the chapter "November 23, 1865: The Charm of Her Existence"
(set in Paris)
FROM BIGELOW'S carriage window, the buildings, swirled
in mist, float past like ghosts. How he loved this city once.
He used to be fond of quoting Saint Beuve, O Paris, c'est
chez toi qu'il est doux de vivre, at home with you, life
is sweet. Now its streets depress him and especially on days
like this one. To see blackened gutters clogged with trash, those
pissoirs like standing coffins, he cannot help but sink into
morbidly vivid thoughts of Robespierre and guillotines. To Paris,
to this legation, he has given the best years of his career,
lobbying against the Confederacy. When the wire came last spring
that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse,
he felt as Hercules must have after having cleaned the Augean
Stables. He took to his bed with the worst grippe of his life,
unable to do anything for three days but sip weak broth whilst
Mrs. Bigelow read to him from Swedenborg. Only on the third day
was he well enough to prop himself on pillows and read his Poor
Richard's Almanac. It took him a month to recover his health,
and then, in July, on a day so hot that the flowers wilted, and
Lisette had to close the shutters against the sun, Ernst died.
And alas, there is one more filth-encrusted stall in this stable:
this Mexican imbroglio. He cannot go home, he must shoulder the
shovel again. It is November already. When, Sweet Jesus, will
it be finished?
French intervention in the Americas, as he has made clear to
the Foreign Minister, will not be tolerated. (Was this not made
plain when Washington recalled its minister, Mr Thomas Corwin
from Mexico?) The United States will never recognize an imperial
government in Mexico.
"Nonetheless," Drouyn de Lhuys had answered, "you
recognized the empire of Iturbide, did you not?"
"That is true," Bigelow had replied. "However,
Iturbide was a Mexican, supported by the Mexican army and the
Mexican people." Drouyn de Lhuys seemed to have no parry
for that, so Bigelow rammed it in: "Furthermore, Maximilian
permits slavery, witness his decree of September 5th, forced
labor by former slaves on lands colonized by immigrants from
the Confederacy, AND " (Bigelow had to raise his voice
to forestall the French minister's interruption) "in
this decree of October 3rd, the summary execution of any individual
found with a weapon why, you must agree, sir, these are
barbarities against the LAW OF NATIONS!"
"Why do you tell me?" Drouyn de Lhuys examined his
fingernails. "What concern is it to France's what the government
of Mexico decrees? Anymore than " like a saint engulfed
in flames, he rolled his eyes ceilingward "the decrees
of China, or Lapland?"
"Monsieur Drouyn de Lhuys. Does the French Imperial Army
have thirty thousand men stationed in Lapland? Has the French
Imperial Army backed a new emperor of the Laplanders, shall we
say, a younger brother of the King of Poland?"
Drouyn de Lhuys put his thumbs in the pockets of his vest and
burst out in loud laughing. "Oof," he said, "You
should be writing novels!"
To think of that scene, the French minister's arrogance, it makes
the bile rise in his throat. Well Bigelow relaxes his grip
on the neck of his umbrella that's all there is to it:
the United States and France are, à contrecoeur, in a
stand-off, pistols drawn. Intelligence reports are that the French
still have 30,000 men in Mexico. But in the United States, the
same number remain massed at the Río Grande, along with
all their artillery, rifles, ammunition, tents, mess wagons,
and Lord knows how many hay-munching mules.
And as of two weeks ago, came tidings of a truly peculiar complication.
Seward's cipher cable from Washington had directed Bigelow to
receive Madam de Iturbide, née Alice Green of Georgetown,
DC, who claims that the Archduke Maximilian, soi-dissant emperor
of Mexico, has kidnaped her child! Her case had revolted him.
In sober fact, she had signed away her own child for rank and
lucre. But, Seward's instructions still trembling in his hand,
Bigelow had chided himself: Judge not that ye not be judged.
The advice this father gives his own children! To Bigelow, moral
snobbery is as offensive as social snobbery. As his wife, who
is of the Quaker persuasion, likes to say, You must give everybody
A light rain has begun falling. Umbrellas bloom along the Champs-Elysées.
