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

A.C. Gunter’s Baron Montez: 19. Whispers of the Dying

On a tour of Silas Winterburn’s museum, Louise set her eyes on a powder canister embedded in a tree branch (Ch. 15). At the time it seemed rather odd Silas had not opened it, sufficiently so for Louise to question his lack of curiosity. Yet he puts off opening it immediately, in order to continue the tour of his collection, suggesting Susie investigate while he is away working up the Chagres River. Most readers may believe they know the contents—but there is something else—horrifying in its nature.

At this stage in the novel, for Gunter, all the groundwork has been done. One can imagine him rising each morning eager to get the story flowing, all the pieces falling into place, aware that he is only six chapters to the finale. To a degree, the pronounced narrator presence, anticipatory statements and disclosures, are evidence of Gunter’s involvement and enjoyment of the story.

Looking Down on the City and Bay of Panama (1909). See note.

The conventions of civilization refined over centuries allow us, for the most part, to move through our everyday lives seamlessly. Conventions of behaviour, of language, of nearly all facets of life become autonomous functional guides, much like walking without thinking about it. There are conventions of the home, the public space, the workplace, of dress, of eating, of drinking, of furniture, of everything in our lives, designed for human comfort, clarity and the elimination of disruption. There are also conventions of language which a writer readily knows, of speech, of behaviourboth female and male multiplied by the situation/place and time. As in life, so in the written word: conventions are the story-teller’s invisible structure, allowing him to create a verisimilitude of real life without addressing every detail.

Art breaks conventions, and so it is with storytelling, which plays with a reader’s expectations and assumptions, strongly tied to conventions iterated deep into their consciousness by simply living. Necessarily, readers of today need to be mindful that conventions were very different in the eighteen eighties. Louise is aspirational for Gunter’s contemporary readersoutside unaccompanied, walking about alone, enjoying the tropical warm air, in, one supposes, less restrictive clothing and less make-up, talking back to her boss, every day breaking conventions that bind and restrict.

Domingo, the old ex-pirate of long ago makes a brief re-appearance, which Montez cuts short, as his brutal comrade makes what might be considered indiscreet comments, depending upon who is listening.

Louise comes to the aid of poor Harry, who is suffering from malaria. According to the World Health Organization, 400,000 people still die of this disease every year. Injected by mosquitos, in humans the parasites grow and multiply first in the liver cells and then in the red cells of the blood. In the blood, successive broods of parasites grow inside the red cells and destroy them, releasing daughter parasites (merozoites) that continue the cycle by invading other red cells. There are five types of parasites that cause malaria: Plasmodium ovale, P. malariae, P. knowlesi, P. vivax and P. falciparum.

Hopefully, Harry’s delirium is due to his fever and the effect of quinine, which his doctor would have administered to prevent him being infected with plasmodium falciparum, the malaria parasite, which causes cognitive disfunction and usually results in death. Folklore has it that a Peruvian, Pedro Leiva, while in the jungle and running a high fever, drank at a small pond. The water had a bitter taste, and he noticed that the bark of a cinchona (quina-quina) tree had fallen into the pond. Soon after drinking his fever subsided.

Cinchona officinalis, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1863)

Cinchona, ground to a powder has a long history of use in the treatment of fever. Reputedly in 1638 it was introduced to Europesuccessfully treating Countess of Chinchón, wife of the Viceroy of Peru, of extreme fever. In 1742 the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus assigned the name Cinchona in her honour to the genus that includes the quina-quina tree. In 1820, two French pharmacists, Pierre Pelletier and Joseph Caventou isolated and extracted a substance they called ‘quinine’. Quinine interferes with the parasite’s ability to digest haemoglobin. Quinine (and quinidine) also inhibit the spontaneous formation of beta-haematin (haemozoin or malaria pigment) which is a toxic product of the digestion of haemoglobin by parasites. At the time it was the only effective treatment available, but there still was no guarantee of surviving the disease.

When nursing someone with Malaria, during the fever it is recommended that a warm compress be applied to the forehead, and to keep the patent warm, and remove any wet clothes and sheets regularly to prevent the patient catching a chill. Undoubtedly, Louise will be casting aside more conventions in her efforts to pull Harry through.

Warning: Text contains racist term which may offend some readers.


CHAPTER 19

WHISPERS OF THE DYING

Miss Minturn does not hear of Larchmont’s mishap so soon as Montez. Her labors at the office are not great; but outside of it, sensation has come to her.

