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A.C. Gunter’s Baron Montez: 12. A Wildgoose Chase

The last thought of Louise Minturn regarding Harry Larchmont as the previous chapter closed: ‘Does he wish the real object of his journey to the Isthmus to be unsuspected and unknown?’ This is the ‘latter idea’ to which Gunter refers when opening this chapter. A fitting beginning as the narrative ahead is driven by the elements of intrigue and romance.

At the present time our two lead characters are sequestered on the steamship Colon, traveling toward the port of Colon on the eastern side of the Isthmus, and thence by train to the Pacific coast of Panama. They are not alone, nor is it easy for them to be, though they are never far apart on the limited and segregated deck space. The SS Colon is one of the smaller ships of the Pacific Mail Line at 2,686 tons (Shipslist). It has an overall length of only 300 feet (91.4 m) and a beam of 40 feet (12.2 m) (Huntington). The majority of deck space is taken up by smoke stacks, masts, cabins, dining room, captain’s bridge, lifeboat storage and other nautical requirements. The most spacious and thinly populated area is the stern of the ship which is partly covered by an awning and, as might be expected, reserved for first-class passengers.

Foredeck of steamer (1899). Photograph by Arnold Genther (loc.gov, ‘Travel views of Cuba and Guatemala’)

Also on board and en route to Panama are Herr Wernig, a supplicating spy for Montez, and in second-class, Bastien Lefort, the frugal glovemaker of Paris, who readers may remember, has invested his entire fortune via Montez in the Canal undertaking. Space is at a premium and for Gunther it is a close set—fragments of conversation are wont to be overheard, associations noted, a dynamic of characters brought in close contact to interact.

The reader knows more about Louise Mintern and Harry Larchmont than they do of each another. Apart from isolated revealing incidents, these two know little except that which appearance and reputation convey. Delight comes to the reader as this ignorance is corrected through romance, with wider expression of the various characters’ traits, deliberate misconceptions and unfounded suspicions largely activated by the two outliers Wernig and Lefort.

Why should Louise and Harry get together? They come from two different classes, as defined by money—she is working class and he a self-confessed ‘do nothing’ rich boy. Because we want them to—their convergence, over self-doubt, against reason, across class and through barriers (or refuges) of formality, is the story. At one point, her working-class integrity under threat, Louise speaks her mind, repeating words she has uttered to herself in the previous chapter, and her little speech garners great respect, speaks well for her character, and nourishes the seeds of romance long sown. Polite jibing begins between our two lovebirds to reveal truth, and as always, love balances on the trust of one’s own feelings, undercut by conflict with reason.

The journey is half over, though for Louise and Harry it has only just begun, and Gunter weaves some elemental, stunning and romantic descriptions of sea and sky as they look over the rail at night, the air suffused with sweet floral aromas of Cuba.

Louise was astute enough during her employment negotiations to specify she travel first class, and this puts her on a level playing field with Harry. Given they both have socially-ennobled blood-lines, and she adequately fashionable dresses, their relative monetary worth seems a minor difference to overcome. Yet the starkest example of class distinction for the modern reader is beneath their feet. Out of sight, out of mind; and were it not for Herr Wernig’s derisive use of the term ‘steerage’, the reader would not be aware of the poor souls hidden and confined below decks at all.

The expression “steerage” probably originates from the fact that the control lines of a sailing ship’s rudder ran on this level of the ship. An alternate theory supposes that the term derives from ‘cattle’, and that the passengers  traveled in the same space used for transporting livestock (Solem).

Those in steerage are defined by not having a cabin (US Passenger Act 1882): everyone is lumped together communally. Conditions in steerage varied from ship to ship, however typically, instead of beds, berths are stacked against the walls, and either of wooden construction, or canvas, which can be collapsed during the day to make use of available space. Straw mattresses may be available or need to be purchased by the passenger prior to departure (Heaton). When dining, instead of selecting from a bill of fare meals prepared by a chef and served on fine china, food is doled out of pots onto metal plates. Seating is restricted, as is movement and fresh air.

