Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) only leaves her state of prostration on 8 July 1857, to welcome the Prussian sovereigns. King Frederic-Wilhelm is in an excellent mood, although a little too agitated because of his hypertension, and Queen Maria, sister to the princesses Sophia, Archduchess of Austria, and Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria, is happy to see her niece. At the end of the month, the marriage of the Emperor’s brother, Ferdinand-Maximilien, to Charlotte of Saxe-Coburg makes the family rejoice. The Archduchess welcomes her new daughter-in-law with “very maternal” grace. Sissi and Franz-Josef do everything to make their new sister-in-law feel at home. Charlotte, daughter of the King of the Belgians, is judged to be charming and delicious.
In October, the King of Prussia suffers an attack which takes away his speech and obliges him to entrust the administration of the kingdom to his brother, Prince Wilhelm. Franz-Josef is worried: until now, definitive rupture with Prussia has been avoided. What will happen now?
The Empress’ worries appear to be continual for, since her daughter’s death, a divergence with Doctor Seeburger has been added to the conflict with her mother-in-law. Sissi had asked for his removal, Sophia had obtained that he remain. The Empress is suffering from an exostosis, a little benign tumour, on her hand. Seeburger proposes an infallible treatment, place on it two twenty-crown silver coins, bind the hand very tightly and hope that the exostosis is reduced by the pressure of the coins. This therapy reveals itself to be worse that the ill, Sissi suffers even more. After two days of patience, she throws away the strange dressing. Seerburger is decidedly still just as useless…
November. News runs through the Hofburg and in Vienna: the Empress is again pregnant. Secretly, Elisabeth prays that the child she is carrying be a son. Her pregnancy continues normally, under her mother-in-law’s attentive surveillance.
When Summer arrives, Sissi settles at Laxenburg. At Dawn on 21 August 1858, three days after Franz-Josef’s twenty-eighth birthday, she enters into labour, a lot more violent than for her preceding deliveries. All day, the Empress suffers. The Archduchess, arriving from Vienna, has the Holy Sacrament exhibited in the Palace’s chapel, before sitting in silence in her daughter-in-law’s bedchamber. The whole of Lazenburg is in prayer, and Vienna, where the heat is appalling, holds its breath.
At a quarter-past-ten in the evening, Sissi is delivered. Her screams had terrified the Archduchess, and Countess Esterhazy, kneeling near her bed, imploring divine grace. Sissi is exhausted and very pale. She asks the question with anguish, in a weak voice:
“Is it a boy?…”
Franz-Josef is crying.
“So, it’s another girl,”
Sissi sighs, crushed.
But the Emperor’s tears are tears of joy and emotion. He mumbles and begins by saying:
“We don’t know yet!”
In his confusion, Franz-Josef has forgotten that it is a boy. The Imperial Crown has an heir. God be praised! At the height of happiness, the Emperor detaches the Collar of the Golden Fleece from his chest and places it on the little boy. The future is there, hope now has a first name, Rudolf, the fourth Habsburg to bear the name since the XIIIth Century. In his veins flows the blood of two of the oldest royal families of Europe.
In Vienna, a hundred-and-one cannon salute shakes the sleeping city. Enthusiasm flows through the streets. Archduchess Sophia declares that never has a child been welcomed with so much joy. Franz-Josef, who refuses to admit that the child is weak, finds him strong and magnificently proportioned. And he names him Colonel of the 19th Infantry Regiment. Therefore, Rudolf is immediately consecrated to a military life.
Sissi is tired. But what secret joy, what revenge! The pamphlet destined for Marie-Antoinette no longer haunts her, and her personal position at Court is reinforced.
For the baptism, Franz-Josef gives her a four-strand pearl necklace. The Archduchess and her spouse give Sissi the necklace and earrings in turquoise that Sophia had received at the birth of Franz-Josef, twenty-eight years earlier. Unfortunately, the Archduchess considers that she must closely watch over the baby, the heir to the Empire. The Empress’ inconsequences, her strange ideas which already hardly suit the education of the Princesses, are to be absolutely excluded from that of the future emperor. So, Elisabeth finds herself submitted to increased tension. The first conflict about Rudolf concerns his feeding. Sissi has the “extravagant” idea of wanting to breast-feed her son herself. But the fever does not leave her. A nurse replaces the Empress, to the Archduchess’ great satisfaction. Sissi’s disequilibrium becomes worse. Helpless, weakened, her only recourse is Franz-Josef. Alas, the Emperor is taken up with politics. Once more, a storm is brewing over Europe.
In filigrane to the Paris Treaty, Russia, humiliated, is concocting revenge. The man who holds the key to the new imbroglio is Napoleon III. Behind his veiled gaze and his apparent distraction, the Emperor of the French nourishes a dream: to organize a new Italy. Napoleon I’s great-nephew is having trouble accepting that Vienna reigns over Milan and Venice, and keeps garnisons in the duchies of Tuscany, Modena and Parma. This attachment of the Lombardo-Venitian States to the Habsburgs is a living reminder of the Congress of Vienna and the collapse of Imperial France.
Napoleon III has reflected on what he can do. Unity of the northern and southern Italian States is still premature. On the other hand, the creation of a Federation after the expulsion of Austria is envisageable. Saint Petersburg completely agrees with Paris. The enemies of Sebastopol become conspirators on the same side. Berlin follows with delectation the community of views between Paris and Russia. As for London, the Crimean adventure has cooled her European pretensions. Diplomatically speaking, England has become an island again.
For the Tsar in Saint Petersburg and Bismarck in Berlin, war against Austria is desirable. For Napoleon III, it is a necessity. Without transforming the Mediterranean into “a French lake”, the annexing of Nice and the Savoie would be a stroke of genius.
On 21 July 1858, exactly one month before the birth of Rudolf, France promises to send two hundred thousand men to Italy if Austria commits an act of aggression.
Cavour, satisfied, remarks:
“We have backed Austria into an impasse from which I defy it to be able to extricate itself without firing its cannons.”
The fire can be ignited, all that is missing is the spark.
To be continued.