On the very day of the Baron’s interview with her, she returns to the house of Martinez for her afternoon siesta, but instead of rest receives excitement.

She is met almost at the door by Mrs. Winterburn. That lady, as is her wont, has been killing the long hot day by rummaging through the articles in her husband’s museum. She now says affrightedly: “I’ve been waiting for you! Come in with me—there is something in that powder canister!”

“What powder canister?”

“The one imbedded in the growing branch my husband took from the Chagres River. You remember what he told us about it that evening?”

“Yes,” answers Louise carelessly, “but I am tired. Why not tell your story to the Señoritas Martinez, and keep it for me in the evening?”

“The Martinez are all asleep. Come in with me—I want you to see what there is in it. I think they are valuable. Besides that, there is a writing that I have not read. I fear it is a will—that the pearls will not be mine honestly,” says the woman.

“After that you will let me take myself to my darling hammock?” pouts Louise, anxious for beauty sleep.

“Yes.”

Quaint Balcony-Hung Avenue B, Panama (1909), reminiscent of Louise’s balcony

A minute after, they are in the old lumber-room, and coming to the branch with its powder canister, Susie Winterburn unscrews the lead stopper that has made it watertight, opens it, and reveals something that for a moment makes Louise give a cry of delighted astonishment; then afterwards a gasp of horror.

She takes out therefrom a long string of beautiful white pearls that glisten even in the subdued light of the room. These are wrapped in a woman’s cuff.

The pearls are fresh and glistening as when first plucked from ocean’s bed; the cuff is a little soiled and yellow by age, but has on it some hasty writing in red, that has been scribbled with a piece of pointed wood, or something of the kind. It reads, though disjointedly, with horrible intelligence, as follows:

“Come to my aid—these pearls will pay you. The place is called Caperiha—I am in a hut imprisoned by the little river.

“My husband was killed in the Pacific Hotel, Panama, by Montez and Domingo.

“Domingo watches me, and is my jailer.

“Come quick! Tonight he comes to me—tonight the snake will kill me!

“ALICE RIPLEY”

These letters appear to be in red ink, but as the girl examines them, she shudders, for she guesses they are in the blood of the woman who wrote them.

She has read this aloud in her agitation, and it has produced a great effect upon Mrs. Winterburn. That lady says: “When do you think it was written? We must alarm the authorities!”

“What? To rescue a woman who wrote this thirty years ago?”

“How do you know it was so long?”

“Because the time she speaks of is the massacre of 1856—April 15th—I have read accounts of it in the Panama Star. I know all about it.”

“How did you come to know that?”

“How? Because the handwriting of this woman is the handwriting of my murdered relative, Alice Ripley, the beautiful woman whose picture you saw at the villa of Fernando Montez—the duplicate of which I brought with me from New York.”

“Oh, sakes of mercy! What are you going to do?”

“Avenge her!” answers Louise in strident voice. Then she mutters dejectedly: “But first I must find out more about the matter.”

“Then why not ask my husband? He knows most everything about the Isthmus in them days.”

“Yes, I’ll telegraph him at once! His address is Bohio Soldado!” cries Louise, and turns to go about her errand, but pausing, whispers: “Not a word of this to anybody! It may bring danger upon me!”

“Danger upon you?”

“Yes. Do you suppose a man who would murder in 1856, would hesitate to murder now, though he is a Baron, and rich?” mutters the girl, and would fly from the room.

But Mrs. Winterburn says suddenly, running after her: “Take these—these are yours!” and presses the pearls into her hands.

And Louise says: “We can settle that afterwards. But not a word to anyone—and remember where these came from. You may have to make oath to the same!”

So leaving Mrs. Winterburn in a half-comatose state from surprise and agitation, Louise Minturn hastily goes to the telegraph office, and sends such a despatch to Silas Winterburn, that he makes his appearance in Panama the next morning.

Meantime Miss Minturn contrives somehow to get through her work this afternoon.

Before she is out of her hammock the next morning, she is gratified by a rap upon the door, and Silas’ jovial voice saying: “What do you mean by scaring a man to death with telegrams? I thought my wife or baby was dead!”

Grand Cathedral at Panama (c. 1860+)

“Why,” cries Louise through the door, “I said nothing about them.”

“That’s what’s the matter. You merely telegraphed me to come for God’s sake! Ain’t that kind of a telegram enough to scare a man who has lost three families?”

