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"From Mexico to Miramar or, Across the Lake of Oblivion"
by C.M. Mayo

A nonfiction novela about a fairytale.

By the author of the novel,
The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, named one of the best books of 2009 by Library Journal
Copyright © 2006. All rights reserved. Link to your heart's content, but for permission to reprint, click here.

The essay "From Mexico to Miramar or, Across the Lake of Oblivion," was originally published in The Massachusetts Review, December 2006. Finalist, Texas Institute of Letters O. Henry Award for Best Magazine Journalism; Winner, Washington Prize for Best Personal Essay.

Cover painting: "Cazador de nubes" by Edgar Soberón

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From Mexico to Miramar or, 
Across the Lake of Oblivion
by C.M. Mayo
Copyright © 2006. All rights reserved. Link to your heart's content, 
but for permission to reprint, click here. 

In Trieste anything might be true.
— Jan Morris,
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere


On June 19, 1867, on the slope of Querétaro's Cerro de las Campanas (Hill of the Bells), the Emperor of Mexico, Maximilian von Habsburg, stood before an adobe wall and faced a firing squad. Yet to me, an American born nearly a century after that grisly day, Maximilian seems a living presence. I can see his brass-buttoned chest rise and fall with breath; his beard the color of a copper penny in candlelight; and the way, every morning, his barber would comb it and part it, and apply special lotions as if it were a woman's tresses. He had a narrow soldier's waist, bad teeth and receding hair. His pale slender fingers pluck a baba au rhum from the Totonac bowl he keeps on his desk.

I should like one too.

"¿Y usted?" I can hear him say it. For Maximilian was most remarkably polite.
How peculiar that this long-dead Austrian aristocrat should be so vivid to me, but not surprising. I have spent the last three years imagining Maximilian— daily— as I wrestle with and fiddle with (and sometimes just go outside into the garden and try to stifle the urge to bang my head against the side of the toolshed, such are the joys) my novel.

I mean,
my historical novel which is not about Maximilian, but as it is largely set in Mexico City during his brief reign, he appears— no, Maximilian looms over every moment of it, huge and colorful and crazily bobbing as a Macy's Thanksgiving Parade balloon. I can look down for a while, worrying out the pebbles and raisins of my story about a little boy, but there Maximilian always is: my mesmerizing distraction.

Born at Vienna's Schönbrunn palace in 1832, Ferdinand Maximilian— "Max," to his family— came of age a lordly, if sometimes pedantic and pretentious aesthete-adventurer. From the three volumes of his memoirs:

On the palm tree: "a plant of the fancy; an enchanted child, snatched from the dream of a god."

On Portuguese: "the harshest, the most discordant, the most deficient in distinctive character, of any that I have ever heard: it is related to Spanish as a pug is to a greyhound."

On Palermo's cathedral's wide interior in the new Roman style: "really horrible, like a paper lining to a case of jewels. One stands speechless and discouraged."

What of Mexico? Alas, the third and last volume of Maximilian's Recollections of My Life breaks off in January 1860, more than four years before he set foot in Mexico, with, oddly, his visit to a German colony in Brazil and consternation at the escape of two tapirs.

Nonetheless, Maximilian left a substantial archive of correspondence. Twice he was appointed to govern: first, as viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia, a post he was dismissed from by his brother, the Emperor Franz Joseph; second, as Emperor of Mexico, where he fell from power as swiftly, it seemed, as Icarus hurtled to earth.

He had been invited to that throne by "the will of the Mexican people," according to the self-selected delegation of arch-conservative Catholics who came to him at Trieste, and his government would be supported, he was assured by the Emperor Louis Napoléon, "with the generous protection of France," whose army occupied Mexico City at the end of May 1863. That support came at the jaw-dropping cost, however, of Maximilian's assuming the previous governments' debts owed to France— the grounds for France's invasion of Mexico. The scheme was an absurd contradiction. Why did Maximilian agree to it? Queen Victoria confided in her diary, "I cannot understand."

Maximilian and his consort arrived in Mexico in the spring of 1864. One year later, the U.S. Civil War ended— but the American Minister in Paris, John Bigelow, kept up his diplomatic barrage against French intervention in our hemisphere, and soon enough, the wily Louis Napoléon of a sudden had more convenient ambitions elsewhere. Benito Juárez's army of the Mexican Republic, generously armed with U.S. weaponry, surged south, and insurgents took control of the countryside, and Maximilian's government, not three years old, collapsed.

June 19, 1867, less than a month shy of his 35th birthday: Querétaro's Cerro de las Campanas, a muddy cactus-tangled mess, sliced through with that adobe wall. After days of rain, the morning's sky had bloomed clear and jewel-blue. Some 3,000 republican soldiers stood watching as Maximilian passed out gold coins to the members of the firing squad. He then took off his sombrero, wiped his face with his handkerchief, and gave them to his Hungarian servant, Tüdos, to take to his mother in Vienna. To his right, his generals, Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía, also stood in the mud ready to die. Maximilian's voice rang out, "I forgive all of you, and may all of you forgive me. May my blood that is about to flow be shed for the good of the country. Long live Mexico! Long live Independence!"

Another voice answered, "¡Fuego!"

Maximilian fell on his side onto the mud. He was heard to gasp, "Hombre" (Man). He lay writhing. An officer turned him over, pointed with his sword to the heart, and ordered a coup de grace. The shot was at such close range that Maximilian's clothes caught fire. As for what was done with his body— I'll get to that in a moment.

But while he was most alive on this earth, Maximilian von Habsburg loved purple silk and parrots, hummingbirds and nightingales, nature in all its wildest exuberance, the raw, boar-infested coasts of Albania, sunny Spain and the Mato Virgem of Brazil, above all. No— above all, he loved the sea, that "endless plain" with its magical sunrises and nights clotted with stars. "Miramar," view of the sea, he named the dream castle he built on a rocky promontory on the Gulf of Trieste.

Trieste: as travel writer Jan Morris calls it, "the capital of nowhere."

"Nobody goes there," said Samuel Maldonado. In my fifteen years of living in Mexico City, Samuel, a self-described liberal and Juarista, was the only Mexican whom I knew to have actually been there.


It was after hearing about it from Samuel that my husband, A., got the idea that we too should visit Miramar. Samuel had made Maximilian's castle sound as fabulous as something out of a story by Dumas. Besides, my husband said, wouldn't it be necessary for the research for the novel?

I was not convinced. Already I had trudged several times up the long ramp to Mexico City's Chapultepec Castle. From its terraces, even on a day blanketed with smog, the view is majestic; wind billows and flicks the giant Mexican flag. In Maximilian's time the sky, on most days, would have been blazingly blue, and the snow-capped volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, shining with sun. I had taken careful notes on the castle's grand marble staircase, flanked by two marble lions; inside, the enormous malachite urns; the apple-green tapestry chairs, gifts from Louis Napoléon; and arranged around the interior gardens, the still vivid murals of the muses Maximilian had commissioned. There, in the Chapultepec Castle of my novel, Maximilian goes strolling, his hands clasped behind his back, along the east terrace. An autumn sun is just coming up from behind the mountains, and it bathes the flagstones in lemony brilliance. His secretary, a thin and bespectacled Mexican hugging himself against the chill, trails behind.

