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

A.C. Gunter’s Baron Montez: 18. Bébé’s Little Present

It’s hard not to appreciate Fernando, our polyhaemic ex-mule boy, pearl salesman, opportunistic thief, kidnapper and killer, assumed Baron, self-taught financier. He is literate in at least two languages, no doubt through his own efforts. A man of the world, or as Gunter fancies him, a monstrous cannibalistic beetle, Montez is not one to rest in his insidious activity. While Harry is inland continuing his investigations at the worksites along the canal route, Bébé and Montez come to grips figuratively in their own psychopathic self-interested ways. This has unfortunate consequences for both Bébé and Harry.

Gunter, again through the memory of Montez, revives thoughts of Alice’s long-lost string of pearls. Where could they be? The sleuths among us may already have a good idea—as he planned it. For when their location is revealed the reader will experience gratification at being rightthat ‘I knew it!’ moment.

The reader has eagerly awaited Louise’s first contact with Montez and is not disappointed. We have seen indications of her inner mettle in her dealings with Harry, but a truly independent woman now emerges. Part of creating sensationalism lies in challenging conventions—in this case, literary ones that reflect the patriarchal society. In the latter half of the19th Century strong female characters were coming of age, a reflection of the aspirations of a predominantly female readership.

It is widely agreed that since the middle of the 19th century, no book can hope for popular success if it does not attract large numbers of women readers, because women were and are the majority of readers in America.

Tiffany Aldrich MacBain (qtd. in Baym, p. 277)

Catering for this market were prolific women writers such as Ann S. Stephens (1810-86), whose Malaeska—the first work described as a ‘dime novel’—sold over three hundred thousand copies, and Mary J. Holmes (1825-1907) who wrote over thirty novels with sales exceeding two million books. E.D.E.N Southworth’s (1818-99) comic novel The Hidden Hand (1859, 1888) was one of the most popular books of the time. Her subversive protagonist, the tomboy Capitola Black, presents “a counter image to the sentimental heroine” but remains more of an amusing fantasy than a “vision of reality” (Dobson, pp. 235-6).

Gunter is at once aware of his competition and sensitive to the demands of his readership. Set against the prevailing feminine ideals of submission and self-sacrifice, his conflicted heroine Louise is a character who will challenge societal mores and elicit the admiration of his female readers.

Frederick Vincent Theobald (1905)

Yellow Jack predictably makes its presence felt amongst the cast of characters. From the perspective of a twenty-first century reader, the lack of connection made to the mosquito as a carrier seems striking. There is only one mention of them in the novel, during Harry’s first night in his new accommodation, when he cannot sleep for thoughts of Louise, and blames them for his restlessness. It seems obvious to us that wherever there are diseases such as yellow fever and malaria there are mosquitoes, yet the apparently obvious connection is not made.

However, it wasn’t until 1897 that Sir Ronald Ross discovered that the Anopheles mosquito was the vector for malaria. In 1898, Dr. Henry Rose Carter, working in Mississippi, and following a theory of transmission earlier proposed by Dr. Carlos Finlay, established the connection between Aëdes aegypti and the spread of Yellow Fever (Parker, p. 267).

This did not mean the theory was readily accepted. Even in 1905, when American nurses took over the hospital at Ancon Hill, Panama City, they installed mosquito nets over the beds of the ill, only to find that the resident nuns had tied them back with colorful ribbons (Parker, p. 273).

Speaking of insects, the placebo that Montez feeds Le Fort and Aguilla for their complaints over the dire state of the project, is the upcoming ‘Lottery’. From the outset Montez has always privately anticipated the failure of the Panama Canal attempt. From the beginning he has seen it as ill-conceived and its completion unviable. In this he is hardly alone, it is the primary American opinion. In 1884 the New York Herald predicted:

It is probable the present company will go into bankruptcy or liquidation within three years and the enterprise be taken up and completed by a new company or a government.

Parker, p. 143

In the Canal’s ongoing history of financial struggle, there have been many times when its continuance was on the brink. Montez’ ability now to anticipate when to retreat from dealings in Canal Interoceanic financials, contracts and shares is remarkable. Perhaps, rather than a devious opportunist, he can be seen as merely a lucky beneficiary of circumstance.


Bébé’s Little Present

Some instances of this come under Miss Minturn’s bright eyes the next morning, in the office. Old Aguilla is still smiling, happy and contented, but after a short but excited private conversation with the Baron, who has come in languidly about eleven o’clock, the junior partner appears anxious, distrait, nervous, and uncomfortable.

“Never mind, my old man,” laughs Montez, looking on Aguilla’s gloomy face. “The Corps Legislatif will surely pass the Lottery Bill, and then all will be well.”

