The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire
A novel based on the true story

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From 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 one chance!

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 hand.

"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— "

"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 a threat."

"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?"

Excerpted frrom The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire by C.M. Mayo, Unbridled Books, 2009. Copyright © C.M. Mayo 2009. All rights reserved.

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