"Don't you think," Maximilian says, turning suddenly, "that this castle should be called Miravalle, as my castle in Trieste is called Miramar?"

He actually said that, according to his secretary, whose name was José Luis Blasio. I lifted it straight from his dishy memoir, Maximiliano Íntimo.

Beautiful as Mexico City was, however, Maximilian disliked the cold of its high altitude, and so, even as the French Imperial Army was retreating, the treasury nearly emptied, and he was being jeered at in the streets, he retired to the village of Cuernavaca. The journey from Mexico City over and down the mountains took two days and, as Blasio recalled, caused a sensation.

The train was made up of a dozen snow-white mules, all of them perfectly identical in stature and dressed with blue decorations. The coachman, footmen and lackeys were all outfitted as charros in suits of suede with silver buttons, and wearing very wide gray sombreros. This train pleased Maximilian very much and whenever we went to Cuernavaca or returned, it was something to see the way the Indians would stop and admire that train of white mules that passed by like an exhalation.

Reported the Empress Charlotte in a letter to the French Empress Eugénie, "The emperor, who has joined me here, enjoys Cuernavaca very much because here he can work in peace. For him it is Plombières or Biarritz." The servants would set up a folding table on a shaded loggia, and there, early in the mornings, with young Blasio, Maximilian would despatch his correspondence.

For me, from Mexico City, Cuernavaca is only an hour's drive on the toll-way. Maximilian's residence, the Casa Borda, is a museum now, with a postcard shop and a restaurant that serves passable coffee and coconut flan. It is pleasant there, in the cool shade of palms and bougainvilleas and giant ferns. Birds are always singing. I could imagine Maximilian dipping a hand into one of the fountains, or, avid naturalist that he was, bending down to examine a beetle, there, under that rotting papaya. Hot afternoons, one should sip mango ice with a straw, there, on the equipal chair, or take a book, something, say, on a journey by burro to the pyramids of Uxmal, to that hammock. Doze until the sky begins to pale and the servants light the torches.
Yes, I could see the still dozing Max, his lips slightly parted, a strand of his red hair pasted by sweat to his bronzed forehead. His straw sun hat resting on his chest, gently rising, falling. He is exhausted, always. As if he has stones in his pockets. In his dreams, and he dreams very deeply now, he is riding on the sea. There is no coast line— there is never any coast line. The sea chops. He has misplaced his spyglass, or, has it been stolen? When he picks it up, it is a kaleidoscope. Crazy colors: they remind him of the windows of Stephanskirche...

And so on. Books and photographs should be enough grist for the imagination, it seemed to me. Already when I was at my desk writing, but also at odd moments (walking the dog, rinsing dishes), I was getting flashes of images, feelings, and sometimes even moving pictures in my mind. Maximilian raising a spoonful of soup; dabbing at his mustache with a linen napkin. Maximilian smoking, and watching the smoke curl, how that looks against the pattern in the wallpaper. A bee brambling against a window pane. From somewhere nearby (upstairs?) a piano tinkling. The dulcet humming of women talking. An opal necklace dropped onto a blue glass dish.
Sometimes I wondered, were these only imaginings? They were brief, vague in a floaty kind of way, yet they felt intensely real, the way a memory lodges, sure of itself, in one's mind. It was, I confess, a little bit creepy.

While I was in the midst of writing my first draft, A., then a Treasury official, was assigned a corner office on the fourth floor of the National Palace. Thus it happened that I came to know some of the most private rooms of the Palace— in Maximilian's time, the Imperial Palace, which the emperor, who preferred the quiet of suburban Chapultepec Castle for his residence, had used largely for offices, receiving ambassadors, ceremonies and balls.

Stretching along the east side of Mexico City's grand plaza known as the Zócalo, the red volcanic-rock Palace, as Blasio described it, "has more the appearance of an immense prison." The building dates from 1628, a reconstruction of a palace built by Hernán Cortés, which in turn had been built on an Aztec ruin. It was used as the residence of the Spanish viceroy, and, after Independence, of various presidents of the Republic. Inside, the stone corridors are dark and very cold. The lion faces carved into the stone door frames seem to be laughing monkeys. Every footstep clips and echos. There are sweeping staircases; glimpses of monstrous chandeliers. The whole of it tilts, as it has been sinking into the soft subsoil.

In June of 1864, when Maximilian and Charlotte first arrived at the Palace, they stationed themselves on a balcony, where they waved at their new subjects, the thousands filling the vast Zócalo. "They seemed so tall and fair," as Sara Yorke Stevenson, an American resident in the capital recalled. "Involuntarily one thought of visiting angels, or, better still, of the fair god Quetzalcohuatl [sic], whom the Mexican legend of olden times brought from the East to rule over and to civilize the natives of this land by bringing them plenty." The balcony they stood on was decorated with a swag of red for the memory of Spain, white for the purity of the True Faith, and green for independence — the same colors Benito Juárez's Liberals carried, furled for retreat. As night fell, from that balcony, Maximilian and Charlotte watched the fireworks, whistling rockets of colors and rains of sparkles. The booms of the mortars ripped open the night. Wrote the delighted Charlotte, "there is one that goes back and forth like a wil-o'-the-wisp that is called the Correo." And then another rocket went up, that, to the silent awe and then lusty cheers of the crowd, traced the outlines of Maximilian's castle, Miramar.

"Let's go there after Christmas," my husband kept insisting.

Europe in early January? Too expensive, too cold. I still had in mind some place with palm trees and water warm enough to swim in.

The zig-zagging stone staircase up to A.'s office is known as La Escalera de la Emperatriz, after the Empress Charlotte. I take the elevator instead. On the fourth floor, I walk down a long hallway (slightly sloped to the right) past a gamut of sculptures: a ladder-like arrangement of polished metal spheres; a door-sized electric-blue key-hole; and, on a waist-high pedestal, a blobby mass of fiberglass I have dubbed El Dog Doo. If the cathedral of Palermo's wide interior in the new Roman style made Maximilian stand "speechless and discouraged," surely these specimens of contemporary sculpture— under a long-standing program, delivered by the artists in lieu of tax payments— would have made him fall down in a dead faint.
Another gamut: A.'s secretaries, six busily efficient ladies, every one of whom wants to greet me personally, ask how I've been, bring me coffee and cookies, how about a Wall Street Journal? As usual, "El doctor," as they reverently refer to him, is talking into one of his several red hot-line telephones— and so, ushered into the cavernous office, I wait.

I have a choice of sitting at the conference table, a leather armchair, or the plush forest-green sofa with a coffee table. There, on the wall next to the window that looks out on the Cathedral, an official portrait of the stern-jawed greatest President of the Mexican Republic, Benito Juarez.

As I make my way over to the other window, the parquet floor creaks. Spread before me is the Zócalo, its crowds streaming up from the metro, and straight into the path of vendors, their blue plastic tarps and blankets spread with cassettes, dolls, old books, earrings, socks in rainbow colors. A woman in an apron heats huaraches, sandal sole-shaped tortillas heaped with meat and chiles, on a charcoal brazier. She fans the smoke with a folded newspaper. And the Aztec dancers and their drums have started up as well— p-pum, p-pum, p-pum— and they're going to go on, as they do every single day, for hours. Some of the dancers wear sweat suits or work clothes, others, feathered headgear and rattles from their ankles to their knees. The double-windows don't really help. Neither do the L.L. Bean shotgun earmuffs— A. gave them back to me. "See if you can get a refund," was all he said.

