Franz-Josef writes to the actress Katherina Schratt:
“I love my wife, and I want to abuse neither her confidence nor her friendship for you. As I am too old to be a fraternal friend, allow me to remain your paternal friend and treat me with the same goodness and the same candour as you have until now.”
The Emperor also wants to render justice to Elisabeth (Sissi):
“The Empress has spoken of you several times, with the greatest goodness and kindness, and I can give you the assurance that she likes you a lot. If you could learn to know this remarkable woman a little better, you would certainly have the same feelings.”
Only this frank correspondence allows us to measure the complicity which surrounds the amorous friendship between Franz-Josef and Katharina Schratt.
In July 1887, Sissi returns to Bavaria. She is very relaxed, a stunning fifty-years-old, although she is tormented by religious questions, particularly since the death of her favourite cousin King Louis II of Bavaria.
Franz-Josef’s fifty-seventh birthday is celebrated in Bad Ischl with the family. The Emperor raises his glass to his son’s health. Elisabeth whispers to her spouse that they can also celebrate the birthday of Archduke Francesco-Salvator of Tuscany, Maria-Valeria’s suitor.
Elisabeth, who is certain that Maria-Valeria will marry the young man – she is right – gently objects to their youth. He is only twenty-one, she is only nineteen.
“You must see each other a lot more yet. One never knows the other enough. Do not believe, like a lot of people, that I want to make you marry Maria-Valeria to keep her near me. Once married, if she leaves for China or remains in Austria, it’s all the same…”
And, immediately, she promises never to be a frighful, invasive mother-in-law. More than thirty years after her beginnings as a young bride, Sissi is unable to forget Archduchess Sophia’s eagle claws crushing her happiness..
In the night of 19 to 20 October, Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria, who has just renovated a ravishing hunting pavillion in the heart of the Viennese forest, makes his first stay there. The place is called Mayerling…
In January 1888, the family is getting over a double fright with Rudolf: firstly, while stalking a deer, he wounds a gamekeeper; secondly, he is thrown to the ground in a carriage accident.
The Crown Prince alarms his spouse, for he disappears for whole nights, with unfitting companions, drinks too much and, according to the Police, amuses himself in a regrettable manner. He also worries his entourage, for it is said that he has secret contacts with political men from the Hungarian Opposition. And with foreigners: Clemenceau comes to Vienna, where Rudolf receives him at midnight, at the Hofburg, in a climate which resembles that of conspiracy. In fact, Rudolf, who is curious and has an open mind, likes to keep himself informed. He learns of a project for a Franco-Russian alliance, and he listens to Clemenceau who criticises imperial politics.
On 12 November, Sissi is at Corfu when she receives a message which panics her: her father has just had an attack of apoplexy. She telegraphs the Emperor, announcing that she is leaving as soon as possible. But, on 15th, another telegramme arrives, from Franz-Josef, telling her that her father is dead. Sissi is in deep mourning. It is another adieu to her childhood, but it is the most serious one, for the joyful Duke Max, who disappears at the age of eighty, embodied all the fantasy in the world. A poet of life has gone, but, unlike his daughter, he had been always gay. Once more, the Empress dresses in black, the colour of fatality.
On 2 December, the fortieth anniversary of Franz-Josef’s reign, the gathered family learns two pieces of news, one happy, the other surprising. The first is that Maria-Valeria announces her intention of becoming engaged to Archduke Francesco-Salvator, which her mother had always forseen. Laughter, emotion. The other is that Sissi admits that she has had a blue anchor tatooed on her shoulder.
On Christmas Eve, the Empress turns fifty-one and deep happiness surrounds the imperial family… for forty-eight hours. The day after Christmas, Elisabeth leaves again for Munich without anybody being able to criticise her: she is going to spend a few days with her mother, whom she hasn’t seen since her father’s death. Franz-Josef, who has remained in Vienna, sends a tender letter to Sissi:
“My best wishes to all, but particularly to you, my golden angel. May all your wishes, which are realizable and don’t cost me too much, come true. Keep for me your love, your indulgence and your goodness.”
Before returning to Vienna in the middle of January, Sissi, a slender, black silhouette, visits Louis II’s tomb. The Seagull has not forgotten the Eagle.
Everything would be almost perfect if Rudolf’s state weren’t more and more alarming. Exactly what ill is eating away at the Crown Prince? It is the first mystery of an immense tragedy which sows incredible confusion among the imperial family, among the families of millions of men and women throughout the Empire and, if the truth be known, will rattle the world with an ineffacable traumatism.
Great prudence must therefore command the most objective examination possible of the causes, the circumstances and the consequences of this blow to the House of Austria by what must be called fatality.
On Sunday 27 January 1889, the German Ambassador is holding a reception in honour of Wilhelm II’s birthday. Franz-Josef, the Court and High Society are present. Sissi asks her daughter-in-law to represent her, for she does not feel like “harnessing herself”. Rudolf appears crushed and sad. His complexion is livid. Tuesday 29th, a dinner gathers the family at the Hofburg, for Sissi and Franz-Josef are leaving two days later for Hungary. Rudolf asks his father to excuse him at five o’clock in the afternoon, for he feels as if he has a bad cold. He also informs his spouse that he will not be present at dinner. The Crown Prince is already in his Mayerling pavillion for a hunt which is to begin the following day. He hopes to have recovered by then.
To be continued.