The exhausted Empress cannot accompany Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria to Varsovia, where he must meet the Tsar. Upon his return, he finds her even worse, shaken by spasms of coughing, still following her severe diet and physical exercise. At the end of October 1860, her state alarms the whole Court. After an Homeric struggle, Doctor Seeburger is replaced by a more intelligent doctor, Doctor Skoda, a lung specialist. Upon examining her, he notes that the strong bouts of fever are due to an inflamation of the lungs. At the Court, the fatal word “tuberculosis” is whispered. Laryngitis? Of course not. It’s much more serious! Doctor Skoda’s diagnosis and, above all, the remedy that he proposes, will be laden with consequences. The doctor suggests that the Empress stay in a sunny country without delay. A voyage! The word has a miraculous effect… She announces that she is going to leave as soon as possible. Where can one be sure of finding sunshine in November? Franz-Josef talks about the Adriatic, an Austrian sea thanks to Venice. But Sissi declares that she wants to go to a foreign land, and chooses, we don’t know why, the island of Madera.
To be able to understand the rapidity of this decision, we must also examine the intimate relations between Elisabeth and Franz-Josef at this period. Among her gymnastics, her diet and her mental state, Sissi does not have much room for physical love; she is more romantic than sensual. Certainly, the couple is in love, but their exigencies are no longer in harmony. Sissi has “migraines”, and fears another pregnancy that she feels she would be unable to bear. Three children in four years is a lot, and the last birth has exhausted her. On his side, Franz-Josef is possibly tired of being the perpetual arbiter between his wife and his mother, and tired of the fantasies of an Empress who refuses to grow up. Such a reaction is doubtless understandable. In the course of the Summer, an insidious rumour traverses the Palace walls. The Emperor, distressed and lonely, and whose fidelity has been exemplary up until now, may have found comfort with a beautiful Polish aristocrat. Elisabeth can only feel wounded by this indiscretion. And, added to her health, it is an excellent reason to want to leave Vienna.
The astounded population learns that the Empress is seriously ill, and that she is going to leave Vienna. The idea of her departure has transformed Sissi. Gay, joyful, she busies herself with the choice of her wardrobe and the organization of her route. The departure is fixed on 17 November. Elisabeth and Franz-Josef board the imperial train which rolls towards the North of Bavaria and stops at Bamberg. The moment for goodbyes has come. Franz-Josef knows that Sissi will stay away for a long time. He has given her her presents for her birthday and Christmas, and Archduchess Sophia, making a great show of sadness, has done the same. The Emperor has made arrangements for Sissi to lack nothing. At twenty-three, the Empress is traversing a crisis. Her departure leaves a distressed Emperor on the quay. He is worried, but does not yet sense how much his life is about to become a solitary road.
No Austrian boat being able to welcome the Empress aboard, it is Queen Victoria who puts one of her magnificent yachts at her disposition, and it is waiting for her at Anvers. She is welcomed there by the King of the Belgians, Leoplold I. A gesture of courtesy and family relations; the Belgian sovereign is the father of Sissi’s sister-in-law, Charlotte.
The crossing is appalling and the passengers are wobbly. Revitalized, the Empress takes pleasure in the tempest. For six years, she has been suffocating. She is finding her breath again. Sissi’s liberty is one thousand kilometres to the South-West of Lisbon, and five hundred kilometres from Africa. Liberty is faraway from Vienna.
The British royal yacht Osborne drops anchor in the bay of Funchal, the capital of Madera. The warm climate has fashioned the island into a subtropical garden. The white, several-storeyed houses have layers of bougainvillea and hortensia flowing down their walls, mixed with the perfumes from orange trees. As soon as she arrives, Sissi feels calmer.
A curious crowd gathered on the breakwater worries her, but, at the same time, comforts her. Unknown faces can only be friendly. A letter is handed to her in the name of King Pedro V, who welcomes her onto Portugese territory.
Sissi settles into the old Palace of Quinta Vigia, from whence the gaze embraces the port and the town in the form of an amphitheatre. She is seduced by the banana trees, the tile rooves, the windows wide open to the sky. She arranges to lead the least official existence possible. Sissi is interested in all the flowers that surge among the bubbling water sources in the basalt, lives surrounded by birds, collects butterflies, adopts a giant toad, launches herself into amusing duos with the parrots. She usually goes on solitary outings, sometimes on horseback, more often in a little carriage drawn by white ponies; she has rented eight. When clouds cover this paradise’s brightness, Sissi plays cards, perfects her Hungarian, listens, fascinated, to the stunning Traviata of Mr Verdi, badly handled by the little Barbary organ sent to her by Franz-Josef. If only her husband and children were at her side… To Gisela, she writes:
“I shall bring you back some pretty birds in an aviary and a tiny little guitar.”
But melancholy lies permanently in wait for her, and the first Christmas, three thousand kilometres away from her family, is difficult for her.
So, at the beginning of 1861, if the Empress’ physical health appears to be stabilised, her psychological health is worsening. A mixture of remorse and anxiety torments her. She becomes anguished thinking of her sister Maria, Queen of Naples, still under siege at Gaete. The city will fall on 13 February, and Sissi will learn, with relief, that the Queen and her husband have taken refuge in Rome, where they have asked the Pope’s protection.
A new companion arrives for her from England, a big, white dog, a stiff-haired terrier of the Irish Airedale race. Sissi calls him Shadow, a well-chosen name, for he will follow her everywhere, and will pose beside her on many photographs. The photos of the time also show the Empress and her ladies-in-waiting dressed in sailor suits with matching hats. The document will circulate in Vienna, provoking comments which are not always kind. It is beginning to be said that the ill from which the Empress is suffering might be essentially connected to her character. And, while the monarchy is living its most difficult hours with Hungary, Austria is deprived of its Empress, and the Emperor is deprived of his spouse.
To be continued.