Read The Empire of Yearning Online

Authors: Oakland Ross

The Empire of Yearning








For Cynthia Villegas Balta


They are going to Mexico, which I cannot understand.
—Queen Victoria, writing about Maximilian and Charlotte in her diary

They hate us here. The foreigner in arms is always odious.
—Jean Pierre Isidore Alphonse Dubois de Saligny, the ambassador of Paris in
Mexico at the time of the French invasion of 1863


” A man’s voice spoke up, a foreign voice, expressing itself in good but not native Spanish. “She must be very beautiful, this woman, to make you endure such suffering.”

Diego Serrano gritted his teeth against the pang in his only hand, whose knuckles he had just rapped against the steel pillar of a street lamp. He had done so on purpose and for the same reason this intruder had divined. A woman. An exceptionally beautiful woman. Whenever he thought of Ángela Peralta, he felt an urge to cause himself injury, as a punishment for his idiotic cowardice. He had known her for half his life, and still he could do little more than stammer in her presence. Her brother, Baldemar, only made matters worse, with his jokes and obscenities and scorn.

Diego eased his smarting hand onto the ivory grip of the long-barrelled pistol that he carried in his belt, a Colt revolver. He turned, expecting to confront a grizzled, sallow-faced gunman bent on theft or worse. This
was Veracruz, after all—a steaming port city, with all the perversions and dangers for which seaports are known. Instead, he found himself in the presence of a slender fellow of an almost eerily pale complexion. The man was elegantly if oddly dressed in a loose pink blouse with a red ascot, a pair of beige slacks, and brown patent leather shoes, now spattered with blots of grey mud, for it had rained heavily that afternoon. At his waist he wore a brightly embroidered sash that seemed to be of a Mayan design. He was smoking in the Teutonic fashion, his cigarette clamped between thumb and index finger.

“Oh dear,” he said. “You don’t remember me. I can see it from your face.” He heaved a theatrical sigh. “It was always thus.”

“Should I … remember you?”

“I certainly think so. At breakfast this morning—we were not more than two tables apart.”

Diego frowned. Come to think of it, he did recall a couple at a nearby table that morning, a man and a woman, foreigners both. She had been blonde and very thin, with an ethereal beauty. He had noticed her but seemed to have overlooked her male companion. This was curious, as the fellow presented a memorable figure now.

“You were drunk at the time,” the man said.


“At breakfast. I smelled liquor on your breath. I detect liquor on your breath right now.” The man drew upon his cigarette, paused for an instant, and exhaled. “I see that you are out for your customary evening stroll.”

Diego said nothing, but his expression must have betrayed his annoyance.

The stranger shrugged and gave a pinched smile. “I am sorry. I fear it is a great fault of mine, always to know more than I should. Forgive me, please.”

“That isn’t necessary.”

“I am so glad to hear it.” He leaned closer, lowered his voice. “I wonder—what do you think of my Spanish?”

“It is … good.”

“Really? Oh thank you. I value your words, coming as they do from one of this country’s most illustrious poets and journalists.”

The man extended his hand. He was handsome in his way. Straight brown hair fell over an ashen face bisected by a narrow, aristocratic nose and punctuated by precise features. Diego felt it necessary to avoid the man’s gaze. The truth was, he no longer regarded himself as a poet. The Muse had deserted him.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” the man said. “I am Felix zu Salm-Salm—in formal parlance, the Prince of Salm-Salm. But let us not be formal. Please, call me Felix.”

Diego, who had lost most of his left arm years earlier in the Battle of Tacubaya, took the man’s hand. The grip was weak, furtive. He said, “I take it you already know my name.”

The fellow laughed. “Ah, well done. You have caught me out. You are Diego Serrano, as I have already ascertained.” He motioned with his cigarette. “Shall we?”

Diego shrugged, and the two men ambled along the narrow, crumbling street, strewn with refuse and splattered with puddles of fetid water. When they reached the Malécon, they bore to the right and traced the seawall past a parade of royal palms, their trunks shifting in the slanting amber light, the fronds knocking gently in the breeze. It was dusk in Veracruz and the salt spray glinted all around, like particles of silver riding on the air. Everything seemed suddenly beautiful. It was as if the European had brought with him a change of atmosphere, a change of light.

They strolled along the sea’s edge, and the man held forth about himself and his circumstances. It seemed that he really was a product of royalty. His father ruled a small German principality. Salm-Salm explained that he had been disinherited, owing to certain unfortunate reverses at the gambling table, reverses that he most certainly would have put right had only he been given the chance. Honour was his watchword. Unfortunately, his losses had redoubled, until eventually it had seemed prudent to depart Europe altogether. And so he had made his way to the
Americas, where he had roamed widely, learning customs and novelties as he went. He was cursed, he said, with an adhesive mind, acquiring knowledge without effort. He suffered from a similar tendency as regarded people.

