussmann’s plan constructed boulevards and avenues, squares, and parks; theatres, markets, schools; new railway stations, a sewerage system and freshwater aqueduct. The projects employed thousands of workers.

Immigrants flooded Paris, as did art students, including those from the United States, who made up the largest foreign contingent, to study in the numerous art schools (Weinberg). Not just art students but sculptors, architects, writers, academics and wealthy American collectors. The whole city was brimming with culture as its population boomed. The construction of the Eiffel Tower would soon commence. The construction of sewers beneath the city had begun and the delivery of fresh water to parts of Paris; this as well as the introduction of trashcans, known as poubelle after their instigator, would lead to a rise in life expectancy. During the Exposition internationale d’électricitė in 1881, the Grands Boulevards were illuminated with electric lights. The hill overlooking Paris, Montmartre, once a rural district, was brought into Paris proper, and its cheap accommodation became a haven for artists of the like of Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Degas and many others. It was an exciting time to be in Paris. At the bottom of the hill, in 1882 the city’s first modern cabaret, Le Chat Noir, opened.

La danse au Moulin Rouge (1890), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Rather than the beauty that is vibrant Paris, which someone such as young Jessie might enjoy, our narrator is more concerned with the speculative financial skullduggery of Baron Montez, who is growing in influence and wealth, naturally to the detriment of others. As anticipated by the Baron, the doomed French Panama Canal project is coming to an end and investors in the enterprise will see their shares become valueless. If this weren’t enough, in January 1882 the Paris Bourse crashes due to the failing of the Union Générale bank, which causes ten years of recession (White). Our narrator doesn’t mention this, and the financial dealings of the Baron Montez are dealt with summarily, for it is all background noise to his major play for the lovely seventeen-year old Jessie.

It is not by accident that a young Jessie expresses a fervent pride in being American, nor is the arrival of Larchmont’s all-American brother, Harry to set up a dynamic with his opposite, the weak-chinned, sedentary Francophile, Francis. Defense of American values abroad our Author knows will appeal to his readers; and isn’t it only right that it should be the wholesome, strong, patriotic Harry and his remarkable elbow that intercedes for our Goddess of Liberty?


CHAPTER 6

JESSIE’S LETTER

After this, the time passes pleasantly for the great Frenchman and his party at Panama in picnics, sight-seeing, and excursions around the beautiful bay. They run down to the Pearl Islands, and visit Montez’ villa at Toboga. They view the ruins of the old city, and finally, the preliminary reports from the engineers being received, they one day put a little dynamite cartridge into the great mountain of Culebra, which will be the deepest cut on the whole line, and blow out an infinitesimal portion of its great side, little Mademoiselle Fernanda de Lesseps touching off the giant powder fuse, and announcing that work has really commenced on the great canal.

Then they depart, Monsieur de Lesseps taking steamer from Colon to the United States to obtain the proper concessions from the Panama Railroad Company necessary to his legally carrying out his project. Baron Montez and his Franco-American friend, however, leave the Isthmus direct for France, via Martinique and St. Lucia.

At Martinique they stop a day or two, and chance in a local museum to see one of the deadly snakes of that Island, the fer-de-lance, at which they all shudder, but Fernando turns very white and trembles; so much so, that little Jessie, holding her governess’ arm, says: “Mademoiselle, why is Baron Montez so afraid of a snake?”

Mon Dieu! my dear, replies the Frenchwoman, “everybody trembles at such hideous, crawling, deadly things. You did—so did I!”

“But I didn’t nearly faint—and he is a man, and I am only a little girl!” And she looks with wondering, childish eyes after Montez, who has moved away from the sight.

But they soon leave this island. Two weeks later finds them at that centre of the French universe—the great city on the Seine—where Francis Leroy Larchmont settles down in a beautiful villa on the residential part of the Boulevard Malesherbes near the pretty little Parc Monceau with his little ward and attendants, and Baron Montez engages fine apartments just off the Boulevard de Capucines, where he can be near the Press Club and baccarat, an amusement in which he takes great delight.