This fourth story was added on in the 1920s; in Maximilian's time this space would have been the roof. Near the end, when Charlotte had sailed to Europe to plead with Louis Napoléon to keep his army in Mexico, Maximilian became so weak with fever and dysentery that his doctor ordered him to quit Chapultepec and move into the Palace. Here, alone now, most of his court and advisors having fled, the emperor would take his evening strolls on the roof. He might have come close to the edge right here, through his ghosts of the future— A.'s shoulder, to where the credenza pushes up against the window, piled with papers and binders, a laser printer, and that bank of red telephones, along with the silver-framed photo of my smiling self. Yes, Maximilian might have paused exactly here one chilly evening, as he rubbed his hands together. Swallows fill the raspberry sky, and swirl, and alight there, on a ledge of the Cathedral's bell-tower. Below, the band of red-coated Austrian hussars strikes up the last tune of its clattering oompahs, and the pigeons, unsettled, fly and fly like some vast, unraveling scarf.

There is no more money, Maximilian is thinking, and the burr of sick worry sticks in his stomach. Matamoros has fallen; both the South and the North are in rebellion, squeezing his capital like a chestnut in a nutcracker.

"It is no longer possible," was Louis Napoléon's answer to all of his entreaties, "to give Mexico one more cent nor one more man."

According to A., Maximilian's undoing was a fiscal catastrophe. And it was absurd: how could Maximilian have agreed to let the French collect the customs duties — the principal source of the Mexican Treasury's income at the time— and meanwhile, fuss over costly new decorations and gardens in Chapultepec Castle and the Casa Borda? And Maximilian also gave the Palace his toque de europeo moderno: its Venetian mirrors and chandeliers, Japanese bronze and porcelain lanterns, gilt-framed oil portraits of Mexican heroes, so dashing with their epauletted shoulders and swords. Not to mention those scandalous personal salaries: 150 million pesos for Maximilian and 200,000 for Charlotte, amounts commensurate with those received by Queen Victoria of England and her consort, Prince Albert, sovereigns of an empire upon which the sun never set, but in Mexico, these represented a flabbergasting ten percent of the Treasury's annual income. In France the cynics said that Maximilian, poor fool, had imagined Mexico "a bed of roses in a gold mine."
It was, he soon found out, a deep pit of bankruptcy. He spent too much, as his parade of various finance ministers counseled him, but who can win a war without soldiers and ammunition? Or maintain imperial prestige without the trappings, the state dinners and balls? But his problem was not only his extravagant expenditures, it was his government's inability to finance them.

As A. has always been quick to point out to peso-happy Congressmen, spending must be financed, and that means taxes. You can also sell government assets or borrow— but once you've sold an asset, it's gone, and if you borrow, sooner or later, you've got to pay it back plus interest, and guess what? That means taxes. Everybody likes to spend, but not even the monkey's uncle likes taxes. And if you can't impose them, and if you can't collect them, well, then... you're cooked. Part of A.'s talent is that he can quickly comprehend huge, complex tangles of abstractions; but another, perhaps more essential part, is that he has the laser-like mind to render them simple. Nothing ideological, just, in his words, "refined commonsense." He has a PhD in economics, but A. likes to call himself "a sophisticated bean-counter." Then he chuckles.

Finally, he hangs up the phone.

After lunch, as we usually do when his schedule permits, we stop by the Librería Madero, an antiquarian bookstore. A most unusual new book has come in, a handsome thing to hold: bound in blood-orange Morocco leather, its exquisitely tooled spine is embossed with gold stars and the title De Miramar a México (From Miramar to Mexico).

A privately printed facsimile of an 1864 manuscript by an anonymous Mexican, much of it is poetry and songs praising the imperial couple. Mexico gives its august sovereign an enthusiastic welcome, begins one ode, His loving people, the Mexican people / Because he brings us salvation, our life. Inscribed in a flower-bedecked triumphal arch: Maximilian is our father / Charlotte our dear-heart and guardian angel— it goes on, syrup on top of sugar, for pages. It is almost dizzying to read something so outré, like coming across paeans to Mussolini, or, say, essays about the virtues of racial segregation.

Maximilian may have been well-intentioned but he was a wishy-washy, nose-in-the-air puppet imposed by invaders, is what Mexican schoolchildren are taught. A., who has scant sympathy for Maximilian, once put it this way: "He brought a medicine the patient didn't want or need." But was it that simple? Benito Juarez is glorified by the modern Mexican state, his portrait in government offices, on peso bills, on pedestals, and his name on so many avenues, schools, museums, hospitals, airports— even a city is named after him, Ciudad Juarez— that it is easy to forget that once there were many thousands of Mexicans who detested him, his cronies, and everything he stood for: in their minds, chaos and Freemasonry. For them, Maximilian, the Catholic Habsburg and lineal descendent of Charles V (King of Spain in the days of the conquistadors), represented the True Faith, civilization and its graceful arts, prosperity, and a bulwark against the encroaching United States— whose invasion of 1846-1848 was a fresh and galling memory. Simpler folk perhaps believed this European emperor, the younger brother of Franz Joseph, and his empress, a Belgian Princess, had magic; they gaped at their golden carriage the way groupies crowd around a film-premier's red carpet.

De Miramar a México tells the story of how, as Maximilian and Charlotte make their way inland from Veracruz, there are wild jubilation, arches of triumph, poems, odes, songs, speeches, dances, cannons, fireworks. Orizaba, Puebla, Cholula, Huejotzingo, Acatzingo, Amozoc, Xonaca, Guadalupe, and at last, most spectacularly of all, Mexico City. Beneath rains of roses and bouquets, their carriage rolled down, in fact, the avenue that runs parallel to the one this little bookstore sits on.

Outside, the green taxi cabs hurtle past.

Not until I take the book home do I find its engraving of Maximilian's Miramar Castle: gloomy-looking and gothic, its crenellated tower perched at the edge of the sea. But alas, despite its title, this curious tome says almost nothing about it.

Meanwhile, in my writer's mind, Maximilian kept showing up— I could see him, from his straw sombrero to his dust-creased riding boots. Once he wore turquoise silk pajamas. I felt confident I'd captured his voice, the idiosyncratic combinations in his personality— his cutting snobbery and generosity, good cheer and Teutonic melancholy, a plodding sense of duty and a delight in spur-of-the-moment child-like adventure, most especially to anyplace that appeared "enchanted" or "fairy-like." But what in blazes was Maximilian up to with my characters? (What was he doing lurking there, behind that potted zalate?)

It had been a month since A. suggested the visit to Trieste, two weeks since I'd bought that book, and, my novel, my novel, I felt like a hamster on a wheelie. I was writing a chapter about Maximilian, but the wastepaper-basket was filling up fast. There was something about him that had not yet jelled in my mind. I was watering the garden when, hose in hand, it occurred to me that it was his sense of himself. And that the way into that answer might be as easy as something out of "Psychology 101": If you could build your dream house, any house, where would it be? What would it look like? What would you put in it? What would you do there? Because for Maximilian, on the eve of sailing away to Mexico, a country he had never seen, the answers were there in his castle near Trieste, which was, according to its website, perfectly preserved for any visitor to see.

