Tag Archive: Empress Elisabeth of Austria


Last photo of the Empress (left) at Territet, the day before her assassination.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sissi)’s assassin is doubly mistaken.  He believes that he has killed someone satisfied with her official role, fond of the advantages of public life, capriciously abusing her power.  This is the first error.  The anarchist had killed a Court anarchist, a woman who knew only the weight of the Crown.  Lucheni should have known that she had written:

“What do sceptres, crowns and purple ceremonial mantels matter?  They are only derisory, coloured rags, ridiculous rattles with which we vainly try to cover the nudity of our souls, when we should be thinking of safeguarding our life and our intimate feelings.”

This is a democratic empress, a popular queen, a modern sovereign.  The assassin kills an image, but this image is false.  With unparalleled audacity, Sissi had unleashed many worldly and social revolutions in Vienna.  This is a woman who is scandalised by small-mindedness, by injustice and by egoism.  Even if it beat in slight disorder, her heart, which had suffered so much, was very loving.  Elisabeth was nothing like a tyrant.  Sissi was more of a revolutionary than her aggressor.

To this first mistake, the assassin adds a second one, even more flagrant.  He did not kill a living being, he helped someone who wanted to die.  Armed by fatality, the assassin’s arm at last carried the coup de grace to the wounded Seagull who was circling in the sky of despair.  Lucheni did not know, either, that Elisabeth had said:

“The thought of death accompanies me day after day, it acts like a gardener who cleans the garden, but who wants to be alone and becomes irritated if curious people look over the wall.  So, I hide my face behind my sunshade and my fan, so that the idea of death is able to work peacefully inside me.”

There is something even more surprising.  Sissi had said:

“I know that I am walking towards a frightening goal which is assigned to me by Destiny…  I shall leave like smoke that drifts away, my soul will flee through a tiny little opening in my heart.”

A singular premonition…  And her assassin also did not know that she had declared, at the end of 1897:

“I don’t want to survive the Emperor.”

And, speaking of him and their daughter Maria-Valeria:

“I don’t want them to be present at my death, I want to die alone.”

Her wish was granted…

It must also be recalled that the church raised at Mayerling comports a little baroque chapel.  Beside the altar, the statue of a stabbed Virgin had been erected before Sissi’s assassination, by the sculptor Tilgner.  A Mater Dolorosa whose heart, which is apparent, is pierced by a knife;  the Virgin has Elisabeth’s features…

Finally, Lucheni killed someone in view, but he gave birth to a myth.  Death has made Elisabeth even greater.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

When we look back on the Empress’ impressive destiny, we can only bow before so much pain in her family:  Maximilien shot, Rudolf dead (assassinated?), Louis II drowned [or heart attack in the lake], Sophia of Alencon burnt alive, Charlotte demented…  A family?  An obituary.  And each of these deaths had withdrawn a reason for living from Elisabeth.  Fatality is in this presentiment of Sissi when she says one day:

“We all die violent deaths.”

The implacable cogs will turn again, tenacious like a malediction, striking down Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo.  The first shots fired in the Great War…

***

In October 1898, Luigi Lucheni is judged by the Geneva Court.  Furious that the death sentence had been abolished on the territory of the Republic of Geneva, he asks the President of the Swiss Federation to be judged according to the laws of the Canton of Lucerne, where the death sentence is still in vigour.  His letter is signed:

“Luigi Lucheni, anarchist, and one of the most dangerous.”

The sad boasting of the assassin could have cast doubts on his reason.  He was, however, declared to be sane, and considered, to his great disappointment, as a common prisoner and not as a political one.  Condemned to perpetual reclusion, the assassin attempts to kill himself with the key of a tin of sardines, on 20 February 1900.  Nervous, susceptible, he finally hangs himself in his cell on the evening of 16 October 1910.

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary, by Raab (1867).

So much unhappiness attached to so much charm have made Sissi an unforgettable person.  On 7 June 1907, in the Garden of the People, in the centre of Vienna, Emperor Franz-Josef inaugurates a monument to Elisabeth, Empress of Austria.  The city renders posthumous homage to the lady who fled it.  Sissi is seated, two big dogs at her feet.  She is looking at the Hofburg.

In Hungary, despite the political upheavals, her memory is far from being effaced.  In Budapest, Erzsebet Bridge still spans the Danube, and Erzsebet Avenue has not been renamed…

Sissi was also unforgettable for her unhappy spouse, dignified and courageous in these recurring disasters.  Strapped inside his duty, walled inside his mourning, the Emperor fights melancholy.  He wanders through the empty rooms where each object reminds him of his adored spouse, “even the scales where she weighed herself each day”.  On the verge of tears, he comes across all the reminders of the defunct Empress, her fan in wood and leather, riding-crops in sculpted ivory, one for her, one for him, each having the photo of the other and his or her initials surrounded by rubies, her ivory opera glasses, her silver cigarette case, her Book of Prayer with its clasp, her paper-knife encrusted with ladybirds and dragonflies…  And he raises his eyes to the portraits of the departed, as if he wants to reassure himself with her gaze.  Until his death on 21 November 1916, he will never cease to repeat:

“No-one will ever know how much I loved her…”

***

Empress Elisabeth of Austria with Shadow.

Last photo of the Empress (left) at Territet, the day before her assassination.

A third message from Geneva to Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria gives the precision that Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) had been assassinated.  It is almost a relief, Franz-Josef had feared suicide.  This text asks if the doctors can proceed with an autopsy.  The Emperor, numb with pain, answers that whatever is prescribed by Swiss Law should be done, adding as an afterthought:

“The children must be told.”

The autopsy, practised the next day, reveals that the weapon – it is not yet known what it was exactly – had penetrated eighty-five millimetres, breaking a rib, traversing the left lung and the left ventricle.  However, the wound is very slim and the haemorrhage had been retarded.  The blood had dripped drop by drop into the pericardium.  Sissi’s astonishing energy had allowed her to walk the hundred feet between the place of her aggression and the boat’s boarding ramp.

