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

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From the second chapter, "The Archduke Maximilian"
(set in Trieste)

OUR STORY TURNS NOW to an ivory castle perched by the uneasy sea within sight of the city of Trieste. In the northeastern corner of Italy, then part of the Austrian Empire, Il Castello di Miramare, or, Miramar, was the residence of the archduke who was second-in-line to the throne. Whereas Vienna's ancient and grey Hofburg Palace huddled around shadowy courtyards, Miramar stood new, crisp, unafraid of the Italian sun. Even today in the early morning, just before the sun rises from behind the hills, and all the birds are singing, its tower seems to glow from within. Yes, sometimes a story's beginning fools the eye, the way a fata morgana projects a landscape that may in fact lie hundreds of miles beyond the horizon. But sometimes, too, persons who do not appear to share even a footprint's worth of common ground turn out to have destinies bound together in painful knots. Indeed, it was in the midst of the Iturbides's domestic idyl that, beyond the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in his still under-construction Miramar Castle, the Archduke Maximilian von Habsburg very reluctantly accepted the Mexican throne— that same throne which had belonged to the ill-starred Don Agustín de Iturbide. The Archduke's reluctance was an ugly embarrassment for all concerned. However, the details of the episode were not generally known until years afterwards when most of the participants had gone to their reward, for, in Austria and in Mexico during the French Occupation, sharp-eyed censors inspected letters, magazines, newspapers, and telegrams, and they had not the least hesitation in confiscating matter their superiors might deem offensive. Which is not to suggest that no one in Mexico knew of the troubles surrounding the Archduke's acceptance of the Mexican throne, merely, that the Iturbides, as most members of Mexico City society, were not privy to the whole of it. This turned out to have exceedingly unfortunate consequences.

The troubles surrounding the Archduke's acceptance were many but the stickiest was the so-called "Family Pact," a document the Archduke referred to as "that accursed piece of paper." His version of events was that his older brother, Kaiser Franz Joseph, had sprung it upon him without warning and strong-armed him, literally forced him, to sign it. However, ample time beforehand, when the Archduke had visited Vienna in January of 1864, the Foreign Minister, Count Rechberg, had mentioned that, of course, before accepting the Mexican throne, Maximilian would have to resign from the House of Habsburg, thus renouncing his rights as an Archduke of Austria. Maximilian had coolly answered, "That I will never do."

How could one resign from the House of Habsburg? It was his blood, his fingernails, the skin he wore. It was recorded in the Almanach de Gotha and would be until the end of time: He, Maximilian von Habsburg, was the descendant of the Kings of the Holy Roman Empire, rulers by divine right. It was as a member of the House of Habsburg, knight-errant for its glory, that he had given his word to Louis Napoleon that he would accept the throne of Mexico. The idea of giving up his rights was not only inconceivable, it was absurd!

Maximilian assumed that Count Rechberg had not spoken with the authority of the Kaiser. And indeed, subsequently, Maximilian met with his brother several times, and nothing was said about it. Not until the eve of Maximilian's departure for Brussels— very late in the game— did Count Rechberg press upon him the court historian's report on the matter of succession, again arguing that, before formally accepting the Mexican throne, Maximilian would have to sign the Family Pact. This report had the Kaiser's signature, but it was, Maximilian told Count Rechberg, so much intellectual flatulence. Maximilian heard nothing more about it— until after Maximilian and his consort, Charlotte, had been feted as emperor- and empress-elect in both Brussels and Paris, after they had floated the loan for the Mexican Empire in the Paris bourse, after they had crossed the Channel to pay their respects to Queen Victoria, that is, after everything, lock, stock, and barrel, had been recognized in the most public way. On their way back to Trieste, where the coronation was to take place in Miramar Castle in a matter of days, Maximilian and Charlotte visited Vienna where they were received at the Hofburg, not as Archduke and Archduchess, but as heads of state. The day after the state banquet, lo, Count Rechberg presented that piece of paper. It was either sign the Family Pact, or Younger Brother would not be permitted to wear a crown.

Bitter rage welled in Maximilian's throat. It was just like the fiasco of his governorship of Lombardy-Venetia when, notwithstanding his demonstrated competence, leadership, and popularity— really remarkable popularity given the restiveness of the Italian nationalists— Franz Joseph had dismissed him with no warning, no justification, and so made him appear ridiculous. Franz Joseph had never supported him. And now, their mother, Archduchess Sophie, stepped in. You should not deprive Max of his rights. You are not being a good brother. Franz Joseph argued right back, Felipe V, nephew of Louis XIV, renounced his rights to the French throne when went to reign in Spain, as did their aunt, Marie-Louise, forfeit hers to the Austrian throne, when she married Napoleon Bonaparte.