Conditions crossing the Atlantic were similar in 1884:

And now I will refer to the victuals on which we had to subsist in the course of our journey. This was one of the worst of the discomforts we had to put up with. There was no scarcity, neither was there want of variety of food, but what we did get was hardly edible…. Our diets were three in number. Our breakfast on some days consisted of coffee, of its kind, being a decoction of some sort, sweetened with molasses, and a roll, the crusts of which were burned quite black, and the heart could have with impunity been used as a substitute for putty; at other times of porridge (the utmost care had to be exercised to keep all from running off the plates) with molasses to take the place of milk. Our dinner on some occasions was comprised of soup, salt beef (we only tasted anything like fresh meat once), and salt pork, with potatoes, which apparently had gone through a riddling process, and the smallest selected, and these, too, not of a very first-rate quality!

The Shipwrecked Mariner: Quarterly Maritime Magazine, 1884

The US Passengers Act of 1882 set new minimum standards for all passengers and particularly for those travelling in steerage. For example, 100 cubic feet (2.83 cm) was to be allocated for each adult, ceilings were to be at least six feet (1.82m), and berths were required to be six feet (1.82m) by two feet (0.6m), and the lowest no less than six inches (15.24cm) off the floor. Subtracting the area for berth from the allocation per individual equates to four square feet. The act also directs standards for ventilation (two foot-square ventilators per fifty individuals), food, water, provision of latrines (1 per 50 individuals of both sexes) and secure segregation according to sex and marital status among many other details, as well as specifying penalties for non-adherence.

Reading the Act it is not difficult to imagine the conditions for steerage passengers that prevailed at the time. But none of this is Harry or Louise’s concern, for they are travelling first-class. Largely unhindered by class considerations, their budding romance struggles to reveal a new growth in their understanding of each other.


CHAPTER 12

A WILDGOOSE CHASE

This latter idea, circumstances that occur later in the day tend to confirm. Mr. Larchmont, after having eaten a hearty and comfortable breakfast, is apparently not overburdened in mind by last night’s losses. Leaving the companionship of his social equals in the salon, he for some curious reason devotes himself to the second-cabin passengers.

The privilege given him by his ticket permits his wandering all over the boat, and he avails himself of it by taking a long promenade in that portion of the ship where those who are compelled by financial considerations to take inferior accommodations make their exercise.

His absence rather astonishes Miss Louise, who is dawdling out a tropical forenoon, seated on a steamer chair, under stern awnings, and surrounded by the light conversation of people talking to kill a nautical day, that is made up of three supreme events—breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with minor intervals between. Not greatly amused by the conversation of some of the young gentlemen of the boat, with whom she appears to be a general favorite, she meditates, and reproach comes to her. She has shut herself up in the cabin on the evening before, and has not enjoyed the moonlight, as Mr. Larchmont had suggested. Perchance, had she given him her society, he would not have turned to poker! This last thought is a spasm of delight too charming to be analyzed.

Steamer off Nassau (n.a., c.1906, loc.gov)

As she languishes amid fan and parasol and sofa cushions and surrounding gallants, her bright eyes suddenly become animated; to her astonishment she notes that Mr. Larchmont is interesting himself with the second-cabin passengers. He is taking his exercise in their company, and has become friendly with several of them.

Apparently he does not love them well enough to eat with them, for he returns to first cabin at mealtimes.

This is in Miss Minturn’s mind, as the young gentleman takes seat beside her at the lunch table, for she remarks caustically: “Mr. Larchmont, you do not seem to enjoy second-cabin table as much as you do second-cabin society.”

“Oh,” he replies, stifling a grin: “there are some curious characters amidships;” then, after a little reflection, continues: “Besides, I am training myself for associations that may come ultimately to a poverty stricken individual.” This assertion is made with a laugh which does not seem to be genuine, from one prognosticating a fall in his social environment.

But lunch over, this young gentleman is again at his business in the second cabin. He seems to have taken a particular fancy for a short, dried-up looking little man, whose dress and appearance proclaim the French shopkeeper.

