Emperor Franz-Josef’s knife-wound gives rise to thirty health bulletins in ten days, a spectacular fainting fit by Archduchess Sophia, and a no less spectacular increase in imperial popularity. The first assassination attempt against a Habsburg… And Franz-Josef had been saved by his uniform. A symbol…
Calmer. having been elevated even higher in her role of mother to an emperor whom God had protected from a knife, Sophia invites her sister Ludovika and her niece Helena to Bad Ischl for the middle of Summer. Princess Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria, is in Heaven, occupied in the preparation of a new wardrobe for her very obedient daughter, and her husband Max manages to avoid undertaking this trip which bores him. Finally, prepared by a thousand pieces of advice, lessons and insinuating remarks, Helena mounts into the ducal travelling coach with her mother, who has not forgotten her salts, her powders, her bottles of mineral water, not to mention two fans and her prayer book emerging from a pile of clothes and feminine underwear. At the last minute, she has decided that Sissi will travel with them. For clothes, Sissi has only a hastily-made voile dress. It doesn’t matter, Sissi is still only an untamed little girl to whom the family mondanities will do a world of good…
On 16 August, the coach stops before Hotel Austria, a modest house on the esplanade, near the thermal establishment. Ludovika has reserved rooms there. They are one-and-a-half hours late. This is unfortunate, for the Duchess and her daughters are supposed to meet the Emperor this same evening. Ludovika, nervous, complains loudly about her luggage not arriving, her migraine headache and that of Helena, and has her travelling clothes brushed.
The solemn hour arrives. It is also time for tea. Quickly, the mother and her daughters descend to the hotel’s salon. The Emperor will be arriving soon, he is always of exact punctuality. He has even arrived early; for Franz-Josef has a great need to relax. Since Schwarzenberg’s death, the young Emperor is assailed with problems which he has to solve personally. Going to Bad Ischl is to enjoy a sort of entr’acte in this pretty, peaceful city, with its theatre, its casino, its cafes. And then there is this cousin of whom his mother has spoken.
Four o’clock in the evening. Helena is officially presented to her cousin. Her curtsy is faultless. Slightly behind her, Sissi does what she can with hers. Franz-Josef observes Helena while the two mothers embrace. Nene is a very pretty young lady, slim, tall and excessively shy. The Emperor smiles. He is interested, nothing more. His gaze alights on Sissi. What a contrast! Sissi is at that blurry frontier between childhood and womanhood. She has beautiful hair done in bands off her forehead. Her hazel-brown eyes are like velvet. The imperial cousin stares. His brother notes that his “face is radiant”. Sissi, embarrassed, reddens, as she feels her first uneasiness under a man’s insistent gaze.
The Viennese pastries and the tea rite allowing no delay, the two families pass to the table. As arranged, Sissi is placed at the end, the place of children with their governess. But Franz-Josef no longer takes his eyes off her, even though he exchanges flat, courteous words with Helena. In this late afternoon, in the to-ing and fro-ing of teapots, plates and silverware, Archduchess Sophia doesn’t yet know that she has lost her first battle; her son’s conjugal destiny is escaping her control. What the two mothers – two sisters – had plotted, what the Chancelleries were envisaging with benevolence, is collapsing before the most unforseeable of all reactions, love at first sight.
Franz-Josef’s second brother, Karl-Louis, aged twenty, has seen these looks and understood everything. The next day, he announces to his mother that Franzi prefers Sissi to Nene. Sissi? That child? Impossible! The Archduchess has hardly dismissed this eventuality than Franz-Josef appears, in excellent humour, and declares to her:
“Sissi is delicious!”
The Archduchess, floored, gives him the reasons for her disapproval: a child, a girl who loves Nature, the forest, too much, who does whatever she likes, who has no manners, who has little instruction… And then she is not yet sixteen… While Helena is educated, serious, prepared for her task. Her son does not want to hear anything about Nene. Sophia insists, and uses all her authority. But the Emperor acts like an emperor: he decides on his own. Worse, he decides against his mother’s advice. Love has transformed the boy who turns twenty-three in twenty-four hours. The first consequence of Sissi’s entrance into his life is an act of disobedience to his mother.
So, when the discussion turns nasty, his mother employs ruse. Suddenly, she says that there is no urgency, that they need time to reflect.
“No-one is asking you to become engaged immediately,”
she adds, forgetting that only yesterday she had wanted to marry off the master of Austria as fast as possible.
But the master is now impatient: he has already left to look for Sissi, whom he is sure to see anyway at the family luncheon given by Ludovika that same day.
The luncheon begins very badly for the Emperor, for Sissi isn’t there. She has been relegated, with her governess, to a little room next to the dining-room. She is plunging with rage into her hors-d’oeuvre. Next-door, at the main table, Helena, who has tried to appear more to her advantage than the day before, tries to follow a banal conversation with Franz-Josef. But his mind is elsewhere. Just before dessert, composed of chaussons aux pommes, the sound of raised voices arrives at the main table. Sissi has answered back her governess, furious at being kept away and, doubtless, miffed at being treated like a little sister who is just accompanying the fiancee. The Emperor asks his aunt for permission to invite Sissi to the main table. Delivered and triumphant, the Princess enters, red with anger and confusion, to be greeted with one of those silences of which the families at the table have the instantaneous secret. She arrives with an impatient step and comes to make her curtsy, without any gentleness. Her very white skin, her auburn hair, and her eyes “full of dreams”, raise her to the rank of an apparition. At fifteen, Princess Elisabeth in Bavaria is seductive. Already. All her life, she will seduce.
To be continued.