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

A.C. Gunter’s Baron Montez: Chapter 23. The Honor of France

The previous chapter closed dramatically with a frightened and frantic Louise at the door of Larchmont’s hotel clutching ‘THE BULKY, BIG POCKETBOOK OF BARON FERNANDO MONTEZ!’ Gunter’s decision to end the previous chapter like this, with Louise rejoining Harry, means that this coming chapter falls into retrospective: detailing how Louise came to have the object in question. Another writer might have ended Chapter 22 in an alternative way, promoting ongoing suspense—for example, a simple mysterious knock on the door—and preserving the concurrent narrative streams until the close of the new chapter, where Louise might return to Harry, triumphant in having secured evidence against Montez.

However, Gunter has chosen otherwise. This action-filled chapter ends in a somewhat deflated manner, with the narrator editorializing on ‘The Honor of France’, though why Louise or any character, with the exception of Sebastien Lefort, should give two hoots about that is a mystery. Discussion of what might have been is pointless, yet it is worth considering, as Gunter, the writer, made the decision. Perhaps he thought that the previous chapter, dealing with the details of Frank Larchmont’s behaviour and mental illness, lacked dramatic intensity. Also, the reader will note, the narrator, as if unable to tolerate any suspense, attempts to elevate the melodrama mid-chapter with an outburst.

We know Louise is smart and fluent in four languages, and now she proves herself to be something of a forensic accountant, as well as a stealthy and cunning thief. She remains resolute in her mission despite the dangers surrounding her.

Herr Wernig, the Franco-German, now simply German, makes an appearance and in heated words with Montez, we discover his interest in bribing some French parliamentary Deputies. The physical action between the two is largely handled well, what might be expected of a tussle between two older men, while Louise plays the silent part of ghost in the shadows.

Lillian Gish in The Wind (1928)

Gunter’s portrayal of a central female character is laudable—possessed with the freedom to act independently, with purpose and will. Louise has done the hard yards. She discovered evidence to link Montez to the murder of her grandparents, took the confession of the terrible Domingo, and now acquires the one thing that will save the day, at great risk to her own personal safety. Yet above all, there appear to be impediments to an enhanced view of womankindit is still a man’s world. At the height of the action Louise is reduced to being a `trembling girl’.

These deprecating descriptors usually occur when the female character is under duress or in a tenuous position. Gunter is not averse to a touch of voyeurism, as we have seen previously with Jesse in children’s clothes, observed by a male through a camera viewfinder. At the close of this chapter, there is the morocco-bound black pocketbook ‘clasped to [Louise’s] fair, panting breast’. In comparison, we have Harry, our knight in shining armour, who in the course of the adventure has nearly died and, it could be argued, was indirectly the cause of Mademoiselle Bébé’s death. If it weren’t for Louise, he might not have survived at all, though she did owe him one for rescuing her from the snow. From the close of this chapter on, Louise takes the back seat, and it is Harry who has control.

After reading, spare a thought for the condition of a character whom we shall see no more, the recently introduced, kind-hearted clerk, Gascoigne, who at the close of the chapter still lies on the floor of the offices of Montez, Aguilla et Cie. unconscious.


CHAPTER 23

THE HONOR OF FRANCE

Miss Louise Minturn arrives in Paris on schedule time. The weather has been very pleasant—the sun bright. She has sailed over a summer sea; so it comes to pass, that early one morning, in the latter part of May, arriving by the Chemin de Fer de l’Quest she drives straight from the Rue Saint Lazare, and presents her letter of introduction from Aguilla, to Monsieur Jacques Pichoir, a shopkeeper, who has a jewelry store on the Boulevard des Italiens, and a comfortable home nearby on the Rue Laffite.

By this gentleman she is most cordially received. Besides being an old friend, he is under considerable trade obligations to Aguilla, whose letter is a pressing one; therefore Louise shortly afterward finds herself very comfortably domiciled with the family of the jeweller. At noon that day, she stating that her business is pressing, he kindly takes her through the crowds congregating about that temple of Paris speculation, the Bourse, to the office of Montez, Aguilla et Cie., on the Rue Vivienne, just off the Boulevard Montmartre.