In the afternoon, a refreshing breeze having sprung up, most of the passengers take a leisurely promenade on deck; and Miss Minturn follows the fashion. She has some of the gentlemen of the ship at her side, among them Herr Wernig. A few scraps of conversation, that are carried by the breeze to them, from Mr. Larchmont and his second-cabin chum, appear to be in French; Harry apparently making very hard work of the Gallic vernacular.

As the young lady only has ears for what floats to her from the forward part of the ship, her inattention is not complimentary to the gentlemen about her, and one by one they drop away from her, until she finds herself tête-à-tête with the German financier.

This gentleman’s large bright eyes—one of which has a cast—have been often rolled towards her since she has made her appearance the day before; for he has a quick optic for feminine beauty, and the young lady’s exquisite figure, graceful movements, and vivacious countenance, have affected Herr Wernig in a manner that he would consider complimentary, but Miss Minturn would by no means approve. Therefore he has contented himself with admiring the bright face by his side, which is somewhat dreamy this afternoon, though the young lady’s inattention has not been flattering to a self-pride with which he is well provided.

Finding himself alone with her, he breaks in upon her brown study with dominant manner, and slightly foreign accent, remarking: “Miss Minturn, your friend, young Mr. Larchmont, seems to be attempting to improve his French. If he learns French from Bastien Lefort, he will acquire the language of the bourgeois, not the aristocrat.”

“Ah, you know the person Mr. Larchmont is talking to?” says the girl, suddenly growing interested.

“Oh, yes, everyone on the Parisian Bourse knows him. He is a large investor in canal stock.”

“And yet he takes passage in the second cabin,” returns Louise, astonished.

“Yes, he is going to examine the works for himself,” replies Wernig, smiling sarcastically. “He is a man who saves his sous. My only surprise is, that he did not go in the steerage.” Then he shrugs his shoulders, and his large eyes roll themselves about in a manner he considers expressive of admiration, as this foreign gentleman suggests: “Why discuss others, Miss Minturn, when there are more charming people on board—much more charming—much more beautiful—and so—so delightful?” His eyes indicate quite pointedly to whom he refers.

At this, the young lady gives a little start, and, a soupc̗on of scorn coming into her voice, replies: “Then you will be compelled to make your charming conversation—”

“A what?” cries Herr Wernig enthusiastically.

“A soliloquy!” suggests the girl sharply, and turning on her heel, gives him a very piquant but formal courtesy of adieu.

Perhaps Mr. Larchmont has observed her conversation with Herr Wernig, for he shortly afterwards leaves his second-cabin chum, and coming aft, takes place beside her, as she is lazily looking over the taffrail. At all events he mentions it; for he asks, a trace of annoyance in his voice: “What do you find interesting, Miss Minturn, in that old foreign duffer?”

“Ah, it is you, is it, Mr. Larchmont?” answers the young lady, turning a pair of beautiful but uncompromising eyes upon him; for she has been somewhat chagrined at the desertion of her companion of yesterday. Then she goes on quickly, “What old foreign duffer?”

“The one you were walking with a few minutes ago—the man with big eyes, and a cast in the largest one.”

“Oh, your friend,” murmurs Louise.

“My friend?”

“Yes, the one who knows your brother in Paris, so well.”

At this, a shade comes over Mr. Larchmont’s face, as he murmurs: “Yes, he told me he was acquainted with Frank.”

“Perhaps your chum of the second cabin is also a friend of your brother’s,” replies the piqued young lady, affecting an archness which does not seem to raise Mr. Larchmont’s spirits, for he replies with gloomy and morose tone and sneering voice, “You evidently don’t know my brother in Paris; he does not associate with second-cabin passengers.”

Then, to turn the conversation, he attempts a cheerful and playful: “Where’s your guitar? This will be a night for guitars. This evening we will pass Cuba where guitars, mandolins, and dulcimers make music for the gay fandango. We should keep in the atmosphere. The guitar this evening, eh, Miss Minturn?”

“No,” determinedly replies Louise, who likes not his bantering tone. “I shall write this evening.”