He soon has hosts of friends, for he spends his money freely, hoping to get return from the same in the near future, with usurer’s interest.

In this capital of France, De Lesseps, soon after returning from the United States, inaugurates his great scheme. The shares are taken by the peasants of France, every village has its subscriber, work is begun in reality upon the canal.

Then comes the time of harvest for Montez. He founds the firm of Montez, Aguilla et Cie.—Aguilla being practically a clerk, with a nominal interest—and for it obtains a contract for a portion of the work, at great figures. He circulates between Paris and Panama, dabbling in contracts, dabbling in shares, and making money in everything, for he knows what takes place on the Isthmus, as well as what goes on in Paris.

All the time he is doing this, investors’ money is being squandered like water, and the shares of the Canal Company go lower and lower. But Montez loses not. He has ecome too near the Board of Directors to suffer; he knows too much of the inside politics of the scheme to permit its magnates to let him lose a single franc in this Canal Interoceanic.

Besides, he, by the diplomatic arts of entertaining and open pocket book, is now a boon companion with many a space-writer for the press—a class vigorously strong in shrieking their incorruptibility, and very pliable to the persuasive check book and bank bill, as impecunious classes generally are. Again, he has a few easy deputies of the Corps Législatifs under his thumb, owing to postponed debts at baccarat and many little suppers at Des Ambassadeurs and le Madrid and the Alcazar. In fact, he is a power at which the directors of the canal stand aghast, and would strike down were their enterprise upon a basis sufficiently solid for them not to fear what Fernando Baron Montez’ ready tongue might hint to stock holders already becoming suspicious.

But stock and preferences in a losing concern, to make their owner rich must be converted into money of the realm and more substantial securities. To do this it was necessary to find purchasers; and to beguile, allure and dazzle investors to transfer their gold to his pockets; for shares in the Canal Interoceanic had been Montez’ first, great and continuous effort ever since he had determined the enterprise must fall, even of its own weight.

His ready tongue, unscrupulous assertion, and, if necessary, direct and brilliant lies, had gained many listeners and some believers, notably among them one Bastien Lefort. This person, curiously enough, was a noted miser, who had lived to sixty, saving his accumulations, adding to them franc by franc the product of not only a life of toil, but a life of absolute deprivation. Beginning as a clerk in a small booth, he had saved and pinched till he had become a shopkeeper himself. Then he had squeezed and accumulated till he was worth nigh on to a million francs, each one of which meant not so much profit, but so much stint and discomfort and privation—even to lack of fire in winter and lack of food in summer. This hoarded treasure he did not dare invest in real estate—even city property sometimes depreciates. He did not dare deposit in a bank—banks fail—but kept his gold in safes of his own and the strong box of the miser.

All his life Bastien Lefort had said he was looking for an investment—one that would be sure as the Bank of France but would return large usury—such an investment he had been seeking for forty years. Within three months after Baron Montez strolled into his little magasin de gants, on the Rue Rivoli, to buy a pair of gloves, the Panama philanthropist found it for him.

Among those gathered into these Panama ventures is François Leroy Larchmont. From the year 1880 to 1887 Fernando has been gradually involving the wealth of the Franco-American, who has become his bosom friend; and not content with this, has succeeded in drawing into the financial maelstrom that is now running over Paris, the fortune of the orphan, the little girl, that her weak guardian had in his charge, and which should have been secured in consols and collaterals undoubted.

So one day, towards the close of the year 1887, Montez thinks it time to speak, for all these years the loveliness of this graceful girl—this American beauty—this fairy beauty, who is still in the schoolroom, but nearly a woman, has appealed more and more to him. He has looked upon it, and says it shall be his. He has whispered to himself: “These people are in the toils. I am wealthy as a New York nabob! I will marry this beautiful creature. The loveliness of the Baroness Montez shall make her a queen in the fashionable circles of this gay capital, and I shall be one of its princes—I, Fernando Gomez Montez, once mule-boy on the Cruces trail!”