Reassured by this, Aguilla goes about his business. But a few minutes after, there is a terrible commotion in the office. Bastien Lefort has been admitted to the private office of Baron Montez.

He is screaming at him so everybody hears: “Mon Dieu! You have come at last! I have been waiting for you! You! You!! who lured me to invest my all in this bubble of extravagance! One hundred thousand francs for this! A million for that! All thrown away! Rascality and fraud! Sacre̕ nom de Dieu! the savings of a lifetime!”

He shrieks this out so wildly that the clerks run into the private office, thinking him a madman who will per chance attack the Baron.

Montez, cool and calm, says: “Restrain yourself! Mon cher Lefort, this is nonsense! Are not your dividends paid you regularly?”

“Yes, my dividends,” groans the man. “But the principal! The Canal will never be built!”

“Oh, nonsense! The Lottery Bill will pass next month—and then, my boy, then!”

“But my shares have gone down so much!”

“Oh, but then, the Lottery Bill, then—wait!”

“I do not understand,” murmurs Lefort. “I cannot understand!”

“Of course not. You are not a financier, you are a glove merchant. Leave it to me! Place yourself in my hands—the Lottery Bill—go back to Paris—remain quiet—the Lottery! All will be well!”

“Oh, but the extravagance—the throwing away of precious gold!” murmurs Lefort undecidedly.

“You speak to me as if I were one of the directors,” remarks Montez, “when I am but a stockholder like yourself. We are both stockholders! Still, when we are in Paris, we will go to the directors and explain to them things that they do not know; or perhaps you had better remain here, and keep me posted when I go to headquarters in Paris. I will see you again.”

Dr Cornelius Herz, one of those responsible for [financing the failed canal project], gets on a train to flee France after the collapse of the company. Watercolour drawing by H.S. Robert, ca. 1897. See note.

And he puts off the broken-down miser with fairy promises, until the old man smiles and says: “Yes! Yes! my dividends —I still receive them! I will still believe!” and so goes away.

Then Montez devotes himself to his private correspondence, taking great care over one long letter, during the writing of which he sometimes refers to a large black pocketbook that he produces from an inner pocket of his vest, not his coat. This appears to be filled with papers and memoranda. When he has finished with it, he returns it very carefully to his safe vest pocket again.

All this comes under Louise’s bright eyes, as she is seated at her typewriter in the room behind the private office. The day is hot, and the door has been left open for draught. Miss Minturn has set herself to watch this man she suspects, and now that he is near her, though the keys of her Remington click unceasingly, every sense is alert as to what passes at Montez’ desk.

A few moments after, she comes face to face with him, and his easy, affable manner interests her as well as astonishes her.

After finishing his private correspondence, Fernando calls in Miss Minturn, and dictates a few unimportant letters to her; most of them being in response to invitations to dinners and fetes from the resident managers of the Canal as well as a few other local magnates of finance and trade in this town of Panama.

The last of these finished, as Louise is about to go, he asks her a few questions: how she likes Panama—is she pleasantly located in the house of Martinez, the notary—she boards there, he understands—and hopes she will enjoy herself upon the Isthmus, and that her labors will not be too severe.

He would, in his quiet offhand way, get a good deal of information from her, were the young lady not en garde; but she simply thanks him for his interest in her comfort, and turns to go.

Just here a sudden idea seems to enter his head. He calls out after her: “By the by, Miss Minturn, do you known the address of Monsieur Henri Larchmont?”

“No,” replies the girl, suddenly returning.

“Ah, I’m sorry. I would have sent him a letter I have for him from his brother Francois in Paris. He intrusted it to me.”

“Why did you think I knew Mr. Larchmont s address?” asks Louise, hurriedly, her cheeks growing a little red.

“Oh! ha! ha! My friend Herr Wernig said you and the gentleman were quite companions on the steamer.”

“Since the steamer, I have not seen him,” says Louise; an intonation in her voice, Fernando does not quite understand.

“So your comradeship ceased at the gangplank. It often does!” laughs the Baron languidly. Then he continues: “Doubtless it is just as well. Monsieur Henri is rather a gay youth. Besides, I think there is a pretty Miss Jessie Severn in Paris. Eh, mademoiselle!” And would go on, a little banter in his tone, but the girl’s face astonishes him.

She mutters: “I beg you leave my private affairs alone!” Then for one second there comes over her fair face an awful look—one he has seen before somewhere—a look that opens the pages of his memory.

“Have you any other letters?”

“No, not today,” he stammers as she leaves him.

