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

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From the chapter "March 4, 1866: Río Frío"
Photos of Río Frío

THE BELGIANS had enjoyed their visit to Mexico City immensely. Although it had not gone unremarked (feathers had been ruffled) that Maximilian had remained in Cuernavaca, and that certain senior French officers had not attended the entertainments, in all, they judged their mission a success. They were proud of Charlotte— their own princess— "swan of our Old World gifted to the New," as one of their members toasted her, after having imbibed a few too many cups of champagne (and made some tasteless remarks about 'our ginger-colored protegés.') Also, they had seen an exotic land; they'd had a true-blue adventure and their steamer trunks and valises were crammed with the souvenirs to prove it. Of the delegation, no single member was more satisfied, more inspired, more, well, overflowing with joie de vivre about the whole thing than Baron Fréderic Victor d'Huart.

An intimate friend and officier d'ordonnance of Charlotte's brother, Philippe, Duke of Flanders, Baron d'Huart might have been described as dashing had he not developed a paunch and double chin. Since departing Ostend in late January, he had been unable to follow his regime of fencing and hunting. The crossing had been brutal. For days, frigid gales had tossed the ship like a firkin in a tub; some feared they'd be shipwrecked off the Azores. Unlike the others, confined to their cabins with nausea, Baron d'Huart, who often joked that he must have had Viking blood, had gone on eating and drinking without pause.
By the time they docked in Veracruz, he had consumed prodigious quantities of foie gras, bonbons, and champagne. And in Mexico, well, was there anything more delicious than a humble taco of beans with this marvelous sprig of an herb called the epazote? And he indulged in the candies— dulces de cacahuates, the cigar-shaped camotes, lime-skins stuffed with sugared lard, and the almond nougat "buttons" soaked in honey— baskets of candies had been left in his quarters, replenished each day. At the farewell dinner at Chapultepec Castle, under his cummerbund, he'd had to leave the waist of his trousers undone.

The round of balls and dinners had been intense. All of the Belgians, and especially Baron d'Huart, had been limp with relief to finally get out of court dress: the coats bristling with decorations and epaulettes, the clanking swords, the hats with feathers. This morning, for this first leg of the journey home, he'd thrown on his roomiest breeches and favorite deer-skin jacket.
He is riding up top with the driver, who wears a sombrero with the circumference of a buggy-wheel. Baron d'Huart had started out wearing his sombrero— a loosely woven one, not so big as the driver's but the biggest they had in that labyrinth of an Aztec market— but once the coach had climbed to altitude and the air turned chilly, he'd exchanged it for the poppy-red cap he wore for grouse hunting in the autumn.

It is late; their coach has just departed from the inn at Río Frío. The sun having fallen behind the trees, the road is bathed in the blue shadow of the brief, disconcertingly brief Mexican twilight. Baron d'Huart throws his shoulders back and fills his lungs with the pine-scented air.

"Que fresco," How fresh, he says, eager to practice his Spanish on his companion.

The driver, throwing his lash, makes no reply.

Had the driver been a Belgian, Baron d'Huart would have been infuriated by such insolence; he would have had him fired. But the driver is a Mexican; to Baron d'Huart, a creature who forms a part of a tableau that is, in the altogether, picturesque. Baron d'Huart simply shrugs. He thinks to himself, vraiment, these Mexicans are an inscrutable race. But Mexico itself, why, Charlotte had every right to be proud, it is a world richer than he'd imagined. A land of dessicated cacti, hardly. Such a wealth of haciendas— they'd seen many from the highway, and they'd been shown photographs— vast plantings of agave, corn, sugar, coffee, cotton, and hemp. And what breathtaking scenery! Why the devil is he the only one with the gumption to enjoy it? He could not bear to keep himself cramped inside the coach, everyone smoking, snoring, sweating, when up here one can partake of an ever-changing panorama: now an Alpine Eden of rocky cliffs; sparkling rivulets; this forest for the Knights of the Grail. In the slice of Memling-blue above, an eagle soars.

He does not know the word for eagle in Spanish. He points at the sky. "Pajaro grande," Big bird.

Again, the driver makes no reply.

Again, Baron d'Huart shrugs, though, this time, with a sad little sigh. He gives his cap a tug, and he muses:

Mexico City, Mexicans aside, well, it was a wonder. Its cavernous cathedral made Brussels's Saints Michel et Gudule a mere chapel. Though Mexico's Imperial Palace could in no way be compared to the gothic splendors of the Maison du Roi, it was nothing for Charlotte to be ashamed of. As for Chapultepec Castle, though excessively gusty out on the terrace, it offered far superior vistas than the Chateau Royale at Laeken. It was more on the order of Sorrento's. One had to agree with Princess Iturbide, the sunsets over the Valley of Anahuac are incomparable. Mais oui, and ever so much more with an orchestra playing Chopin.