Thinking this, he one day calls upon his bosom friend, François Leroy Larchmont, who is just admiring a newly purchased picture, for this gentleman is a dilettante in everything artificial, and dabbles in paintings, scores of unproduced operas, and manuscript verses and novels; dealing with the prodigality of a connoisseur, and the lack of knowledge of an amateur.

“I want to speak to you, Larchmont, mi amigo, on a particular subject.”

“Yes, but first admire the beauty of this picture, Montez. The head is that of a newly discovered Madonna!”

“Ah, but not as beautiful as Mademoiselle Jessie, your ward.”

“Why, Montez, she is but a child!”

“Nevertheless it is time she should marry, I wish to speak to you of her!”

Turning from his painting, in his nonchalant way, François Leroy Larchmont hears words that give him a fearful shock.

He remonstrates.

Then the easy tone of the friend changes to the voice of the master; and before the interview is over, this weak and untrustworthy creature has given such hostage to his enslaver that makes him ashamed to look his lovely charge in the face; for he knows in his feeble heart he has done the act of the dastard and the coward.

Now while this has been going on, several times in the years between 1880 and 1887, François Leroy Larchmont has received visits from his younger brother Harry Sturgis Larchmont, who has come over from the United States when his collegiate course has been finished, and has assumed, in his offhand, American style, the rôle of a relative, and the good comradeship of a friend, to his brother’s pretty ward.

This has been done in the easy manner of youth.

Young American, postcard, Atlantic City (n.d.)

Once, on his visit after his college days at Yale, he had upheld her against guardian and governess in a way that had endeared him greatly to Miss Rebel.

It was one Fourth of July. Harry had come in the dusk of the day to dress for the banquet in honor of the United States at the American Minister’s.

He is talking to his brother in the salon which looks out upon a little courtyard made pretty by flower beds, and a graceful kiosk in which the gentlemen sometimes take their breakfasts.

Harry has just remarked, “Frank, I’m sorry you sent a regret to Mr. Washburn’s invitation. It looks as if you had forgotten George Washington and fire crackers.”

“My dear Henri,” lisps the elder brother, “I have promised to listen to a new manuscript comedy. Farandol, le jeune, its author, thinks I have influence with the management of the Palais Royal, and may get it produced. As for firecrackers and such juvenile nuisances—” Here he gives a great start, and cries, “Mon Dieu! What is that? Dynamite?”

For a loud explosion has just come from the garden, and Parisians, in grateful memory of the Commune, always fear dynamite and Anarchists.

“I rather imagine that is a little piece of the Fourth of July,” laughs Harry, who has made Miss Severn a patriotic present of fireworks and firecrackers this very morning.

A moment after, Jessie, with defiant face that is slightly grimed with gunpowder and burning punk, and a bunch of firecrackers in her hand, is dragged into the room by her governess and an attendant maid.

“In spite of my protestations and commands she has exploded them in the bed of daisies, Monsieur Larchmont,” says the duenna, looking with reproving eyes upon her charge who stands pouting but unrepentant.

Mon Dieu! My white daisies! “cries Mr. François; then he remarks sternly: “This is most unseemly! Jessie, don’t you know it is wrong to disobey your governess—wrong to make a noise, and disturb me with explosions?”

“Not on the Fourth of July!” mutters the child. Then her eyes flash, and she cries, “I will fire them! I’m American! I ain’t French, and I will fire them!” and emphasizes her declaration by defiant eyes and stamping feet.

“Oh, this is terrible!” murmurs Mr. Larchmont.

“If you would permit me,” suggests the instructress, “I think Miss Jessie should be put to bed.”

“What! for being a patriot?” cries Harry, intruding on the scene. Then the young man goes on firmly, “Jessie shall celebrate the Fourth, and I’ll help her.”

“But, Henri,” expostulates his brother, “the gensd’armes will arrest me. It is violating a municipal ordinance.”

“Then you pay the fine, or I’ll do it for you,” returns the younger man. “You go off to your comedy reading, and Miss Jessie and I’ll make a patriotic night of it.”