He thinks: “What was that in her eyes—so like the eyes of the American señora of thirty years ago? But this girl’s eyes are brown, not the blue eyes that I love! Besides, Alicia had blonde hair that I adore! Pooh! Let the past be the past!”

And he thinks of other blue eyes—those of the present—that he hopes to go back to, and the lovely rebellious face of pretty pouting Jessie Severn, whom he has left in faraway Paris, with a weak guardian even more in his power than ever, who has said, when Montez returns the reluctant beauty shall be his bride.

He mutters: “When I come back, she is mine, and that must be very soon. I have here a letter!” He looks at the one he has been writing, “but mails are slow. I will send a telegram.”

Which he does, addressed to Francois Leroy Larchmont, 238 1/2 Boulevard Malesherbes, Paris.

Then calling a clerk he says: “Cable that on the instant!” and goes to musing again: “I wonder what the woman did with the string of pearls that I never could find? Did Domingo steal them? Ah—but what matters it?”

Then a smile passes over his face, and he laughs. “This American stenographer is jealous of Jessie Severn! Why? Because this young dandy—this brother of Francois Leroy Larchmont—loves my fiancée. For what reason does he come to the Isthmus? To destroy me so that he can wed her?”

Then suddenly the undying hate of Corsican blood comes into Montez face, mixed with the drop of inflexible determination descended to him from Morgan’s buccaneer, as he mutters: “I have it! He stays on the Isthmus! Like the man who bought pearls thirty years ago, the man who buys pearls now, remains! I will fix him! Caramba! But I will fix him!

He muses a little while over this; then sends for the Chinaman who attends to the real-estate affairs of the firm, and makes some inquiries about certain properties belonging to them in Panama. After hearing the report of the Celestial clerk, a grim smile passes over his face, and he thinks laughingly: “It is not always you can kill two birds with one stone!”

Mademoiselle Bébé de Champs Elysées has been rather exigeant in the last few months. She has reproached her dear Baron several times, with not being as liberal as he used to be. She has complained that his devotion to Mademoiselle Jessie Severn, the ward of his friend Francois Leroy Larchmont, has made him more provident of his pocketbook than was his wont.

Her hint the evening before, at the theatre, makes him fear that he may have some time, in careless confidence, dropped into her ear secrets that may be dangerous to him in Paris; for he knows the time is approaching when there will be such an explosion about Panama Canal affairs that will make any scandal fatal.

Mademoiselle Bébé de Champs Elysées is returning to Paris. If his coming marriage enrages her—if she can find a higher bidder for any secrets of his that may be of advantage to his enemies, he knows very well she will sell them.

Meditating on this, he takes Mademoiselle Bébé out for a drive this afternoon, over the savanna, on his return passing near the outskirts of the town a very pretty little villa.

While they have been approaching this place, the Baron and his fair companion have been engaged in a somewhat acrimonious discussion.

Mademoiselle has been pouting and chiding: “You come to see me no more! You only remained at the theatre a few minutes last evening! You brought me no jewels from Paris!” Then she has suddenly cried out: “Ah, it is because of that designing young American—the one it is rumored in Paris you are to marry. Do you think your Bébé will let you desert her so easily—mon cher?”

Diable! ma petite!” says the Baron grimly, “not while I have any money left.”

Next he smiles and says: “But you can have many more admirers—this Monsieur Larchmont—he adored you?”

“Adored me!” cries Bébé; “he adores me still—he worships me!”

Vintage postcard

“You have but to speak the word—he will come back to you?”

“Would not he—if I would let him! But then, Fernando mio, it would break your heart!” babbles Bébé, her vanity destroying the truth. She would go on and lie a little more, did not she suddenly stop and cry:

“What are you laughing at?” for the Baron can’t keep in a diabolical chuckle.

“Only my little joke!” murmurs Fernando. But had she known what Fernando’s little joke meant, poor little Bébé would have plucked out her pretty red tongue from between her rows of pearly teeth, rather than have told vainglorious lies, each one of which is a nail in her coffin.

“You reproach me for not being generous,” grins the Baron, “when I have a present all ready for you.”

“What, in your pocket?” cries Bébé enthusiastically, about to make sudden investigation for hidden jewels.

“Oh, no! It is not in my pockets.”

“Then where is it?”

“On the mound there!”

“What do you mean?”

“Why, that pretty little villa. It is yours, if you wish,” and Fernando points.

“You will give it to me?”

“Yes, it will be more pleasant for you than your apartments at the hotel, and more private. You shall have a pony carriage to drive out there.”

“Oh, you darling!” cries Bébé, clapping her little Parisian gloves together with joy. “Let me look at your new present! Is it furnished?”

“I think so.”

There is a little pathway running from the road, and the negro coachman stops his horses at some distance one side of the door.

Fernando scowls at the lackey but says nothing, and assists Mademoiselle Bébé out. It is but a step.

The Baron has the keys in his pocket. Entering, they examine a very pretty bijou of a tropic residence, quite handsomely furnished in modern French style, which had been occupied by Monsieur Raymond, one of the engineers of the Panama Canal; but he and all his family have died some weeks before, of yellow fever.

Montez has no hesitation in entering it. He knows the pathology of the disease too well; that anyone who has once had this scourge and lived, is safe from it forever afterwards. And Fernando, in his early Isthmus days, had passed a few weary weeks recovering from the touch of Yellow Jack.

“How beautiful!” cries the lady, clapping her hands.

He says: “Ma chérie, you like this?”

“It is delightful!”

“Here you can have your own little parties—here you can invite Monsieur Larchmont to call on you.”

Then noting reluctance on the lady’s face, the Baron goes on laughingly: “Do not hesitate—I do not mind it! In fact, it will be a favor to me. I would like to meet this gentleman. There are certain facts about his brother, of which I shall ask you to pump him. Your Fernando is not jealous. Is it a little compact between us?”

“Oh, certainly!” laughs Bébé. “I would do anything for this villa! Monsieur Larchmont shall reveal to me everything you wish to know! Now, mon cher, our little dinner.”

So he and the lady leave the house, and drive through the streets of Panama to the Plaza, and from there on the road out to La Boca, where, at the Garden of Paradise, with its palms and tropic foliage growing in its miniature glen, Mademoiselle Bébé and Baron Montez have one of Monsieur Clemont’s charming petite repasts with sparkling wine that makes Be̕be̕ very brilliant. Then Fernando murmurs: “It is time for the theatre, ma petite.” And the two return to town, Montez appearing in a very good humor, and Bébé being a mass of smiles of delighted avarice, and of newly acquired wealth.

The next day Fernando Montez, having made all the arrangements, Mademoiselle de Champs Elysées is installed in the Villa Raymond. There is little or no trouble about servants, the Chinese clerk who attends to the real-estate affairs of the firm has hired them with Celestial astuteness, engaging only those who have passed through the yellow fever, and therefore do not fear it.

Mademoiselle Bébé enjoys her triumphs at the theatre each evening, and drives out therefrom to the pretty cottage that has as many germs of Yellow Jack and el vomito negro in its cedar walls, as it has crevices to hold them.

Each day La Champs Elysées expects to see among her admirers at the theatre, Harry Larchmont, for she has written him another pressing letter, begging him to come to see her at the Villa Raymond, and hinting that even without the pearls, he will be very welcome at her side.

But Harry Larchmont is upon the works of the Canal, poor fellow, on another wild goose chase. For here, though he discovers that there is lots of rascality and swindling in the various contracts of the Canal Interoceanic, still there is nothing that will bring anything definite home to Baron Montez, or to his firm. Nothing by which he, by any peradventure, can wring back from Fernando the fortunes of his brother or Miss Severn.

He has gone into this affair seriously, and has spent some time making his investigation a thorough one. He has passed twenty-four hours with Winterburn on his Chagres dredger, learning all the machinist can tell him of the workings of the Canal. The dredgers, he notes, are doing their work thoroughly. The American Company is keeping its contract.

Then he has passed along to the more difficult work, the big mountain cuts. He has pumped the foremen of the various gangs of laborers, drawing information from them, by his pleasant address, and his generous use of cigars, and noting with astonishment that they are doing their work pretty much after antique methods; that if they have any steam drills or modern appliances very few if any are used; that like the Pharaohs of Egypt and Louis Fourteenth of France, the contractors of this nineteenth century achivement depend upon the myriad hands of men.

One night during his investigation, one long night, cut off by a rainstorm, he has been compelled to pass in a cabin near the great cut of Culebra, with a foreman of one of the gangs.

This has been with particularly bad physical results as regards himself, for in the same cabin had been carelessly left an open can of nitroglycerine, the fumes of which give headaches such as mortal man cannot endure, but mortal man remembers forever. They are of a peculiar kind—once felt, never forgotten.

From this journey, Harry has returned to Panama with a downcast heart, knowing that there is lots of rascality in the atmosphere, but feeling that he is grasping at air.

He is sure of one thing and that is, that any dollars his brother may have put into the Canal Interoceanic are as much lost, from an industrial investment stand point, as if he had thrown his money into the Atlantic Ocean itself.

So as Larchmont enters the Grand Hotel, immediately on his return, he has about made up his mind, in a half brokenhearted, way, to give up the affair entirely—to devote the great part of his fortune to giving Miss Jessie her inheritance, saving his brother’s name, and—but he will not think of this.

He meditates wildly: “I must see her! I must try and explain! I cannot go with Louise thinking me what she does!” Then he jeers himself: “She’ll never believe me! No woman would!—and I doubt if any man!” and so goes to the office of the hotel.

Here he is very affably received by the clerk, who hands him two letters addressed in a French feminine hand he does not know.

He opens them wonderingly. They are both in the same bold yet dainty chirography, and from Mademoiselle Bébé. The first begs him to come and see her and bring the pearls. The second sings the same tune, but tells him she lives at the Villa Raymond, and she will forgive and love him without the pearls.

To these he mutters, “Never!” As he turns away from this, for there is a commotion outside. He looks out.

It is a funeral procession, large and impressive, wending its way to the great Cathedral, for the ceremonials of the Catholic Church, in these South American countries, are ofttimes grand and imposing. Otherwise, this one would create no commotion, for there are a great many funerals about this time, in the town of Panama.

A man leaning over the side of a bed vomiting, from a broadside entitled ‘Death of Aurelio Caballero due to yellow fever in Veracruz’ (1892), José Guadalupe Posada (Mexico)

Turning to the clerk, Harry asks: “Who of importance has died lately? Whose death march is that?”

“Oh, that!” says the clerk, “have you not seen the mortuary placards and heard the news? That is the funeral procession of Mademoiselle Bébé de Champs Elysées, of the Theatre. The careless, thoughtless creature went to live in the infected Villa Raymond. She took the yellow fever four days ago, and died this morning.”

Then the clerk wonders whether Mr. Larchmont has not the yellow fever also, for he has. grown deathly pale, and almost staggers, and is muttering to himself: “Good heavens! if the scorn of that pure American girl had not come between me and her—I should have visited the Villa Raymond—and perchance been in my coffin also.”

Looking on this procession—the lighted candles and solemn black, the Baron Montez, who acts as chief mourner, smiles to himself, and murmurs: “Bébé’s little present disagreed with her! But that Larchmont—he escaped me!”

This seems to affect Fernando’s spirits, for he is superstitious, as he says to himself: “Is it a premonition? Will he conquer in the end?”

So returning from his solemn duties, he seems to be very sad. His spirits have left him.

So much so that old Aguilla, who has a tender heart, pats him on the shoulder with his fat bourgeois hand, saying: “My poor boy—cheer up! Cheer up! We know how you loved her—but courage, mon brave!

Soon after Montez does cheer up, for this very afternoon he hears incidentally that Harry Larchmont is sick, and has been taken to the rooms of one of the clerks in the Pacific Mail, a young American, George Bovee, who had conceived a great affection for him. Though he is not sick of the yellow fever, his exposure in the open cuts of the Canal, full of the miasma from decaying vegetation, has brought to him the malarial fever of Panama, which is sometimes as deadly even as the other.

At this, the Vadalia Cardinalis’ step grows light, and his smile more baleful, as he says to himself: “I triumph! See how my enemies fall before me!”

Notes and References

  • mosquitoes and yellow fever in Panama: As late as 1898, US authorities believed yellow fever to be a “filth disease” (Gorgas, p. 18). By 1906 mosquitoes had been eradicated from the Panama Canal Zone by the army physician, William C. Gorgas, through a program of mosquito control.
  • Dr. Cornelius Hertz … [image]: One in a series of satirical caricatures lampooning those implicated in the French Panama Canal scandal, painted by the British artist H.S. Robert. Here Robert depicts the French-American Hertz, a major financer of the project, in a ridiculous fake beard, escaping to England.
  • distrait: distracted or absent-minded
  • exigeant: demanding, hard to please
  • bijou: jewel

Baym, N. Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-70 (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1993).

Dobson, J. “The Hidden Hand: The Subversion of Cultural Ideology in Three Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Novels”. American Quarterly 38.2, 1986, pp. 223-242.

Gorgas, W.C., Sanitation in Panama (NY: Appleton, 1915. Available at Internet Archive.

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

This edition © 2021 Furin Chime, Brian Armour

1 reply »

  1. I was shocked by the sudden departure of Bébé, of whom I was growing fond. But I remembered reading somewhere of a novelistic principle of Gunter’s that something should happen every 500 words, and took comfort. Once again, I enjoy the exchange of glances between Louise and the Baron, from which he takes away something that we, but not he at the time, well understand. A romantic intrigue in that glance, I think, that Gunter has calculated well.


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