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

A.C. Gunter’s Baron Monez: 14. Little Paris

Following Louise’s outburst at Harry’s suggestion she spy for him, emotions are still up in the air. She remains stalwart, and Harry is flummoxed by her behavior. Following a request from the captain, Harry gets to strut his stuff once more with another young lady, much to the chagrin of Louise. However, Harry’s parting gesture is to secure her safe accommodation in Panama.

The steamship completes its voyage at Colon on what was a ‘marshy islet‘ called Manzinillo. Relieved of the confines of shipboard relations, our romantic characters assume further depth through their interactions with other new characters: Mr. Stuart of the Pacific Mail company, who shows her around the town; and a flamboyant Silas Winterburn and his wife. Historically, the town of Colon had been a focus of ongoing political struggle and civil war in Colombia (bearing in mind that Panama was still a province of Colombia). Three years earlier than Gunter’s setting in 1888, Panamanian rebels had destroyed most of the town by fire, during the Panama crisis of 1885.

Gunter provides descriptions and scenic notes on the train trip to Panama city, dramatizing the historical route. Works information given by Louise’s new friend’s husband, Silas Winterburn, is graphic and picturesque as the character himself. Starting from Colon (earlier called Aspinwall) on Manzinillo Island, they traverse the Mindee river, pass Monkey Hill (Mount Hope), and move on through the settlements of Gatun and Bohio Soldado (“Soldiers’ Home”). Crossing the Chagres River, they transit further villages along the line–Barbacoas, Gargona (Gorgona), and Culebra–before reaching Rio Grande station, Panama.

Excavation of Culebra Cut (1896)

Historically, apart from Yellow Fever, a gigantic excavation known as the Culebra Cut was the primary obstacle in engineering the Panama Canal. The Culebra, or ‘Snake river’ in English, is part of the Continental Divide, separating Lake Gatun on the Atlantic Ocean side from the Pacific Ocean access. In total, the French excavated 18,646,000 cubic yards of material from the Cut (Avery, p. 72). They reduced the height above sea level from 64 m (210 ft) to 59 m (193 ft) (Goethals).

This chapter is the end of Book Three. Having settled his romantic characters in Panama, Gunter has his narrator comment on the possible future of the canal attempt. It is one thing for him to speculate on future fictional events; but hardly those of actual outcomes in the real world. In the novel, it is 1888, a crucial year in the history of the French undertaking to build the Panama Canal. In January, Gustav Eiffel’s men had arrived to make preparations for the installation of a series of locks. This was a major concession by De Lesseps, who had always insisted that the canal would be à niveau’—at sea-level.

The required funding did not eventuate, and by December1888 the company was declared bankrupt and placed in the hands of liquidators (Parker, pp. 180-182). Gunter is of course aware of these events; indeed, January, 1893, the year of the novel’s publication, saw De Lesseps and his son Charles before the courts. The narrator’s comments obliquely preface the coming collapse of the French enterprise and offer a forlorn prophecy regarding a return to Nature. Gunter did not live to see the United States’successfully complete the Panama Canal in 1914.


CHAPTER 14

LITTLE PARIS

Neither Harry Larchmont nor Miss Louise Minturn make their appearance at lunch this afternoon upon the Colon.

At dinner, only monosyllables pass between them, which the captain noticing whispers into Miss Louise’s pink ear to make it red: “Didn’t I tell you kisses stop at the gangplank?”

Just here the seadog’s attention is fortunately attracted by what is happening to another young lady under his charge.

Miss Madeline Stockwell, the pretty girl who is going to California to be married to the Los Angeles orange grower, oblivious of the vows she is journeying to take, has been indulging in a flirtation with the young Costa Rican, which has gradually grown from mild to tempestuous; from tepid to boiling hot!

