On 2 March 1855, Tsar Nicolas I dies. Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria orders a four-week mourning period in the Hofburg Palace and sends a personal letter of condolence to Saint Petersburg. He has himself represented at the funeral, for in Vienna, Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) is in labour. On 5 March, at seven o’clock in the morning, the Emperor informs his mother. The Archduchess settles herself next to the bed and mechanically embroiders, while watching her son hold his spouse’s hand and embrace her.
After three hours, the baby is born: it is a girl. Disappointment is immense, but Sissi, radiant, almost immediately says:
“All that I have suffered is now unimportant.”
Franz-Josef tenderly gives her a bracelet and a pendant which will contain locks of hair from the Emperor and the baby.
And the infernal machine again grinds into action. Without consulting the Empress, the Archduchess decides that the heiress will be named Sophia like herself, and Franz-Josef can do nothing less than ask his mother to be godmother. At the baptism, the absence of the new Tsar Alexander II’s Ambassador is noted, the only diplomat having received instructions not to appear at this celebration, which is both a family and a political occasion.
Scarcely a month-and-a-half after giving birth, Sissi surprises the whole Court, and scandalises the Archduchess, by mounting on horseback. Apart from her real equestrian pleasure, Sissi is defying her mother-in-law. It must be said that Sophia has added another, fatal degree to her authoritarianism. The heiress Princess is “her” child. She has chosen her nurses and governesses, selected the doctors, and jealously watches over the nursery installed in her apartments. Sissi, mortified, can only see her daughter in the presence of her mother-in-law, not always even then; maternity also has its timetable. If Sissi gives instructions for the suckling or the care of her baby, the Archduchess annuls or contradicts them. The worst is the daily parade of the Archduchess’ friends, who admire the child, taking great care to congratulate the grandmother. Elisabeth is ignored, effaced, relegated to the lowest rank of genitrix, not even having succeeded in giving the throne an heir. This veritable kidnapping deeply humiliates Sissi. Her mother-in-law removes from her her joy at being a mother, one of those motivations which should help her to live.
The Archduchess therefore commits a serious mistake. Worse, a fault, for she cuts one of the ties which would have allowed Sissi to put up with Court life, and like Vienna. From then on, the Empress will be a woman in revolt. By passing through the heavy palace doors, she is liberating herself. With gallops in the Vienna forest and outings to the Prater in an open carriage, Sissi takes revenge. She is more and more beautiful. Her face has remained that of a young girl, but her figure has been marked, becoming that of a woman. In the Vienna Spring, her appearances suscitate admiration. People elbow each other to see her pass by. The whole of Vienna talks about it, the Empress is even more ravishing than on her wedding day. Involuntarily, by pushing her daughter-in-law to show herself a lot, the Archduchess increases imperial popularity. Very favourable notes arrive on Franz-Josef’s desk, while the conflict continues to stagnate in the Black Sea. Sissi’s sudden prestige is soon considered as the prelude to political influence. People seek to present requests to her. The imperial Cabinet invariably answers:
“Her Majesty the Empress has no influence.”
Another trip is supposed to take Franz-Josef into Galicia. As it is a vast military inspection, he suggests to Sissi to spend some time with her family, in Bavaria. Needless to say, the Empress seizes this occasion, despite the sadness of separation. On 21 June, she leaves Vienna for Possenhofen, her heart beating at the idea of seeing her universe again.
She had left her childhood paradise as a romantic princess. She returns as Empress, with a cortege of ladies-in-waiting, valets, coachmen, stableboys, and a high-ranking escort. But protocol, which has no place in her baggage, is joyfully trampled. She goes out in all weathers, including when a storm breaks in cataracts over Starnberg Lake. Elisabeth becomes Sissi again, and too bad if her suite, dripping and muddy, grumbles about these fresh air urges. And then she talks a lot to her mother, complaining about her aunt-mother-in-law. Ludovika, upset and a little terrorised by Sophia, advises patience. The ladies-in-waiting are alarmed to see dogs everywhere, even invading the dining-room. They pale when the Duke invites the high-ranking people in Sissi’s suite for a game of billiards… with his gamekeeper. The only concession to etiquette is that Sissi, to please Franz-Josef, writes three times a week to the Archduchess.
The couple’s meeting in Bad Ischl is marvellous and tender. Soon, Sissi is again pregnant.
Back in Vienna, they learn that Sebastopol has at last fallen, on 11 September, three days after General MacMahon took the Malakoff Tower. At midday, with his sabre raised, the General had ignored the mines – forty thousand kilos of powder – and declared:
“J’y suis, j’y reste [I’m here and I’m staying here]”,
thereby entering into History. The Russians evacuate the great port and sink their fleet. The Crimean War had made, in total, nearly two hundred and forty thousand victims, one third by cholera. The repatriation of the exhausted troops provokes an epidemic right into Vienna, where a few cases are signalled. Franz-Josef fears for Sissi and their daughter, for the Court remembers the 1831 epidemic which had made ravages. The epidemic fears fade. However, on 14 December, the Empress goes to Schonbrunn, accompanied by one of her ladies-in-waiting, Countess Bellegarde. Her carriage is harnessed with four horses that she knows well. Once on the Mariahilferstrasse, a long artery which leads to Schonbrunn, a horse takes the bit between its teeth, the three others get tangled in the reins and, in a few instants, they have all bolted. The coachman is ejected. Seeing the danger, a carter pushes his cart across a street and stops the horses. The carriage rocks, the shaft breaks, but the two women are unhurt. Even paler than usual, Sissi and the lady-in-waiting, trembling, return to the Hofburg in a fiacre. She recounts the accident to a frightened Franz-Josef. Called in haste, Doctor Seeburger notes that the Empress, three months pregnant, has only suffered fear. Sissi had escaped death.
On 16 January 1856, during a ball, Franz-Josef officially announces that the Tsar at last accepts to negotiate a peace treaty. He is happy about this result which, according to him, has reinforced Austria’s role beside the Anglo-French triumph. On 25 February, the Peace Congress opens in Paris, a choice which reinforces Napoleon III’s prestige even more. The Conference unfolds in the Clock Room, at the Quai d’Orsay. The treaty, signed on 30 March, constrains Russia to cede a southern part of its territories, from Bessarabia to Moldavia, a clause judged to be very harsh at Saint Petersburg. It also allows for free circulation on the Danube, and the neutrality of the Black Sea. The Middle-Eastern dream of the Tsars remains a chimera. Franz-Josef considers that peace, through his non-armed intervention, is partly imputable to him. In reality, he receives hate from Russia.
To be continued.