***

In Vienna, the news spreads from six o’clock at night.  The crowd gathers in groups, firstly incredulous, then angry.  The words are repeated with horror:

“Assassinated!  Our Empress has been assassinated!  By an Italian!”

Incidents erupt inside the cafes frequented by Italians.  Some Austrians explode with indignation.

“The Italians take our bread from us and assassinate our Empress!”

Fights, patriotic songs, tears:  the Police has to restore order.

***

He is twenty-five.  He is called Luigi Lucheni.  Born in Paris of an Italian mother, he has never known his father.  Mason, labourer, he had been chambervalet to a prince.  He is Elisabeth’s assassin.  At the beginning of the afternoon, he is interrogated by Judge Lechet, who does not yet know that Sissi is dead.  The answers are proud, cynical.  He says that he had been looking to kill the Duke of Orleans who was staying in Geneva.  But the Pretender to France’s throne had left for the Valais.

“I had sworn to kill any high-ranking person.  Prince, King or President of the Republic, they are all the same!”

His weapon had been found by a concierge of the Rue des Alpes.  The assassin had thrown it away while he was running.  He had made it himself, inserting a ten-centimetre, very slim lime into a wooden handle.

When Judge Lechet is informed, by telephone, of Sissi’s decease, he says to Lucheni:

“The Empress of Austria has just succumbed from her wound.”

A light shines in the assassin’s green eyes:

“Long live anarchy!”

Despite the presence of many political refugees in Switzerland, despite terrorist attacks – such as the one which, in France, cost the life of President Sadi Carnot – it will never be possible to establish that Lucheni was taking part in a plot.  He most likely acted alone.  He is as proud of that as of the crime itself.

***

A polemic erupts over the Empress’ absence of protection.  For the Swiss Police, her presence was well-known.  A telegramme dated 29 August, addressed by the Federal Department of Justice and the Police, at Berne, to the competent services at Lausanne, ends like this:

“Pray take all measures considered necessary against possible problems.”

Police Chief Virieux of the Canton of Vaud, had organized the Empress’ protection, but she, as usual, had judged this surveillance to be disagreeable.  On Friday 9 September, the day before the assassination, Chief Virieux withdrew his officers…  Sissi had also sent away her suite.  It is very possible that an entourage larger than one lady-in-waiting would have dissuaded the assassin from acting openly.

A polemic, more discrete and briefer, poses the question of the treatment given to the Empress.  Today, an operation to repair the heart could be done, but in 1898 this was not possible.

Elisabeth’s body was placed in a triple coffin;  two in lead, the third, exterior one in bronze, reposing on lion claws.  Geneva’s great bell, the Clemence, tolls.  The city is dead too, the shops are closed, not a boat moves on the lake.

Tuesday morning, a special Austrian train brings the Emperor’s official representatives.  Before the sealing of the coffin, they can assure themselves of the body’s identity through two glazed openings which allow the face to be seen.

Wednesday morning, at half-past eight, the body is moved.  From Hotel Beau-Rivage to Cornavin Station, the coffin is drawn by four caparisonned horses.  Over the fifteen-minute route, the crowd, immense, silent, uncovers its heads.  The Clemence tolls unanimous mourning.  At the station, the Federal Council and the State Council render a last homage to the Empress.  At nine o’clock, in great silence, troubled only by the noise of steam, the funeral train leaves for Vienna.  Sissi is going on a last voyage.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire is in deep mourning.  At Budapest, the sadness is particularly felt.  Franz-Josef says:

“Yes, they can cry.  They don’t know what a friend they have lost in their Queen.”

Telegrammes from around the world pile up in the Chancellory, those of Queen Victoria, of the French President Felix Faure, who had declared:

“The Empress is sublime.  You’d think that she was French!”;

those of Emperor Wilhelm II, of the American President McKinley, of Tsar Nicolas II, of the Pope, who judges the assassination “contemptible”.  Eighty-two sovereigns and high-ranking people follow the cortege which, on the morning of Saturday 16 September, takes Elisabeth to the tomb of the Capucins.

Alive, she fled protocol.  Dead, she cannot escape it.  The little crypt door is closed.  The First Chamberlain knocks.  A voice rises from the tomb:

“Who is there?”

“Empress and Queen Elisabeth asks to enter.”

A regrettable polemic mounts concerning the inscription on the coffin.  It is written:  “Elisabeth, Empress of Austria”.  The Hungarians protest.  She was their Queen;  hastily, the words:  “and Queen of Hungary” are added.

The protocol, in vigour since the XVIIth Century, is respected:  if the body of the sixteenth empress of the Habsburg dynasty reposes in the crypt of the Capucins, her heart is conserved at the Church of the Augustins, where she was married, and her internal organs are placed in the crypt of the Saint-Etienne Cathedral.

***

Very proud of himself – particularly very proud to be in the newspapers – Lucheni manifests no regret and hopes to be condemned to death.  He thinks that he is a hero, he wants to be a martyr too.  When he is asked why he had killed Elisabeth, who had never done anything to him, his only answer is:

“It is a fight against the greats and the rich.  A Lucheni kills an Empress, never a washerwoman.”

To be continued.

Last photo of the Empress (left) at Territet, the day before her assassination.

Empress Elisabeth (Sissi)’s aggressor, who has fled by Rue des Alpes, is caught and held by an electrician, Mr Louis Chammartin, who was coming from the opposite direction, then by a gendarme.  The gendarme takes him back to Beau-Rivage Hotel.  He is interrogated.  Mme Fanny Louise Mayer, the Hotel Manager, recounts:

“My husband, at the height of exasperation, gave him a violent blow to the mouth.  A young Austrian Baron, who was at the hotel, also wanted to attack him.  The gendarme prevented him.”

The gendarme has the man transferred to Paquis Police Station.  The unknown man refuses to answer questions.  He has a cynical, wild air about him.

Meanwhile, Elisabeth is arriving at the boat’s boarding ramp.  Her lady-in-waiting, Countess Irma Sztaray, ceases to hold her for a few seconds.  Elisabeth has barely arrived on board than she turns and says:

“Now, give me your arm.  Quickly!”

