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

A.C. Gunter’s Baron Montez: 16. The Duplicate Tintype

Settling into life in ‘Little Paris’, Louise is about to embark on another journey: one of discovery. Whereas Harry will struggle to gain any ground through his dedicated efforts, evidence of Montez’s treachery will almost fall into her lap.

Readers will remember, in Chapter Three, George Ripley proudly showing Fernando Montez a tintype image of his wife taken in Sans Francisco, and Alice Ripley remarking that a copy had been sent to her daughter, Mary. Old objects pass through time in a way that human beings may not. Wayward, long-forgotten, they may gather dust, wear, tarnish, but still exist as an embodiment of a particular time. So it is with the tintype.

It is well to consider how Louise Minturn, granddaughter of George and Alice Ripley, came to be placed where she is. Miss Work, her former employer, who learning of a stenographer’s position for which she thinks Louise suitable above all others, arranges an interview. Louise, with only a stray thought of her missing grandparents lost those decades ago in Panama, and none of the deadly threat of yellow fever, accepts the job and its outstanding salary of sixty dollars a week. Then her multiple coincidental meetings and ongoing involvement with Harry Larchmont lead to the chance revelation that they share, not only a destination, but a common foe in Baron Montez, her new employer.

And it is Harry, not Louise herself, who arranges her accommodation with Silas Winterburn and his portentous ‘collection of curiosities’. Such coincidences might strain credulity unless one were to believe in the strength of subconscious intuition, of a cosmic consciousness capable of leading a trusting soul where they need to go. Or otherwise, the careful planning of an author wanting to surprise his reader with a familiar found object and create degrees of pathos at the same time. Significantly, revelation of the contents of the powder case glimpsed in the previous chapter, has been delayed.

Bastien Lefort resurfaces, virtually apoplectic at the extravagances he has witnessed in the building of the Canal Interoceanic. It does not seem to me extraordinary, however, that the Director-General’s house is luxurious, nor indeed that he is paid a startling salary—such incentives are required to entice someone of sufficient experience to risk their lives in the disease-ridden Panama. Were Lefort to look about some more, he would find examples of extreme waste: tons and tons of unsuitable equipment, never used, rusting by the canal (Parker, p.140). The narrator has already alluded to some surface indicators of corruption.

‘Boneyard of the Old French Machinery’ (McKinlay, 1912)

Describing the failure of the French attempt, United States Member of Congress Duncan E. McKinlay wrote:

… of the enormous sum of money raised by the French Canal Company, one-third was wasted, one-third grafted and one-third probably used in actual work.

It seemed as if anyone who had any sort of influence might sell that influence to the Panama company for some kind of a consideration. On the Isthmus today they will show you a storehouse containing about half a ship’s cargo of snow shovels which a manufacturing company in France succeeded in selling to the French Panama Company, no doubt in return for the influence they might be able to give in assisting in the sale of the French Panama Company’s stocks. Of course, one can easily see the ridiculous side of the purchase of half a cargo of snow shovels to be used in the tropics.

The Panama Canal (1912)

At the lowest level, pilfering was rife and the bribing of inspectors charged with estimating excavation costs common. Countless avenues existed for defrauding company funds, right up to the French banks and financial institutions who took generous cuts for processing the funding (Parker, p.140). Lefort would have been only one of eight hundred thousand investors. Thus far US$280 million dollars had been spent, and the French Panama Canal Company (Universelle du Canal Interocéanique) had liabilities many times that again (Parker, p.185). At the time, not only is the Panama Canal the largest engineering project ever undertaken on Earth, but also the greatest financial investment in human history.

Up to this point the novel has been aggregating material, essential background data for the reader on characters and events. From here on, the story cascades, uncovering and re-animating relics from the past. The chapter concludes once again in a conflict between Louise’s jealous desire for Harry versus the easy charm he wields over other females, this time in pursuit of the information he needs to nail Montez.



