The winter of 1865 saw the first
formal ball in the Imperial Palace, and at last, the Iturbides
were invited or, as Alicia's oldest brother-in-law, Agustín
Gerónimo, wryly put it, commanded to appear.
On the appointed evening at the appointed time (for they had
been advised that latecomers would be locked out), their buggy
moved slowly through the throngs of Indians and gawkers. At the
palace's main doors, French Zouaves, armed with rifles and batons,
pushed the crowd back, away from the descending guests. Above
the palace roof, which had been illuminated with alternating
red and green lanterns, the Milky Way sparkled in a chilly sky.
Beneath their mantones, as they called their embroidered
Chinese silk shawls, Alicia and Pepa wore gowns of satin and
tulle, not new, alas, but re-fashioned by the best Mexican mantua-maker
in Mexico City, after the latest patterns imported from Paris.
Pepa's décolletage glittered with one of her mamá's
antique necklaces; Alicia wore her grandmother's rope of pearls,
and her earrings, a gift from her husband on the birth of their
son, which were also of pearls. They had been advised that the
protocol of an imperial ball was both strict and elaborate. Gentleman
had to bow, women to curtsey, one could not speak to a Highness
unless spoken to. Alicia had only read about such things. By
comparison, a White House levée, with its bumpkin
of a president, was a rustic pile-up. Oh, that Potomac backwater
with its third-rate consular bureaucrats, those were as reed-birds
to real eagles! As donkeys to a Pasha's elephant!
If those belles from Lafayette Square and Georgetown could see
To think that anyone had looked down upon her marrying a Mexican
and going to live in Mexico. Things were going to be radically
different with a Habsburg here: that was clear to Alicia from
the moment she caught sight of the Palatine Guards, Vikings in
snow-white coats and silver helmets that shined in the dazzle
of fantastic torches, and inside, the gargantuan Venetian tear-drop
chandeliers, dripping light over the rustling mass of perfumed
guests. The officers and diplomats were in dress uniform, the
civilians in tails and white tie, the women alight with jewels.
Hundreds of people, indeed perhaps a thousand, were all craning
their necks. Who had been invited? Whom did one recognize? Don
Roberto, ¡qué gusto! Ceci, ¡qué
tal! Alicia recognized a Mexican countess, the Hungarian
cavalry captain who lodged down the street, the Belgian ambassador,
and, in a huge velvet cummerbund and a diamond the size of a
garbanzo bean in his cravat, Don Eusebio, the richest man in
Mexico. A buzzing roar filled the air of the stairwell. Kisses
for friends, handshakes for acquaintances, and up the crimson-carpeted
stairs they swarmed, past tapestries, Sèvres vases, wondrous
peacock-like bouquets. Once in the main hallway, still clinging
to her husband's arm, Alicia happened to look up: the cedar beams
had been gilded! It was hard to believe this was the same lice-infested
wreck that Doña Juliana de Gómez Pedraza, back
in the 1830s, when her husband had briefly been president, had
refused to inhabit. Neither had Alicia's father-in-law lived
here. (The Emperor Iturbide's "palace," so-called,
was now the stagecoach hotel on the Calle de San Francisco.)
What's more, Their Majesties were only using this palace for
formal entertainments; though they had apartments here, they
had established their Imperial Residence in Chapultepec Castle,
which had lately housed the Military College. (This Alicia completely
understood, for, as she had remarked to Mrs. Yorke and others,
her family's country estate, Rosedale, was at the same easy-commuting
range from the city of Washington.)
If the inside of Chapultepec Castle were half as sumptuous as
this, it would be something out of a fairy-tale, Alicia thought,
pressing her hand to her fast-pounding heart, sincerely hoping
that one day she might be invited there, also.
The Imperial Palace extended the entire length of the east side
of Mexico City's Plaza Mayor. The rooms given over to the ball
were one extravagant stretch of brightly-lit parquet after the
other, all drapes and mirrors and chandeliers, until they ended
with the closed doors of the throne room.
At nine o'clock the doors to the street had been bolted, and
now the Master of Ceremonies, with the aid of a silver baton
and two assistants, divided the crowd; the ladies to line up
along the one wall, gentlemen the other. The buzz faded to whispers
and then a sudden hush. Alicia went up on tiptoes: yes, the doors
to the throne room had swung open.
Soon she could see Maximilian in his Mexican General's uniform
greeting the men, and the empress, trailed by her ladies of honor,
working her way down the line of women.
Carlota's dark hair was arranged cushion-like over her ears.
She was not wearing a diadem, but, à l'espagnole,
a single blood-red rose. Her necklace and bracelets were of diamonds;
these sparkled in the candlelight. Her gown was of mint-green
and scarlet brocade with a train of gossamer lace. She moved
smoothly, with hauteur relieved now and then by the slightest
of smiles. Next to Alicia, two rotund little señoras,
nervously fanning themselves, began whispering and giggling.