Yet there was an undercurrent to Maximilian's raging feelings: relief. To begin with, though Charlotte insisted he was overreacting, it did seem to him, as to many of the older generation, unseemly for a Habsburg to accept a throne from a mere Bonaparte. And to put one's fate in the hands of a Bonaparte... Maximilian remembered, from the time he was a child, hearing them called "those dregs of the Corsican banditti." (His aunt, Archduchess Marie-Louise, was the one who had been made to marry Bonaparte, once the barren and infinitely less distinguished Empress Josephine had been divorced. Bonaparte, that rapacious parvenu, he was so horrible: Krampus, the Devil, was what they'd called him in Vienna in those days.)

And to erect an empire in the New World was, perhaps, a Quixotic quest— alike to a march into Russia? The finances were somewhat convoluted and, well, mystifying. By the Treaty of Miramar, which Maximilian was to sign once crowned emperor, Louis Napoleon would keep troops in Mexico as long as needed, though at Mexico's expense— the costs of the transports, the supplies, all arms, and the payrolls and interest and indemnities and— well, would that, ultimately, be feasible? In the beginning, though Louis Napoleon had assured Maximilian that they would, neither England nor Spain had offered their support for the Mexican Expedition. The United States Consul in Trieste had come out to Miramar Castle personally to warn Maximilian not to swallow the honeyed words of the Mexican Delegation. Who were these men, after all? Don José Hidalgo, a no-account expatriate Parisian society-hanger-on; Don José María Gutiérrez de Estrada, another long-time expatriate, denizen of Rome, an ultramontane schemer; and General Almonte, a crony of Santa Anna's, and, as it happened, bastard of the guerrilla-hero of Independence, the priest, Morelos. At that time, General Almonte had returned to Mexico City, and was serving as Lieutenant General of the Realm, which is to say, Regent under the French Occupation. More than any of them, General Almonte's true purposes remained inscrutable. (Was Almonte secretly loyal to the exiled dictator, Santa Anna? Just another Albanian-style strongman? Or a visionary and true patriot? As was his father, Father Morelos, the glorified hero of the wars for Independence?)

The U.S. Minister in Vienna, according to the reports of the police spies, was dripping with disdain for the entire enterprise— he seemed to think Maximilian might as well have offered himself up to a rope and gibbet.

And the U.S. Minister was not the only one of this persuasion. Queen Victoria had received Maximilian and Charlotte not as heads-of-state, but as her cousins; at the dinner at Windsor Castle, at every mention of Mexico, she took on the expression of having bitten into gristle and changed the subject (puppy-dogs and the unseasonable weather in Scotland!).

On their return from London, Maximilian and Charlotte had stopped at Claremont to visit Charlotte's Grand-maman, Marie-Amélie, the ex-Queen of France. That was a nasty scene. Grand-maman had gripped Charlotte's hands, crying, "Don't go, my darlings, you mustn't go!" She had nearly shouted at Maximilian, "They will assassinate you!" The ravings of an old woman, perhaps, but there were many other warnings. One in particular blazed bright in Maximilian's mind, for it came from Don Pedro Montezuma XV, the sole legitimate descendant of the Aztec emperor.

French cannon have cowed some into submission; once tranquility reigns, however, there will rise up all of a sudden a terrible counter-revolution.... Your Highness has been too precipitous in accepting the Mexican throne... Those who today form the regency are of the most impious stripe... depraved evildoers, usurpers, they rob the Treasury, they rob even the Holy Church... .they will supplant Your Highness perhaps after a tragic end.

When the Mexican throne had first been offered, Charlotte had had forebodings. Her uncle, Prince Joinville, had visited Mexico some years earlier. It was a barbarous country, he said, rife with yellow fever, malaria, the revolting spectacles of bullfights, and if that weren't enough, armed bands roaming the countryside. "And if Brazil was unsuitable for you, a white woman, to visit, Mexico less so. You, empress of Mexico?" Joinville had laughed. "Une idée affreuse!" A dreadful idea.

However, when Maximilian began to give the invitation serious consideration, Charlotte not only warmed to the idea, she became its most energetic proponent. Neither had Maximilian, sunny by nature, been swayed by all this "doom and gloom." As Charlotte pointed out, the enemies of France and the enemies of the True Church painted the picture with their own tints. Maximilian and Charlotte both had interviewed diplomats, bankers, mining engineers, and scientists. They read stacks of letters, reports, and between them, a library's worth of books, including, of course, Baron Alexander von Humboldt's extensively and meticulously documented report, from cover to cover. Mexico, astride the world's two greatest oceans, rich with precious metals and fertile lands, had stupendous potential, and the catalyst, they had both become convinced, would be himself. As Charlotte said, quoting one of the gentlemen of the Mexican Delegation, a Habsburg prince on that throne would be as the sun to the planets. Yes, to lend their personal prestige— the prestige of the House of Habsburg and, on her side, Saxe-Coberg and Gotha— would be an enormous help to Louis Napoleon, and they could count, as a cathedral upon its foundation, on his deepest, most reverent gratitude. And: the equally, nay, perhaps even more profound gratitude of His Holiness the Pope. Yes, Maximilian's ambition had been whetted.

And was it not a sign of Divine approbation, that he, descendant of the Habsburg king of Spain who had commanded the conquistadors, should be the one to sit on this throne?

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