It is 1866 and the new Emperor of Mexico has dragooned England's cowardly Colonel Fletcher into service.
The fragile Mexican Empire is on its last legs, and our reluctant hero would like nothing more than to abandon ship and be homeward bound.
When he isn't being pursued by the beautiful Empress Carlota, or the ravishing bandit Maria, he finds himself arrested by the French Foreign Legion and forced to fight an army of bloodthirsty Juaristas.
Will our lecherous adventurer survive?
Yes, I freely admit it, it's true. I'm a coward, a scoundrel, a cheat, a liar, and, when occasion demands it, a thief. I plead guilty to all these worthy talents since there is one thing I do lack - a conscience. However, in writing these hallowed memoirs I intend to break the habit of a lifetime and tell the truth, God help me, so don't say you haven't been warned. Enough said.
This particular offering is primarily concerned with my sojourn in Mexico, but, if you'll allow, let me briefly mention the American Civil War, as it has a bearing on my present tale.
As you know, the spat between the Yankees and the Confederates turned out to be an almighty waste of time, but none of my business and I'd have been well out of it, if it hadn't been for that interfering busybody of a lawyer, better known to you as President Abraham Lincoln. For some reason he'd convinced himself that the war couldn't be won without the gallant Fletch to help things along.
You see, President Lincoln wanted me to dispose of that thorn in the side of the North - one General Robert E Lee of the Confederate Army. I'm not saying assassination was on Lincoln's mind - a fate that would befall his own unlucky personage soon enough. No, he just wanted the confounded nuisance out of the way. As he put it to me at the time:
"We've got the factories but they've got the generals! Lee is a case in point. If only providence would allow an accident to befall him. His men would be at a loss with their hero incapacitated."
It was clear that he was expecting faithful old Fletch to give providence a little shove.
Well, I could tell you how I squirmed and protested to no avail, and how I was sent to the Deep South 'incognito' on some hare-brained scheme to help the general fall off his horse accidental-a-purpose. And I could tell you how I failed miserably - but I won't. No, I'll save that for another time, if I'm spared. The important point here is who was appointed to assist me in this honourable task - namely, one Prince Felix Salm-Salm. Once a serving officer in the Prussian Army, he was now a brigadier-general in the Union Army because (and you'll hardly credit this) he'd absolutely offered his services, ex proprio motu. My God, it takes all sorts, don't it though.
Felix was one of those reckless adventurers we seemed to produce in those days like James Brooke or Wellington, both of whom it has been my misfortune to cross paths with and I was lucky to come out with a whole skin. He was about thirty years of age, I suppose, with dark hair and a light moustache on a face with a modest expression which didn't betray his adventurous spirit. He had dark penetrating eyes, but they were obviously not up to much because he had to perpetually use a glass in his right - which only added to the look of a Prussian officer of the guard.
The Yankees were all over him, of course, having only read about romantic princes in fairy tales, and although he pretended not to care, it was obvious he enjoyed all the attention from the daft American fillies. He'd managed to bag himself a right peach since he'd crossed the ocean and I for one am glad he did, because she probably saved my life and nearly altered the course of Mexican history into the bargain.
I first met Princess Agnes Salm-Salm, together with her husband, near the Potomac where Felix was camped with his 8th New York Regiment. You see, she could barely stand being parted from her darling prince, so she insisted on joining him on the battlefield.
I went down river on a gunboat and Salm's regiment was encamped in a pine grove on the slope of a hill. It was a beautiful spot and I remember it was extremely mild for a Christmas Day. Agnes later informed me that it was also her birthday - and her husband's too. It's just one of those funny coincidences that tends to stick in the mind, even after all these years.
I'll say this for 'em - these royals know how to live in style, even in the field. Felix had procured a large hospital tent for himself, with board floors covered in carpet. The salon was provided with a splendid sofa which the soldiers had made, together with cushions made of straw and covered in damask. To add to the ambience, there was a large bedstead with a straw mattress, over which was spread a buffalo robe under a grand canopy. Starvation wasn't a problem either, since the Salms had their own caterer and there were victuals of every kind. There was even a regular newspaper service, for God's sake.
The Salms spent most of the war with Felix doing his level best to get himself killed on the battlefield, while Agnes poked her nose into everything. One minute she spent her time travelling through the drawing rooms of Washington, trying to procure Felix the post of general, and the next she was riding troop trains to join him at the front as a would-be Florence Nightingale.
We were expecting a visit from our illustrious President Lincoln and while we waited we played a rubber of whist. Groeben, one of Felix's relatives who'd been procured a captain's commission by the prince, brewed punch and eggnog. Eventually the man himself deigned to join us.
Lincoln, my acquaintance of old, had neither the figure nor the features of Apollo of Belvedere, but intelligence was still stamped on every line of his ugly face. I did detect something new, however, and it may be an old man's fancy, but I swear his eyes betrayed a melancholic tinge. I'm convinced I've noticed it before in persons who are fated to die a violent death.
And that was when he sprang his surprise with which I've begun this memoir - but I never got to shove the general off his horse, I'm happy to say.
The problem was that once the war was over, the Yankees had finished with me and my pockets were to let. Naturally there was no offer of a ticket to Southampton and a thank you for services rendered - the ungrateful bastards. So, what with questions being asked in Washington about my part in Lincoln's assassination4 (not guilty, M'Lud ), I thought it politic to find a way out of the Land of the Free before it finally finished me off for good. And who should come to the rescue but Felix Salm.
"If you're at a loose end, William, why don't you keep me company in Mexico? I'm sure Maximilian could use a good man like you," says he out of the blue.
"Mexico? Why the deuce are you going to Mexico?"
I'd heard about young Maximilian's installation as Emperor of the unpleasant backwater, of course. I say young because, at thirty-four, he was my junior by a few years, but from his picture he looked more like seventy-four, what with those fearful-looking whiskers.
I also knew that the Mexican civil war was over and that everything was relatively fine and dandy south of the border, so my interest was piqued. What I didn't understand was what business my chum Prince Felix, or myself for that matter, had in Napoleon's latest addition to the French Empire. Felix was eager to enlighten me.
"Maximilian is trying to improve relations with the United States, don't you know? So he's encouraging American soldiers to migrate south - Confederates mostly, but there are a few of us Yankees taking up the invite too. What do you say, Fletch?"
I wanted to find out more, of course, but the longer I thought about it, the better the idea sounded. My cautious nature made me hesitate, but Felix assured me I'd be making money in no time on Maximilian's staff. I had my reputation to think about, so I feigned an interest in the possibility of earning my soldier's pay in our new billet. He was quick to brush away my concerns.
"My God, Will, haven't you seen enough action this past year? I doubt you'll see much fighting where we're going. Sorry, old friend."
He was apologising, so help me. Little did he know that I was flooded with blissful relief, but I tried to look suitably disappointed - even though my mind was now made up.
"I suppose you can't have everything. I tell you what, Felix, give me one of your cheroots and when I've finished it, why don't we saddle up and tootle down to Mexico to see what's what, eh?"