Maximilian feels a special affinity for children. It is not so much that he wants one of his own, but that he identifies with their unblemished beauty, their innocence, and above all, that natural ability to lose themselves in the joy of a moment. Or is it a natural ability? He wonders. In an adult, certainly, it can be a talent cultivated as artists do, yes, as must any of those who, by profession or inclination, call upon the Muses.
When he was a twelve-year-old boy, there was a distinct moment of a gray winter’s day in the Hofburg when he looked up from his schoolwork, the endless hieroglyphics of trigonometry, and caught sight of his reflection in the window. Four o’clock and it was nearly dark outside. He had been horrified: how old he looked. The life drained out of him! In a whisper that neither his older brother Franz Joseph nor their tutor could hear, he solemnly swore: I shall not forget who I truly am.
Adults, it seemed to Max, were as butterflies in reverse: they too, had been beautiful and free, but they had folded in their wings, cocooned themselves, and let their appendages dissolve until what they became was hard, ridged, little worms. One’s tutor, for example, reminded one of a nematode.
Twiddling concern with numbers, “practicality” in all its Philistine guises makes Maximilian stupendously bored. He needs vistas of sky, mountains, swift-running, sun-sparkled water; he needs— as a normal man must eat— to explore this world, to see, to touch its sibylline treasures: hummingbirds. The red-as-blood breast of a macaw. The furred and light-as-a-feather legs of a tarantula. God in all His guises: mushrooms, lichens, all creatures. As a boy, Max had delighted in his menagerie: a marmoset, a toucan, a lemur. The lemur had escaped, and left outside overnight, it had died of the cold. A footman had opened the door in the morning, and there the thing was, dusted with snow and stiff as cardboard.
“I detest winter,” Max had declared. Franz Joseph, Charlie, and the little brothers, bundled in woollens and furs, they could go ice-skating or build fortresses for snow-ball fights; Max preferred to stay inside with his pets, his books, and the stoves roaring. The one thing he relished about winter, for it was a most elegant way of thumbing his nose at it, was to go into the Bergl Zimmer and shut the door behind him. Its walls and its doors were painted with murals, trompe l’oeil of the most luxuriant flora and fauna: watermelons, papayas, cockatoos, coconut trees, hibiscus. Where was this, Ceylon? Java? Yucatan? Sleet could be falling on the other side of the Hofburg’s windows, but this treasure of the Bergl Zimmer, painted in the year 1760 for his great-great-grandmother the Empress Maria Theresa, never failed to transport one into an ecstasy of enchantment.
His mother had counseled her sons, many times: “Make up your mind to be happy. Then you will be.”
Here, this moment in Cuernavaca, one is happy: perfumes in the air, colors from the palette of Heaven, birds, flowering trees and vines and oranges, the music of the orchestra and of the fountains, this bone-warming sunshine…
“Hurrah! Professor Bilimek, what have you to show us?” Maximilian sets Agustín down on the grass. They have arrived at the veranda outside his office. The professor has a clipped white beard that makes his face appear both rounder and ruddier than it really is; his eyes are small and watery behind wire-rimmed spectacles. He removes his straw hat, mops his bald head, and then, from one of the many bulging pockets in his smock, he brings out a small jar.
“Etwas wunderbar,” Something wonderful, Professor Bilimek says. Switching to French: “Un petit bête du Bon Dieu,” one of the good Lord’s little creatures, he says, putting it into Agustín’s hands.
A capuchin, Professor Bilimek is profoundly shy around other adults, especially about his Spanish, which is why he lapses into French with anyone who cannot understand German. Years ago, he had accompanied Maximilian to Brazil, and managed the entire expedition with nary a word of Portuguese.
The jar imprisons a ladybug. Agustín watches the ladybug crawl up the inside of the glass; then, he sets the jar down on the bricks.
Off to the side, in the lime-green shade of an espaliered fig tree, Maximilian reaches past the aphalandra to finger a leaf the shape of an elephant’s ear. To his secretary, he says, “Monstera, or, the Latin name is colocasia esculenta. In Brazil, however, the leaf is distinctly larger and more reniform. The natives use them as parasols.”