“My wife, for example. For the life of me, I cannot seem to be rid of her. On the other hand, why should I? She is a most captivating creature, as you may have noticed.”

Diego said he did recall her from that morning. “
La rubia
,” he said. It was a rare quality in Mexico and could drive some men mad.

Blonde hair. Lovely blonde hair. And blue eyes, of course. Agnes Leclerq is her name. She is from Montreal, in the Canadas, but it was in New York that I met her, in the damnedest circumstances. She was performing in a circus—an equestrian acrobat. Can you believe it? I wrote to my father to inform him of our nuptials, but I have not received a reply. I fear he may have suffered a coronary thrombosis, which would be most galling. I had been hoping for a generous wedding gift.” He tossed away the remains of his cigarette. “Ah well.”

After a brief silence, the man explained that he had made his way to New York by clandestine means, for he had previously fought on the Confederate side in the civil war that was even now afflicting the vast and sadly riven land that sprawled beyond the northern border.

“And now you are in Mexico,” said Diego.

“Yes. And now I am in Mexico.”

“May I inquire as to your purpose here?”

“You may. But you are a journalist. I imagine you are capable of ferreting out the truth.”

Diego smiled. Of course. It was apparent why the man found himself in Veracruz—for the same reason he did so himself. “You have come to greet the Austrian.”

“Just so. Good old Max. We are related, you know. Cousins, I think. Would you care for a smoke?”

Their cigarettes alight, the two men strolled the rest of the way back to the Plaza de Armas and entered their hotel, the Universal, a musty,
decrepit structure that overlooked the city’s small central square, where the moss-ridden hulk of the cathedral of Veracruz was just now being swallowed by a darkness so dense Diego could practically feel it, like a force contracting at his throat. The month was June, the year, 1864. Thirty days and twenty-nine nights he had languished in this dripping coastal heat, in this city redolent of open sewers and plagued by yellow fever, while he awaited the arrival of the Austrian. According to rumour, the man had already had himself crowned—he was the emperor, the emperor of Mexico—and Diego had come to plead with him in a matter of life and death.


, Diego lit a pair of candles, an awkward undertaking for a man in possession of just one complete arm and the remnants of another. But he was practised in such tasks. He removed his pistol and retrieved a half-empty bottle of
from the wooden table by his bed. Using what remained of his left arm to clasp the bottle against his side, he removed the stopper and poured out a large dollop of the liquor into a chipped glass, greasy from use.

He closed his eyes and drank, letting the liquid burn a path down his throat. That helped. He turned and eased himself onto the bed, reclining on his back, the glass still clenched in his one hand.

What an odd character he had just met. God knew what exactly the man wanted from the Austrian—patronage or protection or simply an addition to his purse. For his part, Diego knew exactly what he meant to obtain. He had come to Veracruz in order to plead for the life of Baldemar Peralta, his old schoolmate from the Academia de San Juan de Letrán and his comrade during Mexico’s long war between liberals and conservatives. Baldemar was incarcerated in the bowels of the Martinica
Prison in Mexico City, condemned to die for a crime he had hopelessly bungled. For one thing, the idiot had chosen a day of torrential rains to carry out his mission, and that factor alone—never mind his excessive weight—had been enough to ensure his failure. A fat man in a starving land is not a man who can easily hide. At the time of his arrest, Baldemar had been a fat man still. God only knew what he weighed now.

Based partly on what he’d been told and partly on what he could guess, Diego had a fair sense of the events that had unfolded on that afternoon of plummeting rain. He had imagined the episode many times.

Baldemar dismounts from his horse. He loops the reins around a post in the street outside the restaurant. La Hostería de Santo Domingo, it is called. He withdraws an antique English Dragoon pistol from his belt. No doubt he clutches the weapon in two hands, both of them trembling, for he has never launched an undertaking of this sort before. Dripping from the rain, he enters the restaurant and scans the room until he recognizes the conservative general, Leonardo Márquez, presiding at a dimly illuminated table. Baldemar weaves his way between the tables, his eyes fixed on the villain. No doubt there is some commotion among the diners, at least the more observant few, those who realize an act of violence is imminent. Baldemar ignores them. He thinks only of carrying out his purpose. If anyone in Mexico deserves to die, it is Márquez.

A large, grizzled man, his swarthy face criss-crossed by the scars of battle, the general is probably nearing the end of a long midday meal, likely smooching upon a cigar. Perhaps he is reaching at this moment for a bottle of mezcal. He snorts to himself happily. And why not be happy? Has he not returned to Mexico City in triumph after years in the mountains of Michoacán, where he almost beggared himself waging the savage rump of a nearly endless war? But he is back in the ascendance now—like all of Mexico’s conservatives—and he is glorying in each and every consequent pleasure. He takes another puff of his cigar. Just now, some disturbance catches his eye. Or perhaps his hearing alerts him first—the creaking of chairs, the shifting of tables. He glances up, and for a moment or so he must be alarmed by what he sees—a pistol, just
spitting distance away, pointed at his head. Anyone would feel a chill in the gut. The hammer slams down, and then what? A view of rose-bellied clouds drifting against the summit of a snow-glazed volcano, followed by … nothing. Darkness. A void.