Madam de Iturbide is expected in his office within the hour.
What vulgar class of person might she be? Already Bigelow is
steeling himself for the tawdry scene. The gas lamps flicker
inside that pastry shop; in its window, a hillock of that red-and-green
bombe mexicaine. Last year, in the more elaborate dinner parties,
that was comme ça. No one in Paris would serve that to
him. Mrs. Bigelow reported that it is an atrocious concoction
sopped through with rum. No, she has not looked well since Ernst
died. As soon as this Mexico question has been resolved, he should
like to take Mrs. Bigelow and the children home to New York,
to their farm at Buttermilk Falls. In the long summer days, he
could work on his memoirs, re-read Gibbon and De Tocqueville,
this time in the original French. The children could play in
the forest, fish, and ride ponies.
Man proposes, God disposes.
Patience, Bigelow reminds himself as he steps down from his carriage.
He feels the cold drizzle on his face before he raises his umbrella.
He tells himself once again, Patience.
At eleven, just as the clock on his bookcase tings, Madame de
Iturbide is ushered in. To his surprise, she has dressed tastefully
in dove-gray with a black velvet collar. Modest pearl earrings.
He rises from behind his desk and comes around to take her gloved
"Oh I am very much obliged to you, Mr Bigelow," she
says breathlessly (does he detect a hint of a Virginia accent?).
"Do be seated."
He thinks, why, she's frightened as a rabbit. What was she imagining,
that he would have her perch on the edge of his desk? "There,
madam. Either one of those chairs will do."
Her fine fair hair and the way she sits nervously pulling at
the fingertips of her gloves, reminds him of a friend of his
sister's, with whom he had once gone strawberrying.
But he returns his attention to his desk. The blotter, the inkpot,
his spectacle case: these he aligns with the precision of a surgeon
preparing for an operation.
"Yes?" He signals.
She begins in rush, "It is not at all what Maximilian has
made it out to be, it is a fraud, you see, it "
"A fraud?" Bigelow interrupts. He leans back into his
chair and makes a tent with his fingers. From across his enormous
oaken desk, he regards her coolly. "Are they not your and
your husband's signatures on Maximilian's contract?"
A flush of crimson appears on her forehead. She begins, silently,
to weep. "I admit," (she brings out a lace handkerchief),
"I had allowed myself to be dazzled, maybe a little, by
the prospects held out to my child, but I I had never imagined
that a mother, would be separated from her child in his infancy!
"AND," Bigelow says, "the indemnity the Iturbide
family has been paid?" Like a coon cat in wait for a chipmunk,
he stays very still in his chair.
"It has not yet all been paid, but more importantly, the
majority of these assets and pensions had been granted, long
ago, to the Iturbide family and were in arrears. I mean, they
were not honored by previous governments."
"By the Republican government of Benito Juárez."
"As well as others."
"But Madam. Pray tell. Why should Maximilian wish to keep
your child when you so evidently want him back?"
"Because my son is an Iturbide. Had my father-in-law, the
Emperor Iturbide, lived, had his government survived, I mean,
you see, my son would have been in line for the throne. My son
was very popular in Mexico and he is likely to become more popular
when he comes of age, and that is why Maximilian considers him
"Your two year-old babe is a threat to Maximilian?"
Bigelow closes his eyes, taking this fully in. How ridiculous
is the monarchical form of government, he thinks. Out of the
age of moated castles and knights in shining armor bah,
the stuff Southerners and women want to read novels about. If
they really had a handle on what went on in a European Court...
the interbred mediocrity and sycophancy, the waste, cronyism,
despotism, the bald corruption that could make a Boss Tweed blanch!
"But." Bigelow opens his eyes again. "Tell me,
madam. Exactly. Why did your husband's family agree to this un
" He was about to say, unnatural intrigue, but he clears
his throat. "Arrangement?"
Last Prince of the Mexican Empire by C.M. Mayo, Unbridled Books,
2009. Copyright © C.M. Mayo 2009. All rights reserved.