“Extraordinary!” José Luis leans in for a closer look at the very same plant his own mother keeps in a pot on the laundry patio of her house in Mexico City.
“But they are of no use in tropical downpours.”
“Goodness, yes. Yes, I can imagine!”
Grasping it low down on its stem, Maximilian snaps off the leaf. “Little cousin?” Agustín comes close and Maximilian bends down. “For you, a parasol just your size.”
Agustín giggles, but unsure what to do with the big leaf, he drops it on top of the jar with the ladybug. He runs out onto the lawn, into the shadow of the ficus tree, past the mango tree, and into the sunniest part. Here he bends his knees, puts his bottom in the air, and plants the crown of his head on the grass. After a pause in this awkward position, he flops over.
“Bravo!” says Professor Bilimek.
Agustín makes another somersault.
“Bravo! How many can you do?”
Agustín holds up three fingers.
“Encore une fois!” Once again! Professor Bilimek says.
From the veranda, with his arms crossed over his chest, Maximilian watches the little boy with a glower of envy. To be an adult is to live in a kind of jail. To be a sovereign is to have been put into that same jail in iron fetters, and the key tossed out through the bars. He had so envied his elder brother’s having a throne, and been so angry at being bullied into signing that Family Pact… but his feelings toward his brother are beginning to soften, a little. In this job, he has grown old so quickly. As a matter of fact (he puts his hand to the top of his thinning hair), he is well on his way to going as bald as Professor Bilimek. In another year or two, Maximilian’s head will be a billiard ball— no, worse, a freckled egg. And from all the coffee and tobacco, his teeth have turned brown. He is no Romeo. Though his beard is looking fine. As a kind of compensation, he has been letting it grow. Proudly, he gives it a smooth.
“Little cousin, come!”
When Agustín runs back to him, Maximilian takes him by the hand, and dismisses the others.
To abandon the sunshine for his office, even with the little “cousin,” is to come crashing back into a waking nightmare. Maximilian has invited the Austrian ambassador an interview before luncheon, in which he must steer his leaky craft between a Scylla and a Charybdis, that is, between impressing Vienna with his good governance of Mexico, and opening the road to his possible return to Austria, upon which depends the renegotiation of the Family Pact.
The Kaiser was the one who had acted in bad faith, Maximilian believes. But now, nearly two years gone by since he had been forced to affix his signature to that accursed scrap of paper, he realizes, the bitterest cup was the one he drank of his own volition, thinking it sweet syrup, whilst on board the Novara. That is, it was a grievous, possibly fatal mistake to have sent that protest, and so publically! Franz Joseph may harbor affection for his younger brother, or at least, for their mother’s sake, pretend that he does;. But as Kaiser he turns first to the men around him, and those hard-heads had already considered Maximilian a near-traitor for having dared criticize Vienna’s barbaric measures against dissidents, and then, for having treated with Louis Napoleon. To protest the Family Pact in this way— it was Charlotte who insisted they send the telegram to all the courts of Europe, and that moron, Scherzenlechner, and Monsieur Eloin and— oh, it was to have goaded the beasts with a red-hot poker. He should have waited. He should have been more patient, more subtle, using back channels, letting those who needed to, save face. Now, with the Family Pact in force, should Maximilian return to Europe, his pensions, his position, his ability to choose where to reside, where to travel, in short, his entire future, would be at their mercy. He would be as a turtle without a carapace.
One never should have listened to Charlotte. One never should have allowed her, so young a woman, to exert such influence. Charlotte is forever meddling! She meddled in matters with the Church; it would not be fair to blame the break with the Pope on her but, perhaps her overly frank manner with the papal emissary— ? It did not serve. (Well, Father Fischer remains in Rome; he has not yet picked apart that Gordian knot.) Charlotte, with her habitual rigidity, takes everything deathly seriously. She paralyzing headaches. She has been so emotional about her father’s death. This is why one must protect her from unpleasantness. One has given her the general tint of things, but specifics are best left unsaid. (For example, that the Iturbides, those ingrates, have gone to the U.S. Minister in Paris to stir up an intrigue…) One cannot discuss with Charlotte the possibility of abdication. If it happens— it might not— it is Bazaine’s fault! For letting the guerrillas walk all over him. The armies are bleeding more deserters every day, Bazaine admits it! More money, General Almonte says, more, more— while the French go on robbing the customs houses.