Parisian Street Scene, Jean Béraud (1885) [View of Boulevard des Italiens from corner of Rue Laffitte]

Here she presents her business letter from Aguilla in Panama, to the manager, one Achille Gascoigne, and is informed by him that Baron Montez sails this very day from New York on the Normandie. He has just received a cable to that effect.

This news is received by Louise with a sigh of relief, though she succeeds in making it inaudible.

Then Monsieur Gascoigne, begging her to be seated, examines her despatches from Panama, and looks a little troubled. They are direct orders from the junior partner, for the bearer of the letter, Mademoiselle Minturn, to make such copies of the ledgers as she has been directed; and, furthermore, for Monsieur Gascoigne himself to certify to their correctness. Still that gentleman hesitates.

He would cable Baron Montez, if that were possible, but his chief is on the ocean.

He comes in and suggests affably, for Achille Gascoigne is a man of compromises: “Mademoiselle Minturn, you had better wait until Baron Montez arrives.”

“Impossible!” falters the girl, and her heart nearly stops beating at the suggestion.

“Why not? You can have a pleasant time in gay Paris for a week. Your salary will, of course, go on!”

“In a week I must be on my way back to Panama!” says Louise, determinedly, almost desperately. “You have your written orders from the junior partner of the firm. I have mine also. If I do not obey them—” here feminine artifice comes to her, and she mutters: “I shall lose my position!” tears in her lovely eyes—partly those of artifice, partly those of disappointment.

This remark about losing her position impresses itself upon Gascoigne, for he has also a very good one. He is now between two millstones. He does not know what Montez will say to this; but he knows very well what Aguilla will say to disobedience of his orders.

“I would cable——” he murmurs hesitatingly.

“Cable!” answers Louise. “That’s right! Cable Panama quickly, if you have any doubt of my authority and my directions.”

“I will do so,” murmurs Gascoigne. “You will excuse meit is a matter of such importance!”

He cables, and receives such an answer from Aguilla, that the next morning he throws open the old ledgers of the firm, in hurry and trepidation, to the young lady’s prying eyes and ready pen.

These back ledgers are all kept in an office adjoining the private one of the firm; a door opens into it, so that ready access can be had to the books in case it should be necessary to refer to them. These ledgers are locked up in a large safe. This is opened, and they are placed at Miss Minturn’s disposal.

Then the girl finds an enormous work before her. She has four months of very heavy and diverse transactions to take down from that great ledger. It must be done before Montez’ arrival.

She works at this from early morning until they close the office; and, telling Gascoigne she must labor at night, this gentleman kindly unlocks the office and safe doors for her in the evening, as he goes to some place of amusement; and coming back, on his return from café chantant, or operetta, or some other nocturnal enjoyment, puts away the ledgers, lets the young lady out, and locks up. For her evening visits Louise hires a carriage. Promenading the streets of Paris alone at night would be very unpleasant for a lady, and Aguilla has told her to spare no expense.

While looking over these accounts, the name of Franc̗ois Leroy Larchmont comes under her eyes, and in copying the ledger, the peculiarity of the entries astonishes her. Wonderment comes into her face—then, sudden hope.

So in making memoranda of the general ledger for Aguilla, she takes a complete account, through all the back years, as the ledgers are at her hand, of the transactions in stocks of the Panama Canal and other securities, made for Francois Leroy Larchmont, and thinks: “Perhaps these are what Harry wants.”

These accounts, she unites with the general accounts of the firm, and gets Monsieur Gascoigne’s signature to their correctness before a notary, day by day, ostensibly for the use of Aguilla in Panama.

But time has flown! While she has been doing this work in Paris, the two steamers, one bearing Baron Fernando Montez from New York, and the other bringing Harry Sturgis Larchmont from Colon, are ploughing their way towards the shores of France.

The S.S. La Touraine of the French Line at sea (1891), Antonio Nicolo Gasparo Jacobsen

The days have passed rapidly. Louise has forgotten that Montez will shortly be due, and one evening, having been let in to do this work, she scribbles away until eleven o’clock, and looking up, with tired hands and pallid face, murmurs: “It is done, thank God, in time!”

IS IT?

Then she waits for Monsieur Gascoigne to come and lock up the place, and let her out.

But in the silence of the night, voices come to her, and she hears two steps instead of one. Her cheeks grow suddenly ashen, she hurriedly turns out the light in her room; for one is the voice of Baron Fernando Montez of Panama, and the other that of Herr Alsatius Wernig of Paris. Both are angry and excited.

The girl’s lips tremble; she wonders: “What will Montez do to me when he finds me here alone, at night, and unprotected—a spy upon him?”

As she thinks, she thrusts her memoranda made this evening into her pocket. Suddenly there is a match struck; the gas blazes in the next room, the private office of the firm. Then the voices of the man of all nations, and the German, come to her; for the door is slightly open.

She peeps in. The Baron is in travelling costume, a little grip-sack in his hand; the German, in the full evening dress of the Boulevards, with white vest, snowy shirt, diamond studs, and opera hat and coat.

Montez says : ” My friend, if you will permit me, I will go and have a little dinner. I simply drove here direct from the Gare Saint Lazare to get my mail, and I find you waiting at the door of my office for me.”

“Yes, I knew you would come here first,” answers the German, “and I made up my mind to see you before you saw anyone else. The Lottery Bill has passed the Chamber of Deputies.”

“Of course—two weeks ago! But not the Senate,” remarks Montez. “That will come later.”

“To be sure! And now I come to you for my dividend!”

“Your dividend on what?”

“My dividend on the money left from what you received to assist the passing of this bill. The money you did not give to press writers or deputies—the residue—the large residue!”

Then he goes on, laughingly: “Ah, you are a deep one, Montez! You made this Franc̗ois Leroy Larchmont your tool. While bribery and corruption have been going on, you who directed it were not even in Paris—you were in Panama! Ah, you are safe forever! But I wish a little statement of your accounts! You know I was to have my share!”

“Oh!” laughs Fernando, unlocking the safe in the private office and selecting his mail, which has been kept for him in an inner and stronger compartment. “Call tomorrow and get it. At present, I am going to my dinner!”

He looks over the documents waiting for him carefully—among them are two long envelopes, very carefully sealed.

“To dinner?” echoes Wernig, gazing curiously at the envelopes.

“Yes, to dinner, of course—or supper—I don’t carewhat you call it. I’m hungry after my railroad journey from Havre. Will you join me in a petit souper at the Café de Paris? We cannot have the company of Mademoiselle Bébé. You have heard, I suppose, the sad news that she died in Panama?” rejoins Montez, producing a handkerchief and wiping his eyes as if affected. Then he opens the two envelopes, draws out his black pocketbook and deftly places their contents within its morocco binding; next, as it is now very full, secures it with a rubber guard.

“What do I care about your Mademoiselle Bébés, or your suppers at the Paris?” says the German.

“No?” and Montez throws the residue of his mail back into the safe and locks it; and gazing at the pocketbook, a curious triumph in his eye, is returning it to his pocket. He says affably, “If you are not going to supper, I am.”

“Not yet,” growls the German.

“Why?”

“If you get away from me now, I know you will have accounts to show me that will prove you have spent all the money upon the journalists and the deputies,” answers Alsatius Wernig. Then he says slowly but doggedly: “My share I have now!”

“Permit me to go to supper,” returns Fernando. Then facing the German, he says: “I have no accounts with me this evening!”

“You have those accounts in that black pocketbook!” cries Wernig. Louise can see Montez’ delicate fingers tremble as they clutch the morocco thing he holds in his hands. “That contains everything I want!” snarls the German, his eye with the cast growing bright. “Let me look at them now! Give me a statement before you get away to prepare another!”