“Very well! Now that your mind is relieved, I would like to speak to you for a few minutes: I will be out in five.”

As tropical toilets do not take long, Miss Louise trips out within the time specified, an agitated but beautiful picture. Together they go to the museum. There turning to him, she says: “Your wife has told you?”

“No, she hinted at somethin’ about this ‘ere canister,” replies Silas, laying his hand on the object; “but Susie was too agitated to be quite intelligible.”

“Very well then, I will tell you the story,” answers Louise.

And she does, giving him the full details of everything, showing him Alice Ripley’s letters, the duplicate tintypes, then puts before him the contents of the powder canister, the glistening string of pearls, and the letter on the cuff, which she reads to him, though her voice trembles. His voice trembles also, as he answers her: for she is questioning him rapidly: “You know the place this was written from?”

“What, Caperija? I should think I did—though she’s spelled it wrong, just as it is pronounced, poor critter! It’s about four hours by canoe, when there is water enough to get there, from Cruces, up the Piqueni, one of the headwaters of the Chagres. It’s a miserable hole, on the old deserted road to Porto Bello. She threw that powder canister into the Piqueni, and it floated down into the Chagres, washed up against some tree growing on the banks, and lingered there till the tree grew round it. Then it was washed away by some flood, and so it came into my hands, thirty years afterwards!”

“You believe, then?”

“Certainly! People don’t throw away pearls like these for fun. This was a woman’s last despairin’ effort.”

“You believe that Montez and Domingo killed her husband, George Ripley, in 1856?”

“Why, Holy Virgin! I was there!” cries Silas.

“You were there?” gasps the girl.

“Yes! That night was impressed upon me, for I had to git for my life on to the steamer. I remember like yesterday, before the muss commenced, seein’ a big Californian stand off the crowd, till the police came and shot down the women and children. Just as I fled, I saw that black Domingo run into the Pacific House, followin’ the big Californian; and, durn me, if Montez wasn’t with him!”

“You think I can prove their crime?”

“It will be pretty difficult against Montez! Thirty years has passed. He is rich and powerful, and a Baron—though that don’t count here—but riches do, everywhere!”

“Then, how to get evidence?”

“You are in Baron Montez’ office. You have seen that worthy gentleman—young lady, do you think you will obtain it from him!”

“No,” mutters the girl, “never from him personally.”

“Then, as to Domingo, the black nigger; he’s probably dead! I ain’t seen him round here, or on the railroad, for years. He must be nearly eighty.”

“I know him! I have written to him! He is alive!” cries the girl, remembering the letter to Porto Bello.

“Great Scott! Por Dios! Muchos diablos! Beg pardon!” ejaculates Silas, astounded. “Alive! Well,” he goes on, reflectively, “I don’t think you will be able to get anything from him, if Domingo’s got his senses left. I’ll make some inquiries around town, and see what I can pick up; but I reckon you won’t be able to put any salt on either of those two old gray birds’ tails.”

So he goes away, while Miss Minturn proceeds to Montez, Aguilla et Cie., to get another sensation. About twelve o’clock in the day she sees a tall black man, dressed in Spanish style, with long sash and wide sombrero, with two terrible scars upon his face, and wool white as the driven snow, come into the office. Though his eyes are bright, and his step seems elastic, there is the gray of old age upon his face that mates his scars seem red.

This creature steps in, and walking up to the great Baron Montez, who is writing at his desk, slaps him upon the back, and cries: “Ah, ha! diablo muchacho!

To this Montez, springing up, falters: “Parbleu, Domingo, my—my old comrade!” and tries to greet him quite effusively, though he does not look overpleased to see him.

Domingo’s eyes are still sharp, and he jeers: “What! not happy to see your old friend and compañero, Domingo of Porto Bello?” Then he snarls: “You need not be frightened! I have not come for my dividends on the stock of this big ditch they are digging and digging, and will dig forever. Those are paid regularly by old man Aguilla, your partner.”

“Of course, the dividends come regularly,” murmurs Montez.

“I should think so. If they did not, you would hear from Domingo of Porto Bello!” Then he goes on: “But how do they make money digging the ditch? Do they get paid for digging it?”

Miss Minturn is trying to hide her agitation by playing on the keys of the Remington, for she has heard this conversation through the door, that is always left open on account of draught, and knows that she is sitting almost in the presence of the two murderers of Alice Ripley.

Domingo of Porto Bello cries: “What’s that?”