Photograph by Arnold Genther, 1899 (loc.gov, ‘Travel views of Cuba and Guatemala’)

Perhaps some subtle beauty in the girl—perhaps the natural buoyancy of youth—has caused Mr. Larchmont’s bad spirits to entirely disappear, as he returns lightly: “Ah, the diary! We have not seen that yet. I must enjoy that wonderful diary, even if I have to steal it!”

“Never!” says the girl hoarsely, looking out over the horizon, the redness of confusion upon her cheeks, for she cannot meet his eyes whenever the diary is mentioned.

“Why not?”

Then Louise grows desperate, for he is smiling an awful smile. She mutters: “You shall never read that diary—never! I will throw it overboard first.”

Here he surprises her; he whispers impulsively: “How anger becomes you!” As in truth, it does, for Louise Minturn is a girl whose spirit is even more beautiful than her face, and in excited moments her soul shining out through radiant eyes becomes wonderfully dominant over her delicate and mobile face.

A moment after, Harry continues: “Yes, throw the diary overboard—do anything with it, but don’t write in it this lovely night.”

“Why not?”

“Because—” he hesitates slightly, then goes on with the audacity that is beloved by women; “because I want your company. You will take pity on me, and drive away the blues—won’t you? Promise me.”

And the girl answers slowly: “Y-e-s.” For there is an appeal in Harry Larchmont’s dark eyes, and it is the first time he has ever asked a personal favor, though he has given her many.

She turns away, murmuring: “Goodby!”

“You are going?”

“To be sure—to put my guitar in order.”

“Then au revoir until dinner.”

“Oh, I had forgotten dinner!”

“What! Forgotten dinner?” laughs the gentleman. “Oh, guitars and mandolins! Here is a romantic soul!”

Whereupon, covered by some sudden confusion, she hurries to her stateroom; and though she tunes her guitar, doubtless some of its chords are a little false, notwithstanding this young lady has a very correct musical ear.

For some occult reason, she does not make her appearance at dinner, until the second course. Perhaps it is because she has lingered, arraying herself in a new gown of softest folds and most radiant whiteness.

As she steps into the cabin, young Larchmont stops hastily in his fish, and mutters to himself: “Undine!”

She does not hear this, for the skipper at the head of the table suddenly breaks out with a chuckle, continuing a conversation that Louise has broken in upon: “I had supposed, Harry, you were in charge of Miss Minturn here, while everybody tells me you have been making love to the second-cabin passengers.”

“Miss Minturn, I believe, has discharged me, in favor of Herr Wernig, the Franco-German capitalist,” remarks Mr. Larchmont, as if disposed to put the brunt of the fight upon the young lady just taking her seat beside him.

This suggestion of Herr Wernig makes the girl angry, and the captain’s remark does not add to her self-control. He returns: “Well, it seemed very natural that you and Miss Louise should become comrades. You dance the cotillon with her cousin in New York, and ‘birds of a feather flock together’!”

Here the young lady interjects: “Yes, he dances with my cousin, Miss Minturn of Fifth Avenue, but she is very different from Miss Minturn the stenographer, of Seventeenth Street.” Then she says, unfalteringly: “Captain, you seem to be laboring under a misapprehension. I am not an exotic of fashionable New York. I am simply a young woman who makes her own living. This is not a pleasure trip to me. It is a matter of business. I am going out to be the stenographic correspondent of Montez, Aguilla et Cie.”

At this a little hush comes about the table. The ladies glance at her, some with astonishment, some with careless indifference—one or two with surprised admiration, most of the gentlemen joining apparently in the latter.

The captain suddenly says: “My dear young lady, I would rather have you sitting at my table than any Fifth Avenue girl I ever met. Harry”— here he looks at Mr. Larchmont—“seems to be of the same opinion. And I, as skipper of this vessel, would much sooner have him sitting by you on moonlight nights” (this last is a little whisper for her own particular ear) “than the German capitalist over there.” He nods towards the table where Herr Wernig is discussing his champagne with his third course.

But this announcement, that the girl has perhaps carelessly but very candidly made, seems to produce a difference in several people, in their bearing towards her. Among the ladies, some who had been quite effusive to the supposed belle of fashionable Fifth Avenue grow distant, perhaps supercilious; a few, those of undoubted social position, are, if anything, kinder to her than before; one or two of them, in leaving the cabin, making it their business to stop and speak to Miss Minturn. The gentlemen seem about the same; to Mr. Larchmont, this announcement of course makes no difference, he has known it all along.