This young gentleman, not understanding English very well, has failed to catch what has been generally known about the ship, of this young lady’s engagement. But now, the voyage drawing to a close, some one has been kind enough to inform him, in good Spanish, that Miss Madeline, who has entangled him in the silken meshes of love, and whose bright eyes have grown to be very beautiful to him, and whom he has had wild dreams of transporting, after Church ceremony of course, to his coffee plantation near San Jose, is already promised to another!

So all the afternoon Don Diego Alvarez has been going about with a Tibault glare in his eyes, and is now eating his dinner in a gloomy, vindictive manner, cutting into his salad as he would into the orange farmer’s throat, were he within knife reach.

Soon after, all go on deck.

Here is his opportunity. He steps towards the pretty Madeline, who has been hiding from him in her stateroom most of the day, and whispers something in her ear, at which she turns deathly pale, for she is now mortally frightened at this demon of Spanish love that she has conjured up, and that will not down.

Noting this, the skipper, laying his hand on Larchmont’s shoulder, whispers to him: “Harry, will you do me a favor?”

“Certainly, if possible.”

“Well, here is a matter in which I cannot interfere unless I go to extreme methods. Young Alvarez is frightening that foolish girl. She has been silly enough to encourage him, and Spanish blood, when encouraged and then jilted, is sometimes obstreperous. Now you kindly take care of the young lady this evening. Tomorrow morning we will be at Colon, and after I have landed her, pretty Miss Madeline Stockwell can handle a Spanish flirtation as she pleases. Don’t leave her alone with him—that’s a good fellow!”

Anon. vintage photograph

Now Mr. Harry is exactly in the mood for something desperate himself. He has just had another short but exciting tête-à-tête with Miss Minturn, in a little dark spot of the deck that the rising moon has not yet intruded on.

“You have not changed your mind about me, I see?” he has whispered, noting that Louise’s eyes are still uncompromising in expression.

“Certainly not; about your proposition!”

“And you accuse me of attempting to gain your friendship with the idea of making it?” the young man has asked hotly.

“It would seem so. Why else?”

“Why else? You are too modest. Don’t you think,” he has gone on warmly, “that you have other attractions than being the stenographer of Baron Montez? Didn’t I treat you with consideration before that? Did I ask your aid until those accursed letters showed me that you were probably his victim as well as my brother and Jessie?”

“Oh, it is for Miss Severn’s sake that you ask me to do a thing I consider dishonorable? Learn that I consider a stenographer’s conscience as valuable as an heiress’s money!” the girl has muttered very haughtily, for her position makes her oversensitive. “Please do not speak to me again until you remember it also!”

So turning away, she has left Larchmont in a very bad humor, for he feels he is badly treated. He has muttered to himself sarcastically: “I wonder if she thinks I saved her from the snow that night, because I divined she was going to be the stenographer of Montez, Aguilla et Cie.? She’s as unjust as she is beautiful.”

Consequently at present Harry is about the worst person the captain could have chosen to pour oil upon the troubled waters of Miss Madeline Stockwell’s flirtation, although he accepts the office with alacrity. He whispers to the skipper: “See me cut the Costa Rican out!” then proceeds to join a tête-à-tête that is becoming exciting; for young Alvarez has just placed his hand upon his heart, and said with a rolling of the eyes: “Señorita, remember it is his life or my own! Tell that to your orange rancher!”

“Good evening. Miss Madeline!” interjects Harry; and is very effusively received by the girl, who would be pleased at any time to receive attentions from this élève of New York society, but at this moment would be happy to have Old Nick himself intrude upon her interview with Don Diego.

It is a little trembling hand that the American takes in his as Miss Stockwell whispers nervously: “I—I am delighted to see you, Mr. Larchmont. Permit me to present Señor Alvarez. I—I cannot always understand his Spanish. He speaks so fast and ex—excitedly.”

“Can’t understand him, eh?” says Harry; “then permit me to be your interpreter;” and coolly places a steamer-chair between the young Costa Rican and his inamorata.

Next turning upon the astonished Don, he mutters rather surlily: “Supposing you say to me what you were going to say to her.”