But he is in luck. God, once again, has taken his side. The gun does not fire. This is no surprise, really. Even at the best of times, an English Dragoon pistol is an unreliable weapon—and is even worse when it rains. No doubt the powder in the firearm’s flintlock is damp. In any case, the hammer falls, the flint sparks, but the powder fails to ignite. And so General Márquez lives to fight another day.

He would have been better pleased had his officers managed to collar the assailant then and there. By rights, they should have wrestled the waddling ferret to the tiled floor, enabling the Tiger of Tacubaya, as Márquez is known, to enjoy the perquisites of revenge on his own terms—not at once, but later, in private, and with the meticulous attention to detail that such occasions so richly deserve. But that is not what happens.

Instead, Baldemar bolts. He has brought with him just one pistol, which contains just one ball. When it fails to fire, his enterprise is doomed. And so he turns and runs. The general’s officers scramble in pursuit, but Baldemar manages to get away. Fat as he is, he possesses surprising agility and speed. Besides, he well understands the course of his fate should he be taken alive. From what Diego understood of the tale, the last Márquez’s men see of Baldemar that afternoon is the spectacle of a rotund individual hurling himself atop a large-boned bay with three white socks. Baldemar gathers the reins and gallops off through the rain along the calle Belisario Dominguez before careening right in the direction of the Zócalo. He must make a sight, with his legs kicking like a pair of broken wings in the driving rain and his ample haunches bouncing against the cantle of his high Mexican saddle.

Diego imagined it was Captain Cajiga, a sallow-faced Spaniard with sunken cheeks, who returned to General Márquez with the news that they have lost the felon, eliciting a tirade of obscenities. But Márquez is wasting his bile, because Baldemar’s escape proves to be short-lived. For
several hours he rides in circles in the pelting rain. In his eagerness to murder the Tiger of Tacubaya, he failed to map out his getaway. In the end, he attempts to flee the city by means of the Guadalupe gates.

Unfortunately, a pair of Zouaves—members of the North African force brought over by the French—has been alerted to watch for a stout, bespectacled malefactor mounted upon a bay horse with three white socks and armed with a poor excuse for a firearm.

Un moment, monsieur
,” one of them says.

They drag Baldemar from his horse, bind his thumbs behind his back with twine, and bundle him into a mule-drawn wagon. Sometime around midnight, Baldemar Peralta ends the worst day of his life sprawled on the filthy dirt floor of a dark cell in the Martinica Prison.

It was Baldemar’s older sister, Ángela, who sought Diego out, bursting with the news. She hurried into his lodgings in Mexico City the next day, soon after she had learned the truth. Still groggy from drink, Diego was having breakfast at the time, and the last of his meal still littered the plate—a half-eaten roll, a smattering of egg scrambled with chilies. She collapsed into a chair across from him and begged him to do something, anything, to save her brother. Diego agreed at once, of course, although he had no further memory of what he’d said. As always in Ángela’s presence, he could manage no more than a mishmash of incoherent syllables. Baldemar teased him about it every chance he got, and Ángela herself sometimes broke into laughter, unsure what to make of his pained stammering.

But she did not laugh now. She told him what he must do. He would have agreed anyway simply to oblige her, but he had no choice. At the Battle of Tacubaya only five years earlier, Baldemar Peralta had saved his life. Granted, he’d lost an arm that day, but he had survived. That is a debt that can never be fully repaid, a duty that weighs upon a man forever.

And so it was that Diego now found himself in Veracruz. He’d been here a month, waiting for the Austrian to arrive from Europe.

The candles were guttering, and he peered at his empty glass. He debated what to do next: prowl the steamy nighttime streets in search
of companionship or find something to eat. He decided upon a meal. He got up, splashed his face with water from the porcelain bowl on the table by the window, and then made his unsteady way downstairs. The murky dining room was empty save for a barefoot servant boy, who brought him a clear soup, followed by red snapper smothered in a sauce of tomatoes and peppers. Either the fish was off or Diego was unwell. Before long his head was pounding, and his brow prickled with sweat. Something was wrong. He pushed back his chair and climbed to his feet as the blood ran from his head. He felt he might faint, and had to steady himself against the table. He wondered if he would survive this infernal place long enough to save Baldemar Peralta, even assuming he was still alive. There was no way of knowing, on either account, and so he trudged upstairs to his bed, praying that this distress end quickly and the Austrian come soon.

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