As Louise rises from the table, he whispers: “Remember your promise. Cuban breezes, moonlight and music!”

But this news about the beautiful American girl, which after a little time drifts to his ear, seems to make one gentleman unusually joyous, and to affect his spirits even more than the champagne, of which he is unusually lavish this evening.

Sunset. Photograph by Arnold Genther, 1899 (loc.gov, ‘Travel views of Cuba and Guatemala’)

This is Herr Wernig, the Franco-German capitalist; and very shortly after, getting on deck, he strolls to Miss Minturn’s side, his manner effusive, and his tone even more affable than it had been in the afternoon, and whispers, “My dear Miss Louise, I am delighted to hear you are a stenographer—the stenographer of my grand friend, the Baron Montez of Panama and Paris. It will be a very fine position for you. I have great influence with the firm. I shall try to advance you.”

“Please do not trouble yourself on my behalf, in any way!” replies Louise; then laughs: “It would do no good. I am under contract. They will not raise my salary for a year.”

“But I insist—I must—I will apply for you! I cannot help it, my dear young lady, I have much business with your firm—in fact, confidential relations—I’ll ask them, when on the Isthmus, to appoint you my stenographer.”

Here Mr. Larchmont suddenly puts his camp-stool between Miss Louise and the German gentleman, to whom he whispers: “Herr Wernig, when you have any letter-writing to do, you come to me. I am corresponding clerk, also, of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company I am not as good a stenographer as Miss Minturn, but still I think I can do all the correspondence you wish—perhaps more.” The “more” is emphasized, as he happens to get the leg of his steamer-chair over the German’s toe, and seating himself on it, his one hundred and seventy-five pounds of athletic material makes Herr Wernig writhe.

He snarls: “Sir, do you know to whom you are talking? You clerk! I will have you discharged from the Pacific Mail.”

“You’ll have me discharged?” laughs Harry. Then a bantering tone coming into his voice, he says: “Oh, please don’t! For God’s sake, think of a young man left to starve on the Isthmus!” Next bursts into a sudden shriek of laughter, which indicates, if the worst comes to the worst, he has a stout heart, and will make out to subsist upon plantains, oranges, and bananas, that can be had for the plucking, in that land of tropical plenty.

But his laugh is lost upon the German gentleman, who has gone sullenly and silently away.

As he turns to Miss Minturn, Larchmont’s laugh ceases, for he sees something in the girl, that he has never seen before—her soul! And as it shines from her radiant eyes, it is more beautiful to him than all else he has seen of her, which up to this time has seemed to him the fairest of womanhood.

Besides there is something in her glance that makes him extraordinarily but unaccountably happy.

All through this evening, the young man seems to be in the highest spirits, as well he should be, having the beauty of the ship by his side.

They are a little apart from the rest of the passengers—just enough to make them tête-à-tête—but hardly sufficient to excite remark. The moonlight, shining over silver waves, streams on the deck, and makes it bright, but leaves them in shadow. One red ray, like a gigantic calcium, mingling with the moonlight on the water, comes from the lighthouse on the eastern point of Cuba; a shore that looks olive beneath the moonlight, but under the sun would be green as an emerald, and beautiful with flowers, could they but see them, but the soft breeze wafts over the water, odors that are magic as those of fairyland.

Looking on this, Harry Larchmont whispers to the young lady at his side: “Now give to this scene, music! Complete it, and let us forget all else in this wide world—except you and me.”

There is a suggestion of romance in his tone, but beneath all there seems a sorrow, which arouses the sympathy of this girl, who, until these last few days, had supposed that Harry Larchmont’s life was as bright as that of any mortal upon this earth. While she sings a little romantic, plaintive, piquant Spanish love song, just fitted for this moonlight night, she wonders what cloud has come over him. Then, at his request, she sings another, and being made enthusiastic by the scene and its surroundings, gives her heart to the melody, and her beautiful contralto voice very shortly draws others of the loiterers on deck about her.