The Countess seizes her, assisted by a lackey, but the Empress collapses gently, her head resting on her lady-in-waiting’s breast.  Sissi has lost consciousness.  The Countess calls for water, which is sprinkled on a face that is becoming paler and paler.  Then, she calls for a doctor.

There isn’t one, but a female passenger, a former nurse, hurries over.  The boat’s captain, Captain Roux, arrives.  He has heard that a woman has been taken ill.  He does not know her identity and advises Countess Sztaray to disembark the sick person and take her back to her hotel.

“She has fainted from fear.”

Heavy heat reigns on deck.  Captain Roux proposes a cabin.  No, she needs air.  Three gentlemen carry Elisabeth onto the top deck and lay her on a bench.

The lady-in-waiting opens the black gown, cuts the corset which is hindering breathing and slips a sugar-lump imbibed with alcohol between Sissi’s lips.

Sissi instinctively eats the sugar.  She opens her eyes and tries to rise.

“IsYour Majesty feeling better?”

“Yes, thank you.”

She manages to sit up.

“But what has happened?”

“Your Majesty fainted.  But she is feeling better now, isn’t she?”

No answer.  Elisabeth has lost consciousness again.

Hastily, the Countess finishes unlacing Sissi and notices a brown stain, the size of a silver florin, on the mauve batiste undershirt.  Beneath the left breast, she discovers a triangular wound and a drop of dried blood.  A clot…  The Countess cries out to the nurse:

“Good God!  She has been assassinated!…”

The Captain is called.

“For Heaven’s sake, I beg you!  Go back to the quay, quickly!  This lady is the Empress of Austria.  She has a chest-wound.  I cannot let her die without a doctor and a priest.”

Immediately, the Captain gives the order to head for Geneva.  As there is no stretcher on board, they improvise one with sailcloth, cushions and two oars.  Elisabeth moans, her face covered in perspiration.  The Countess, desperate, is at her feet.  Six sailors carry the stretcher to the hotel.  Covered with her coat, Elisabeth, still unconscious, rolls her head from side to side.  A desperate combat, an ultimate fight…

The hotel Concierge holds Sissi’s hand “so that it doesn’t hang down miserably”.  A gentleman protects her head with the sunshade.

“Panic was at its height.  Sadness and consternation could be read on all faces.”

Laid on her bed, Elisabeth is still moaning.  It is ten-past-two.  A doctor, Dr Golay, tries to sound the wound.  The lady-in-waiting asks:

“Is there hope?”

The doctor sadly replies:

“None, Madame.”

“Try anyway!  Try to bring her back to life!”

Mme Mayer and an English nurse help to undress Elisabeth and take off her shoes.  A priest arrives.  He gives her absolution.  All the women are on their knees in prayer.  A second doctor, Dr Mayor, incises the artery of the left arm, but there is not a drop of blood.  It is twenty-to-three.  The Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary has just died without regaining consciousness.  She was sixty-one-years-old.  Her cheeks are slightly coloured and her lips have a last smile on them, that smile which had moved millions of men and women.  Mme Mayer writes:

“Countess Sztaray closed her eyes and joined her hands.  I stayed with Countess Sztaray until the arrival of the suite which came around six o’clock.  The Empress was embalmed and put in a coffin.  In the evening, the Countess had me called as well as my husband, and gave me a rose that she took from the coffin and which I keep preciously, as well as a little piece of mauve ribbon stained with blood.  Today, the blood has disappeared.  The drama took place fifty years ago, but the memory of it has remained as if it had happened yesterday.”

***

Elisabeth and Franz-Josef at Cap Martin in 1894.

At Schonbrunn, Emperor Franz-Josef rises at four o’clock in the morning, as usual:  the Emperor, a disciplined soldier of sixty-eight, leaps from his bed, bids good morning to his chambervalet and enquires about the weather while the man in charge of his bath brings his vulcanised bathtub.  Washed, rinced, dried, Franz-Josef dresses in his daily uniform – blue tunic, black trousers – and his doctor makes his routine visit.  From breakfast to luncheon, served at his desk, the Emperor prepares the manoeuvres which he is to preside in Slovakia.  At the beginning of the afternoon, he writes to Sissi:

“My sweet, loved soul”.

He tells her that the day before he had enjoyed a delicious glass of good milk from her dairy and that he is leaving, this evening, for the manoeuvres.  His last words are:

“I entrust you to God, my Dear Angel and I embrace you with all my heart.

Your little one.”

***

At half-past-four in the afternoon, Count Paar, the Emperor’s aide-de-camp, arrives at the Hofburg.  He is very pale and asks to be received urgently.  He is holding a message from Geneva.  The text is brief:

“Her Majesty the Empress seriously wounded.  Please announce to the Emperor with care.”

Franz-Josef, absorbed in his dossiers, raises his head, surprised that Count Paar, usually impassible, appears so emotional.

“What’s the matter, my dear Paar?”

“Your Majesty…  I have just received some very bad news, alas!…”

Franz-Josef rises in one bound and cries out:

“From Geneva?”

He snatches the telegramme and backs away, stumbling.

“Well!  More news should arrive…  Telephone, telegraph, we must absolutely know more.”

In the corridor, steps are approaching.  The aide-de-camp on duty presents himself, at attention, holding a second message.  Franz-Josef rushes over and tears it open.  He reads:

“Her Majesty the Empress has just died.”

Frozen in horror, the Emperor remains motionless, then collapses into his armchair.  His head in his hands, he cries.  In a neutral voice, between two sobs, he says:

“Nothing has been spared me on this Earth…”

To be continued.

Last photo of the Empress (left) at Territet, the day before her assassination.

After luncheon at the home of Baroness Julie de Rothschild and a long visit – more than three hours – through the aviaries of strange birds, the aquariums of exotic fish and the flowers of rare perfumes, Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) returns to the Beau-Rivage Hotel, Quai Mont-Blanc, in Geneva.  She had refused to return to Territet with the Baroness de Rothschild’s yacht.  She decides to return only the following day, by an ordinary boat, a steamer of the Compagnie generale de navigation, in exactly the same way that she had come.

