In the first half of April 1862, the Empress’ mother, very worried, arrives in Venice. She asks questions. There had been talk of lungs, they are no longer mentioned. Now an oedema is evoked, hydropsy, and there is still great anaemia. Princess Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria, decides that the advice of Dr Fischer, her own doctor, is indispensable. A message informs Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria that his wife is not well, and adds that Ludovika and Elisabeth are going to go directly to Bavaria, without passing through Vienna. The Emperor is terribly disappointed. He goes to Venice. It is true, the Empress is suffering. What climate, which skies will be favourable to her? He returns sadly to his capital, condemned to more weeks of solitude. He adores Sissi, but she is escaping him. He shows a patience that will become perseverance.
At the end of May, the Empress and her mother arrive in Reichenau, where Dr Fischer is waiting for them. The doctor and Princess Ludovika consider that the heat of sunny islands is not advisable. On the other hand, he thinks that a thermal cure could regulate Sissi’s nervous system, and firmly suggests a stay in Bad Kissingen, at the extreme North of Bavaria.
Elisabeth leaves on 2 June, and the cure does wonders for her. Recovered, having again found sleep, she then goes to her family’s refuge, Possenhofen, with her sister Helena and her sister Maria of Naples. Maria has just lived an adventure which is, at the very least, unsettling. Having lost her throne, while taking refuge in Rome under the Pope’s protection, she had suddenly fallen brutally in love with a Belgian officer in the pontifical Zouaves… who had accorded her particular protection. The result had not delayed, she is five months pregnant… This story scandalises Sissi’s ladies-in-waiting, already obliged to frequent Prince Maximilien, who is always flirtatious with women.
When he arrives at his father-in-law’s place on 13 July, Franz-Josef finds the Empress as well as possible. He asks her to return to Vienna, and she begins by refusing. Before her husband’s immense disappointment, she gives in. At last! And, one month later, on 14 August, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, makes her entry into the capital.
A triumph, after fourteen months of absence. What an extraordinary difference between the population’s joy and Sissi’s pernicious anguish. Six hundred singers belt out a veritable serenade in prelude to a torchlight procession which assembles nearly twenty thousand people. Elisabeth forces herself, makes an effort, moved by the daily attentions of a husband who no longer knows what to do to make her happy. To celebrate his spouse’s return, he gives her pure-blood horses. When she returns to Schonbrunn, the whole Palace celebrates. In the couple’s intimate life, Schonbrunn presents a notable exception: Sissi and Franz-Josef share a bedroom. The walls are covered in blue silk, woven in Lyon in 1854, with matching curtains. The furniture is in Brazilian rosewood. The Empress’ salon, with gold and white wood-panelling, has armchairs covered with silk brocade, and marble tables. On the wall, a portrait of Marie-Antoinette recalls that the Queen of France lived here while she was Archduchess of Austria.
Her mother-in-law having remained at Bad Ischl, Sissi has a feeling of independence that she rarely knows. The spouses barely leave each other, and if Franz-Josef has to leave, Sissi waits for him in the garden. Rudolf, who has just turned four, plays there under his mother’s tender gaze; the entourage is relieved not to hear Sissi talking of leaving or travelling. In a letter of 15 September, a lady-in-waiting notes:
“She is looking very well, she is another woman, she has colour in her face. She eats well, sleeps well, does not yet tighten her corset, but, as soon as she remains standing, a vein in her left foot begins to swell.”
It is curious that no doctor thinks about the inconveniences of the corset fashion on blood circulation. To resume, Sissi has found laughter again, and in this month of September, at Schonbrunn, the grey veil of implacable melancholy has been torn to reveal a life that is at last normal, at last beside the man who loves her…
Christmas. Sissi celebrates her twenty-fifth birthday. Radiant in a white gown studded with sapphires and diamonds, her dark hair lightened with white camelias, she attends Court receptions and balls. Even her mother-in-law is unable to prevent herself from being admirative:
“She is truly superb.”
Her deficient health is just a bad memory.
After a peaceful Winter, the 1863 Spring represents months of happiness. When Summer returns, Sissi is again examined by her doctors. She is still well but, just to be careful, another cure at Bad Kissingen is recommended. When Sissi arrives there in June, her healthy appearance contrasts with that of the other curists. And, immediately solicited, surrounded, she acts like a Muse of Health. Very often, she personally takes the blind Duke of Mecklemburg for an outing. An hemiplegic Englishman is immediately seduced by the angel who takes interest in his Calvary. He doesn’t know the young woman’s identity. In a few days, he falls in love with her. When he learns who she is, he has flowers and books delivered to her. When she leaves, on 25 July, she leaves only dazzled regrets among those whom she had helped.
On 31 July, while playing, little Rudolf, who is nearing five, falls from a tree, striking his head on a paving stone. Cries, confusion, imprecations, the child is carried to his bed, where he lies unconscious. Archduchess Sophia takes a sensible decision: it is not necessary to advise the Empress and compromise her equilibrium. On the other hand, Franz-Josef hastens there, in panic. Two doctors proceed with the usual traumatology examinations. Rudolf regains consciousness, and the Court breathes again. That the Empress knew nothing about it, reveals to what point a rampart can be thrown up to keep her away from her children. But death had caressed Rudolf. For the first time.
Unfortunately, Rudolf suscitates anxiety again. The Heir to the Throne has attacks of something, sometimes briefly, sometimes lengthily. He throws tantrums and becomes disagreeable. Have the consequences of his fall been properly assessed? Or is it something else? Whatever it is, a brutal access of fever, on 5 December, raises fears of typhus. A doctor is immediately called. For two weeks, the child suffers. From convulsions to trembling, he finally recovers before Christmas.
To be continued.