“What?”

“The noise like the clicking of a thousand pistol locks!”

“A typewriter.”

“What’s that?”

“A little thing,” remarks Montez, “that takes down what is said to it. Would you like to see it?”

So he brings in Domingo to look upon this wonder of the nineteenth century. And the girl can hardly keep her hands upon the keys, though she gazes eagerly and takes in the face of Domingo to her memory, never to forget it.

The ex-pirate says: “She takes what you say, down?

“Yes.”

“And puts it on paper? Ah, ho! This is wonderful! She must be a smart girl. Why does she sit there forever? Is she a slave? Of course she’s a slave. No one but a slave would work like that!”

Then he suddenly cries, for at his words, Louise has looked up again with blazing eyes:

Maldito! The same eye as the white lady—the blonde lady! You remember her, Montez? you remember the good old days! You remember?”

But Montez suddenly interrupts. “Nonsense! I remember too many!”

“Ah, but no white ladies with snakes, eh?”

“Sh—sh! what is the matter with you?” cries Fernando. “Come to lunch. You ramble, old man, you ramble!”

After Domingo has gone out, Montez comes in to Louise and says: “This is an old dependent, who is now in his dotage. I presume he was a wicked boy in his day. I think, between you and me, he must have been a pirate.”

“Oh,” cries the young lady, “did they ever have pirates here?”

“Yes, but long before you were born. You should go down and see the old town that Morgan destroyed!” suggests Montez, going out.

Pondering on this, Louise thinks her employer curiously evasive, and guesses quite shrewdly that it is to cover up some agitation produced by the remarks of his old dependent Domingo of Porto Bello.

New Municipal Building, Cathedral Plaza, Panama City (c. 1860+)

As soon as possible she flies off with this story to Silas Winterburn, who remarks: “Well, they’re both here, and I guess that’s about all the good it will do you! I reckon you’d better take the pearls and be contented to let the matter rest, my dear young lady!”

“Never!” cries the girl. “I’ll have the truth from one of them in some way!”

“Well, seems to me you’re takin’ about as long a job as buildin’ a cathedral!” mutters Winterburn, “but I don’t think I’ll be able to do you any good further than to give my evidence about the powder canister, if you ever should get them into court.”

Suddenly his voice becomes solemn, and he whispers: “For the love of heaven and Santa Maria, my dear young lady, don’t let either of these gentlemen know what you’re drivin’ at, or that you’re a relative of the robbed and murdered Californians. They didn’t stop at murder then, and I don’t think either of them have improved by age. Promise me to be very careful!”

“I will,” replies Louise, “very careful, for that is the only way to succeed.”

She would go on devoting her mind to this business, but Winterburn, as he goes away, gives her a little further information.

“By the by,” he says, “I was in Kophcke’s drug store half an hour ago, getting some liniment to take with me for bruises on the dredger, when that young Californian, Bovee, came in to get some medicine, and told me about poor Larchmont.”

“Poor Larchmont!”

“Yes, the nice young fellow that gave my wife the letter of introduction to you. He spent a day on my Chagres dredger—the day before I got your telegram.”

“Well, what of him? Poor Larchmont?” gasps the girl, growing white.

“Oh, it ain’t as bad as that,” cries Silas. “He ain’t dead yet!”

“Not yet? O heavens! What do you mean?”

“Why, he’s got the fever.”

“The fever! The yellow fever?”

“Not the yellow fever!”

“Thank God!”

“But the Panama fever—the malarial fever, though sometimes it’s most as deadly, but they get over it quicker.”

“Where is he?”

“In the rooms of George Bovee, one of the clerks of the Pacific Mail.”

“Do you know where the house is?”

“Yes!”

“Then take me to him, quick! And I will bless you for this kindness!”

“What are you going to do?”

“Nurse him!” whispers Louise. “Nurse him till he lives, or”

“What?”

“Till I die!”

And led by the kind-hearted engineer, she goes to the quarters of the young American, which are three open rooms, with plenty of sea-breeze.

They are received at the door by a gentleman who looks in astonishment at the beautiful young lady, as she says: “You are Mr. Bovee? You are a friend of Mr. Larchmont’s?”

“I hope so. And you?”

“I am Miss Minturn of New York. Mr. Larchmont saved my life in the New York blizzard. I have come to nurse him!”