Yes, they had been shown the New World's Land of Canaan, its oceans teaming with pearls; yet-to-be-worked seams of gold, silver, copper, gypsum; fertile lands for tobacco, sugar, coffee, sisal hemp, cotton, and— all one would need is a proper lash— troops of natives to work them. Mexicans, being an inherently indolent people, cannot be expected to progress on their own. The mining engineers come from Belgium, Germany, Italy, and France; the telegraph and railway men are preponderantly Englishmen, Yankees, and American Southerners. Commodore Maury, the world's great oceanographer, has offered his services to the Mexican Empire. Yes, what excellent fortune that the Confederacy has fallen, for so many of its good men have come to Mexico: Baron d'Huart had had pleasant conversations with a Dr Gwin and a Colonel Talcott and a Judge Perkins. There were Confederate Generals by the bagful: Shelby, Harris, and one by the most amusing name, Slaughter, who has set up a sawmill in Orizaba.

Orizaba: on the way inland from coast, when the Belgian party had stopped there, General Slaughter had given them a present of his oranges. Oranges! After those weeks at sea, after the heat and stench of Veracruz, that filthy vulture-infested port where one hardly dared touch anything to one's lips, to have arrived in Orizaba, sweet-smelling Orizaba, to gardens of bougainvillea and gardenias, to cut-open oranges, cut-open oranges squeezed over cups of shaved ice— ice from the volcano, the Pico de Orizaba— it was as a gift from Olympus itself.

"Phagomen kai piomen, aurion gar thanoumeta." He couldn't resist quoting Epicurus.

Then he drank a whole glass of juice, straight.

From Río Frío, it is another two days's journey to Orizaba. (Apparently, one is to be grateful that this is the dry season.) From Orizaba to Veracruz, one can expect another long day, and from Veracruz to Ostend, a grueling three weeks. Then, Brussels at the end of March: the trees bare, the fields mud.
Baron d'Huart considers another attempt at conversation with the driver, but, "Ya!" the driver bellows, lashing his team with new violence.

What is the hurry, for the love of Christ.

This stick-in-the-mud had not wanted to proceed from Río Frío without an escort. This morning, from Mexico City, they'd had an escort, a gang of Zouaves, bronzed and tattooed louts. There was supposed to have been a relief escort waiting for them in Río Frío. Where was it? The answer was the universal chorus in this country: Quién sabe.

Those Zouaves, following their orders, turned around.

An escort. Oh, the driver had to have an escort.

The fort at Río Frío was unmanned. Why that was, no one could say. Clearly it wasn't needed. So, why an escort?

Es la costumbre, the driver insisted. It's the custom. He'd insisted they wait in Río Frío until the escort showed up. There was an inn that must have seen better days when a couple from Bordeaux was running it; in all events, said couple from Bordeaux was nowhere in evidence. The stairs up to the porch were falling apart; the only decoration, nailed to the outside wall and left to molder, were the brittle-looking pelts of an ocelot and a wolf. It was the sort of porch that might have offered a row of rocking chairs, but there were no chairs. Inside, the party sat on benches. The food smelled of rancid grease and the cutlery, dumped without ceremony in the middle of the table, had been rinsed, but not washed. The little raisin of a granny who served them said there was (curiously, she used the English) apple pie, but after such an execrable repast, no one, not even the adventurous Baron d'Huart, had the stomach to attempt it.
They'd gone outside. Up against a crumbling stone wall, an emaciated bitch nursed two puppies. Chewed-up corn cobs strewn about, cruddy with dust. Flies everywhere.

Still no escort. The driver proposed that they overnight in this hole. The Mexican Imperial Army Officer accompanying the party also thought this advisable. General Foury, head of the Belgian delegation, refused. He said he would not touch a mattress in this inn, not by the tip of a barge pole. Overnighting in such a place was a sure recipe for sickness and diarrhea.

A dozen Zouaves, what for? To be sure, Mexico had isolated pockets where remnant bands of Apaches, Yaquis, and such-like savages who had yet to taste the fruits of civilization, but these were in the far north. Charlotte had assured General Foury that, except for the few areas, the majority near the Texas border, where insurgents had recently been active, the country had been pacified. General Foury and the others had been hearing about holdups in the neighborhood of Río Frío. He had asked Charlotte straight: "What about security on the corridor between Mexico City and Veracruz?"

Charlotte had smiled at the question. "You must have seen yourself, large convoys make their way along it every day."

That was true. On their way in from Veracruz, they had seen innumerable coaches, troop wagons, wagons of merchandise, droves of cattle. "But what about the bandits," General Foury insisted. "Have they been cleared out?"

"Newspapers profit on sensationalism."

"Don't I know," General Foury laughed gently.

"I can assure you," Charlotte said, "You are perfectly safe."

Subsequently, at a dinner party, Baron van der Smissen, Commander of the Belgian volunteers, confided that the French troops in Mexico were so poorly disciplined, they had committed so many atrocities, they had become genuinely hated. There was less concern here than many in Europe presumed about the coming French evacuation; actually, it would be a good thing to see the French go. At that dinner party, there was a Mexican General, a gnome by the name of Almonte. He had not disagreed when Colonel Talcott had said, angrily, that the French troops were sucking more out of the Mexican Treasury than they were worth. The Mexicans, Talcott said, could stand up on their own. The Mexican Imperial Army was being trained and equipped— many Belgian and Austrian officers, Confederates, too, many experts in all matters from artillery to cavalry to logistics, were aiding in this enterprise. And by the way, a contingent of several thousand Austrian volunteers was scheduled to arrive in Mexico this May.

"Viva Maximilian! Viva Carlota!" Glasses had clinked all around.