Of the two women, it is the lady-in-waiting, Countess Irma Sztaray, who is the most tired.  They sit down for a moment in front of Prince of Brunswick Garden.  The Empress is holding a peach in her hand.  Just when she is about to bite into it, a crow knocks the fruit from her hand with its wing.  Sissi rises, very grave, and says:

“A crow is not a good sign.  It always indicates misfortune in our House.”

Having arrived at the Beau-Rivage Hotel, the Empress goes up to her apartments.  In contradiction with what has often been said, her incognito is not absolute.  In fact, in the hotel’s Guest Register, the receptionist had written:

Her Majesty Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

Countess Sztaray, Lady-in-Waiting to H. M. the Empress.

Dr Eugene Kromar, Private Secretary to Her Majesty.

General Bercivczi, Chamberlain to Her Majesty.

Countess Harrach, Lady of the Court.

Countess Festetics, Lady of the Court.

Prince of Auersperg, Grand Chamberlain at the Court.

H. E. Count Bellegarde

Mlle de Meissel, chambermaid to H. M.

Mlle de Hennike, chambermaid to H. M.

Count of Kuefstein, Minister of Austria-Hungary in Berne.

Mr Mader, Master of the Imperial Train.

An amusing detail:  the high-ranking people staying at the Beau-Rivage Hotel and their suite are given very careful writing, in thick, upright characters.  The “ordinary” guests are mentioned, on the same page, in a less elegant, italic writing.  The first “ordinary” guest, expected on 11 September, is the actress Madame Sarah Bernhardt.

After having rested for an hour, Sissi leaves again, at half-past-six, with her lady-in-waiting, to visit a few pastry shops.  Quai du Rhone, she buys a table for her daughter Maria-Valeria.  At a quarter-to-ten, they have returned.  The night is superb and Sissi, who likes to sleep with the window open, is disturbed by the noise from the street and the melodies of an Italian singer.  Further, the intermittent ray from a lighthouse inundates the room with light.  She refuses to close the curtains, and goes to sleep only at two o’clock in the morning.  The Empress usually rises at seven o’clock, but her night had been so short that she is not heard until nine o’clock.  Madame Fanny Louise Mayer, the Hotel Manager, has left a detailed narration of Saturday 10 September 1898:

“For her breakfast, the Empress had asked for a selection of little breads, of all flavours and all forms, which were served to her on a big silver tray.”

At nine o’clock, Sissi says to her lady-in-waiting:

“At eleven o’clock, I want to go into town to listen to a new orchestrina and, at twenty-to-two, as planned, we shall take the boat to Caux.”

At eleven o’clock precisely – Sissi is as punctual as her husband – the two women leave the hotel and go towards the Baecker Music Shop, Rue Bonnivard.  The Empress has always loved music boxes and Barbary organs.  A machine with a handle plays popular airs on a roll:  Carmen, Rigoletto, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, Lohengrin and Tannhauser, one of the Empress’ favourite works.  Elisabeth buys the machine and eighty rolls.

“This will give pleasure to the Emperor and the children.”

She signs the Golden Book only in Hungarian:  Erzsebet Kiralyne (Elisabeth [Hungarian] Queen).

At one o’clock the Empress returns to the hotel.  In front of the mirror, she removes her hat and her white gloves, rings for a lackey and asks him for some cold milk.  Countess Sztaray eats a rapid luncheon and looks at the time on her little watch suspended at her neck by a gold chain.  It is twenty-five minutes past one.  She rises and knocks at the door to Elisabeth’s salon, for it is time to leave.  In front of the balcony, Sissi is savouring her milk in a silver goblet which belongs to her.  The lady-in-waiting addresses her in Hungarian:

“Your Majesty, it is nearly half-past one, the steamer leaves in a few minutes, we shall have to hurry.”

The Empress replies in Hungarian:

“I have never seen Mont Blanc so clearly.”

Elisabeth, usually in such a hurry, is unable to tear herself from the vision of the majestuous Alps.  By precaution, the lady-in-waiting sends the lackey to the boat, to ask that it’s departure be retarded if necessary.  Sissi says:

“Poor Irma, the responsibility that you have today seems to weigh heavily upon you…”

“Your Majesty!  Please, imagine that we miss the steamer!  We would be completely alone in Geneva!  It is unthinkable!”

In fact, several members of the Empress’ suite have already left Geneva, with the luggage, by the midday train to Territet.

Laughingly, Elisabeth gives the goblet to the lady-in-waiting, who washes it rapidly and puts it away in a bag.  In front of the mirror, the Empress puts her black hat and her white gloves back on, and collects her sunshade and fan.  She leaves the apartment fairly slowly.

On Quai Mont-Blanc, the two women start to hurry.  The boat’s bell is already ringing as they pass in front of the monument to the Duke of Brunswick.  Elisabeth admires the chestnut trees.  The quay is almost deserted.  The Empress says:

“You see, we are in time, the people are boarding slowly and are not in a hurry.”

A young man is rapidly coming towards them.  The two women step aside to let him pass, for he looks as if he is in a hurry.  Suddenly, as he passes the Empress, the stranger appears to trip, raises his right fist and hits Elisabeth, who is under her sunshade.  The Empress sinks to the ground, without a word.  Her head strikes the quay.  The lady-in-waiting screams, as the stranger runs away.  A coachman helps the Countess raise Sissi.  The Empress, red with emotion, arranges her hair which has come undone, and which had cushioned her head when it struck the quay.  The coachman calls the Concierge of the Beau-Rivage Hotel.  The lady-in-waiting, while brushing the Empress’ gown, asks her, convinced that the man had wanted to punch her:

“Is Your Majesty hurting anywhere?”

“No…  No.  Thank you.  It is nothing.”

The Concierge insists that she return to the hotel.

“”No, no, nothing has happened.”

They arrive at the boat, whose bell is still ringing.  Elisabeth asks in Hungarian:

“I wonder what that man wanted from me…  Perhaps to steal my watch?”

