On 9 April 1857, Easter Thursday, beneath the cupola of Saint Peter’s Church, the Emperor and the Empress of Austria repeat Christ’s action with the twelve Apostles, Franz-Josef washes the feet of twelve elderly men, Elisabeth (Sissi) does the same for twelve elderly women. Such humility is unable to efface her mother-in-law Archduchess Sophia’s rancour. The Italian trip had been a disavowal of her iron politics. Something strange happens, which will increase the uneasiness even more. One evening, upon returning to her apartments, Sissi finds, placed open on a writing-desk, a little book with yellowed pages; certain passages are underlined. The text, printed in French, is heavy with meaning:
“… A queen’s reason for living is to give heirs to the Crown, and the sovereign who replied to his spouse: ‘Madame, we have chosen you so that you give us sons and not advice’ has been a useful example to all of the others. (…) The princess who does not give birth to sons is only a foreigner in the State and, further, an excessively dangerous foreigner.”
A stab in the back… In fact, it was a pamphlet which had circulated at Versailles and in Paris in 1774 and was aimed at Marie-Antoinette. Sissi has trouble containing her rage. Who has dared to place these pages in her apartments? Her mother-in-law? Count Grunne, the Emperor’s aide-de-camp? A Minister vexed at Sissi’s influence? The mystery will never be solved.
In April, Baron Bach, Minister for the Interior, suggests that Franz-Josef go to Hungary, where the mentality is even more hostile toward the Habsburgs than in Italy. A risky but indispensable trip. The Minister adds that the key to this voyage would be the Empress’ calming presence.
Elisabeth is delighted at the idea of discovering the Magyar land. Her mother-in-law is a lot less so. Firstly because she execrates everything Hungarian. Then, the Archduchess and the Empress affront each other again over the children, for Sissi wants to take them to Hungary. Doctor Seeburger arbitrates in favour of the Empress, even though Sophia, the elder child, is still of fragile health. It is decided that the doctor will travel with them. On 3 May, the imperial couple takes place on the steamship which descends the Danube.
Franz-Josef and Elisabeth arrive on 4 May at Ofen, on the outskirts of the Hungarian capital. The town is separated into two by the Danube. On the right bank, the old Buda citadelle points its spire above the little streets, while on the left bank, Pest, the new town, spreads its quarters which are airier because of the plain. One of Franz-Josef’s cousins, Archduke Albrecht, Governor of Hungary, has done all that he can to make the welcome decent, if not warm. Franz-Josef is wearing an Hungarian General’s uniform and parades on horseback. Behind him, the Empress follows in a carriage. The population appreciates that the national costume suits her, with its velvet bodice and its lace sleeves. The local Press writes, on 5 May:
“The Queen, who unites two majesties, one terrestrial, of the throne, and one celestial, of beauty, enters for the first time onto the soil of our dear country.”
While the two little girls remain at the royal palace in Ofen, which crowns the Buda hill, and from whence the view embraces an incessant traffic of rafts, rowing boats and floating windmills, the trip continues in the provinces through an immense puszta where horses are in liberty, beautiful, proud, the image of their country. Sissi is torn between the joy of pleasing, the pride of succeeding there where stiff-necked public servants are failing, and her worries over the health of Gisela, weakened by vomitting and dysentery.
On 13 May, a message calls the Empress back to Ofen, for Gisela is in an alarming state. Dr Seeburger tries to be reassuring and invokes a violent attack of teething. After ten days, the child’s state improves. The voyage begins again towards the South. The Empress is charmed by the vivacity of the csardas, the treasures of Mediaeval Art where engraved jewellery sparkles. And, when she is given a headdress embroidered with gold, beribboned in blue and white silk, her heart beats wildly: the Bavarian colours. The homage to her native country deeply touches her.
Alas, on 28 May, another message arrives. She must return to Ofen as fast as possible. Sophia is very ill…
In fact, the little girl is exhausted, her eyes almost lifeless, frighteningly pale. Sissi is panicked and Dr Seeburger is incapable of curing the illness. For eleven hours non-stop, the Empress fights against death with her daughter. At half-past-nine in the evening, the little Princess breathes her last weak breath. She dies at the age of two years and eighty-eight days.
In the telegramme that he addresses to the Archduchess, the Emperor writes:
“Our little girl is an angel in Heaven. We are shattered.”
A mother’s pain is added to the Empress’ anger. Dr Seeburger is called incapable. How could this have happened? It seems that Gisela had transmitted measles to her elder sister, who was less resistant than she. According to a sinister law, the drama increases the imperial couple’s popularity. The Hungarians display their sadness and observe the mourning period with respect.
Back at Laxenburg the next day, Sissi, unrecognizable, locks herself up. She flees her entourage, refuses to see poor Gisela, hardly tolerates the presence of her bewildered husband. How can she not think about her mother-in-law’s indignation when she had decided to take her children on such a difficult and such an important trip? Isn’t the Archduchess’ silence the worst reprobation? Sissi pays her independence dearly, locking herself up in violent mourning. She who normally eats little, eats hardly at all. She is unrecognizable. She has disobeyed, she wanted to escape, she has been punished. She no longer has the right to exist, she has become once again a prisoner in an invisible gaol.
Like all the Habsburgs, the defunct Princess is inhumed in the crypt of the Church of the Capucines, near the Hofburg, which shelters the imperial tomb since 1633.
Behind the Laxenburg Palace windows, the Empress is no more than a woman pursued, haunted by the drama. She is not yet twenty-years-old. Full of remorse, she withdraws inside herself. One word keeps coming into her head: guilty. Even if her fault is called maternal love, she suffers from her culpability. Her entourage makes no allusion to it, but the silence is insupportable.
To be continued.