In the absence of Elisabeth (Sissi), Archduchess Sophia of Austria has again found all her influence, and evokes at length the situation in Budapest. It is evident that the October Diploma is not much appreciated and the federalist experiment is failing. A new text is elaborated. It marks a very clear return to constitutionalised centralism. Under his mother’s influence, Franz-Josef maintains Hungary in a semi-dependent regime with regard to Vienna.
At the end of March 1861, Sissi envisages leaving Madera. Her true malady, the one from which she will never be cured, manifests its first symptoms: the Empress cannot stay in one place.
“I find that I want to always go farther and keep moving. Each boat which leaves makes me want to be aboard it. Whatever its route, Brazil, Africa… Anywhere, just to not remain in the same place for too long.”
Elisabeth has realised that one always returns from a voyage, sooner or later, and that reality is then even more difficult to deal with. The fear of returning has a name: the Archduchess. The time for taking stock has arrived. Sissi no longer wants to suffer, she wants to run away. It is too late to patch up the ties between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, too late for the Empress to bloom freely. She has fought for six years, she is giving up. Her life will be a perpetual flight.
On 28 April, Sissi leaves Madera, leaving also a lot of regrets and some of her illusions. The Empress now knows that her duty calls her, more for worse than for better. But Sissi has discovered the charm of sunny islands; she will go from island to island like a lost seagull.
A delicate attention, Queen Victoria has sent her personal yacht to Funchal. It is the most sumptuous of floating palaces, the Victoria and Albert II, Sissi is astonished to discover this boat, whose decoration had been supervised by Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. The walls of the gangways are papered, the bedroom is furnished with a mahogany bed surmounted by a baldaquin in printed calico. Because of her size, Sissi is not obliged to use the two steps which facilitate access to the bed for Victoria. Green blinds open onto a royal dining-room for eight people. A salon offers sofas, an upright piano, table, desk, wall-maps. The yacht has a crew of two hundred-and-forty. They are barely to be heard: vocal orders are very much reduced, and they wear rubber-soled shoes…
Sissi is not in a hurry. Her first stop is Cadix, on 30 April 1861. She manages to visit the city without being recognized. Still aboard the Victoria and Albert II, she reaches Gibraltar, then Majorca and Malta. Finally, on 15 May, the yacht drops anchor on the west coast of Corfu.
Corfu… a magical name. Sissi is enthusiastic, marvels at, and is seduced by, the warmth of the climate, the rows of cypress and the forests of olive trees. She forgets the charms of Madera. The Empress would like to remain here, but Franz-Josef is waiting for her at Trieste.
On 18 May, Victoria’s yacht stops beside the Emperor of Austria’s paddle-yacht with its two chimneys, called Fantasy. It has been exactly six months since they left each other. They are happy to see each other again. Elisabeth is sublime, Franz-Josef impatient. The couple goes to see Franz-Josef’s brother Maximilien, who resides with his spouse Charlotte near Trieste in an incredible castle which has just been finished. It is Miramar, a Moorish, Gothic pastiche, with towers, tourelles and loggias, on a peninsula overlooking the Adriatic. Sissi appreciates her brother-in-law’s cordiality, but doesn’t like her sister-in-law’s personality very much. She judges her to be ambitious and pretentious. Even worse: Archduchess Sophia likes Charlotte, which is difficult for Sissi to bear. Seeing Charlotte again, is a foretaste of the Hofburg cabals.
An upsetting incident opposes these two sisters-in-law at Miramar. Shadow, Elisabeth’s big dog, attacks Charlotte’s little dog and mortally wounds it. The Airedale has no great merit in killing the lap-dog. The ladies exchange looks and words of consternation, the dog being a gift from Queen Victoria. Drily, Sissi declares, as her only excuse:
“I don’t like little dogs.”
Neither does Shadow…
Vienna. The Empress’ return is a celebration. Sissi rushes to see her children. Gisela has learnt to read and Rudolf is superb with his big eyes. But the celebration is spoilt: the return to the Hofburg means that Sissi must become an empress according to the Archduchess’ code. And the circle of ladies-in-waiting closes about her, like a vice. Only four days after her return, Elisabeth dissolves into tears and starts coughing again. Once more, she is ill. Franz-Josef is very upset. Her Munich doctor, called urgently because she has faith only in him, judges her state to be serious and wants to treat her. Sissi refuses. She knows that oppression is her deep ill, and has only one idea, to leave as soon as possible.
The cancelled receptions feed crazy rumours. No-one is able to understand how the Empress, arriving healthy, rested and radiant can, within a few days, be suffering from a strange ill. The Viennese doctor diagnoses tuberculosis, and the Bavarian Ambassador sends a report to his sovereign, saying that the Empress has only a few weeks to live. No-one evokes a psychological illness in the Emperor’s presence; who would dare to recommend that she be moved away from Archduchess Sophia?
Sissi clings to her memory of Corfu, and decides to return there. On 21 June, accompanied by Franz-Josef, she boards the train which is to take her South. In the Vienna station, the crowd is silent. One witness reports that he could hear
“the sobbing of several women. At the train’s departure, we had the impression of seeing a funeral procession passing by.”
Sissi has entrusted her children to their governesses “as the only thing left to the Emperor”.
On 27 June, she is in Corfu. The choice of the Greek island has not been approved by everyone. Of course, the climate is agreeable there, but cases of malaria have been signalled. Other comments add that, within the Empire, there must surely be healthy places. Why choose, once again, a foreign land?
To be continued.