Her red face becomes worryingly pale.  The Countess holds Sissi, fearing that she will faint.

“Am I very pale?”

“Yes, Your Majesty, very pale.  Is Your Majesty in pain?”

“My chest is hurting very much.”

The Concierge comes running back.  He cries out:

“The aggressor has been arrested!”

To be continued.

Last photo of the Empress (left) at Territet, the day before her assassination.

The imperial odyssey continues:  Seville, Majorca, the Italian Riviera.  In her absence, Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) asks Ida Ferenczy to take care of the Emperor.  The lady companion organizes little luncheons where steaming sausages and hot, Hungarian bread delight the Emperor, doubly sad because his actress friend Frau Schratt is also absent.  Franz-Josef finally joins his invisible spouse in Switzerland, at Territet.  In passing, he stops at their daughter Maria-Valeria’s home, where she has just given birth to a son.

“I can’t help thinking about Rudolf,”

says the sixty-three-year-old grandfather.

Fleeting instants of happiness dare to slip inside the couple’s bitterness;  the Emperor and Empress are happy to be together, in Geneva, in perfect harmony.  A lady-in-waiting notes:

“With her charm, the Empress puts her spouse completely in her pocket!”

But an ill is eating away at Elisabeth.  Still the same one:  she is destined to roam, wandering throughout the world.

The Empress leaves again.  Milan, Genoa, Naples, then returns to Austria in May for the engagement of her granddaughter Augusta, Gisela’s daughter.

After a stay in Ofen, she leaves again, terrified by the latest news about Othon, the late Louis II of Bavaria’s demented brother:  now he thinks that he is a dog…  New stop in Algiers, then Sissi arrives in Madera.  She hasn’t been here for thirty-three years.  What memories, what emotions, what dramas…  Another Christmas where Franz-Josef is deprived of Elisabeth’s presence.  Luckily Katharina Schratt, the friend, is there.  The Emperor writes very moving letters to his wife:

“The word happiness is hardly suited to us, we need only a bit of calm, good understanding and a life less heavy with unhappiness.”

At the end of February, she disembarks at Menton and goes to the Cap-Martin Hotel where Franz-Josef will soon join her.  A compact crowd presses around the hotel’s gardens where “Security agents disguised as peasants or farmers, surge at the right moment to shoo you on your way”, writes the local Press.  Frau Schratt, whose presence had initially been planned, is not there.  The spouses consider that incognito is impossible and that the criticism would be malevolent.  The Emperor writes to the lady friend, asking her not to join them.

“This place is unfortunately not at all tranquil and very visited.”

On 15 March, he embraces the Empress twice, begs her not to nourish herself with only oranges and violet ice-cream – a dessert in fashion – and boards his special train.  Sissi will remain another month.  Good news draws her from the Cote d’Azur:  Maria-Valeria has a second son.

***

1895.  The Empress returns to Cap-Martin.  Her alimentation is making Franz-Josef furious:

“You treat hunger by fasting instead of satisfying it, like reasonable people do, and this worries me.  But these are useless words, and it is better not to begin this chapter.”

The Empress absorbs only milk, and even then it is only milk from certain cows which she buys then sends to Austria, where Ida Ferenczy receives the unexpected mission to create a model dairy.

***

Protected by her fan or her sunshade, the solitary Empress goes from Corfu to Venice, where she occupies the same apartments as when Venitia was Austrian.  Noticing that her weight exceeds fifty kilos by three hundred grammes, she considers herself to be obese and recommends to Frau Schratt, who is a bit rounder, to watch herself.

Her diet seems to be organized, systematic autodestruction.  As soon as she eats almost normally, her body comes to life, and she worries about spoiling her silhouette.  Then, she makes sure that the scales go down to fifty kilos.

The "Bazar de la Charite" fire inspired ballads by street-singers.

Paris, Tuesday 4 May 1897.  At 17 rue Jean-Goujon, in a long wooden construction, feverish animation reigns around the counters held by women who bear the greatest names.  The place is called the Bazar de la Charite.  At ten-past-four in the afternoon, a flame erupts from a cinematographic apparatus which functions with ether…  Drama.  The doors of the projection room, which open from the inside, are blocked.  With admirable abnegation, Sissi’s sister, Sophia, Duchess of Alencon, cries out to the young girls around her:

“Everyone pass before me!  I shall leave last…”

She will be one of the one hundred-and-fifty victims.  She sacrificed herself.  She was a great lady.

The news arrives the following day at Biarritz, where Elisabeth is.  Her youngest sister burnt alive, her hands joined, praying…  The Empress, broken, murmurs:

“The malediction is growing…”

She says to her daughter Maria-Valeria:

“This will all end one day…  Eternal rest will be so much better.”

***

Bad Ischl, 16 July 1898.  For the last two months, the Empress, who is tired, is resting in the Imperial Villa.

Sissi is anaemic.  Eating only eight oranges a day is insufficient, despite the vitamins.  She is also suffering from nevritis, insomnia and a slight cardiac dilation.  She is going to leave this same day on a cure.  She gives a last rapid look at the screen decorated with photos of Maria-Valeria.

The Emperor, upset to see the one he has loved for exactly forty-five years in this state, embraces her.  The carriage is already descending the driveway which leads to the iron bridge over the river.

They will never see each other again.

Sissi boards her train which leaves for Munich.

After travelling through Germany, the Empress arrives in Switzerland on 30 August, in Caux, above Montreux.  Franz-Josef writes to her the day after her departure:

“I miss you infinitely…”

The Emperor’s sadness is aggravated by the fact that Katherina Schratt is also ill…  and just as impatient as Sissi.

“She’s a second Empress”,

complains the Emperor, saddened by this imitation.

Sissi, enchanted by the beauty of the Caux site, chooses excursions which are a bit tiring for her heart.  On 9 September, the weather is splendid.  The Empress, reinvigorated, boards the steamer which will take her from Territet, South of Montreux, to Geneva.  Elisabeth, in an excellent mood, having spent the four-hour trip on deck, has finally accepted Baroness de Rothschild’s invitation to luncheon.  It takes place in Pregny, a magnificent villa on the outskirts of Geneva.