“Impossible!” and Montez’ eyes flash fire. “You are a fool, Herr Wernig, to refuse my offer to supper!”

“Why?”

“Because”— here Fernando’s hand goes slowly behind him—”that is all you will get!”

But, quick as a flash, Wernig has seized a ruler from an office desk, and struck the hand Montez has behind him, and his pistol drops to the floor.

Then the German, who is stronger, seizes the little man by the throat, and clutches for the pocketbook; but Montez, struggling, holds it up, away from the German. So the two, fighting, one like a bear, and the other like a tiger cat, writhe and wrestle, each moment coming nearer the door that is ajar—the one leading to the room where a trembling girl stands gazing through the crevice, with dilated eyes of curious resolution, one dainty arm upraised, as if for action.

And they struggle nearer, Montez holding his hand behind him—the right one that grips the pocketbook; and nearer still, until he is forced back, and his right hand is pushed through the opening door into the other room, and there is a quick rustle of feminine draperies, and a quick clutch upon his hand, and he shrieks: “Good God, Wernig! It’s gone!”

The Fight (1896), print by James Ensor (cropped)

“What’s gone? A ruse!”

“No! Let me go! Someone has taken it! The black pocketbook that holds the safety of us both!”

But the other cries out: “It is a ruse! You cannot fool Alsatius so!” and squeezes Montez all the closer.

But the Baron tears himself loose, and throws open the door, and cries: “Where is it? There was some one here!” And the two cautiously grope about the floor and corners of the dark room.

Then they start up with a cry, for there is a noise of closing doors of the office, and they rush to the door and shake it, and kick it, and throw their bodies against it; but it has been locked upon them from—the outside.

On this they turn and gaze upon each other—these two conspirators; and both grow pale, as Montez gasps: “My God! If the secrets of that book come out, we will be torn in pieces by the Paris mob!”

“We?”

“Yes! It is the record of the bribed Deputies!” sighs Montez. Then he laughs ironically: “With your name as well as mine attached to it!”

Mein Gott!

And the two men imprisoned glare at each other, and drops of perspiration gather on their brows—as they whisper with trembling lips: “What is to be done?”

But a moment later there is a step upon the stairs, and the door is unlocked and thrown open, and Monsieur Gascoigne enters the office, saying: “Mademoiselle Minturn, are you finished?”

To him Montez screams: “Mademoiselle Minturn! Explain—what do you mean?”

“Why, the girl from Panama!”

“She has stolen my pocketbook!”

“Yes, and taken record of your ledgers, also!” gasps Gascoigne.

“Fool! Dolt! Idiot! Misérable!” shrieks the Baron, the blood of Morgan’s desperado coming into his eyes, and he and Wernig fall upon the astonished clerk, and beat him, and strike him insensible.

Then Wernig whispers: “I go to notify the police of the stolen pocketbook!” and would run out.

But Montez stays him, whispering: “No, no!” as if in fright.

“Why not? It is a theft!”

“But if France knows WHAT is stolen? Do you think the populace will spare us foreigners who have debauched their Deputies? If the tribunals of justice get that pocketbook in their hands, it is we who shall suffer. No, no! No notice! I have another way,” mutters Montez.

So leaving Wernig, pale and unnerved, he calls a cab and goes fast as horse can carry him, and waking up one of the great Ministers of France, tells him of the pocket book, and to his affrighted exclamations whispers: “If it falls into wrong hands, your head also—HIGH AS IT IS!”

And so it might be; for Louise Minturn, as she drives, not to her dwelling at the Rue Lafitte, for she guesses that may be searched, but towards the hotel on the Boulevard Malesherbes, the place where Harry Larchmont will be, if he is in Paris, carries, clasped to her fair, panting breast, not only the secrets of Baron Montez, but THE HONOR OF FRANCE!


Notes

morocco: a fine, pebble-grained leather, originally made in Morocco from goatskin tanned with sumac. Dictionary.com

This edition © 2021 Furin Chime, Brian Armour

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