“Will you?” cries the girl; then she comes to him and puts her arms about him, after the manner of trusting childhood, and whispers, “I knew you would. You’re a Yankee, so am I.”

“You bet!” says Harry, giving way to slang in this moment of patriotic enthusiasm. “You and I, Jessie, are the only Americans in this house.”

“Well, have your will!” replies the older brother. “I’ll go off to the reading and get away from the noise.Jessie, come and kiss me goodnight.”

“I won’t,” returns Miss Jessie. “You would have let Mademoiselle put me to bed if it hadn’t been for Harry—Harry’s my chevalier.”

“You won’t kiss me,” mutters the child’s guardian.

Then he astonishes his brother, for he goes to his pouting charge, and says: “I beg your pardon, little one. Won’t that get a kiss?”

“Yes, two!” answers Jessie, and gives him three very sweet ones, for her guardian is very kind to her, and generally lets her do her will except when it disturbs his ease or puts him to trouble.

So Harry and Jessie go off to their fireworks, where, amid revolving pinwheels and colored lights, the little lady in her dainty Parisian dress looks like a miniature Goddess of Liberty, though Mademoiselle, her governess, shakes her head; and the maid, whose white apron has been soiled and her cap put awry, and her skin somewhat bruised by the struggles of Miss Rebel when she had been dragged in, mutters: “If I had my way with Miss Vixen, I’d smack her good.”

After this Miss Jessie looks upon Harry Larchmont as her Court of Appeals from all decisions against her childish whims. And when, sometime after, a pretty trinket of gold and jewels, commemorative of this event, comes to her from New York, it does not tend to make her forget her Fourth of July champion.

Young woman of La Belle Epoch (Fr. postcard, n.d.)

This very year, when he is making a little tour of Europe, Miss Severn has renewed her trust in him, and they have grown greater friends. The exquisite beauty and grace of the girl have appealed to him, as they would to any man, though she has seen but few, being still kept at her studies much closer than Mr. Harry Larchmont thinks is necessary. For, on leaving for his German trip he has remarked to his brother; “Why not bring Jessie over to America, put her in society, and marry her to an American?”

“She is too young for society.”

“She is not too young to have a good time. Give her a chance at a beau anyway. Whether she marries or does not, just at present is of no particular moment; but her enjoyment is!”

“I will consider your suggestion, Henri,” says the brother, a wistful expression coming over his face, but his answer is cut short.

“Confound it! Don’t call me Henri. Do you suppose I would ever call you François?” bursts in the younger brother. Then he goes on quite dictatorially, “Frank, be an American, and a man. Leave this foreign place where you are dawdling away your existence!”

“And what are you doing in America?”

“Nothing!”

“Am I not doing the same in Paris?” says the other, with an attempt at a laugh, which changes into a sigh as he continues, “I wish I could leave Paris!”

“What keeps you?”

“My interests.”

“Pooh! your fortune is well invested, and you can sell this pretty little villa at a profit, even now, notwithstanding Panama shares have gone down!” answers the younger brother. So, departing upon his journey, he thinks he will have an hour in Dresden, a week in Vienna, three days in Berlin, and get home for the first Patriarchs’ ball of the season in New York.

Curiously enough, this young gentleman, though a man of fashion, has a good deal of action in him; though nominally he does nothing, he is energy itself, killing time by athletics, hunting, pigeon shooting. He is very good at some of these sports, which, if they do not exactly elevate a man, at least keep his muscles in condition, and his mind active. He has been a great football player, and is still remembered in his college as a wonderful half back. He leads the German at Delmonico balls, with a vigor that startles the languid youths who perform in the cotillon; and young ladies are very happy to have his strong arm as a guide, and his potent elbow as a guard from collisions in the dance, for he has not yet forgotten an old football trick.

His innocent looking elbow has many times caused young Johnnie Ballet, who dances so recklessly, and Von Duzen Van Bobbins, who prances about so carelessly, to wonder why they so suddenly get extremely faint and out of breath, when they come in contact with his deft elbow. But they have not played on college campi, and do not know how effective this elbow has been in putting many a Princeton rusher out of play, and many a Harvard slugger on the ground, in the desperate scrimmages of the football field.

