Once upon a time, when a Civil War threatened to fracture the US, there was a monarchy south of the Rio Grande. That kingdom was called Mexico. It had a magnificent castle, a beautiful princess and a tall, handsome prince; he was noble and idealistic, he had fire in his heart, but he was weak and gullible. A fool, some would say. One day, when he was still a teenager, he wrote, "Ambition is like the balloonist. To some extent, the rise is nice and he does enjoy a splendid view and a vast landscape. But when he rises more, vertigo occurs, the air becomes thin and the risk of a big fall increases." With this parable, the Austrian Archduke Maximilian of Hapsburg inadvertently predicted the destiny to which he would bravely ride, despite the warnings and the sweet talkers. In any case, he followed his heart's mandate. And Charlotte, the princess, was "one of the most cultured and beautiful" in Europe. Since she was a girl, she'd known that one day she would become a queen or an empress.
When it was first hinted that they would be offered the crown of Mexico, she was 22 and he was 28, and they were surrounded by the intrigue and ambition of their own brothers, who could not wait to have them removed from the picture. So when, three years later, the couple received the official diplomatic mission which affirmed Mexico required their presence, the proposition was like a fairy tale come true. In the imagination of the era, Mexico was the distant paradise described by the great geographer Alexander von Humboldt: thick jungles and forests, steaming volcanoes, copious gold and silver mines, infinite beaches and exotic birds.