The next morning Miss Minturn, having American business methods in her mind, makes her appearance, after an early breakfast, at the office of Montez, Aguilla et Cie., on the Calle de Paez, but finds that it is not open, and is told by a negro boy who is in charge of it, that if she will call at eleven o’clock, they will be ready for business.

Consequently, though somewhat astonished, the young lady takes a walk about town, and going towards the bay, finds herself in the market of Panama, where a number of negro women and mulattoes are doing a thriving business in yuccas, frijolis, beef cut in long strips (tassajo), fruits, and fish.

Tempted by some of the beautiful fruit of the Isthmus, Louise buys an orange, and walks nonchalantly, eating it, towards the end of the railroad track which runs out on the wharf into the bay. Nearing this, she sees a building that is now almost in ruins, carelessly deciphers on it the words “Pacific House,” and suddenly gives a start. This is the place from which the last letter of Alice Ripley had been written to her daughter in the far away United States.

It brings the epistle home to her; Montez comes into her mind she wonders, and: “Can it be true—the wild accusations that the American has made against him? If he has ruined one friend in Paris, may he not have destroyed another frank, trusting soul upon the Isthmus?”

Filled with these thoughts, the girl strolls slowly down the wharf, to see a figure that appears familiar to her. It is that of the second-cabin passenger on board the Colon, Bastien Lefort.

The old man is sitting looking over the beautiful waters of the bay, which, as the tide is in, are now rippling at his feet. His eyes have a dreamy, far off expression, and he is muttering as if brokenhearted, words that come to Miss Minturn something like this:

“Five hundred thousand francs! Sapriste!—for the residence of the Director General! Seven hundred and fifty thousand francs! Mon Dieu!—for his country palace! Millions for luxury, the pigs—the swine—but little for work!”

Then to her astonishment, the man suddenly becomes very animated, for he utters a snarling, shrieking “Sacré! What shall I do? The savings of a life!” and goes dancing and muttering up the wharf in a semi-demented, semi-paralyzed manner.fc

But the beauties of the scene bring back her thoughts to it. It is fairyland!—and a fairyland she had never seen before, for no stage picture was ever so beautiful. The dainty islands of Flamenco, Perico, Tobaguilla, and in the distance faraway Toboga, rise before her from blue water, green—eternal green!

To the south, blue water;—though this seems to her west, for the points of the compass are wondrously changed here, to those not knowing them.

Panama City, View Taken from Mount Ancon (1885), wood engraved print, anon.

To the east, the coast running away to the far-off tower of deserted old Panama, and back of it green savannas and mountains that rise from it, islands in an emerald sea. To the north, the old gray ramparts of the city. But the sun is coming up upon this scene of beauty, and warned by its heat, the girl leaves the wharf and returns to the town of Panama, to make her appearance at the office of Montez, Aguilla et Cie.

Here she is received by the junior partner Aguilla, who is an old, pleasant, round-faced, honest-mannered Frenchman, one of the bourgeois class, who had been taught in his youth to save pennies, but now, in this era of extravagance, runs his business quite liberally.

“Ah,” he says, “Miss Minturn!” speaking to her in French, to which she replies in the same language. “I had received advices of your leaving New York from our correspondents, Flandreau & Company, who have forwarded to me your contract. Your duties here will not be difficult, nor unpleasant, I hope. You will chiefly take my dictation, and forward my letters, doing any other correspondence that may be entrusted to you. An American stenographer was engaged, at the suggestion of my partner, the Baron Fernando Montez.” The old gentleman speaks with great reverence of his titled associate. “He thought an American would have less interest in discovering any of our confidential transactions, and would be more difficult of approach than any one we could employ here. Your engagement, Miss Minturn, is a tribute to the respect my partner and I feel for the business honor of the United States.”

Then the old gentleman chuckles in a theatrical way: “Voilà Remington!” and shows her, in an adjoining office, a newly imported typewriter.

“It came with you, on the same steamer,” he laughs.