Monsieur Langlais may be a wizard with numbers, but no mere man can bring forth loaves and fishes.
Impunitatis cupido… magnis semper conatibus adversa, the desire of escape, that foe to all great enterprises, as Tacitus said.
But one is weary to the bones. Oh, to be a child again! To run free in the world! One could retire, this very summer, to the Adriatic, visit the island of Lacroma… one might make experiments with aeronautics… Reread Goethe and Seneca… pen one’s memoirs… .
But would the Kaiser permit even that? From Vienna, Charlie reports that one’s popularity remains so strong, especially among the Hungarians, that the Hofburg could consider one’s mere presence within the confines of the empire a threat. Monsieur Eloin agrees. Perhaps the superior strategy would be to first, for some two or perhaps three years, establish residence in a neutral country— but which one?
A cigar smoldering between his lips, Maximilian leafs through his atlas, a prodigious tome bound in navy-blue Morocco-leather, its pages gilded:
The Sandwich Islands… Tahiti… (he wets a finger a turns another rustling page)… Australia’s Botany Bay….
Rajasthan? Say, a year-long expedition to ride elephants and shoot tigers?
But one’s happy fantasies are cut short as the Austrian ambassador is ushered in.
His Excellency Count Guido von Thun stands taller than Maximilian by a full three inches. Dressed in white linen trousers, a white blouse and, incongruously, black boots, Count von Thun has mutton-chop sidewhiskers, low-set dark eyebrows, and the focused gaze of a stork about to pincer a fish. Having returned Maximilian’s greeting, stooping slightly, Count von Thun tries out his heavily-accented Spanish on the prince, who is sprawled on the carpet, stacking his blocks.
“Mucho gusto en conocerle,” pleased to meet you.
“Hola,” the child says, without looking up.
Its frock, Count von Thun cannot help noticing, is covered with grass stains. The bruise on his left arm, just above the elbow, is frightful. In his judgement, the injury merited a plaster.
“A right nice tower you have built there with your blocks.”
Agustín kicks it over with his sandal.
“Was that a castle?”
Agustín runs to Maximilian and clings to his leg.
Count von Thun persists. “How old are you?”
Shyly, Agustín holds up four fingers.
Maximilian, tousling the child’s hair, says, “You little liar! I know how old you are.”
Count von Thun had assumed the child was at least four. Agustín, biting his lip, holds up two fingers.
“That’s right, little cousin,” Maximilian says, “but you are almost three, aren’t you? “
“And you know when your birthday is, don’t you?”
Agustín swings his head, no.
“I know you know when it is,” Maximilian says. “Ho!” Agustín has crawled under the desk. Maximilian bends down, both hands on his thighs: “What are you doing under there?” The ambassador, beetling his brow, rubs his chin, and then he scratches behind his ear. What is this about? There is a reason that, for his, that is, Vienna’s benefit, Maximilian makes a fuss over this infant, but what is it? That one is supposed to see this so-called “prince”— that really is a stretch— as his Heir Presumptive? That the idea is, one should run cable Count Rechberg, Do convince the Kaiser to send over a nephew lest the House of Habsburg lose this golden opportunity? War is coming with Prussia, perhaps as soon as May. The Kaiser needs Mexico like he needs a hole in the head. Austria cannot afford to make an enemy of the United States. (Already, Austria’s ambassador to Washington is under orders to maintain strict neutrality with regard to Mexico.) To allow a few thousand volunteers to ship over was a concession made out of family loyalty, to give Maximilian something.
And the Austrian Volunteers might have achieved something, had Bazaine not kept them scattered, sent off on operations both trivial and absurdly dangerous. Count von Thun’s cousin, General Franz von Thun, is the commanding officer of the Austrian Volunteers. Last time they had spoken of Bazaine, he’d nearly choked with anger.
In any event, at the rate Mexico is falling into bankruptcy and lawlessness, Maximilian shall have to abdicate. The question is, when will he do it?