Where was Trieste, anyway? We had to look at a map: it surprised us to find it where it was. If Italy is a boot, Trieste is tucked just behind the knee-bend, on the northeastern cup of the Adriatic.

It was arranged: after Christmas, we would fly from Mexico City to Amsterdam, hop to Venice, rent a car and drive the two hours to Trieste. And so, we were off to Miramar Castle— or, as the Italians more melodically call it, Il Castello di Miramare.


In Venice we spent three bone-chilling days. Rain dimpled the canals, then drizzle, and then a teeth-chattering wind blew into the narrow streets and fluttered the street vendors' displays of woolen scarves. Even the dogs were wearing coats. The Japanese tourists were bundled in ski parkas. In front of the Palazzo Ducale, gondolas were tied up and covered with tarps; they rocked in the glug and slap of the lagoon. But even under solemn skies, the city had a cheery feeling with its wedding-cake churches, the swish of its water taxis and vaporettos, its gliding seabirds. There were still Christmas lights strung between the buildings and blinking in windows of shops: shoes, marbled paper, hand-painted silk lampshades, colored Murano glass, lace-trimmed lingerie.

From 1857 to 1859, Maximilian was the Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia, then part of the Austrian Empire. Maximilian and his teenage bride, Charlotte, had held court at the palace at Monza, outside of Milan. Venice they would visit— until the end, when even Charlotte was hissed in the streets. But in my imagination they were the rulers of 1857, eager and idealistic. Maximilian did not yet have his full mustache; only the muttonchop sideburns. Charlotte's cheeks still had baby fat. They followed us, in my imagination, into the Doges Palace, its room after room after room of Titians and Tintorettos and Veroneses, the eye-boggling "Battle of Lepanto"s and crowds of putti and barefoot saints tumbling skyward. And the Museo Correr with its antiquities, and airy ballroom with the exquisitely lifelike marble of Daedelus fastening on Icarus' wing.

How could one not hear the violins and flutes, the rustle of crinolines? Charlotte wore snow-blue velvet, a diamond crown, and her hair was dressed with roses. They were fond of pomp. At Monza, their footmen were dressed in wigs and silk-stockings, and silk-suited blackamoors served the caffè and gelato.

As we walked across the Piazza San Marco, the sea of pigeons parting for us, I told A. that here, Maximilian had planned to plant orange trees, and turn the campanile into a light-house.

"What a loco." A. rolled his eyes.

We were half-way across the piazza; the mist was beginning to turn to rain. Ahead of us, the Basilica di San Marco and the campanile faded into a swirl of fog. Like most Mexicans, my husband, for his 44 years, had not known that Maximilian and Charlotte had been Viceroy and Vicereine of what was now a sizable chunk of Italy. He had to ask me, "What happened?"

"He got the boot," I said.

"What a bum." His vehemence surprised me.

I explained that here, in northern Italy, Maximilian's reputation was different. The Italians had long resented Austrian rule, but, according to Cavour, Maximilian was the nationalists' worst enemy because "his perseverance, his fair and liberal spirit, had won him many of our supporters. Lombardy had never been so prosperous, so well administered. Then, thank God, the Viennese government intervenes..." That is, Emperor Franz Joseph and his hard-line military advisers tried to smash the nationalist opposition with a ruinous currency reform, martial law, mass conscriptions, and unleashing the Geheim Polizei, a forerunner of the Gestapo. Maximilian was open and vicious in his criticism.

"Everyone around me seems to have lost their head and their courage," he wrote to his mother. "I ask myself for how long will my conscience allow me to follow blindly the orders of Vienna." Some of his bad-mouthing even made its way into the Prussian Allgemein Zeitung. He had held the office of Viceroy for two years when his brother, incensed that Maximilian had not unleashed troops against the students, dismissed him. As a sop, he was sent to Venice to command the Austrian Navy. War broke out over Lombardy-Venetia between Austria and the Kingdom of Sardinia, which had allied with the ever-Machiavellian Louis Napoléon, but there were no naval operations. After Austria's defeat at Solferino, Maximilian went on vacation to Madeira, and then, leaving Charlotte alone on the island for more than three months, he sailed to Brazil on a collecting expedition. Afterwards, there was nothing for him to do but return to Trieste and supervise the construction of Miramar. It appeared that Maximilian had torched his bridges. He was 27 years old. Charlotte was mortified.

We ended up in the Caffè Quadri. Its plastic chairs, in summer-time spread deep into the Piazza San Marco, were tied up and speckled with rain. Inside it was tight and too warm, smelling of wet umbrellas. But I liked its gemütlichkeit, the flowered wall-paper and old-fashioned mirrors. The waiter brought us apple strüdels and espressos on a silver tray. According to my guidebook, during the time of Maximilian, the Caffè Quadri had been a favorite of the Austrian officers. It was easy to imagine them in here: big, blond, unpopular, laughing loudly among themselves as they played cards and smoked.

The last morning, the tide, smelling faintly of sewage, flooded the Piazza San Marco. In our hotel, we could hear it trickling into the elevator shafts. At mid-day, when we climbed into our water taxi, the porters were still wearing their hip-high
green wading boots. We sped out across the steel-gray lagoon.


At the Venice airport we picked up our car and drove east on the toll-way that hugged the Adriatic. It seemed an almost endless stream of suburbs with their banks, gas stations, and brightly-colored apartment buildings, huge like ships in the fog. I was enjoying having my husband to myself for so many days. His cell phone did not work in Europe— it was a miracle of silence, or rather, of the zizz of the tires on rain-slick asphalt. We talked about this and that, and when we ran out of things to say, I read to him from Jan Morris' Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.

Tergeste, the Romans called it. Under the Habsburgs it became, in essence, the port of Vienna, honored as Urbs Fidelissima, the emperor's most faithful city. It was— I read Morris's words— "multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-faith, bound together only, whether willingly or unwillingly, by the imperial discipline. It was closer to the European Community of the twenty-first century than to the British Empire of the nineteenth, and possesses still at least for romantics like me, a fragrant sense of might-have-been."

Nearing Trieste, we drove through the Karst, miles of wild limestone plateau. In the dark all we could see were the passing shadows of pine-trees and scattered beads of light in the distance. The road wound down to the sea and past a flood-lit Roman amphitheater, into the center of Trieste.

It looked to me like Vienna: the narrow curving streets looming with tall gray office buildings. Vespas sputtered by. Tiny box-like cars were parked tight-in along the curbs. The street lamps made everything twinkle. We parked in front of the ornate stone façade of the Grand Hotel Duchi d'Aosta. The air smelled of cold sea. A stiff wind whipped my hair; a paper cup tumbled away down the sidewalk.

Flag poles rattled as we walked across the puddled Piazza Unità, the main square with its massive Lloyd Triestino building, a palace for a shipping insurance company. Curiously, one side of the square was bounded by the Adriatric — the waves crashing up sloppily over the stone steps that lead down to the water. In the Caffè degli Specchi we ate poached white fish, fettuccine with wild mushrooms, sorbet with champagne. Other than two men at the table next to ours, the restaurant, on this miserable weekday evening in January, was empty. Merchant marines, I guessed. They looked tough and young, and one was wearing a gold pendant in the shape of an anchor.

