For him it began with a feather. A bright blue parrot feather that fell out of Ella Lynch's hat while she was horseback riding one afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne. Blond, fair-skinned and Irish, Ella was a good rider -- the kind of natural rider who rides with her ass, not her legs -- and she was riding astride on a nervous little gray thoroughbred mare. Cantering a few paces behind Ella and her companion, Francisco Solano Lopez was also a good rider -- albeit a different sort of rider. He rode from strength, the strength in his arms, the strength in his thighs. Also he liked to ride big horses, horses that measured over sixteen, seventeen hands; at home, he often rode a big sure-footed cantankerous brown mule. Pulling up on the reins and getting off his horse, his heavy silver spurs clanging, Franco -- as Francisco Solano Lopez was known -- picked the feather up from the ground; it briefly occurred to him that Inocencia, his fat sister, would know what kind of parrot feather it was, for she kept hundreds of parrots in her aviary in Asunción, but it was Ella and not the feather that had caught Franco's attention.
The year was 1854 and the forty miles of bridle paths and carriage roads were filled with elegant calèches, daumonts, phaetons; every afternoon, weather permitting, Empress Eugénie could be seen driving with her equerry. Every afternoon too, Empress Eugénie, in fashion obsessed Paris, could be seen wearing a different dress, a dress of a different color: Crimean green, Sebastopol blue, Bismarck brown.The Bois de Boulogne had recently been transformed from a ruined forest into an elegant English park.
Sent as ambassador-at-large to Europe by his father, twenty-six-year old Franco was dressed in a field marshal's uniform modeled on Napoleon's, only his jacket was green -- Paraguayan green. He was short, stocky -- not yet grown stout nor had his back teeth begun to trouble him -- and his thick eyebrows met in the middle of his forehead like a black stripe but he was not unattractive. He was self-confident, naïve, ambitious, energetic, spoilt -- never had anything, except once one thing, been denied him -- and he was possessed of an immense fortune. Franco put the feather in his pocket and mounted his horse again. He caught up with Ella easily and followed her home.
At age ten, Eliza Alicia Lynch had left Ireland; at fifteen, Elisa Alice Lynch married a French army officer; at nineteen, divorced and living with a handsome but impecunious Russian count, Ella Lynch needed to reinvent herself.
14 March 1854
A lovely afternoon! I rode the little mare again in the Bois with Dimitri. [Ella wrote in her diary that evening.] Each day I grow fonder of her -- her mouth is as soft as silk and a touch of the rein is sufficient. Her canter puts me in mind of sitting in a rocking chair! But how can I possibly afford to buy a horse? Already I owe John Worth a fortune! Oh, how I loathe worrying about money all the time! Money and servants both! When I returned home and was changing my clothes, I once again had to listen to Marie complain about Pierre whom she accuses of drinking my wine and who knows what other thefts -- servants are addicted to their tales of intrigue and to their jealousies! Also, Marie's chatter nearly made me late -- today was the opening of the Salon! However, as it turned out, I was fortunate. The President of the Jury himself, the Count of Morny, was the first person I met and he took me by the arm and recounted how the day before, his half brother, the Emperor, had gone through all the galleries never once stopping, never once glancing at the paintings, until he arrived at the last gallery -- the least important gallery, the gallery filled with the most mediocre paintings -- and then the Emperor, out of duty, the count supposes, stopped in front of a hideous picture of the Alps -- the Alps looking exactly like a stack of bread loaves! -- and after staring at it for a good five minutes, the Emperor turned to the poor count and said: "The painter should have indicated the relative heights." I could hardly contain myself and laughed until tears streamed down my cheeks! Rain was falling when finally I left the exhibition to go to supper and of course in my haste I had forgotten to bring an umbrella but, as luck would have it, a gentleman smoking a foul-smelling cigar was standing at the door and he offered me his.
From Paraguay, Franco had brought with him crates of oranges and tobacco. On board ship, the oranges started to rot, the sailors squeezed them and drank the juice; the tobacco fared better. The tobacco (the Paraguayan leaves are allowed to mature on the stem and, as a result, contain more nicotine) beat out the Cuban entry and was awarded a first-class medal at the Paris Exhibition; the citation read, Very good collection of leaves, especially suitable for cigars. In addition to the tobacco, Franco had brought dozens of ponchos as gifts; the ponchos were made from a vegetable silk called samahu whose softness was much admired. After he followed Ella home, he had one of the ponchos delivered to her house on rue du Bac with his card.
The News from Paraguay
Pierre, Ella's valet de chambre, put Francisco Solano Lopez's card on top of the other cards on the silver tray on the table in the front hall of the house on rue du Bac; then he gave the package with the poncho in it to Marie, the maid. The poncho was badly wrapped in brown paper and, curious, Marie opened it. Also, the package smelled strange. Like tea. The color of red soil, the poncho, although soft and no doubt warm, did not look like the clothes Ella usually wore -- her fur stole, her velvet cloaks and paisley cashmere shawls ...
Excerpted from The News from Paraguay: A Novel by Lily Tuck
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