Sunday 19 August 1853. Early this morning – it is not yet seven o’clock – the two mothers, Princess Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria and Princess Sophia, Archduchess of Austria, have embraced and congratulated each other. Two happy sisters, one sincerely, the other officially. In a note, they confirm Princess Elisabeth in Bavaria’s consent to her marriage. The Archduchess adds a few lines of approbation to it and has the document carried to her son. Having risen earlier than usual, Emperor Franz-Josef bounds to his mother’s apartments, filled with happiness. At eight o’clock, the amorous Emperor is at Ludovika’s hotel. She embraces him as her new son. He wants to embrace Sissi. Having herself risen early – this will be one of their great points in common - Sissi appears at the door of her mother’s bedchamber, fresh, ravishing, as delicate as a rose. He takes his young cousin into his arms and kisses her with restrained tenderness. They are engaged. And Franz-Josef wants to communicate his happiness to all around him. He presents his cousin to all of his aides-de-camp, to all the dignitaries. The personnel gathers, and surprise spreads throughout Bad Ischl which is waking to glorious sunshine. From one inn to another, coachmen, stableboys and kitchen hands carry the news. From windows above creaking signs, the event is called out:
“The Emperor is engaged to be married!”
At eleven o’clock, the young couple enters the church where the Curate, quickly informed, has the imperial anthem played on the organ. The crowd pushes in. At the precise moment that the young people arrive, the Emperor’s mother pretends to leave precedence to the future Empress. Sissi doesn’t notice. At the final benediction, Franz-Josef takes Sissi’s hand and asks the priest to particularly bless them.
“This is my fiancee.”
When they leave, the good-natured crowd throws flowers. Lost in emotion, Sissi feels for her cousin’s hand. She appears fragile, but he is so happy that he has courage for them both.
Ludovika sends a telegramme to her husband, for Prince Maximilien, Duke in Bavaria, still doesn’t know. It could be asked whether, if Max had been present, the engagement would have been quite as rapid. The Duke adores his daughter, but she is so young… Of course, he had been surprised at the message, and had at first thought that there had been an error in transmission when he saw that Franz-Josef was asking for Sissi’s hand instead of that of Helena. But, as a man who always knows how to see the good side of life, he sends his consent and packs some rudimentary luggage to go quickly to Bad Ischl. For once a family meeting is a real celebration…
Back from an outing, the couple finds Bad Ischl illuminated by ten thousand candles, while on a hill, lanterns have been placed in a sort of temple with the initials of the two fiances. Sissi cries with joy or emotion, she doesn’t know which any more.
Very attentive, Franz-Josef brings her jewels, brooches, pearls, diamonds. Their first moments of real intimacy have hunting as a pretext. A great gun, Franz-Josef appreciates Bad Ischl for its abundant game. He shoots deer and ducks assembled around the lakes that he knows well. And he takes Sissi to a splendid site, Lake Gosau, which mirrors the icy peaks of the Dachstein Massif. The boat slides in silence and, suddenly, a detonation echoes in the pure air. The Emperor is the happiest of men. He is with his fiancee, he is hunting. Two joys blended into the love of Nature.
On Thursday 23 August, the Wiener Zeitung, a daily paper close to the Court, announces that
“His Imperial, Royal and Apostolic Majesty Emperor Franz-Josef has announced his engagement in Bad Ischl with the consent of King Maximilien II of Bavaria to the young Elisabeth, Amelia, Eugenia, Duchess in Bavaria, daughter of Their Royal Highnesses Duke Maximilien Josef and Duchess Ludovika, nee Princess Royal of Bavaria.”
A message sent to Vienna convokes the painter Schwager urgently to Bad Ischl. Sissi has trouble posing, immobility is not in her temperament. Franz-Josef is present at the seances while the artist sincerely praises the charm of that face. Sophia verifies daily that, in her son’s heart, she now comes second. To justify herself, she pretexts the Court education that her niece must receive urgently.
“This little girl doesn’t know how to present her glass for a toast.”
But with his contagious good humour, the Emperor answers that he will take care of all that. From now on he will be there to teach her love and therefore life.
The Emperor has tried to delay their first separation, but his vacation is over. Politics and diplomacy can no longer content themselves with heatbeats. Franz-Josef escorts his fiancee as far as Salzburg. And Sissi is very sad when he leaves. But she is happy to return to her decor, her childhood, her dogs, her horses and the reassuring peace of Bavaria. Having left to become an empress, Helena has returned as a neglected, refused princess. Having left as a saucy, carefree child, Sissi returns as a future empress. An immense change. Yesterday, she was ignored, she disappeared for whole days, she grew on her own like a wild flower. From now on, she is scrutinized, observed, spied upon. Worse, she is judged. And this gaze of others is her first prison. With her fine writing in red ink, she throws down this cry after having followed the flight of a swallow:
… How happy I would be to break all hobbles,
To rupture all ties.
Ah! If only I were floating freely with you up there,
In the firmament eternally blue,
How much would I praise with joy
The god that we call liberty.
Her poem is a smothered explosion. Engaged to be married for two weeks, she feels that she is a prisoner, senses an irreversible adieu to childhood, a metamorphosis as brutal as it is unexpected.
To be continued.