When we came out, patches of sky were pricked with stars. A lace net of lights seemed to have fallen all along the coast— the suburbs that stretched back up into the Karst. The Adriatic looked black as oil. Out there, something odd-shaped was floating on it. It was astonishingly bright; white as a shard of moon. With a start I realized:

"That must be Miramar Castle."

"No," A. said, though I could tell what he meant was, yes.

"It looks sort of like a kneeling camel," I said.

"Or a dog." His coat flapped and he stood there, his hands shoved into his pockets, squinting at it.



The morning was gray when we drove the few minutes up the coast to Miramar. From the parking lot, we caught a peek of the castle: sober-looking in this diffused light, but nonetheless fantastic, as if it had risen straight out of the sea: A rectangular tower with porthole-like windows and topped with a square crown of crenels. It was medieval-looking, but too new, too white, too sharp-cornered perfect. The evil thought occurred to me that it might have made a neat-o attraction at Disneyland. "Ivanhoe," or something like that.

A. had become very quiet. Our shoes crunched on gravel. Rising up on our right was a hill thick with pines. Overhead, seagulls whirled and honked. There were a few other tourists: in Michelin-man down jackets and jeans, cameras slung around their necks. I didn't recognize their language; was it Croatian? Czech? A tiny girl in a pink coat and tennis shoes skipped ahead.

On the other side of the gate a long path took us between the forested hill and the water, and then, all of a sudden, we found ourselves drawn inland into the circular drive of the castle's entrance. Neither of us wanted to go into the castle yet, for this was in itself a strange-feeling space. There was the castle, a massive white block; behind us, stairs leading up into the gardens, so dense with pines they looked almost black; and then, in the open sweep below, the small harbor enclosed by the jetty that ended with a sphinx that was, perhaps, the size of a Great Dane.

The little sphinx was one of Maximilian's souvenirs from a cruise to Egypt, and it did indeed appear, as his secretary Blasio fancifully put it, to be "interrogating the Adriatic." Blasio had come here with the Empress Charlotte in 1866. Maximilian's empire was nearing its end, but Charlotte would not accept it. She was strangely agitated when she met with Louis Napoléon in Paris, and in the Vatican she raved before the Pope and refused to leave. By the time the empress arrived here at Miramar, she was in the full throes of a ferocious psychotic breakdown.

The faithful secretary Blasio, Maximilian himself... I could not but think of all the many people who had climbed up from their rocking rowboats onto those stairs and rested their hand on that cold stone head of the sphinx: Charlotte, despairing at the riddle of her broken life; but only a few years earlier, Don José María Gutierrez d'Estrada, the exiled diplomat with his tender hopes that this Austrian Archduke might accept his proposal of the Mexican throne. General Juan Nepomuceno Almonte, another exiled diplomat, with his letter from Louis Napoleón promising money and an army. One Mr. Boudillon, special correspondent for The Times, who assured Maximilian that, though full of thieves, Mexico was, by Jove, one of the richest countries on earth! And it was from this jetty, on April 14, 1864— the very same unlucky day President Lincoln would be shot one year later— that Maximilian and Charlotte left for Mexico. A great crowd of Triestini watched their launch move out to the waiting Novara. A band played the Mexican anthem, and Maximilian, who had once written that the Atlantic Ocean is so wide "it is like a lake of oblivion," began to weep.

Now only a seagull bobbed on the water. With our digital camera, A. snapped photos of me in front of the sphinx.

Inside the castle the first thing we came to was the gift shop, and it was exactly as awful as our friend Samuel had said: there were the Maximilian ball-point pens, Maximilian bookmarks, Charlotte ball-point pens, Charlotte pencils, Maximilian and Charlotte notebooks, key chains, mouse pads, pendants, even a glass case with tote bags and silk scarves and demi-tasse cups with Maximilian's monogram, the overlapping "MIM," for the Latin Maximiliano Imperator de Mexico.

A. said, picking up a baseball cap with the "MIM," "Want one?"

"What would I do with it?"

"You could wear it when you ride your bike."

"Just the thing," I said. He chuckled as he tossed it back on the pile.

At the ticket counter, we rented the audiocassette tour, but before the clerk would hand over the apparatus, one of us had to leave a driver's license.

"Leave yours," A. said.

I didn't want to have to dig mine out of the bottom of my pack. "You leave yours," I said.

A. whispered into my ear: "I don't want them to see that I'm Mexican." I laughed, but he said, "Just do it."

I recognized at that moment what I should have long before, that Maximilian, for my husband, represented something that I, for all my careful research, as an American, had never before encountered. There is no parallel to Maximilian in the United States. If some German prince had been put into our White House, and we had shot him on, say, field outside of Philadelphia, what would I be feeling to have come here, into the foyer of his castle? It was a Gordian knot of a question to contemplate, but already we had our earphones on and were being instructed to follow the signs around a corner.

I trailed A. into the foyer of a second entrance, this one directly from the sea. Outside the windows the sea stretched, pewter-gray and agitated, like a kind of anxious infinity. Here was the grand staircase, its walls displaying antlers and clusters of halberds and pikes, but instead of leading us up, the plummy voice on the audiocassette sent us to the left into a cramped, low-ceilinged closet of a room with a curtained single bed. Strange for a married man, but Maximilian had reproduced his bachelor's bedroom on board the Novara. The adjoining private study, a reproduction of the Novara's officer's mess hall, had the same low-ceiling but elaborate woodwork and exotic furniture. Again, out the window, the sea; and nothing but low-lying, ragged clouds. The voice on the audiocassette described the Mazzarino bureau, a cabinet from India, a bronze of Marcus Aurelius, and the way pineapples, a symbol of hospitality, and the anchor-and-crown of the Austrian Navy had been worked into the wood paneling. On the walls were engravings of Charlotte's parents, Louise of Orleans (daughter of King Louis Philippe) and King Leopold I of Belgium, and an oil portrait of Maximilian and Charlotte's mutual cousin (her first cousin), Queen Victoria. Near the door hung Charlotte's own painting of their yacht. I peered closely: it was very neatly made.

"Demasiado rollo," too much blather, A. said sourly, stalking into the next room. It was an enormous library; high above, a chandelier of brass curlicues. The door was flanked with cream-white marble busts of Dante and Goethe; the opposite door with Shakespeare and Homer. In the middle, by the window on the sea, stood Maximilian's ebony desk with ormolu on its slender curving legs. The light from the sea would have fallen on his back as he worked. He would have looked up on his 7,000 impeccably shelved books, the chandelier, and crowning the door, the oval Winterhalter portrait of Charlotte as a rosy-faced little girl. Here I could glimpse, and with a certain writerly fondness, Maximilian the memoirist.

He had written his memoirs at this desk— in German, of course. He had not intended them for general publication, only a print run of 50 copies for family and close friends. The English translation, published in London the year after his death, had taken me years to find. Not even the Library of Congress had a copy. I ended up having to pay over three hundred dollars for cheaply bound Xerox copies. But it was worth it — for the first time I felt I could hear his voice. And too, at once, I recognized the three volumes as a valuable portrait of places as far afield as Rio de Janeiro, Seville, and Syracuse. I was particularly charmed by his accounts of Pompeii and climbing Mount Vesuvius and how, on his way down from the sulphurous crater,
With mad delight I threw myself forward, and jumped into the ashes, the whole company after me... half dead with laughing, we vied nevertheless with each other in jumping, with a feeling of mad rapture. I often jumped yards-wide into the sloping ashes. Sometimes I stopped for a moment, to prolong the pleasure and to recover breath for fresh laughing, and to observe my companions in the different phases of jumping. One was so glad to be once again allowed to be a child with all one's heart...