Baroness Julie de Rothschild receives the Empress sumptuously.  Orchids flower the table which has been laid for three, for Elisabeth is accompanied by a lady-in-waiting, Countess Irma Sztaray.  Sissi honours the menu.  She savours some “petites timbales a l’imperiale”, a “truite du lac du Bourget”, a “mousse de volaille Perigueux”, a “chaud-froid de perdreaux en Bellevue”, a “creme glacee a la hongroise” and a “marquise au chocolat”.  It’s an event.  In celebration, she drinks a flute of Champagne frappe.  She asks her lady-in-waiting to send the menu to the Emperor, and to insist on the fact that the Empress had greatly enjoyed it.

To be continued.

Last photo of the Empress (left) at Territet, the day before her assassination.

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.

Elisabeth and Franz-Josef at Cap Martin in 1894.

The third observation which can be made about Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria’s death at Mayerling in the night of Tuesday 29 to Wednesday 30 January 1889, is that the dossier given by Emperor Franz-Josef to Count Taafe, the Prime Minister – and his childhood friend – has also disappeared in a suspicious fire at his castle.  The copy of this dossier, deposited with a lawyer of the imperial family, was stolen.

Fourthly, Herr Frederic Wolf, a carpenter in the village of Alland, near Mayerling, has recounted that his father, also a carpenter, was called to clean up the hunting pavillion two days after the drama.  Herr Wolf had always said that the bedroom had been the scene of a terrible combat.  The furniture had been knocked over and broken, there were bullet impacts on the furniture and in the walls.  There were traces of blood everywhere and, in particular, an enormous puddle of it near the bed.  To make it go away, his father had had to plane the floor-boards.  He added that the bedroom window was broken and that a ladder was leaning against the outside wall.

Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria.

Fifthly, Archduchess Maria-Theresa, the widow of Archduke Karl-Louis, who was one of Emperor Franz-Josef’s brothers, had certified that Rudolf had said to her husband:

“I am going to be assassinated.”

Rudolf was alluding to a European conspiracy which was aiming to depose Franz-Josef from Hungary’s throne and place his liberal son in his place.  According to Empress Zita, Austria’s last empress and last Queen of Hungary, in her 1983 newspaper interview, Rudolf had refused to participate in the plot against his father.  He had said to his uncle Karl-Louis:

“I would have no scrupules in revealing this conspiracy but if I do, I will be killed.”

Sixthly, Archduchess Maria-Theresa saw Rudolf dead and touched his hands.  She declared to Empress Zita:

“The gloves had been stuffed with cotton, for his hands were broken.”

This remark can be connected to the statement by Prince Xavier de Bourbon-Parme (Empress Zita’s brother) published in the December 1982 number of the magazine Historia:

“I have it from a reliable source, believe me, because it is from the mouth of an official person who had entered the bedroom of the drama when the body of Maria Vetsera had just been removed, that Archduke Rudolf’s right wrist had been severed by a blow from a sabre.”

Seventhly, Doctor Karl Georg von Boroviczeny, a Berlin doctor and grandson of the Princess of Lowenstein, whose sister had married Don Miguel of Braganza.  Don Miguel was a great friend of Rudolf.  Invited to the hunt which was to take place on the morning of the drama, he had declined the invitation at the last moment.  But he recounted later to his family that Rudolf had said to him:

“I am going to be assassinated.  I know too many things.”

Eighthly, when the Carmelites at the convent built near Mayerling are asked if they pray for the Archduke who committed suicide, they reply only that he is dead.  The 1983 Mother Superior declared that each new Carmelite is taught that the Archduke did not commit suicide but that he had been killed.

Ninthly, Rudolf’s faithful coachman, present on the night of the drama, repeated, without giving details:

“It’s not like they always say, it’s not a suicide.”

Tenthly, Empress Elisabeth’s daughter Gisela told Empress Zita that she had touched her brother’s head and that it was crushed, as if it had received a blow.  The official version claims that Rudolf had killed Maria Vetsera by applying the weapon to her left temple, the bullet having exited through the right temple.  However, on 7 July 1959, undertakers from Baden in the Viennese forest, near Mayerling, proceeded to the exhumation of the defunct girl, in the presence of a forensic doctor.  It was noted that

“the cranium presented an oval hole of seven centimetres”.

There was no hole through which a bullet could have exited.

Eleventhly, the physical elimination of the Prince, for political reasons, is perfectly conceivable.  Different hates were unleashed against the Habsburg family.  We have seen, for example, that of Bismarck, ceaselessly trying to weaken Austria.  There were many others.  Empress Zita affirms that some of the assassins were foreigners.  In the hypothesis of an assassination, Maria Vetsera would have been killed only because she was with Rudolf.  This is far removed from the “Romeo and Juliet” version.

Twelfthly, according to a letter conserved in the Royal Archives of Windsor Castle, the British Prime Minister is convinced that it is a double assassination.  This letter was written on 12 February 1889 by the Prince of Wales to Queen Victoria:

“You tell me that Lord Salisbury is certain that poor Rudolf and that unfortunate young girl were killed…”

This letter can be connected to another contemporary one addressed by the King of the Belgians, Leopold II (Rudolf’s father-in-law) to his brother in Brussels.  Telling him of the uncomfortable voyage to Vienna to attend the funeral, the Belgian monarch adds:

“It is sovereignly important that the suicide version be affirmed and maintained.  (…)  Suicide and madness were the only means of avoiding an unforgettable scandal the details of which I cannot confide in my letter, but which I shall narrate in all details Saturday.

Your brother, Leopold.”

This capital letter was found in the personal papers of Monsieur Paul Hymans, Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, one of the signatories of the Treaty of Versailles, after his death in 1942.

In light of these troubling elements, it is now impossible to blindly uphold the suicide thesis.  The possibility of assassination can no longer be systematically denied.  Doubt has always existed and is singularly reinforced by technical observations which give pause for thought.  Franz-Josef sometimes admitted:

“The truth is even more serious than anything than anyone one has ever said.”