“Say to you, Americano,” gasps the astounded Alvarez, “what I was going to say to the light of my soul, the Señorita Madeline?” Then looking at the American contemptuously, he says: “Bah! you do not interest me!”

“Don’t I?” replies Harry courteously “Then perhaps Miss Maddy will be kinder to me. Don’t you think a promenade this pleasant night would suit you?” and he offers his arm to flirtatious Miss Stockwell, and takes her away, leaving the Costa Rican grinding his teeth at him, for Mr. Larchmont has a very tender manner with pretty girls, and Alvarez, noting his devotion to the young lady in the moonlight, includes him in his vendetta with the orange farmer, as rival number two.

Harry’s attentions to Miss Stockwell are not unobserved by Miss Minturn, who thinks to herself: “He has not succeeded in gaining me over to his plans. Therefore I am of no more interest to him. See how he proves the truth of what I accuse him!” This feminine logic makes Louise’s heart grow very hard to Harry Larchmont, as he paces the deck of the Colon, whispering idle nothings to Miss Madeline Stockwell; for this young lady has a habit of thinking all men in love with her, and rolls her eyes most affectionately at the big fashionable creature, who she thinks has fallen before her charms.

So Louise, growing desperate, mutters to herself: “If he shows indifference, why not I?” And Herr Alsatius Wernig chancing to come along, she receives his effusive attentions with a great deal more kindness than she has hitherto shown to him, and puts him in the seventh heaven of expectant delight, though ever and anon Mr. Larchmont turns an evil eye upon her, as he passes her on the deck.

Consequently Miss Louise Minturn and Mr. Harry Larchmont, who had greeted each other this morning so warmly, go to bed this evening with bitter feelings in their hearts towards each other. Not the bitterness of hate, but the bitterness of love, which is sometimes equally potent, and ofttimes produces as unpleasant results.

As for Miss Stockwell, she is radiantly happy. She imagines she has got rid of one flirtation that bothered her, and taken up another that she thinks will not bother her.

Later in the evening, Mr. Larchmont, after packing his baggage, and getting in general order for going ashore next day at Colon, sits down and writes a letter, giving to it one or two sighs, and one or two imprecations; and just before going to bed, remarks: “So far, I don’t think my trip to Panama has been a success!” for this very evening he has added another enemy to his list—Don Diego Alvarez, the Costa Rican.

The next morning, bright and early, everyone is up, for land has been sighted!

From the deck, they see the distant Andes of South America.

Then, after a time, from out its mists, they can distinguish the Tierras Calientes, that rise, a mass of tropical verdure, before them: from which, wafted by breezes over sparkling waves, are the odors of myriad plants and flowers. For what has been blustering, chilly spring in New York, is now early summer under the Equator.

Then churning the blue waters, the great ship enters Navy Bay, and before them lies Manzinillo Island, on which stands the town of Colon—a mass of low red brick structures, brightened here and there by palm trees; embellished on its sea side by a number of parallel wharves that go straight into the bay, lined with the shipping of all nations.

To their left are the pretty residences of the officers of the canal, on the Island of Christophe Colon, to which a causeway has been filled in, at great expense, by the ever-lavish Canal Interoceanic.

Then the steamer running into her dock, ranges alongside the wharf, and ties up to it.

All of this would have been noted with a good deal of interest by Miss Minturn, did not a more personal matter take up her attention.

In the last moments of a voyage, just before landing, some of the niceties of ship etiquette are forgotten; and taking advantage of this, a pleasant looking round-faced woman, very neatly dressed, and leading by the hand a pretty child, leaves the second cabin, and coming to Miss Louise, presents a letter saying: “Mr. Larchmont asked me to give you this.”

Looking over it, the girl is astonished by the following:

Steamer Colon, March 30th, 1888.

“Dear Miss Minturn:

“Though you may consider it an impertinence, I take the liberty of making this suggestion to you. I have been thinking over the position in which you will be placed—a young lady, unknown, and alone in a foreign city—Panama.