“Oh, I brought mine with me also!” says the girl.

“Ah, that will be convenient, if one gets out of order. Besides,” here a sudden idea strikes this gentleman, “I occupy a villa belonging to Baron Montez, on the Island of Toboga. We will have this sent there. I have often correspondence that requires attention on Sundays. Sometimes I will ask you to make a picnic to Toboga, on a bright day, where you will be pleasantly received by my wife who lives there. Thus we can save a delay of twenty four hours in our correspondence.”

A few minutes afterwards, Miss Minturn’s own machine, which has been sent from his house by the notary, arrives, and the young lady finds herself at her old occupation again, and playing upon the well-remembered but perhaps not well-beloved keys.

She is delighted to find she has a room to herself. It is immediately behind the private office of Monsieur Aguilla. The large general offices, three or four of them, are occupied by numerous clerks who go about business in a French way, with a good deal of excited jabber and volubility.

Miss Minturn’s first day’s correspondence is chiefly with the Panama Canal Co. Everything with that institution is done by letter. However, there are some outside epistles, one to the agent of the railroad at Colon, and another addressed to Domingo Florez, Porto Bello, State of Panama, enclosing a draft upon the Railroad Company at Colon, for the sum of fifty dollars.

“You can keep that form of letter,” remarks Aguilla, after dictating it, “as you will have to send a similar one every month to the old man, as it contains his remittance—his dividend on his Panama stock.”

Then the old gentleman looks with quick, eager eyes at the deft hands of the young lady, as they fly over the keyboard.

He laughs as he goes away, and says:

“You are like an artist on the piano. I feel quite proud of our firm! We have the only stenographer and typewriter on the Isthmus!”

Antique postcard showing a Smith Premier No. 4

This sets the girl to thinking. She the only stenographer in Panama—what could have put it into their heads? But the remark of Aguilla satisfies her on this point. They fear that their affairs would not be as private in the hands of someone who knew more about the state of business on the Isthmus—someone who perhaps might find it to his interest to disclose some of their contracts with the Panama Canal Company—one or two of the letters to that concern having made Miss Minturn open her bright American eyes, and wonder with her bright American mind, if there is not jobbery and rascality contained between their rather ambiguous lines.

But this is none of her business, and getting through with her work, Louise soon becomes interested in the movements of her fellow clerks, a few of whom are now introduced to her by the head of the house.

Most of these are young Frenchmen; although there are a few Spaniards and Chilians, there are no Americans among them. But, curiously enough, there is a Chinaman! He has charge of the accounts of the various laborers hired upon certain excavation contracts that the firm is engaged upon, and also carries accounts with several Chinese stores and booths scattered along the works of the Canal, between here and Colon.

Two of the clerks, however, interest her. They are both great dandies, one of them a young Parisian named Massol, and the other a Marseillais named D’Albert. These two young gentlemen are apparently well up in the office and have good salaries, as they stroll off to the Bethancourt for lunch, while the bulk of the employees are perfectly content with the more democratic and less expensive La Cascada, which is more convenient to the Calle de Paez.

Noting the employees going away, the young lady steps into Monsieur Aguilla’s private room, and says: “What must I do now?”

“Why, do what the rest of them have done. Run away to your breakfast!”

“Will I have time?” asks the girl, astonished, recollections of the rush of Nassau Street coming to her.

“Oh, certainly! There will be nothing for you to do till half-past two—say three o’clock. I will be here at three. Perhaps I may have a few letters.”

So the girl trips away quite lightly, though the sun is warm, wondering to herself: “Sixty dollars a week for this! At this rate I would have earned six hundred dollars a week at Miss Work’s.”

But she soon discovers that the heat is such that one cannot labor as vigorously in Panama as in New York.

When she gets home and has a déjeuner a la fourchette, she is very glad to escape from the sun, and under the cool veranda lounge out a couple of hours in a hammock siesta. It does not take long for old Sol to destroy even Anglo-Saxon activity in this land of the Equator.

So the week runs along, and grows heavy to her, for by this time she has become very anxious to see the bright face of Harry Larchmont. She has, however, heard about him several times from the loquacious clerks, D’Albert and Massol, the former of whom questions her regarding the young American. He remarks one day: “Mademoiselle, you came by the same steamer with Monsieur Larchmont, the new clerk of the Pacific Mail Company?”

“Yes,” replies the girl, “why do you ask?”

“Why? Because he is the most wonderful clerk in the world. His salary, I have inquired and discovered, is one hundred and fifty dollars a month. He spends one hundred and fifty dollars in a night. Now, if he were rich, he might be a clerk in other lands, but nobody who is rich would ever come down here to slave.”

Then he suddenly strikes his head, and says: “Mon Dieu! perhaps he is an embezzler! Perhaps he has fled from the United States!” for there are several of these gentry upon the Isthmus.

The girl answers, with indignant eyes: “Embezzler! What do you mean? Mr. Larchmont is a member of one of the richest families of the United States!”

“Oh, indeed! And mademoiselle is angry!” replies the young man. Then he bows to her mockingly, and remarks suggestively: “Monsieur Larchmont is also one of the handsomest men in the United States!”

Watching them as they go to breakfast, Louise notes with flaming eyes and indignant face D’Albert and Massol emit sly giggles, and indulge in shrugs of shoulders, and slight pokes in each other’s Gallic ribs.

Going off to her own afternoon intermission she smites her pretty hands together nervously, once or twice, and murmurs: “Yes, handsome! God help me! Too handsome for my happiness!” Then she says suddenly: “What a fool he is! Could he not have seen it was Miss Severn made me angry?”

So the time is heavy on her fair hands. Silas Winterburn has already gone back to his dredger on the Chagres, and Mrs. Winterburn devotes herself chiefly to her child and rummaging in her husband’s museum in the daytime, and listening to the music of the young ladies at night; for this is almost the only recreation that Louise has found.

According to Spanish custom, young ladies cannot go out by themselves, and old Martinez does not seem to ever think of taking his daughters to evening amusements.

“If they would only go to the theatre,” thinks Miss Minturn, “I could perhaps invite myself to go with them. There I might see him! What shall I do to pass the coming nights that are even now so long?”

And she has thoughts of writing a novel, or poetry, or some other wild literary thing that young ladies when driven by ennui, resort to, to bring despair upon publishers.

So Saturday arrives, and Louise imagines she will have a Sunday holiday, and thinks of doing the Cathedral. But before leaving the office for the afternoon, a large mail comes in, and Aguilla taking it in his hands says:

“Behold our Sunday work! Make up a little picnic. Ask one of your young lady friends, the Martinez, I believe you live with, or someone else, to come with you to Toboga. Run down tomorrow. I have had the new typewriter sent there. You will have a little office all to yourself in my villa. Come and pass the day with us, and take a two hours’ dictation from me. The Ancon goes down every morning, and you will enjoy the trip, I think. The expense, of course, will be mine.”

“Thank you,” replies the young lady, “I shall be delighted to come,” as in truth she is; for she knows it will be a pleasant excursion, having heard of the beauties of Toboga Island from other people besides her employer.

So she asks Mrs. Winterburn if she will not go with her, thinking she will be more protection, and perchance needs more recreation than the voluble Spanish girls, who seem to find their life in Panama a pleasant one, notwithstanding there is a dearth of suitors, as old Martinez has no great dot to bestow upon his numerous progeny.

Thus it comes to pass that Miss Minturn and the wife of the engineer, one bright Sunday morning, run down through the limpid waters of the bay, upon the steamboat which lands them amid the palms, plantains, and cocoanuts of Toboga Island, which is very fair—fair as when George Ripley looked upon it in 1856, though now slightly more modern.