More than a century after this drama, we are perhaps very close to the truth…

***

Elisabeth and Franz-Josef at Cap Martin in 1894.

What happened at Mayerling in the night of Tuesday 29 to Wednesday 30 January 1889?  What happened exactly?  The most fantastic historical enigma of the XIXth Century, the most poignant drama of old Europe, still suscitates the most diverse interpretations.  Mayerling is the drama of a man, a family, a world.  What tragedy unfolded in a pretty pavillion in the heart of a peaceful valley?  A ravishing, romantic place.  A nightmare in the Viennese forest.

What was the official version?  Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria, intelligent but depressive, brilliant but unstable, was very unhappy in his private life.  Married for State reasons to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, he felt only lassitude at his spouse’s side.  The birth of their daughter Erszi had, for a while, permitted the hope of a reasonable, if not idyllic, understanding within the couple.  Unfortunately, Stephanie’s delivery had been difficult, and the doctors had warned her that she could not have any more children.  Rudolf, deeply saddened by the impossibility of giving a son to the dynasty, is supposed to have detached himself definitively from his spouse, judged to be ungracious, nasty and jealous.

Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria.

In his public life, Rudolf nourished ambitions greater than those offered by the functions which he exercised.  His clandestine contacts with progressist and liberal milieux were many…  His writings, published under pseudonyms, criticised the line followed by Vienna.

In 1888, he had fallen in love with one of the daughters of the enterprising Baroness Helena Vetsera, the very young Maria – she is seventeen.  Rudolf is so taken with her that he addresses a marriage annulment request to Pope Leon XIII.  The request is refused and provokes, it is said, a violent scene between Franz-Josef and his son.  The Emperor is said to have ordered the Archduke to cease this scandalous liaison.  At the German Embassy reception on 27 January, Maria Vetsera is said to have ostensibly refused to curtsy to Stephanie.

Doubly disappointed, Rudolf is supposed to have decided to kill himself and asked Maria Vetsera to follow him in death.  Mayerling was the lovers’ last rendez-vous.

The official enquiry will attempt to establish the circumstances of the double death, carefully omitting to mention Maria Vetsera’s body.  Officially, the young girl was not at Mayerling…  Maria is buried very rapidly, during a clandestine ceremony which is particularly macabre:  her body, held upright by a stick, had been transported, seated, by carriage, to the forest cemetery of Heiligenkreuz, a few kilometres from Mayerling.

A series of confused and contradictory communiques will cast doubt – and discredit – on the Archduke.  There will be talk of Rudolf being poisoned by Maria Vetsera, who then killed herself.  After that, it was said that the Prince suffered from an embolism and that his mistress killed herself in despair.  Then, the version of a hunting accident is retained, founded on Rudolf’s passion for firearms.  But the “definitive” version is that of murder-suicide.  Maria Vetsera is killed by Rudolf, who then kills himself.  However, this official explanation comes too late, after too many others, to be accepted without question.

An evident reason for these hesitations is the shame felt by Franz-Josef, whose son is presented as a murderer and a suicide.  The only way to obtain the authorisation for a religious funeral from the Vatican is to prove a state of dementia.

According to this version, Rudolf, involved in sentimental failure, would have had no other issue but death.  By retaining this version, two essential variations can be added.  Firstly, Maria Vetsera, Rudolf’s mistress since 13 January [that is to say, for sixteen days], is pregnant and the rupture ordered by Franz-Josef comes too late.  Secondly, they are half-sister and half-brother, Franz-Josef having had a kindness for Helena Vetsera.  These two variations are not incompatible.

***

On Friday 11 March 1983, another version becomes public.  Austria’s last Empress and Hungary’s last Queen, Zita, was exiled from Austria from 1919 to 1982.  After the death of her husband, Emperor Karl, in 1922, she had lived some difficult times and raised her eight children.  While she was exiled in Switzerland, no historian nor journalist had ever officially asked her her opinion on the Mayerling tragedy.  The question was asked for the first time by the Special Correspondent of the Kronen Zeitung who published his enquiry in this Vienna newspaper in March 1983.

Born in 1892, three years after the tragedy, the former Empress was the only witness left of this imperial epoch who had very well known the contemporaries of the drama, in particular Franz-Josef and his two daughters Gisela and Maria-Valeria.  It is therefore natural to think that Empress Zita was better placed than historians to know what is hidden behind this State secret which is, after all, a family secret.

The Empress decided to speak so as to accomplish the mission entrusted to her by her husband Emperor Karl, who succeeded Franz-Josef, his great-uncle, in 1916, and who had received the task of rehabilitating Rudolf’s memory by producing the proof that he had been assassinated for political reasons.  War and death had prevented this.

Various remarks can be made about this new version.

Firstly, it is true that Franz-Josef made all those who knew about the drama swear to keep silent about it.  If Rudolf had really committed suicide after having killed Maria Vetsera, why continue to keep it secret once this official version had been given by the Court?  If Franz-Josef and Sissi had been very rapidly informed that their son had been assassinated and had accredited the suicide version for the public, it is because the political stakes were too high and high-ranking people in the Empire would have been compromised.  According to Empress Zita, Franz-Josef had said:

“I couldn’t do otherwise.  The monarchy’s existence was in danger.”

In this case, Mayerling would have been the first act in an enterprise of “destabilisation”, the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 being the second act.  The aim was achieved:  The Austro-Hungarian Empire, shaken by Mayerling, was dismantled at Sarajevo.

Secondly, after the first telegramme sent by the Emperor to the Pope to obtain the right to inhume Rudolf religiously, the Vatican had refused.  At this time, suicide excluded all indulgence by the Holy See.  Franz-Josef sent a second, coded telegramme to Rome, around two thousand words long, and the Pope immediately accorded the authorisation for a religious funeral.  The first telegramme has been found but the second has mysteriously disappeared.  It is in neither the Vatican’s archives nor those of Austria.  Why?  Countess Helena Esterhazy reported that her grandfather, who was Ambassador of Austria-Hungary to the Holy See and had received and decoded the famous second telegramme, told her later that its contents explained that it had been a political assassination.

