Everyone is always expecting Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) to take off again on a voyage.
“God knows where we shall be going next,”
writes the First Chamberlain, Baron Nopcsa, to Ida Ferenczy.
“Most fortunately, Her Majesty is a lot calmer.”
But death stalks still. On 22 May 1889, part of Sissi’s special train derails in a curve near Frankfurt. The victims suffer only light wounds and very great fear. Sissi, who had been thrown against the wall of her carriage-salon, says to her daughter Maria-Valeria:
“Man is born only for unhappiness.”
Sissi drags her sadness to Bavaria, where her daughters are worried, not without reason, when they hear her sigh:
“How I envy Rudolf…”
She returns to the Tyrol, at Meran. Praiseworthy, devoted zeal causes the publication of a notice prescribing that no-one pay attention to the Empress, who wishes “to remain in absolute retirement”. The result is catastrophic. The peasants hide in their fields and children run away screaming whenever the Lady in Black appears.
Climbing the little tracks – her sciatica has disappeared – she declaims in Greek. Her professor, Doctor Widerhofer, has trouble following her, and is obliged to mount a mule. As it is hot, the Empress removes her petticoat. Out of discretion, the doctor wants to turn away, but, a bad cavalier, he falls from the mule and breaks his clavicule. Sissi has only one comment, implacable:
“A malediction weighs down on all that I undertake and the beings who surround me support the consequences.”
She flees. Palermo, Malta, Tunisia, Carthage see the Lady in Black, who now forbids that her Name Day be celebrated. On 4 December, she is back in Vienna. To return to the Hofburg is to live the nightmare again. Emperor Franz-Josef writes to his actress friend Frau Schratt:
“For us, there are no more presents nor Christmas.”
On 30 January 1890, the first anniversary of Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria’s death, Franz-Josef, Sissi and Maria-Valeria go to Mayerling. Elisabeth had never been there before. During the trip, she says not a word. The pavillion has disappeared, pulled down for the most part, and, in expiation, a new church and a Carmelite convent have been built at the place of the drama. The altar is on the spot where the Archduke had lain on his bed.
On 18 February, death returns to strike one of the rare men whom Elisabeth had always estimed, Andrassy. He succumbs at sixty-seven-years-old, after months of suffering.
“My last friend, my only friend is dead,”
murmurs the Empress, weighed down by the dramas which surround her like a fatal halo. In May, Sissi’s sister Helena, who should have been Empress of Austria, falls seriously ill. Elisabeth goes to Ratisbonn. Helena dies in Sissi’s arms, after an appalling battle. The Empress is broken by so many ordeals, and the Vienna Court lives in a perpetual atmosphere of funeral wake. Franz-Josef suffers a lot because of it.
At Bad Ischl, time passes a little less sadly. Electricity has just been installed at the Imperial Villa, which lights up on 31 July for Maria-Valeria’s wedding. But for Sissi, her favourite daughter’s departure is unbearable. Elisabeth will flee, exhaust herself, give herself up to a senseless race against fatality, all the better to provoke it.
The Empress goes back to her favourite element: the sea. On a Danish cutter, the Chazalie, she leaves from Dover, travelling under the name of Mrs Nicolson. The elegant steamer belongs to the Danish Ambassador to London. The English Channel is rough. Face to face with an angry sea, Sissi has herself attached to the main mast under the fearful gazes of the crew. She affirms
“In the tempest, I often believe that I have, myself, become a foaming wave.”
At last, she arrives at Lisbon where there is an epidemic of cholera. She is dissuaded from an excursion on the Tage. Then it’s Gibraltar, Oran, Algiers, Tunisia, Ajaccio – she visits the house where Napoleon was born – Naples, Pompei, Capri, Florence. A tour of the Mediterranean Sea which lasts two months, studded with forced marches in the little streets of the cities of the sun.
In October 1891, the palace that she has had built in Corfu is finished. In honour of Achilles, Sissi names it the Achilleon. A statue of the Trojan War hero is installed in front of the columns. It is a “dying Achilles”. Other statues, one of Rudolf and one of the German poet Heinrich Heine, take place amongst the “Roman” furniture.
But the flight continues. The Empress is in Egypt, walking so quickly that “the secret police can only follow the sovereign by carriage”. Sissi’s incapacity to remain still and her instantaneous movements from place to place had given her an amusing nickname in Greece: “the railway” or “the locomotive empress”.
The year 1892 begins with two family events. On 26 January, Princess Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria, Elisabeth’s mother, dies at the age of eighty-four. The last tie connecting the roaming Empress to her childhood is broken. The next day, Maria-Valeria gives birth to a girl, four weeks early. She is, of course, baptised Elisabeth, but, to differentiate her from her cousin, Rudolf’s daughter, she is called Ella. The joy of this birth almost hurts Sissi, who is overwhelmed by her mother’s death.
Corfu welcomes her from February to May, then a cure at Karlsbad and a stay at Godollo take her to Autumn. She has to be forced to eat.
Christmas. Christmas without the Empress… The Miramar is sailing to Spain. To be pardoned for her Christmas absence, Sissi has ordered two paintings of Katharina Schratt from the painter Franz von Matsch, one a miniature, the other a full-length portrait.
Franz-Josef writes to her every two days. The letters await her in the Consulates:
“I want to join my most sincere wishes for happiness to the express demand that you be, in the possibly brief future accorded to us, as good and as amiable as you have always been to me… As I do not know how to show it to you enough and because it seems to bore you, I would like to tell you that I love you infinitely… May God bless you, protect you and allow us to see each other agreeably again. We have nothing more to desire nor to hope…”
To be continued.