Apparently this throng does not please Mr. Larchmont; he rises, and says: “Thank you for a perfect evening, Miss Louise,” and so passes away from the girl, though she notes that he does not go to the cardroom, but rather seeks his own cabin.

Girl with Guitar (1886), William Merritt Chase

Then the loungers around her beg for another ballad; and she sings it, but her heart is not in it.

A moment after, she leaves them, notwithstanding their entreaties for more Spanish melodies, and passing to her own stateroom, sits and looks out over the moonlit water, breathes in the perfumed air, and dreams a dream that is so happy she would continue it, did not the stewardess come and put her light out, and destroy romance with common everyday shipboard rules and regulations.

In her berth she gets to thinking, and murmurs to herself: “Poor fellow! What can have come into his life to make it sad?” Then awful distress comes upon her; she suddenly gasps, “He is parted from Miss Severn! That is the reason of his unhappiness!” and feels that her heart is drifting away from her, to a man whose love is given to another.

As for this object of her sympathy, he is not dreaming—he is swearing. He is saying to himself: “Dolt! Idiot! Why did you make an enemy of that fellow Wernig? He might have helped you in your investigations about Baron Montez.” Then he suddenly mutters: “I am glad I did it, anyway! Did he suppose a beautiful American girl would look with anything but disgust at such a creature? What did he mean, anyway?” Here he suddenly grinds out between his teeth: “If I were quite sure, I’d knock his foreign head off!”

A moment after, he meditates gloomily: “But I have other fish to fry than fighting Wernig. I am fighting Montez, not for Jessie’s sake, but for my own. I don’t want to give up two-thirds of my fortune to save my weak brother’s name and give his ward her dot. What can I find out on the Isthmus anyway? It is the last straw! I fear I am on a wild goose-chase. But the game is never lost till time is called, and I have got a few months yet!”

Whereupon he lights a cigar, strolls out of his cabin, and would shatter a fond idea of Miss Minturn’s, did she see him; for he goes to the cardroom, and plays poker most of the night, to drive away thought; this time with better success than the night before.

The fickle goddess smiles upon him, and he wins considerable money; some of it from Herr Wernig, who has apparently forgotten this young gentleman’s impertinence of the early evening, though once or twice there is an ominous look in his eccentric eye as he rolls it towards his fortunate opponent.


Notes and References

  • sous: French term for `cash’, among other meanings.
  • soupc̗on: a little bit, a trace. ‘ in the 18th century, English speakers borrowed “soupçon” from the French, who were using the word to mean “drop,” “touch,” or “suspicion.” The Old French form of the word was “sospeçon,” which in turn comes from the Latin forms suspection- and suspectio. Mirriam- Webster Dictionary.
  • fandango: a lively Spanish or Spanish American dance in triple time, performed by a man and woman playing castanets.
  • occult: of or relating to magic, astrology, or any system claiming use or knowledge of secret or supernatural powers or agencies. beyond the range of ordinary knowledge or understanding; mysterious. from Latin occultus (past participle of occulere “to hide from view, cover up”).
  • strabismus: a disorder of vision due to a deviation from normal orientation of one or both eyes so that both cannot be directed at the same object at the same time; squint; crossed eyes. Dictionary.com.
  • undine: any of a group of female water spirits described by Paracelsus.

Heaton, Eliza Putnam ‘A Sham Immigrant’s Voyage in Steerage 1888‘ . CG Archives.

Maritime Notes: In the Steerage, Crossing the Atlantic’. The Shipwrecked Mariner: Quarterly Maritime Magazine, Vol. 31, No. 123, July 1884, pp. 189-192 `Maritime Notes: In the Steerage, Crossing the Atlantic”.

Solem, Borge – ‘Steerage Passengers – Emigrants Between Decks‘. Norwayheritage.com

SS Colon blueprint. The Huntington Digital Library.

United States Passenger Act 1882. Glenvick-Gjonvik Archives.

This edition © 2021 Furin Chime, Brian Armour

Categories: Uncategorized

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