To be continued.

Elisabeth and Franz-Josef at Cap Martin in 1894.

Wednesday 30 January 1889.  The great Hofburg clock marks ten o’clock in the morning.  The Empress has just finished her gymnastics.  In her bedchamber-salon, she is now taking her Greek lesson by listening to a professor who is reading Homer.  Eleven o’clock.  Ida Ferenczy, her Hungarian lady companion, who is one of the rare people whom Elisabeth authorizes to enter her apartments without being announced, knocks at the door.  She is distressed.  In an expressionless voice, she says:

“Your Majesty, Baron Nopcsa wants to speak to you immediately.”

“Have him wait or tell him to come back later.”

Sissi’s lady companion insists:  the First Chamberlain should be received straight away.  To justify her insistence, she adds:

“He brings bad news about His Highness the Crown Prince.”

The professor leaves.  Baron Nopcsa, who loves Elisabeth as if she were his daughter, speaks gently, with intense emotion:

“Your Majesty…  The Crown Prince, Rudolf, is dead…”

Sissi bursts into tears and collapses onto her bed.  A rapid, supple step is heard.  It is the Emperor…  Elisabeth cries out to Ida Ferenczy:

“Don’t let him in!  Not yet!”

The Empress tries to dry her tears.

“Can you tell?  Well, too bad, let him come in and may God come to my aid!”

The atrocious tete-a-tete is brief.  No witness is able to tell us the words Sissi used to announce the appalling truth to the Emperor.  After a few instants, the salon door opens.  Franz-Josef, shattered, broken, passes before the Chamberlain.

Sissi descends to Ida Ferenczy’s rooms, for she knows that the actress Katharina Schratt is waiting there for her visit to the Emperor.  The Empress makes a superhuman effort.  Frau Schratt, so gentle, so calm, will know how to help the Emperor surmount the shock.  Now, Maria-Valeria must be told.  Elisabeth returns to her chamber.  Her daughter will find her there in tears.

“Rudolf is very, very ill…  There is no hope for him!”

Maria-Valeria passes her arm around her mother’s neck.

“Did he kill himself?”

“Why do you say that?  No, no…  He has doubtless been poisoned…”

Franz-Josef appears.  The two women throw themselves into his arms, crying.  Between two sobs, Elisabeth repeats:

“When he starts destroying, the great Jehovah is like a tempest.”

These are roughly the same words that she had used upon learning of Louis II of Bavaria’s death.  And, as for Louis II, the Empress refuses to believe in her son’s suicide.

Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria.

On 31 January, in the middle of the night, a van escorted by cavaliers with drawn sabres brings Rudolf’s body back to the Hofburg.  By order of Franz-Josef, he is installed in his bed as if he had died there.  At seven o’clock, the Emperor, in full ceremonial uniform, white gloves and sabre, enters the bedchamber with its closed shutters.  Rudolf’s head is wrapped in a bandage.  The Archduke’s aide-de-camp pulls a white, flannel blanket up to Rudolf’s chin, a detail which will set off the rumour that Rudolf had had his hands cut off…  His chest is surrounded by flowers.  A quarter-of-an-hour passes.  The Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary is face to face with his only son, his direct heir.  Apart from his suffering, apart from the family drama and all possible remorse, the future of the double monarchy is at stake.  In twenty-four hours, the unhappy father has aged ten years.

At midday, the Empress enters the bedchamber and dissolves into tears at the foot of the bed.  For two days, she has been living on her nerves and remaining strong, for all her thoughts are for Franz-Josef.  In times of tragedy, Elisabeth is always a courageous woman.  But she is also in revolt against Heaven which has allowed this tragedy.

Franz-Josef, saved by work, silent before his dossiers during these tragic hours, continues his job of uniting the peoples of the Danube.  Behind his extraordinary discipline, Sissi is helping him.  To the Parliamentarians who have come to present their condolences, he says:

“I am unable to finds words strong enough to say how grateful I am to my dear, adored wife, the Empress, for her support during these sad days.  I should be grateful to you if you would make that known around you.”

Tuesday 5 February.  The funeral takes place one week after the drama.  Franz-Josef asks Sissi not to attend, for he fears her nervous reaction.

Four days later, on Saturday 9 February, the Empress retires very early to her apartments.  As usual, Elisabeth prepares herself for the night.  Her chambermaids and her lady companion have just left.  Silently, Elisabeth re-dresses and hides her face under a black, silk veil.  At nine o’clock, she leaves the Hofburg by a little door, hails a fiacre and has herself driven to the crypt of the Convent of the Capucines.  Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria, is the one-hundred-and-twelfth Habsburg to lie there.

She rings, a young monk opens the door.  What does this woman want in the middle of the night?  She asks to see the Prior.

“I am the Empress.  Take me to my son…”

Torches are lit.  Elisabeth descends the staircase and says:

“I wish to be alone with my son.”

The Empress passes by the rows of sarcophagi.  In front of that of her son, covered in flowers, she freezes.  And suddenly, in the sepulcral night where eleven emperors and fifteen empresses repose, a cry echoes, twice, surprising the monks:

“Rudolf!  Rudolf!”

Then silence.  The crowned skulls on the tombs are in bronze.

The next day, Sissi having confessed her nocturnal visit to Franz-Josef and their daughters, the Emperor decides to maintain their planned voyage to Hungary.  It is necessary to snatch her from this even sadder Court atmosphere, from this town in black, struck by mourning, where the craziest rumours are circulating.  In her diary, Maria-Valeria notes:

“Mummy remains prostrated.”

To her terribly worried daughter, Sissi repeats:

“If only Jehovah would call me to him…”

The suffering Empress is calling Death to her.  She is hoping for it.  She is going to meet it.

***

To be continued.

Elisabeth and Franz-Josef at Cap Martin in 1894.

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..

***

Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 144 other followers

%d bloggers like this: