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

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From the chapter, "January 22, 1866: Flowers & Fish & Birds & Butterflies"
(set in Cuernavaca)

MID-MORNING, making her rounds, Frau von Kuhacsevich minces along the veranda outside the empress's rooms, the pendulum of her ring of keys swinging alongside her skirts. She greets the gardener clipping the hedge; she steps around a chambermaid, who looks up from scrubbing the tiles, to answer her mistress:

"Buenos días, señora Kuhaes." (Not a one can manage the pronunciation of her name.)

The laundress with a basket of folded linens.

Frau von Kuhacsevich thinks to turn around and ask, "Have you put clean bed linens in the room for the Austrian Ambassador?"

"Sí, señora Kuhaes." A toothless smile.

"And clean towels for the washstand?"

"Ahorita," in a little minute.

And that one was imported from Mexico City! It is a task for a Hercules to set up an Imperial Household in the tropics. There are no servants to be hired in this village, unless one wants those whose feet have never known shoes and whose hands would not know from Adam what to do with a fork. (And whose concepts of cleanliness are best left uncontemplated.)

On the steps to the next patio, Frau von Kuhacsevich must pause to fan herself. Cuernavaca is not the Turkish bath of the hot lands, more, as Maximilian put it, an Italian May. Pleasant for the men, and Prince Agustín, perhaps, but a trial for those who must encase themselves in corsets and crinolines. Oh, poor Charlotte that her father has died, but Blessed Jesus, what would Frau von Kuhacsevich have done had she been obliged to wear mourning black! The thought simply wilts her. She is afraid her face has gone red as a beet. Her back feels sticky, and under her bonnet, she can feel her scalp sweating. Taking the bonnet off is out of the question: her roots have grown in nearly an inch— in all the rushing to and fro, there has not been a snatch of time to touch up the color.

An Italian May: in that spirit, for luncheon, Tüdos has concocted an amuse-gueule of olives, basil, and requeson, a cheese too strong to pass for mozzarella, but toothsome. In addition to coffee, he will be making a big pot of canarino: simply, the zest of lemons steeped as tea. Well, here it has to be made of limes, ni modo, no matter, as the Mexicans say.

Frau von Kuhacsevich makes her way across the blossom-strewn patio to the veranda where the luncheon will be held. Out on the lawn, in the speckled shadow of a Brobdingnagian ficus, the orchestra is setting up their folding chairs and music stands. She has had to ask Sawerthal to move the chairs twice; Maximilian wants the music to be heard clearly, but it must not overwhelm the table conversation.

Earlier this morning, in her office, she had reviewed the seating chart with the Master of Ceremonies. He had bristled at her interference, but the problem was— Frau von Kuhacsevich had tapped her pencil on his chart— it would not do to seat Princess Iturbide to the right of His Excellency Don Fernando Ramírez.
Sotto voce: "Is there something I ought to know?" The Master of Ceremonies was practically smacking his lips for the juicy morsel.

Frau von Kuhacsevich ignored him; she was not going to betray her friend by explaining, it was simply that in her left ear, the princess was hard of hearing.

"Better this." Frau von Kuhacsevich had tapped her pencil, making a dot on the paper. "Put Princess Iturbide on the left of the Austrian ambassador."

The Master of Ceremonies pursed his lips and exhaled loudly through his nostrils. Their intensity of concentration was that of a couple of generals at their maquette.

"Well," he said finally. "If you must move her, it would be easier to switch her with the American's wife. Here, you see, put Princess Iturbide next to Monsieur Langlais."

Frau von Kuhacsevich shot her bottom lip out. One finger alongside her chin, she considered this many-faceted idea. (Monsieur Langlais, the finance wizard... man of the moment.... her husband, for one, suggesting that he may yet perform wonders... but Maximilian finds his conversation tedious... plebeian...) Her eyes roved over the chart. The Belgian ambassador here, General Uraga's wife over there, and then the Spanish ambassador and General Almonte (that toad, but he does speak English), the Marquis de la Rivera (trilingual, but an impossible snob)... This required the highest degree of Fingerspitzengefühl...

By her silence, she had stuck to her guns.

"All right," the Master of Ceremonies said. "I'll leave Princess Iturbide on the left of the Austrian ambassador. But I cannot leave the botanist where he is."

"Professor Bilimek? Oh, put him next to that lady-in-waiting."

"Señorita Varela?" The Master of Ceremonies raised his eyebrows.


"He does not speak Spanish and she does not speak German."

"Let them speak French."

"Her French is very bad."

"Why worry?" Frau von Kuhacsevich threw up her hands. "Professor Bilimek does not say much anyway."