They tramp up the little hill, and over the same walk that Fernando had skipped down that 15th day of April, and come to the villa of Baron Montez of Panama, which has been greatly enlarged from the bamboo and palm-thatched cottage of its early days.

 Seated on a veranda overlooking the bay. Louise finds the genial Frenchman and his family, and they make her at home, and treat her very kindly; and after a pleasant lunch, she takes half an hour’s dictation from the business man.

“Now,” he says, “I think you can write all these letters and have time to return to Panama this afternoon!”

He leads her into quite a large room which had once been used as a bedchamber, but which has been made into a temporary office, for there is a bureau, chest of drawers, and washstand in it. In this has been set up the typewriter.

Working rapidly, Louise finishes the letters in less time than she had expected.

As she hands them to Aguilla, he remarks: “Have this paper put away in the bureau. Make everything permanent for yourself. This dictation has been a great success! I am a day ahead in my week’s work. We will have more of these Sunday dictations.”

“Very well,” answers the young lady, “I will put the paper and envelopes in the drawers of the bureau.”

“Yes, I believe it is empty,” he replies. “I don’t think the room has been occupied for a long time, though my partner slept in it years ago, before even the Canal.”

So he leaves Mrs. Winterburn and Miss Minturn together, for the girl is putting on her wraps.

Susie says suddenly: “I will put away the paper for you, so we will have more time to catch the boat.”

“Thank you, I think the top drawer will be all I want,” answers Louise, by this time engaged with her hat strings.

“What a pretty picture!” suddenly exclaims the matron, from the depths of the bureau.

“Indeed?” says the young lady nonchalantly.

“Yes, I reckon she must have been some sweetheart of the Baron’s,” laughs the lady. “It’s quite your facial expression. Look!” and she thrusts the picture under the girl’s vision.

And suddenly Louise’s eyes grow great with startled surprise, and stare at a portrait! For it is the counterpart of the one she showed Harry Larchmont that day upon the Colon—the one even now she is carrying in her pocketbook.

She gasps—she almost staggers!

“Why, what’s the matter, dearie?” cries Mrs. Winterburn.

“Nothing, but a great surprise! Something that I may want,” says the girl suddenly, a kind of horror coming into her eyes,—“want you to bear witness to. See!” She has opened the pocketbook. “Compare these two—the one found in this deserted room—in the unused bureau—it is the duplicate! It is the picture of Alice Ripley, who disappeared on the Isthmus over thirty years ago!”

And she holding them before the astonished woman’s face, Mrs. Winterburn says, also growing pale: “Oh, goodness gracious! They are just the same! She was a relative of yours?”

”Yes, she was my mother’s mother,” whispers Louise. “She and her husband were robbed here of a fortune which should have been mine—at all events, it disappeared. This picture I am justified in keeping! But say nothing of it—not even to your husband.”

“Why, Silas can help you in the matter! He knows everything about the old Isthmus in those days!” gasps Mrs. Winterburn.

“Until I tell you—not a word to him! I must consider.”

The girl’s hand is laid warningly upon the woman’s arm, as Aguilla coming in, says: “Hurry, my dear young lady, or you will miss the boat!”

“Yes,” answers Louise. “Thank you for your hospitality!” and goes down the path falteringly, leaning upon Mrs. Winterburn’s arm.

So falteringly that Aguilla remarks to his wife: “Is sickness coming upon that poor child so soon? See, even now she looks pale—her limbs tremble. Can the yellow fever have found even her youth and beauty?” and sighs, turning away his face, for he has seen many a young face go down before Yellow Jack in this town of Panama.

But as they approach the landing, Louise starts and gives a jeering laugh, for Mrs. Winterburn has whispered to her: “Do you think he is the murderer?”

“He? Who?”

“Why, Aguilla, the man in the house.”

“No!” cries the girl. “He is as kind-hearted a Frenchman as the sun ever shone on! He has an honest heart! Though I think there is another who is not so scrupulous! But for God’s sake, keep silent! My future depends upon your promise!”