And this little boy? It was spectacularly stupid of Maximilian to have had its mother arrested and deported. According to the police reports, she has taken her case to the U.S. Minister in Paris. Typical of Maximilian: coddling his enemies, and then when they go after him, he plays the ostrich. Faced with unpleasant decisions, he procrastinates— the most inane game. Which is how Maximilian got himself into such a tangle over that Family Pact. It was beyond ingenuous for Maximilian to claim he’d been surprised by it; Count Rechburg had presented the terms very clearly and early on. Geltungsbedürfnis, the need to show off— that has always been the weak chink in Maximilian’s armor.
Count von Thun does not have a feeling of charity for Maximilian’s byzantine fooleries. He never has. He takes out his handkerchief and mops his brow. Dressing all in white is not defense enough against this heat.
It offends him that capable officers are dying. He shall never forget his grief: Captain Karl Kurtzrock and sixty ulans slaughtered in Ahuacatlán. The Austrian volunteers, for the most part, roam around the sierra battling these monkeys and stagecoach robbers and kidnappers with names like Loco de López, Hongos, and El Tuerto. Austrians should be serving the Kaiser, not this chimera of l’empire du Mexique dreamed up in the Tuileries. And to begin with, it was a scandal for an Austrian Archduke to have condescended to accept a throne from a Bonaparte.
Further, this position has been no boon to Count von Thun’s career. One of Austria’s most highly regarded diplomats, he has been posted to Mexico not because Mexico matters, but because its sovereign happens to be the Kaiser’s brother. Count von Thun would prefer Muscovite snowstorms to this puny farce. Look at this office: the upholstery, the paintings, the elaborately carved credenza— and, according to intelligence, Maximilian has been regularly corresponding with his decorators in Trieste! It seems he is less interested in governing than in furnishing his Italian plaything. The latest letter intercepted was an order for 1,000 nightingales to be placed in the open aviary behind the parterre overlooking the Bay of Grignano!
Out of the corner of his eye, Count von Thun spots the atlas open to… Rajasthan?
“Dulce de cacahuate?” Maximilian says, lifting an orange-and-black clay bowl from the edge of his desk. A pot like a pumpkin.
“A what, sir?”
“Ca-ca-hua-te, that is, ‘peanut’ in the language of our Aztecs.” Maximilian waves his cigar over the neatly arranged rows of paper-wrapped candies the size of doubloons. “These come from Mexico City’s finest dulcería, as we say, Süßwarengeschäft. El Paraíso Terrestre on the Calle de San Francisco.”
“I do not know it.”
“Shame. You must be sure to go there. ”
“Quiero un cacahuate,” I want a peanut, Agustín says from under the desk.
Maximilian says in Spanish, “I will give you one, little cousin, but not unless you come out from under there.”
“Well then, little cousin, you may not have one.”
Agustín says, tugging at Maximilian’s trouser leg, “My rhino wants one.”
“Your rhinoceros!” Maximilian says. “What color is your rhinoceros today?”
“No, that is a number. What color is your rhinoceros? Is he blue?”
“Tuesday? Your rhinoceros is Tuesday?” With a chuckle, Maximilian turns to the ambassador. In German, Maximilian says, “Your turn.”
“Ask him about his rhinoceros.”
Noisily, the ambassador clears his throat. He bends down, one elbow on his knee, and peers under the desk. In his awkward Spanish, he says, “Where is the rhinoceros?”
“On your head!”
Count von Thun touches his head. “I do not feel it.”
“He bite you!”
Count von Thun, having gone as far as his humor permits, straightens. He still has the dulce de cacahuate in his hand.
In German, Maximilian says, “Try it. It is a marzipan of the peanut.”
Count von Thun bites into his dulce de cacahuate, and nearly chokes. Truly, it is one of the most detestable things he can remember having tasted. Dry as chalk, it sticks to his teeth.
“Mmm,” he says, making an effort to swallow. In the meantime, the tyke has crawled over to the bookcase and begun pulling out books.
Maximilian says suddenly, “I have been thinking of India.” He lifts his chin and, in the direction of the open door, exhales a pencil-stream of smoke.
