Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria insists that his aunt, Princess Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria, bring her daughter Elisabeth, known as Sissi to the family, to the ball that he is giving that same evening, thereby advancing another degree into sentimental rebellion against his mother, Archduchess Sophia. At the dinner which precedes the cotillon, Sissi’s elder sister, Helena, is still seated next to Franz-Josef, but it is simply a last concession to a programme which has been disturbed by romantic inclinations. Sissi is of course at the main table, between her mother and the Prince of Hesse, and is embarrassed by her cousin’s gaze. Her plate remains almost empty. The Prince of Hesse leans towards Archduchess Sophia:
“Sissi has only eaten soup and Russian salad! She must have decided that today is a day of fasting…”
But how can one eat more when one is both embarrassed to be the object of attention and proud to be the one who is noticed the most? Those present are seeing a double revolution: Franz-Josef freeing himself from his mother, and Sissi saying farewell to her childhood.
Until 17 August, the Emperor had always been a model of conformity, stiffened in the rigidity of protocol and convention. This evening, the last barriers are going to explode into pieces. Ludovika enters with her two daughters. Helena wears her long gown of white satin made in Munich, marvellously well. Sissi, in a simple dress of peach-coloured voile, since she was initially not going to be present at the ball, gets herself even more noticed by clutching the Emperor’s hand. An amusing familiarity. At a signal, the orchestra bursts into a polka. Franz-Josef does not dance, but he has given his permission for dancing. Forty-five couples exhaust themselves in an irresistible gallop. The Emperor slips a word into his aide-de-camp’s ear:
“Invite Princess Elisabeth to dance the second polka.”
Sissi is in Heaven. Forgotten are the anguish of her rare dancing lessons, the fear of slipping, of making a mistake in her steps. In the aide-de-camp’s arms, she has wings. All around, comments swell. It is learnt that the Emperor has chosen to dance the cotillon, which marks the end of the ball, with Sissi. The aide-de-camp concludes:
“It seems to me that I have danced with the future Empress.”
A little before midnight, the Emperor therefore invites his cousin to dance. This evening, his last dancing partner is also his first; he only has eyes for her and whispers the steps in which she is getting lost. Even those in the know are at a loss at what to think when, at the end, he gives her, not only the cotillon bouquet, but all the other bouquets as well. This hole in tradition, which exclusively honours one young lady, and eliminates the others, can have only one meaning, a betrothal. The family is embarrassed. Such a gesture, so suddenly, in Helena’s presence… Franz-Josef is transformed, he is joyful. He is happy. He is in love. Sissi has not had time to understand. All these flowers for her alone? Above all, she feels embarrassed. It is late, it is very hot, she is tired. In the night, the lingering clouds burst into deluges. A violent summer storm drowns Bad Ischl. Claps of thunder continue to be heard. Franz-Josef doesn’t sleep.
On the morning of 18 August, the rain hasn’t stopped. The weather is just as gloomy as the humour of the two families. A generalized migraine keeps mothers and daughters in their rooms. Only Franz-Josef displays conquering gaiety. A great day has begun: he is twenty-three years old and has decided to marry…
Beaming, he enters his mother’s bedchamber. The Archduchess is making great efforts to hide her disappointment at seeing her son obstinately making this bad choice. In perfect control, she is beginning formalities with her husband Franz-Karl, which causes no problem: the poor man counts so little… Then she informs her sister Ludovika, who is of course not surprised. She loses nothing in this change to the programme. She has come to marry off her daughter. Instead of the elder, the younger will be Empress.
At luncheon, the disposition of the places is revealing. Sissi is beside her cousin. Helena has taken her sister’s place. With perfect manners, she displays exemplary dignity. Under a grey sky, the Archduchess, who needs air, decides on an outing with her son and his two cousins. Through the wooded hills, they roll as far as Saint Wolfgang, a charming village, twelve kilometres away, which is a place of pilgrimage. The outing changes nothing, Sissi and her cousin look at each other without speaking, Helena makes conversation practically on her own, the Archduchess still has her headache.
Upon their return, the Emperor has another, definitive interview with his mother. She accepts, for she has no choice, but it is only a ruse. Sissi will be Franz-Josef’s wife, but the Archduchess will be the one who transforms her into an Empress. And there is a lot to be done…
In the evening, Sissi is the last to be consulted. Before her mother and her aunt, her surprise bursts into tears of joy:
“But of course, I love the Emperor! If only he wasn’t the Emperor… I’m so young, so insignificant. I will do everything to make the Emperor happy. But will I be able to?”
Sissi spends the night crying. Everything is going so fast… Two days ago, she was only an untamed princess who talked to horses and dogs. In two days, she has been examined, scrutinized, preferred and promised in marriage. She hasn’t had time to reflect. She cannot know that her aunt, who is becoming her mother-in-law, has only one idea, an idea of revenge to retake control of the situation. Sissi is to be imposed on her? Very well. But she is going to mould her and break her, for she is not a woman to give in to failure. At fifteen-and-a-half, Sissi is going to affront an implacable rival, for the marriage of the Archduchess’ favourite son is a political question. And Sissi does not seem strong enough to defend herself.
To be continued.