And the young American, taking off his hat, says:

“Thank God! We have got a nurse—a woman nurse—a tender-hearted nurse! God bless you, Miss Minturn, for coming! We need one! He is very low!” Then noting how pale Louise is, he thinks it is from fear, and whispers: “Do not be alarmed. His disease is neither contagious, infectious, nor epidemic.”

“Were it all three,” answers the girl very solemnly, “I’d nurse him!”

Then Bovee leads the way into a room, where on a little cot-bed, his face sometimes as white as the sheets, with awful chills, and red with the fever at others, lies Harry Larchmont, and she whispers to him: “Do you know me?”

The eyes, opening, smile at her, and the teeth chattering with malarial chill, gasp: “Louise!” and a hand, hot as the sands of the desert, clasps hers, as he mutters: “God bless you!”

But suddenly he utters an awful cry: “Angels have come!” Then moans, “My God! too late! too late!” and the delirium is on him.

In it he mutters things that almost break his nurse’s heart, for he babbles of the girl in Paris, and shrieks:

“She shall not marry Montez.”

But Louise sits in martyrdom by his bedside, and they nurse him day and night, and they fight death for him, and she fights strongest of them all—stronger than his friend—stronger than the doctor—catching words of delirium that sometimes wound her heart, for she misconstrues them.

Once during his delirium, he gives her unutterable joy, for he shrieks: “No more! No more attempts to lure the secrets of Montez from the lips of the horrible French woman!” Next he sobs the tears of delirium, and cries out: “But it was to save, my brother’s name without destroying myself. To save that poor girl from that villain Montez!”

And his nurse goes out from the room, and clasps her hands together, and looks over the hot sunny water of the Bay of Panama, from the veranda, and murmurs: “Thank God! The man I love is worthy! but his heart is given to another! The whispers of the dying are always true! It was not to gain the smiles of the French woman, but to win Montez’ secret, that my Harry seemed what he was not—a villain!”

And the tears come into her eyes and run down her pale hopeless face, as she smites her hands together and links them in despair, muttering: “I can call him my Harry now, because—because he is dying!

For the doctor this morning has given her no hope that the patient may live.


Notes


This edition © 2021 Furin Chime, Brian Armour

2 replies »

  1. I tried following the UK Stereoscopy Society’s instructions, but didn’t achieve much of an effect. Regardless, I found I was able to invoke a clear memory of how the effect works, drawing on experiences of decades ago — I think Weetbix used to give the cards away; I had a blue plastic viewer — and combining the remembered effect with the current images. That is, I remembered how they ought to look, and projected that imaginatively.

    I’ve heard someone talking about how a fictional text is a species of virtual reality. I’m dubious about that, but the notion drove my current, somewhat flippant, reference to ‘immersion’. I think that the stereographs function in a semiologically complex, iconic and indexical way, being artefacts of the historical period. Their status as period artefacts has an effect in addition to their representing (iconically) and ‘pointing’ to signified elements (that is, ‘indexically’, in the way that ‘smoke’ points to ‘fire’, or a weathervane signifies the direction of the wind.}

    I liked the very first stereograph, in the introduction, that interacts with Brian’s excellent comments about Gunter’s relationship to the story. We see a figure reminiscent of the author, gazing down upon Panama City and the Bay, as though surveying his narrative. The term ‘diegesis’ gains potency here, referring to ‘narrative’, but also to the ‘world implicit in the narrative’; that is, Gunter’s imagined/constructed Panama. The abstract sense of imaginative ‘immersion’ in a narrative somehow seems to inhere in the perceived illusion of 3D space generated by the imagined exercise of stereography.

    Like

  2. Hi Michael,

    I agree, thanks for your comment. I remember the old viewers from when I was a kid. The stereoscopic device transports the viewer to a time and place with the illusion of 3D, a side-effect as it were of the visual cortex compensation for the different input from each eye. At the same time, the twinned images as an artefact of a previous time take us mindfully to a time when such articles were novel. The same might be said of the tintype, and the typewriter, and in coming pages there is another iconic artefact where we see function move from the industrial/professional to the personal. At the same time, like the stereoscope, these items represent a dimension shift from a human point of view – the chemical composition of an image, the taking of words in the air and realizing them in print under our fingers. And under all this, there is an unseen intent by humans – to create images of themselves (immortalize a moment), to put speech to paper in a standardized and efficient way. I was thinking of those old flicker machines, where you rotate a handle and look through a viewer to see what was a precursor to the movie – because people appreciated it and wanted more.

    Liked by 1 person

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