The imperial couple is going to undertake its first official voyage, to Bohemia and Moravia. Far from Archduchess Sophia of Austria… and from Countess Esterhazy, First Lady-in-Waiting, who has the good taste to feel herself to be too old, and has herself replaced by the Third Lady-in-Waiting. Emperor Franz-Josef has stood up to his mother, who would have preferred that her son accomplish the voyage alone. The Emperor is right, as much about love as about politics; the lands of the Empire should know their Empress.
The departure for Prague is on 3 June 1854. The admirable forests, the fairy-tale castles and the amiable welcome of a population which had, however, approved the revolt against the Habsburgs, transform Sissi. Gay, devoted, treated like an empress and considered as such, Elisabeth is unrecognizable. She multiplies the experiences of her new condition, accumulating caritative visits, going from convents to orphanages, from hospitals to young ladies’ boarding schools. The whole of Bohemia is seduced by Sissi’s grace. In a few days, she conquers all hearts and begins the popularity curve of her whole lifetime. The voyage reaches its peak in Prague. The town, of great beauty, triumphantly welcomes the couple, whose carriage is escorted by peasants in colourful costumes. Unfortunately, this entr’acte lasts only two weeks. Sissi, suddenly tired and uncomfortable, has to return to Vienna. Franz-Josef continues alone.
Having returned in a weakened state, Sissi again falls under the control of the “queen mother”. Seeing her pale face, the dark shadows under her eyes and her anguish, the Archduchess asks the Court doctor, Dr Seeburger, to examine the Empress. The examination is reassuring, Elisabeth is pregnant and her indispositions are the classical ones of early pregnancy. The Archduchess is enchanted, Heaven has not delayed in blessing her son’s marriage. The Court is organized so as to remove all initiative from the expectant mother, and the care that surrounds her transforms her joy at the news into a nightmare. So, while awaiting Franz-Josef’s return, Sissi spends hours among the animals of her menagerie. Her dogs in particular are a cumbersome passion, for she chooses them as big as possible, and has them always near her, or in her arms. Scandalised, the Archduchess writes to Franz-Josef, on 29 June:
“I do not think that Sissi should spend so much time with her parrots, for if a pregnant woman looks at animals too much in the first months, the children risk looking like them.”
The Archduchess’ knowledge of genetics is limited.
In July, the Court returns to Bad Ischl, there where everything had started barely a year ago. The Archduchess buys the villa where the imperial family has spent all its summers since 1844, for Sissi and Franz-Josef. Very quickly, the house becomes the Kaiservilla, “imperial villa”. Of Palladian style, with columns in the region’s pink marble, and a fresque in honour of hunting, the imperial villa, which has only one storey, is yellow with green shutters, few balconies and a wrought iron balustrade, and is nestled in the heart of a park which climbs through the hills. The whole gives an impression of simplicity. Inside, one is in a bourgeois hunting lodge. Franz-Josef likes this house; he will spend sixty Summers of his life there, and Sissi will savour a few days there, where her mother-in-law’s influence is weak. Liberated from protocol and from public scrutiny, the relations between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law are almost harmonious.
This first stay transfigures Sissi, even more so because her mother, her sister Helena and her brother Karl-Theodore arrive with their tenderness and their memories. Sissi is radiant. The relaxation is such that Louis-Victor, Franz-Josef’s brother, writes to his mother, who has left Bad Ischl:
“Since you have gone, the Empress does whatever she wants.”
Everyone breathes more easily, even if Franz-Josef laughingly complains about the disorder every morning at breakfast.
But Heaven does not allow prolonged joy in Sissi’s life. Messages arrive from Vienna recalling the Emperor to his task. Sissi accompanies him to his carriage, again in tears. She had so hoped that these holidays would continue, at least until the end of August. But European events counter her dream.
One protocol, called of the Four Guarantees, had been signed at the end of July. It annuls the Russian “protectorate” over Moldavia and Valachia and reduces to nothing the Tsar’s ambitions for the Danube provinces. Not without reticence, Austria accepts this agreement initiated by France and England. Napoleon III wants to have his revenge on dominant Russia which benefits from the Europe cut into pieces at the Vienna Congress, while England cannot leave a sea without her ships assuring London’s supremacy. Drunk with anger, Nicolas I talks of “unparalleled perfidia” and indignantly complains to the King of Prussia, Frederic-Wilhelm IV, who is also his brother-in-law, in a letter of 25 August:
“Since the unworthy comportment of the Emperor of Austria against Russia which saved him, he has lost all right to the credibility of his assurances.”
The Anglo-French troops debark in Crimea on 14 September. A modern war begins, the first war of position, with the Sebastopol siege, which will last eleven months, in a very rigorous climate and epidemics of fevers and cholera. The Zouaves and miners at the Front find celebrity there, and the English Light Brigade its finest hour. At a high cost: one hundred and eighteen thousand dead on this near-island that the survivors call “the abattoir”.
Back in Vienna, Sissi is worried, for her mother-in-law is having a child’s room set up beside her own apartments, instead of leaving the heir – or the heiress – near his or her parents. Franz-Josef, who had held up against the fearsome Tsar, gives in to his mother, and worriedly plunges back into the news from the Crimean War. Opposing his former Russian ally, he has placed his faith in Paris’ alliance with London, but the war is stagnating.
To be continued.