“Ah?” (Books go on thumping to the floor— and another noise: just outside, the emperor’s bodyguard has begun snoring.)
“As I was telling your British counterpart, the other day, we Mexicans have much to learn from their example in India.”
“Hmm.” Count von Thun, wishing he could have a glass of water, tries, discreetly, behind his handkerchief, to clean his teeth with his tongue.
“As their Hindus have demonstrated, elephants are most useful in logging hardwoods in mountainous terrain.”
“We have extensive hardwood forests all along our Gulf coast and in Yucatan and Chiapas.” (Another thump.) “As well as in the north as far as Chihuahua. Mahogany, oak, walnut, really, what we have is a cornucopia of hardwoods.”
“You would import working elephants for logging?”
“New York City. Our consul there has been in negotiations with a circus.”
It takes all of Count von Thun’s diplomatic nerve to maintain a straight face.
“But,” Maximilian continues, “we are already benefitting from a number of extraordinary innovations. I am sure you know all about our henequén, or sisal hemp production in our very rich haciendas in Yucatan? Now, in Lower California, our northwestern peninsula, with the aid of the modern diving apparatus, we will be expanding the exploitation of our pearl beds along the Sea of Cortez.”
“Near the islands off La Paz, in Lower California, one of our Yaqui divers has brought up a black pearl the size of a lemon.”
“But the shape of a pear.”
“It weighed in at three hundred and fifty seven grains.”
“There was an article about it in Le Moniteur.”
Maximilian goes on in this vein, Count von Thun carefully calibrating his reactions, or rather, noises, to fall within the range distant from disdain on the one hand, and false enthusiasm on the other. To put it undiplomatically, Maximilian is full of beans. They are standing in the center of the room; behind Maximilian’s shoulder, between the two oil paintings of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, a prize-winning cockroach works its way down the wall. On the tiles, close enough that Count von Thun could put out his boot and crush them, a line of ants marches toward the door. The air stirs. Maximilian’s expression suddenly fixes on something outside. Count von Thun turns his head.
“You missed it,” Maximilian says.
“A hummingbird. There is a nest under the eaves. The other day I found the gardener up on a ladder. He meant to remove it, but I forbade it.” Maximilian goes over to his desk and comes back with a tin plate covered with a handkerchief. “Lift it up.”
Upon the plate rests a thumb-sized lump of feathers: a hummingbird. “Professor Bilimek’s treasure of the morning. A cat got it.”
Maximilian squints through the smoke of his cigar. “Pick it up.”
“Another Aztec delicacy?”
Count von Thun cups the cadaver in his palms. For the first time, he is genuinely astonished. “It does not weigh anything.”
“Our Aztecs call the hummingbird feather huitzilihuitl, or, pure spirit. It is breath and sun.”
Count von Thun rolls it from the one palm to the other. Its feathers are black, yet they shimmer with all the colors of the rainbow.
Maximilian says, “It is the only bird capable of flying backwards.”
Count von Thun replaces the cadaver on the plate. Pleasantries dispensed with, this is the moment for Maximilian to bring up business.
Instead, Maximilian puffs his cigar. He looks around himself and then, suddenly, says, in English, “Hello?” He dips his head under the desk. “Little cousin?” He straightens. In German: “Where is he?”
Count von Thun shakes his head. He follows Maximilian outside.
“Sir!” The emperor’s bodyguard has snapped to shocked attention. He squares his heels.
Maximilian says, “Where is the prince?”
“Sir! I have not seen him, sir!”
Maximilian yawns. To Count von Thun, he says, “Can’t have gone far.” He taps some ash onto the grass. “Shall we?”
Music floats over the lawn. Along the pathway by the fountain, in the cool beneath a coconut palm silvered with sun, a maid hurries past with a teetering basket of towels on her head. Maximilian and the ambassador continue down the veranda in the direction of their luncheon (the smell of baked fish becoming stronger) and just as they approach the flowered mass of the table, they hear, this time from the other side of the hedges, from the steps that lead down to the horse stables, the child’s screams.
From The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire by C.M. Mayo (Unbridled Books, 2009). Copy right 2009. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.