“Of course the firm by whom you are engaged, and Mr. Stuart, will do everything they can for your comfort; but still perhaps the matter of domicile may be a difficult one to you. You should have a home with some company and some protection.

“Under the circumstances I venture to suggest to your favorable consideration, Mrs. Silas Winterburn. She has rooms and board in the Spanish family of an old notary named Martinez, in Panama—that is, when she is not with her husband, who is stationed with his dredger at this end of the Canal.

“The Martinez family, she informs me, will be able to accommodate you, at a reasonable figure. Consequently I presume to mention this to you.

“Yours most respectfully,

“Harry Sturgis Larchmont.”

Looking at these words, the girl sees the handwriting that came on the card with the violets, and her heart grows softer to the gentleman whose hand has penned this note.

She says to the woman: “I am happy to meet you, Mrs. Winterburn. Mr. Larchmont has been kind enough to mention that you could assist me in obtaining a domicile in Panama;” and holds out a welcoming hand.

This is cordially gripped by the woman, who replies:

“Thank you very kindly! I hope you will come with me. It will be so nice to have someone to talk to in English. The other time I was there, I did not understand Spanish, or French, and it was so lonely!”

As she says this, the steamer is at the wharf, and Louise finds herself face to face with a kindly-looking florid gentleman, whom the captain introduces as Mr. Stuart of the Pacific Mail, and to whom Miss Minturn presents her letter of introduction.

As he is reading it, Mrs. Silas Winterburn and her pretty child have been hugged, kissed, and hugged again, by a peculiar-looking man, who was once tall, but has apparently been shrivelled by the sun from six feet one to five feet ten.

“Miss Minturn, this is my husband!” says the woman very proudly.

And the man adds: “By Plymouth Rock and Sanctus Dominus! I’m almighty glad to grip such a pretty girl by the hand.”

“Oh, how do you do, Winterburn?” remarks Stuart cordially, looking at the mechanic.

“Quite spryish, governor,” is the answer.

Here Miss Minturn takes opportunity of explaining what Mr. Larchmont had suggested in the letter.

After a moment’s consideration, Mr. Stuart says: “I really think that would be the best plan for you in Panama. Of course I shall see you safely onboard the cars, and that all preparations are made for your pleasant transport across the Isthmus. But though I can engage rooms for you in Panama, by telegraph, I do not think for a young lady situated as you are, they will be as pleasant as those in the family of old Martinez, the notary, where you will have at least American society and the protection of honest Silas Winterburn and his wife.”

“Oh, everybody knows me,” remarks Silas, “from Colon to Panama, and from the Atrato to Chiriqui! I am the American pioneer of the Isthmus!”

“The pioneer of the Isthmus?” echoes Louise, astonished.

“Yes! Caramba! I beg your pardon!—I beg your pardon! I sometimes swear in Spanish from force of habit. I was a fireman on the first through train on the railway in ’55.”

“And have you been here ever since?”

“I’ve buried three families here, of yellow fever,” says the man, wiping a tear from his eye. Then he goes on in a happier voice: “But I’ve got started with number four!” And looking with loving eyes upon his wife, he whispers: “I think she’ll last me through. The other three were timid things from factories in Mass’chusetts, and most died of fright at the thought of Yellow Jack!”

This is said in a manner that astonishes Miss Minturn, for Silas seems to suffer agony at the remembrance of his three lost families, but to be equally happy in the contemplation of the present one.

By this time they have all got ashore, Louise noting that Mr. Larchmont is well ahead of her, and already in conversation with one or two officers of the Panama Railroad, who chance to be Americans he has seen in New York. This young man’s chief object now seems to be to make acquaintance with everybody on the Isthmus, and apparently he is succeeding.