It is late in 1887 when Harry Larchmont goes away for his German tour, in the careless, easy frame of mind that he has been wont so far to run through life. Three days afterwards, at Cologne, he receives an agitated letter from Miss Jessie Severn, praying him to come to her for heaven’s sake, before he leaves for America. Its end gives this easygoing young athlete a start, for it closes:

Dear good Harry, as you love the memory of your mother, don’t let your brother know I wrote this.

Your frightened to death

Jessie.”


Notes, References, Further Reading

  • poubelle: common Parisian term for trashcan named after Eugène-René Poubelle (15 April 1831 – 15 July 1907)  a French lawyer and diplomat who introduced waste containers to Paris.
  • Culebra: “the name of the mountain ridge the canal cuts through and also originally applied to the cut itself. The cut forms part of the Panama Canal, linking Gatun Lake, and thereby the Atlantic Ocean, to the Gulf of Panama and hence the Pacific Ocean. Digging at Culebra began on January 22, 1881. A combination of disease, underestimation of the problem, and financial difficulties led to the collapse of the French effort. The French had excavated some 14,256,000 cubic metres (18,646,000 cu yd) of material from the cut, and had lowered the summit from 64 meters (210 ft) above sea level[4] to 59 meters (193 ft),[5] over a relatively narrow width.”
  • fer-de-lance: “Bothrops asper (common names Terciopelo [English], Cuatro Narices [Spanish], and often called the fer-de-lance (French – ‘spearhead’). It is a highly venomous pit viper species, ranging in distribution from southern Mexico to northern South America. It is found in a wide range of lowland habitats, often near human habitations. Because of its proximity to human habitations and its defensive temperament.”
  • magasin de gants: store of gloves.
  • consols: form of government issued perpetual bond, i.e. irredeemable.
  • dilettante: “a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge” (lexico.com).
  • dastard: someone wicked and cruel.
  • le jeune: the young
  • the Commune: “a radical socialist, anti-religious, and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from 18 March to 28 May 1871.”
  • duenna: from Spanish—”older woman acting as a governess and companion in charge of girls” (lexico.com).
  • gensd’armes: ‘men at arms’, armed police,
  • chevalier: a knight of prestigious order such as French Legion of Honour.
  • Goddess of Liberty: an atemporal comment, likely referring to the Statue of Liberty, which at the time of the story has yet to be built. Throughout history there have been many goddesses of Liberty—the Roman goddess Libertas is one, Marianne who wore the cap of Liberty in 1792 another—though it is unlikely he means any of these.
  • cotillon: “French country dance, a social dance, popular in 18th-century Europe and America. Originally for four couples in square formation.”
  • Corps Legislatif:  “a part of the French legislature during the French Revolution and beyond. It is also the generic French term used to refer to any legislative body.”

Calavita, Nico. ‘Haussman, Baron George-Eugene’, in Caves (333-4) .

Caves, Roger R, ed. Encyclopedia of the City. (London: Routledge, 2005). Re. Haussman.

Glancey, Jonathan. ‘The Man who Created Paris‘, BBC Culture / Architecture.

Kesztenbaum, Lionel & Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, “Public goods and health inequality; Lessons from Paris, 1880-1914”, IAST General Seminar, Toulouse: IAST, October 11, 2012. PDF here.

Papayanis, Nicholas. Planning Paris Before Haussmann (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2004).

‘The Making of Paris: The Grands Travaux of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann (1848-71).’ Alliance Française of Boston. Video URL.

Weinberg, Barbara H. ‘Americans in Paris, 1860–1900‘, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Oct. 2006.

White, E. (2007), “The Krach of 1882 and the Bailout of the Paris Bourse”, Cliometrica, 1.2, pp. 115–144. PDF, Rutgers.

This edition © 2021 Furin Chime, Brian Armour

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