Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) would like to be alone, but it is impossible for her to travel without a suite. Thirty-three people accompany her, including Doctor Skoda from Munich. She has barely arrived in Corfu than her face takes on colour, she sleeps better and coughs less. The truth is out: Vienna is nocive to the Empress of Austria. Her illness is really strange. She can be seen bathing in wild creeks and walking under the moonlight.
Franz-Josef receives contradicting reports and decides to send Count Grunne with the mission, delicate, of finding out exactly how his spouse is.
Sending Grunne is a diplomatic error, for Sissi judges him to be under the Archduchess’ influence. Right from his arrival, she treats him like a spy from the Hofburg. Grunne becomes vexed, Sissi loses her temper, is sorry, but it’s too late: the mediator has failed. Franz-Josef, bewildered, begs Helena (Nene) to go to Corfu, for she remains Elisabeth’s favourite sister and could have a good influence on her. Nene arrives on 23 August and goes back to being the big sister. The two women have a long talk, and Helena is probably the first person to be able to establish the true nature of the ills suffered by the Empress. She understands that Sissi is tortured by an aversion to her mother-in-law and anything that reminds her in any way of her despotism. With tact, Helena exposes the exact reasons for the problem to Franz-Josef.
The Emperor listens. We are at the end of September 1861. In ten months, he has only lived with his wife for six little weeks. Helena convinces him: he will go to Corfu to have it confirmed.
When he arrives on the island, on the morning of 13 October, he finds the Empress in good health and decides to talk to her to help her take reasonable decisions. The most important one is to return to the Empire. These prolonged stays in foreign lands are still having a disastrous effect.
Elisabeth agrees, but poses two conditions, the first being the rapid removal of the First Lady-in-Waiting, Countess Esterhazy, who takes part in all the domestic tyrannies; the second being not to return directly to Vienna. She asks to be allowed to stay in Venice first. He accepts the transaction. Venice is a good choice, including politically. The couple finds itself again, united in the joy of being with their children. Franz-Josef will have them come to Venice without his mother, he promises. They are reassured. Elisabeth feared that Gisela and Rudolf might forget her. She had written to each of them during Summer, asking them in all of her letters to “think of your mummy”.
Franz-Josef, too, has appreciated the charms of Corfu. He is optimistic. On the evening of 21 October, he leaves his wife, happy about his pending reconnection with family life. The Emperor of Austria has been delivered of a terrible weight: Sissi, his Sissi, has accepted to come back…
Disembarking from the steam-frigate Lucia which drops anchor in Venice on 26 October, the Empress has only one wish: not to be noticed. But Venice is an Austrian city, and the Mayor of Venice thought to do the right thing by organizing an illumination on the Saint Mark square. Sissi judges this idea to be regrettable. She is above all thinking of her children, expected in a few days. Their presence in Venice only worries Franz-Josef on one point, the mediocre quality of the drinking water. By precaution, the Emperor organizes daily deliveries of water taken from… Schonbrunn. In the palace’s park there flows a source, discovered in the XVIIth Century, which has given it its name, Schoner Brunnen: beautiful fountain.
Gisela and Rudolf arrive in Venice on 3 November with Countess Esterhazy. Sissi savours the joy of being with her children. Of course, there is still the Countess and her angry looks…
Franz-Josef arrives on 30 November. The atmosphere is doubly glacial. Politically, the Venitians support less and less well the Austrian domination from which their neighbours in Lombardy have been delivered. Family-wise, relations between the Empress and her First Lady-in-Waiting are at the paroxysm of exasperation. After a discussion where Sissi begs her husband, the Emperor of Austria takes an immense decision: he dismisses Countess Esterhazy. What a relief! What a victory over Archduchess Sophia! And what embarrassment for Franz-Josef when he announces this measure to his mother. To the dismissed Countess, he will offer a bracelet with his portrait, a gift which cannot efface the bitterness.
Psychologically, Sissi immediately recovers her equilibrium, and conjugal harmony is serene. The former Austrian Ambassador to Paris, who is also staying in Venice, notes that the Emperor is still madly in love “like the first days of their marriage”. It is with reluctance that Franz-Josef again boards his green-coloured salon-carriage, decorated with his coat-of-arms and surmounted by dragons retreating before the Roman Catholic Empire. For Christmas, the Emperor comes back, and the family festivities unfold in an atmosphere of tenderness. Sissi seems to be feeling better.
But it is only in appearance. Her legs swell and she is very weak. Obliged to immobility, she invents a new pastime which will set the whole of Europe talking: she begins a collection of photographs. Photography, a new art, has definitely entered into people’s lifestyles. For the Empress of Austria, the photos are another way of travelling, of being somewhere else, a way of bringing the world before her eyes. We could query the Empress’ exclusive wishes, for she seeks only feminine images, the most beautiful possible. The answer is simple: Sissi wants to measure her beauty – compromised by her health – and judge European aesthetism. She will ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to transmit to all the Embassies her request for photographic research. Saint Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, London are solicited, and a hunt for photos begins. The most delicate mission is the one entrusted to Ambassador Prokesch, in post at Constantinople. Sissi asks the impossible of him: photographs of the inhabitants of the harems of the Ottoman Empire. At the cost of dangerous difficulties, the diplomat will procure a few images of languid beauties waiting to be chosen to distract the Sultan.
The arrivals of all these beauties make her realise her own state. Sissi wants to be more beautiful. But her feet are hurting and the pain is marking her face. It sometimes takes two people to help her walk. Her health is, once more, alarming.
To be continued.