“Very well!” says the lady, “though I’d like to have told my husband!”

“I’ll tell him if necessary,” answers Louise.

Then they board the steamer, which ploughs its way back over the blue water to Panama, making the trip in about an hour; and all this time Miss Minturn is in a brown study no flight of flying fish attracts her, no big shark draws her gaze—her eyes look out on the blue water but see it not.

She is thinking: “He divined! He knew! I’ll tell Harry Larchmont! I’ll beg his pardon! I’ll tell him what a fool I was! I’ll ask his aid, and if Montez is guilty, I’ll help him throw the villain down!”

Now she becomes desperately anxious to see this man she has turned her back upon. She throws away mock modesty. Excitement gives force to her character.

Soon after they reach her home in Panama, Martinez says: “You are not tired; your eyes are very bright; your face has plenty of color, Señorita Luisa; why not take a walk with me and my daughters, on the Battery? Everybody goes there on Sunday afternoons, to hear the band play. It costs nothing.”

“Willingly!” cries the girl, for sudden thought has come to her: “If everybody goes to hear the band play, Harry Larchmont will be there!” She can speak to him. She can apologize and ask his advice and aid.

So they all stroll off to the Battery, which is but a step for them, and climbing up on the old ramparts, that have the city prison beneath them, they see the town in its glory—the white dresses of the ladies, the gay colors of the negroes, the fashions of Paris displayed in ancient setting of rare beauty; blue water on one side, the old town on the other; underneath, prisoners wearing out their lives in sepulchral heat; and overhead, gay Panama.

The crowd is brilliant as a butterfly and light and airy as the blowing breeze. The military band is playing, and the scene is radiant with French color and French vivacity, but it has tender Spanish music, for the band is South American, and Spanish music always brings love to young girls’ hearts.

Postcard, 1900

So there are tears in Louise’s brown eyes, and she is looking anxiously for Harry Larchmont, when suddenly there is even more than the usual French buzz about her, and she sees a beautiful woman in the latest mode of Paris, sweeping with bold eyes and flaunting step, and brazen look through the assemblage. The eyes of all are turned upon her, and she is laughing and flirting her parasol about her, and crying: “Bichon! Viens ici! Bichon! Vite!” to a French poodle that has been shaved in artistic manner, and is led by a maid beside her. She is talking to a gentleman whose form the girl recognizes and starts as she sees his face, for it is Harry Larchmont, and he has shut off all admirers from this lady’s side, and is talking to her, making play with his eyes, as if he loved her.

Then there is a whisper in the girl’s ears. It is that of old Martinez the notary, who knows everybody and says: “Turn away your heads, girls! It is that awful French actress—that fearful Mademoiselle Bébé de Champs Élysées, the heroine of a hundred loves, the chère amie of Baron Montez, the financier.”

But Miss Minturn does not turn away her head! She looks straight at the gentleman, who on seeing her is about to speak, but as her eyes gaze at him, his eyes droop, abashed, a flush of shame runs over his cheeks, that for one moment have become pale, and his lips tremble a little, though they force themselves to try to speak, as Louise Ripley Minturn, the stenographer of Seventeenth Street, New York, cuts Harry Sturgis Larchmont, of fashion and Fifth Avenue, dead—dead as the yellow fever!

Notes and References

  • frijolis: Mexican cooking bean.
  • Sapriste: ‘heavens’, ‘by Jove’.
  • déjeuner a la fourchette: luncheon or light meal.
  • Viens ici: come here.
  • Viens vite: come quick.

McKinnlay, D.E., The Panama Canal (San Francisco: Whitaker & Ray-Wiggin Co., 1912). gutenburg.org copy.

Mills, J. Saxon, The Panama Canal: A history and description of the enterprise (London & NY: T. Nelson and Sons, 1913). gutenburg.org copy.

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

This edition © 2021 Furin Chime, Brian Armour

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