Here I would have liked to linger, go over his library, book by book— but the books were locked in, and the audio tour herded us on into the dining room, and then Charlotte's sitting room with its gleaming hippopotamus of a fortepiano. In her boudoir, beneath a crystal chandelier, hung a portrait of her when she was Vicereine of Lombardy-Venetia, dressed in a Brianza peasant costume with a black lace shawl and a halo of silver hairpins. Her face was grave and remote. The other walls were covered with scenes of Venice.

Their bedroom had a heavy-looking bed that appeared to be twin beds pushed together, and without a canopy. A wedding gift from the City of Milan, its footboards were carved with four pouting putti. After several years of marriage, they'd had no children— a very unfortunate, indeed dangerous circumstance for hereditary rulers. Juarista propagandists claimed that Maximilian had syphilis. Charlotte's brother, however, stated that Maximilian was impotent, and much later, her sister-in-law, after interviewing both Charlotte and her long-time maid of honor, reported that "The relations she had with the emperor were not the normal ones between a wife and her husband... In private, he was thoroughly indifferent to her, and often offended her with his lack of regard."

Whatever the problem was, both considered it unsolvable. After eight years of marriage without having produced any children, Maximilian offered to make a son of his younger brother Archduke Karl Ludwig his Heir Presumptive. Charlotte herself, of course, would travel from Mexico City to Vienna to retrieve the child. The answer to that was a definitive no. And then Maximilian— or perhaps it was his advisor, Father Fischer — came up with a most original idea. Why not adopt the two-and-a-half year old grandson of Mexico's Emperor Agustín de Iturbide? Iturbide had ended up before a firing squad in 1824, but his memory as Mexico's Liberator and protector of the True Faith was still venerated by many Mexicans, above all, the conservatives, many of whom were beginning to lose patience with Maximilian, his reliance on a foreign army, and what they perceived as his distastefully liberal leanings. Charlotte herself lobbied the little boy's parents, Angel, the second son of the Liberator, and his American wife, Alice, with visits and flowers. In one message to Maximilian, the empress reported, "I always press them to understand that if they do not accept all our terms, nothing will come of it for any of them". In September of 1865, in exchange for the highest honors and a hefty financial settlement, the child was delivered to Chapultepec Castle. Nine days later, however, his mother, nearly out of her mind with grief, insisted that her child be returned to her care— at least in his infancy. Maximilian not only refused to receive her; he had her and her husband forcibly deported, leaving them free to raise a scandal in Washington and Paris, where they lobbied the American Minister in Paris, John Bigelow, who went, in his words, "to the very verge of official propriety" to help his countrywoman. To no avail — however, a year later, when Maximilian recognized he could no longer protect the child, he ordered him returned to his parents. As Maximilian's biographer Jasper Ridley sums up the "Iturbide Affair," "Only a ruler as inept and unlucky as Maximilian could have handed such a propaganda gift to Juarez."

In the billiards room, Venice reappeared in a large sooty-looking painting of what looked like a bonfire in front of the column of the winged lion of San Marco. The tape informed us that it was of the nocturnal feast in honor of Maximilian and Charlotte's state visit in 1857.

This was strange, I thought— why, when he was playing billiards, would Maximilian want to be reminded of Venice? A painful loss?

I was even more surprised when at last, we mounted the grand staircase to find on the topmost floor the public rooms of an emperor, the ceilings and walls elaborate with panels and gold leaf, columns and caryatids, and sumptuous scarlet damask draperies decorated with Maximilian's crest, the imperial Mexican crown over an Aztec eagle on a cactus eating a snake. I had understood that when Maximilian left for Mexico, this top floor was not yet finished.

"Huh," A. said, when he saw the Mexican eagle, and he crossed his arms over his chest.

We were in a room with every wall covered with portraits of kings and emperors: Wilhelm I of Prussia, Ludwig of Bavaria, Louis Napoléon, Victor Emmanuel, Christian X of Denmark, Alexander II of Russia, Dom Pedro II of Brazil. The point clearly was that Maximilian, no mere younger brother, was their equal.

I had not realized— I had not even imagined— that in 1866, from his palace in Mexico City and his villa in Cuernavaca, as his Mexican empire was crumbling, his troops deserting for lack of pay, and the French army leaving, Maximilian had sent detailed instructions to his decorators here— and gone yet deeper into debt to pay for it.

There by the window was the famous table on which he had signed his acceptance of the Mexican crown. A wedding gift from the Pope, its pedestal was gilded, and its round top covered with mosaics of Roman buildings: St. Peter's square, the Pantheon, the Coliseum, the ruins of the Forum. I was astonished at how tiny and cheap it looked, as if I might have tipped it over with a slight push.

A. went ahead of me into the next room— more gilding, more portraits, chandeliers, preposterously elaborate fittings. Above the door was a painting of Chapultepec Castle, its tower flying the Mexican tricolor.

A. looked as if he'd bitten into a rotten lime. He lifted off an earphone and said to me, "How can he say that!"

"Say what?"

"Equidad en la Justicia." Justice with Equity. He jabbed a finger at the imperial motto woven into the damask. "Equality!" he nearly spit out the word. "What a hypocrite!"

And then, unbelievably, we saw pushed into a corner a marble sculpture of Daedelus fastening a wing onto Icarus' raised arm. Maximilian himself had purchased it and had it placed precisely here. It must have been by the same sculptor who made the one we had seen in the ball-room in Venice.

A. said, "La ambición mató al ratón." Ambition killed the mouse.

This before he had seen the cathedral-ceilinged throne room. Here A.'s expression turned fierce. Arms akimbo, he beetled his brows at the allegory of the glory of Charles V, a mural-map of the world with the Hapsburg-ruled territories in brick-red—including, of course, Mexico. Long before Queen Victoria's British Empire, it was the Spanish Empire cuyo sol nunca se ponía, on which the sun never set.

"So," I said as we clumped back down the grand staircase, "what did you think?"

He put up his fist. "Viva México!"

"What do you mean, exactly?"

At the bottom of the stairs, he said, "Just."

We were funneled back down to the gift shop. I selected a handful of postcards, and a notebook with the picture of Maximilian and Charlotte departing for Mexico. A. was back at the glass case, where he had spotted an engraving of Miramar— the very same one that was in our book, De Miramar a México. It cost 23 Euros.

"Want to buy it?" A. said. I knew he had in mind adding it to the wall in our house we had covered with engravings, all souvenirs. It would look nice; but at the thought of having it framed in Mexico City— of handing the thing to the Mexican framer, who would know what it was, or would ask me what it was and then I would have to tell him— I did not want it.

I said, "Bad feng shui."

He looked at it sadly. And then, without comment, he put it back.

Behind the castle, the parterre, dotted here and there with iron-gray statues and urns on plinths, and bounded with dark stands of pinetrees, would have made the perfect setting for a vampire flick. It overlooked the metal-gray sea, but it was so high above it that the only sound was the trickle of a fountain. The flower beds were bedraggled. A marmalade cat chased a black cat off a bench. At the end of the garden we came to a pavilion, the Caffè Massimiliano. Its counters needed wiping; the teenager at the register wore a goatee and an earring. Here we passed on another chance to buy postcards and those "MIM" demi-tasse cups. Outside, bundled in our coats, we sat on white metal chairs and drank caffè americano.

A. looked off at the water, which was shining dully. The sun hid behind so many clouds that it looked like a silver moon.

He said, "Did you know that Chapultepec Castle is the most visited museum in Latin America?"

No, I hadn't known that.

"People come in and they say ‘ooh' and ‘ah,' and at the end when they hear Maximilian was killed they say, ‘Oh my God.' But you know, they think he was just a bum."

"So," I said, "you don't think he was such a bum anymore?"

"He was a bump."


"A speed bump. But Mexico plowed right over it! He was just another one of the aberrations in the history of Mexico. That century was lost, and Maximilian was the worst part of it. But Santa Anna was bad, too. He was really a..." A. stared off into the pinetrees.

"A what?"

"A total nut! Su Alteza Serenísima, he called himself. He was deranged. He died of syphilis, probably. And the Church was sucking Mexico like a leech. The U.S. invades, Santa Anna sells them half the country, and Santa Anna embezzles the money, then France invades. And then this guy, Gutierrez d'Estrada, comes up with his wacko idea."

The marmalade cat was still chasing the black cat; they raced around the flower beds, and then the black cat leapt up the trellis and onto the roof.

"It wasn't wacko at the time," I said. I was thinking of the German prince sent to be King of Greece, and Charlotte's father, Leopold I, another German prince who had been invited to rule the Belgians. In Lombardy-Venetia, Maximilian had already ruled over an alien people, and afterwards, his name was bandied about as a candidate for King of Poland and King of Greece.

A. slouched in his chair. This litany of Mexico's history, it was enough to put any Mexican in a foul mood.

And it was cold. I held my coffee in both hands, for the warmth. I was thinking again about how, for Americans, there is no one like Maximilian, nothing like Miramar. There are, of course, houses that might be painful for some to see. We talked about Robert E. Lee's plantation house, now surrounded by Arlington National Cemetery, which we had visited together a couple of years before. I said, if I were black, I would probably feel angry to see, say, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, so spacious and elegant, with its slave cabins.

"But Monticello, that's not really it," he said.

"I know," I said.

One thing was bothering me. "Why do you think Maximilian decorated the upstairs like that?"

"He was a very confused person. He was going to abdicate. He tried going to Veracruz to flee, didn't he?"

"Yes," I said. "But he turned around and went back to Mexico City."

"Well," A. said, "if he hadn't, he would have been the Emperor of Mexico in exile. There are all these guys who are the king of whatever and they're living in Paris. I think that was the thing."

Here, I supposed now, Maximilian must have imagined that he would return to his glittering dinner parties, and simpler, bachelors' evenings of billiards, smoking, cards. He would write his memoirs of Mexico. Travel: why not an expedition to the Congo? Or Rajasthan? And I had read somewhere that Maximilian had told someone (was it Blasio?) that one day he should like to fly balloons. This parterre would be the perfect place for a launch:

Late August 1867. A summer's day, sparkling, sun-kissed sea. He is well again, he has put on weight. His entourage in tow, he strides across the gravel and steps into the basket of a billowing, parrot-green montgolfier emblazoned, of course, with "MIM." And it lifts, up and yonder over the shining white tower of Miramar. From the basket sandbags splash to the sea— and it rises ever higher, ropes trailing. A picnic in the clouds: chilled champagne, tiny toasts spread with foie gras.

"What's so funny?" A. said.

I sighed, and put down my coffee cup. "It ended a little differently."

A. didn't say anything.

We began walking up the hill toward the Parco Tropicale, where Maximilian had built his specially heated aviary. "Well," I said, taking his arm. "I'm glad you had the idea for this trip."

"It was for your novel."

"But it was your idea."

"I wouldn't have come here if it weren't for your novel."

I looked at him. "Really?"

"It's not like I want to go around saying, oh, wow, I went to Miramar!"

"Why not?"

"Well, like, the Congressmen I work with, what would they think? What, is this guy interested in foreign intervention? In dictatorship?" He hissed through his teeth.

I hissed back at him.

He laughed.

We saw the hummingbirds and the parrots, and then, in the far north of the park, Il Castelletto, the mini-Miramar where Maximilian and Charlotte had lived while their castle was being constructed.

On her return from Mexico and the fiascos in Paris and Rome, after the alienist had declared her insane, Il Castelletto had also served as Charlotte's prison. Inside, according to my books, were rooms designed by Maximilian when he was still a bachelor: a Flemish, a Nordic room, and a Moorish room. Blasio's description of the latter is enticingly lush:

[It] was upholstered in dark damask and its walls almost literally covered
with exotic weapons that the emperor had collected and catalogued with his exquisite taste. The walls also had verses of the Koran handwritten in gold. In the center of the room a beautiful fountain played almost to the ceiling, a thin crystalline thread of water that refreshed that residence worthy of an oriental magnate. From the ceiling hung a canopy made of ostrich eggs enclosed within nets of green silk; the seats were plump pillows of red velvet, and the floor was covered with Turkish carpets of many colors. Everywhere magnificent censers let out plumes of perfumed smoke, and there within the visitor's easy reach, were to be seen long Arab pipes, the kind used by those refined smokers of the Orient.

But these marvels were upstairs, and the upstairs, the man at the ticket counter informed us in just enough broken English for us to understand, was off-limits. Now "Il Castelleto" was a children's aquarium, and to go in, we had to put on shoe covers. These looked like bright blue shower caps. But we were game.

The floor— we shuffled along, stepping wide— was a squishy chocolate-brown plastic, meant to imitate a muddy sea bottom. We peered into a few unremarkable tanks of unremarkable fish. The signs, meant for schoolchildren, were all in Italian.

Outside, a slash of sun had appeared on the water. A squirrel scampered across the path. Doves cooed and flitted in the pines. As we walked back through the park, we could see the water sparkling through the trees. Here, then there, as the path curved around the promontory, we caught glimpses of Miramar, so far out in the sea, so fantastically sugar-white in the sunshine, it might have been a vision in a dream.
I half-expected Tinkerbell to appear hovering over one of the turrets, with her wand showering pixie dust.

Sound track: pìccolos in a minor key, and kettle drums.

After nearly a year of imprisonment here in Il Castelletto, Charlotte's sister-in-law, Queen Marie-Henriette, came to take her home to Belgium. Some biographers claim that Charlotte was never told of Maximilian's death. But in 1868 she sent a card to certain members of the Mexican imperial court, a drawing of Maximilian as a sailor, his arms wrapped around the flag, on the prow of a ship going down in a storm. To one Mexican lady she wrote, on the black-bordered stationary used for mourning, "My very dear friend: I am sending you this souvenir of our beloved Emperor, because I know that you are worthy of it."

Charlotte had moments of lucidity, when she could converse over tea, or play the piano, but the rest of her life, she would have episodes of hearing voices, and she suffered from delusions, obsessions, and savage rages when she would kick and punch her servants. According to her most recent biographer, Prince Michael of Greece, she would scrawl literally thousands of pages of ink-spattered nonsense, and once, "she took a watering can and carefully began to water the flowers stitched into the carpet"— though this last may have been a symptom of senility. She died in her castle just outside of Brussels at the age of 86 in 1927.

As for Maximilian's much earlier end on Querétaro's Cerro de las Campanas, it came after a two day trial. There were 13 counts against him, ranging from his role as "an agent of foreign intervention" to "usurping Mexico's sovereignty," but perhaps the most damning was that Maximilian had, in a moment of desperation with the guerrillas, proclaimed the "Black Decree" of October 3, 1865 which had caused untold numbers of Mexican prisoners of war and civilians found with weapons to be shot or hung without trial. He may have restored the palaces, constructed a wide and elegant Champs Elysées-style avenue into the heart of Mexico City, founded the Museum of Natural History, helped the Indians as no other leader had before him— there was a long list of his many well-intentioned and often successful efforts to bring "higher civilization" to Mexico— but none of these could tip the scales of justice.
President Juarez had no blood lust, no interest in revenge, but he was a realist. To spare Maximilian's life would invite revolt in the army, and to allow Maximilian to leave Mexico would open the very dangerous possibility that he would establish a government in exile at Miramar - in short, there was the risk that Maximilian, as Iturbide had, would attempt to return. As Juarez told Maximilian's lawyers, "The law and the sentence are inexorable now because public safety requires it, and this will enable us later on to be sparing of the blood of those who have been led astray, which will be for me the greatest happiness of my life."

The news of Maximilian's execution raced across the Atlantic via telegraph.

When Maximilian's mother heard the news in Vienna she burst into sobs. "Those brutes, those savages! They have murdered him, my darling, my beautiful lighthearted Max!" Queen Victoria, horrified, put on mourning dress. In the Tuileries, Louis Napoléon broke down and cried. His empress Eugenie nearly fainted. But that day, Louis Napoléon was scheduled to give a speech for the awards at his International Exhibition. He pulled himself together, soldier that he was, and before thousands of guests, including the Sultan of Turkey, the Prince of Wales, the Tycoon of Japan and Prince Umberto of Italy, Louis Napoléon, smilingly splendid in his general's uniform, behaved as if nothing had happened, at all.

What happened to Maximilian's body was that the Mexican embalmer made a mess. First he soaked it in oil to retard decay; but he used too much, and so he hung it from the vault of Mexico City's chapel of San Andrés to drain. Apparently this hanging, dripping Emperor Maximilian was quite the sight. From the street people came jostling in, wanting to touch it and slap it. It was said, as Queen Victoria confided in her journal, that the Mexicans had "sold bits of his skull, skin & hair!! Too disgusting & disgraceful!!" The eyes soon shriveled to a putrid mush. Not until six weeks had passed, and the Emperor Franz Joseph had recognized the Mexican Republic, did President Juarez permit the Novara to sail back to Europe with the cadaver. But what to do about its eyeless sockets? Someone got the idea to pry out the glass eyes from a statue of the Virgin and use those.

After landing at Trieste (not the little jetty at Miramar, where poor, raving Charlotte was still locked into Il Castelletto), Maximilian's coffin was loaded onto a train to Vienna. In the Kapuzinerkirche's Habsburg family crypt, it was placed with the full restored honors of an Austrian Archduke.



We were on the plane flying back to Mexico City when A. told me a story. While on a business trip in Austria, he had happened to be scarfing down canapés with the owner of one of Mexico's largest banks when the Prime Minister of Austria wandered up. To make conversation, the banker said, smilingly, "Did you know? There's a connection between your country and my country?" The Prime Minister of Austria looked down his nose. "Yes. But it was not a happy one." And he turned and walked away. The banker took this coolly. "Huh," he said to A. "Siguen encabronados." They're still pissed-off.

I was stunned. I said, "Why didn't you tell me this before?"


We were probably somewhere in the vicinity of southern Greenland. Out the window, all I could see was a solid carpet of clouds. We were almost across the Atlantic. I picked up Jan Morris's Trieste again; I smoothed out the dog-ear and read this felicitously bizarre passage:

In the deep waters of Trieste bay, not far off Miramare, on the bottom of the sea stands a life-sized figure of San Guisto—San Giusto del Mare. He is standing, I am told, four-square on the sea floor, bound, and holding not the melon of his tradition, but the original lead weight of his martyrdom. All around him fishes swim, and occasional pious skin-divers.

Gee, I thought: I wish I'd known that before, too.

I watched the movie, and for a little while, I listened to Elvis on the headphones— yes, "The King," synchronistically enough, singing "Return to Sender."

So, we had seen Miramar. But had I really seen Maximilian? I was trying, but I was not at all sure I could convincingly render this strange and contradictory personality. At once retiring and anxious to blaze himself onto the world's stage, Maximilian had, after all, constructed this "private vacation castle" that gave him, like a little boy, the illusion of being on his favorite ship, in full, exposed view of the main square of Trieste.

"Aren't I something?" Max, a sprite of a little prince, seems to say. As a child he had ordered a chalet built in the countryside outside Vienna, which he named after himself.

I think he knew joy— much joy, for he had a lightness of heart that let him escape, as one might ride a balloon a short way into the nearby clouds, from all that it meant to be what he was born to be: for so many people, from every walk in life, a fixed point in the world, a tap-root into an ancient and abiding past. You are much larger than yourself, everyone watches you, depends on you, caring about even such minutiae as what sash you wore, what wine you drank with dinner, whom you looked at, and exactly how and for how long you looked at them, and whom you did not see, or not condescend to see. Whether Archduke or Emperor, one hundred years from now, someone will be writing about your sex life, your digestion, every intricacy and permutation of your hairstyle— or beard-style, how your barber combed it and applied special lotions to it, as if it were a woman's tresses. The sense of duty would be staggering, a load strapped onto one's back as early as childhood, and to always, always maintain that mystical level of prestige, it must have felt as essential, for Maximilian and for Charlotte, as each next breath of air.

What would you do if, on the cusp of mid-life, your special status were stripped from you? What boneless, shivering ego would remain? Miramar Castle revealed one that would have hidden behind sumptuous draperies and portraits and murals that would have shown it, every day, not who it was but a fairytale of memory.

But what we had just seen in Miramar, I realized now, was not so much Maximilian as what Maximilian had turned his back on. He could have abdicated and sailed away on the Novara alive, but he chose, just before he reached the coast at Veracruz, to turn around: In his own mind and his own heart, Maximilian von Habsburg, brave knight, was truly the Emperor of Mexico.

"Yo soy mexicano," I am Mexican— I can hear him say it in his sharp, clipped accent.

His face, gaunt with months of illness, receives the gentlest of breezes. He clenches and unclenches his hands. His knees are trembling and yet, somehow, at the same time firm. And then, into that morning of so long ago, he shouts those last proud words of love for the country that had, in the most profound way possible, rejected him.

Wrote Sara Yorke Stevenson, "We forget that he was no leader when we see how well he could die."

A swan-dive into the abyss of the future.

Hours slipped by. I had just woken up when our plane landed with a jolt. Mexico City's Benito Juarez Airport.

C.M. Mayo Copyright (c) 2006. All rights reserved. Link to your heart's content, but for permission to reprint, contact the author's literary representative here.

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