Then genial Mr. Stuart shows his pretty charge over the town, which consists chiefly of two rows of houses and stores running the length of the island, with the Panama Railroad shops on the south end of it, and the attachment called Christophe Colon at the north, and the canal, which is the Chagres River turned from its course, running past it: all this with a few palm and cocoanut trees thrown in, a mangrove swamp behind it, and a series of wharves in front of it that run out into the blue waves and soft surf which ripples upon a beach of coral sand.

Half an hour of this is sufficient; then Mr. Stuart puts Louise on the train beside Mrs. Winterburn, the happy Silas and his little daughter occupying the opposite seat. The cars are crowded by a heterogeneous mass of foreigners. The bulk of the conversation however is French, for this canal with its thousand officers and myriad laborers in 1888, had made the Isthmus from Colon to Panama practically a French colony.

Mr. Larchmont is not on the car in which Miss Minturn is seated. Therefore she does not speak to him, though she would have liked to; for she is beginning to repent of her hasty expressions towards him, which had been caused not only by his proposition, but by Miss Severn’s connection with it.

She is even now thinking, “His letter this morning brought me protection, when I had treated him harshly. He has done me many kindnesses; and I have refused to do him one! I don’t think I could ever bring myself to his proposition, still I forgive him for making it. Yesterday, jealousy made me cruel!”

Then she mutters to herself: “Jealousy! Pshaw! I am not jealous! Whom am I jealous of?” And glares around as if to find out the person on the train, but only catches the eye of Mr. Winterburn.

This eccentric says: “What’s the matter, sissy? Are you looking for a beau? There’s plenty here. Por Dios! I beg your pardon for the swear. Most every one’s unmarried about here. By all the saints in the Cathedral! bachelors and widowers predominate.”

“You—you seem to be very well acquainted with the Isthmus, Mr. Winterburn,” stammers the girl, throwing off meditation. “You say you are a pioneer?”

“Yes, had the fever in 1856 and got acclimated. Since then I have found it as healthy as the Penobscot—for me! Other people sicken and die, but I thrive. I reckon, when we were building this railroad, we planted a man for every tie. Now I think the Canal is even beatin’ our average.”

This eulogium upon the climate of the Isthmus gives Louise a shiver; she turns the conversation by suggesting: “You must have seen many curious things here?”

“Yes, everything from revolution and riot, to balls and fandangos.”

“Revolution and riot!” says the girl, and is about to ask him something eagerly, when glancing out of the car window she suddenly ejaculates: “How beautiful! How fairylike!”

For the train has run out of Colon, and leaving the island, is dashing through the swamps of the Mindee that are fairylike in beauty, but awful in miasma and death.

So they come to the mainland with its rank vegetation, in which are trees of a myriad species, flowers of a thousand hues, vines and creeping plants, each different from the other, making a thicket that is a garden.

So passing Monkey Hill, they reach Gatun, getting here a first glimpse of the main Chagres; and turning up its valley, the cars run under great lignum vita; trees covered with parasites, and palms of every species, from the giant grande̕ to those of smaller stem and more feathery leaves.

Every now and then, they pass a little native rancho with its thatched roof, and inevitable banana plantation. These are varied by occasional orange groves, and now and then a glimpse of the Chagres River, quiet and limpid in this the dry season, and rippling peaceably between banks of living green to the Caribbean. It is now disturbed, here and there, by the huge dredgers of the American Company—great masses of machinery that scrape the mud of the river from its bottom, to build up side walls to protect its banks.

“It is one of them fellows that I work on as engineer, Miss Minturn,” says Winterburn, looking up from his little daughter, who has grown tired, and is sleeping contentedly in his lap.

Now and again they get glimpses of trading stations for canal laborers, some of them kept by Chinamen, till finally they arrive at Bohio Soldado.

“That’s my place of residence!” ejaculates Silas, who has now become communicative. “But I’ve three days leave, and so I’ll see you and the old lady through to Panama. Do you note that p’int?” he says, after twenty minutes more travel, “that’s the head of the dredging, and from there on, the Canal Company tackles not mud, but rocks. And rocks,” here he whispers to the girl, a curious twinkle in his eye, “is what’ll down ’em!”

