In June 1885, Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) goes to visit her cousin Louis II of Bavaria. The King is absent. Sissi, accompanied by her two daughters, Gisela and Maria-Valeria, leaves an envelope on a desk. It is a poem dedicated to this very poetic king. A few lines which contain the code of their exchanges:
To you, eagle of the mountain
Host of eternal snows
A thought from the seagull
Queen of the frothy waves.
She is the seagull, he is the eagle. Two solitary birds. The seagull will soon be forty-eight-years-old, the eagle is forty. And the craziest rumours are circulating about the King. Sissi learns, stunned, that her cousin talks to himself, that he addresses the busts of Louis XIV and the portraits of Marie-Antoinette, his “guests”, in careful French. It is said that he lives only at night, dresses as an Oriental Satrape and, lost in the smoke from a nargile, makes stable-boys dance naked before him… Inside his castles, which have emptied the Kingdom’s finances, Louis II rules over machines which make garnished tables surge from the floor. In the Linderhof park, a fake grotto evokes that of Venusberg, in Tannhauser. The King sits in a wherry in the form of a swan, while a valet rows and the boat twirls in the middle of a floral decor of plaster roses and changing lights. Louis II, insatiable, has obliged his Minister of Finances to subscribe a loan of seven million-and-a-half marks, and Bavaria is rushing to ruin.
On 24 August, Sissi, Franz-Josef, Rudolf and Archduke Louis-Viktor, the Emperor’s younger brother, board the imperial train which will take them to Olmutz, the second Moravian city. An interview has been organized with the Tsar to try to relieve the tension in the Balkans. Nothing has been neglected to make the Tsar feel safe. His father’s assassination haunts him.
The Emperor of Austria and Crown Prince Rudolf welcome the Tsar’s family at the station. Rudolf caustically describes the scene, which takes place late in the morning, to his wife Stephanie:
“The Tsar has become colossally fat. Grand-Duke Wladimir and his wife, as well as the Tsarina, seem old and dull. Their suites and in particular their domestics are frightful. They wear new uniforms of a completely Asian cut. At least, at the time of the defunct Tsar, the Russians were elegant (…).”
Elisabeth is superb in a peach-coloured satin gown with a high collar. To honour Alexander III, Franz-Josef has had the troup brought from Berg Theater. The evening is warm, propitious to the performance outside of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by Shakespeare, in the sumptuous gardens of the Summer residence of the Prince-Archbishop of Olmutz. Katharina Schratt is brilliant in the role of Hermia. Alexander III, subjugated, asks Franz-Josef whether the actress can participate in the supper planned on the terrace, while fireworks light up the statues and the baroque fountains. Franz-Josef is embarrassed. The Tsar is asking for an exception to protocol, but it is difficult to refuse. Elisabeth is delighted at such a surprise… But the next morning, when Franz-Josef comes to complain to Sissi that the Tsar has had one hundred roses and an emerald brooch delivered to Katharina Schratt, Sissi legitimately concludes that her husband is interested in the actress. And this does not worry her… Frau Schratt is a gentle woman, of unruffled humour. She is twenty-eight-years-old and lives separated from her husband.
Sissi is perfectly aware that her instability prevents her from making the Emperor perfectly happy, he who is always so attentive and of admirable indulgence. The Empress is impatient, but she is not egoistic with her husband. She is conscious of her affective and physical limits. Their complicity – which has been greatly criticised because people have not tried to understand it – is going to rule the couple’s relations from Spring 1886. Sissi, always between two voyages, is thinking more and more of having herself “replaced”. The Emperor needs a discrete, dignified companion, who is simple, without being familiar, who conserves the appropriate distance toward a high-ranking person but knows how to be frank. An aristocrat being excluded, who is better suited for playing a role than an actress? Katharina Schratt, whom Franz-Josef admires more and more, is the ideal woman to play the unrewarding role of a sort of double, whose friendship would not be shocking. Sissi orders a portrait of the actress from the painter Heinrich von Angeli and announces to Franz-Josef that she is going to give it to him. He is extremely happy.
The Emperor writes his first letter to Frau Schratt to thank her for having taken the trouble to pose for the painting. In thanks, he joins a magnificent emerald ring to his missive. And he signs “Your devoted admirer”.
Sissi’s reward arrives on 5 October with her departure for Greece. The Miramar travels towards Troy. Sissi lingers before Achilles’ tomb, but doesn’t walk much among the archaeological digs, for her feet refuse extenuating walks now. After Rhodes, Cyprus and Port Said, where she spends time fleeing Consuls who have come to wait for her, the Empress returns to Trieste on 1st November. Unfortunately, this return to cold and dampness awakens her sciatica and increases her nostalgia. Sissi regrets living and announces to Franz-Josef that if, because of her health, her life has to be an immobile Calvary, she would be ready to kill herself. Franz-Josef replies:
“Then you will go to Hell.”
He is unhappy, so is she, but their unhappiness is not the same one. Elisabeth sighs:
“We already have Hell on Earth.”
Her depression increases with the realization that Maria-Valeria, who is now eighteen-years-old, is being courted.
Very direct with her favourite daughter, she says to her, after a ball:
“If you absolutely wanted to marry a chimney-sweep, I wouldn’t stop you… In the end, I love only you.”
The two other children are not as close to her. Gisela lives in Bavaria and Rudolf, whose marriage is, according to Elisabeth’s predictions, a catastrophe, is more and more attracted to liberal ideas, taverns where there is singing among the smells of garlic and tobacco, and the discrete houses where friendly women attempt to relax the Prince out of his sombre humour. In a sense, his ill is the same one as his mother’s. It is uselessness. He says:
“I am condemned to be a good-for-nothing.”
To be continued.