"Shsh," Pepa scolded. It was an effort to stay back
near the wall; everyone wanted a better view of the approaching
imperial couple (always, one of the Master of Ceremonies's assistants
nudged them back). Alicia could now hear the conversations, Carlota's
murmurs of "enchantée," and some question
about the work on the telegraph, or, in Spanish, a bland, "buenas
noches." Carlota spoke the language of each lady she
addressed, a word of Spanish here, Flemish there, German or French
or English. This daughter of the King of Belgium spoke no less
than seven languages! Alicia could feel butterflies in her stomach.
She batted her eyelashes and her hand flew to her pearls: Her
turn had come! She tipped her head forward and sank into the
reverent curtsey she had been practicing all week.
Once she had straightened, Alicia was startled to realize that
she and the empress were exactly the same height.
"Buenas noches, señora," Carlota said,
and said again with a slight nod, her diamonds flashing, as Pepa
bowed her head (but, as her hip was troubling her, she did not
curtsey). The empress was about to move on when Madame Almonte,
chief lady of honor, rushed up and whispered into the empress's
Carlota turned to Alicia and said in an unnaturally slow, deliberate
and perfectly pronounced Spanish, "Señora de Iturbide,
we are pleased to have you here."
"Ma'am, oh, delighted!" Alicia's voice came out strangely
Carlota said, switching to English, "Oh, you speak English?"
"I do? I did? Oh, oh, did I"
Pepa interrupted: "She is from Washington."
"A very beautiful city, I hear, with the boulevards of Monsieur
L'Enfant." And before Alicia could recover, Carlota had
moved on down the row and was greeting the wife of the Mexican
The orchestra erupted into music;
Their Highnesses took their seats upon their thrones beneath
the canopy of crimson velvet. The platform for the thrones was
covered in the same rich, crimson carpeting that ran the entire
length of the hallway and all down the stairs. Sitting very erect,
Maximilian rested his slender arms on those of the chair, and
crossed his ankles. Carlota clasped her hands together; the bracelets
in her lap threw sparkles, like freckles, onto her throat and
face. Maximilian and Carlota now stood; he took her hand, and
led her down to the dance floor. They opened the ball with the
quadrille, and then retired to their thrones.
The imperial couple sat watching silently and, it seemed to Alicia,
tenderly, as, in a rustling swirl of tulles and satins, the ladies
and their cavaliers came back together and, with the aid of the
Master of Ceremonies and his assistants, took their places on
the dance floor. It was a sight Alicia would never forget for
as long as she lived: in one of the mirrors, she saw herself,
her golden hair crowned with a wreath of miniature yellow tea-roses,
her dainty gloved hand in her husband's, and, to the left, and
to the right, and behind them, the rows of the other dancers,
so many splendid uniforms, gowns all the colors of the most breathtaking
bouquet. Then, she danced as she had never danced before, with
a lightness and such precision it seemed the music ba-bum,
tra-la was her own heart, galloping, singing; oh, surely,
her slippers, like Mercury's ankles, had sprouted wings!
When the orchestra took its break, in the crush, Alicia was separated
from her husband. She wandered, fanning herself, tucking stray
hairs behind her ear (the dancing did mischief to her coiffeur).
One of the several balcony doors was open, and by happenstance,
as she approached, the three French officers who had been enjoying
the cool evening air, brushed past her. Rudely, they looked her
up and down. "Bonsoir, mademoiselle," said the
last one, a captain, in an oily tone. She answered sharply, "Madame."
So it was that she had the balcony to herself. Below, in the
vast plaza, was an astonishing sight: hundreds of faces turned
up in silent wonder. Moonlight cast their shadows before them
over the pavement. Some of these people began pointing at her.
Behind her, the music began again, trilling and soaring; for
the first time she realized that they too, the humble people,
wrapped in their blankets, had been out here, listening. They
had never heard such music; they had never seen such finery,
and the whole palace, so long decrepit, now pulsing with light...
Of its own accord, her hand moved up she almost waved,
but instead put her gloved fingers to her lips. This was what
it would feel like to be royalty, she thought. A heady feeling,
headier still knowing that her own husband had once been, long
ago, a real prince. Had history played out differently, it would
have been her bachelor brother-in-law, Agustín Gerónimo,
sitting on that throne. Imagine that, she thought: then, her
own husband would have been Heir Presumptive! She would be known
to all as (she silently whispered) Princess Alicia.
Her bare arms were turning to gooseflesh, but Alicia could not
bring herself to leave this magical perch. Her husband would
have scolded her severely, for Mexicans believed that to become
chilled by night air could cause ear aches, or paralyze one's
face. Simpler sorts believed the night belonged to ghosts, bogeymen,
and all class of naguals. Such was the magnetic power of royalty,
that it could pull all these people out into the open night.
She thought, the pavement must be awfully cold. She wondered
if some of them were hungry. She bit her lips. Shivering slightly
oh, she could not help herself: she raised her right hand. But
only one person waved back. It was the mounted policeman.