And then passing the great bridge over the river at Barbacoas they run up the other bank to Gargona, and from that on, by gradually increasing grades, come to Culebra, where the Canal people have their deepest cut to make.

The Conquerors (Culebra Cut, Panama Canal), 1913, Jonas Lie (Source Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

“Oh, goodness!” cries the girl, “what an enormous excavation!”

“It’s the biggest in the world,” answers Silas. Then he whispers confidentially, “But there is five times as much more to dig.”

“Why,” cries Louise, “they’ll never do it!”

“Not this trip! Por la Madre!” assents Winterburn solemnly.

But other views drive Culebra from the girl’s mind. They are descending the mountain; before them the great savanna that leads to Panama, and the white waters of the Pacific. Running down through hills that gradually become smaller, they come to the Rio Grande station, and first see the river that is to be the western waters of the canal.

From there on, dashing over savannas ever green, they note at their right hand, some gray buildings on a hill.

“That’s the Canal yellow-fever hospitals, where the poor critters will get a little breeze,” says Silas, eager to do the honors of the Isthmus.

But leaving these, three miles away they run into a little station where carriages with native drivers are waiting for them, to drag them through dirty lanes into the town of Panama itself.

This is now a little Paris. French people jabber about them at the station, and the language of Normandy and Brittany dominates the Spanish tongue; for la belle France has come over the Isthmus to capture Panama.

Twice before this has been attempted. Twice with success! Once Morgan and his daring band of every nation freebooters came up the Chagres, and conquering, bore away with them the treasures of the western ocean. Then American enterprise fought its way with iron rail through the swamps of the Mindee, and up the valley of the Chagres, and through the gate of the mountains, and reached this town, to take its tribute from the commerce of the world, and pay to stockholders the dividends of Dives.

And now comes France—not to cross the Isthmus, but to drive through it, and thus levy toll upon the navies of the sea!

The Isthmus, subdued twice, will it be conquered again? Nature—the awful giant nature of the tropics—will it triumph? Will this land go back to nature, and become silent as when the Spanish Conquestadores first landed on its shores to make the Indians curse the white sails which bore to them a Christianity that came with blood and bigotry, to make them slaves?


Notes and References

  • ‘this élève of New York Society’: élève meaning ‘student’, in the sense of l’élève de la nature, ‘the student of nature’ (e.g., De Beaurieu, 1789).
  • inamorata: A woman loved in a romantic way is one’s inamorata. From the Italian innamorare, “to fall in love”. Vocabulary.com
  • Tierras Calientes: Tierra caliente (hot land) includes all areas under about 900 m (3000 ft). These areas generally have a mean annual temperature above 25°C (77°F). Their natural vegetation is usually either tropical evergreen or tropical deciduous forest. Farms produce tropical crops such as sugar-cane, cacao and bananas. – Geo-Mexico.com
  • Penobscot: North American Idian tribe. ‘The word “Penobscot” originates from a mispronunciation of their name for themselves: Penawapskewi. The word means “the people of where the white rocks extend out” and originally referred to their territory on the portion of the Penobscot River between present-day Old Town and Verona Island, Maine’ (Wikipedia).
  • Dives: the rich man of the parable in Luke 16:19–31. Any rich man. Pron. dahy-veez (Dictionary.com). ‘Dives’: Latin for ‘rich’. See Mainly Norfolk.

Avery, Ralph E. America’s Triumph in Panama. Chicago, 1913: L.W. Walter Co.. Freely available at Internet Archive

Goethals, Colonel George W. (Chief Engineer). The Panama Canal (Address to National Geographic Society Feb., 1911)

Parker, M. Hell’s Gorge:The Battle to Build the Panama Canal. Arrow Books, 2007

This edition © 2021 Furin Chime, Brian Armour

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