1864. A year of upheavals, questions and romantic dreams. On 10 March, news comes from Bavaria. King Maximilien, suffering from a kidney problem, dies, leaving the throne to a nineteen-year-old prince who considers that “affairs of State are only stupidities of State”. He is tall, beautiful and strange. He takes the title of Louis II of Bavaria.
Sissi likes this cousin a lot. He is younger than she by eight years, and sometimes came to Possenhofen when he was a child. She had been seduced by the Prince’s perpetually raised head, as if he were trying to rise above the mountain crests. In Vienna, the new King’s inexperience causes anxiety. Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria is also worried about the incredible campaign, led by Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie, with London and Madrid, to install his brother Maximilien on the Mexican throne. If the Archduke accepts, he must renounce his rights to Austria’s throne. Is the French proposition really compensation for the loss of Lombardy? Isn’t the project senseless? So many delicate questions.
Like all her family, Elisabeth remains perplexed. Mexico, so far away… An empire? Isn’t it an unsustainable charge? Her conversations with her sister-in-law Charlotte are frank but tinged with sincere cordiality. On the other hand, Elisabeth is witness to a very violent scene between Franz-Josef and his brother, white with rage, about the renunciation of his rights to the Austrian Crown that the Emperor is imposing on the Archduke. But ambition is stronger. On 14 April, Maximilien and Charlotte leave for Mexico. It is the first act of a tragedy fomented by pride, ambition, ignorance and blindness.
Sissi goes back to Bad Kissingen for her annual cure. Apart from her health, which still preoccupies her, she is very curious to meet her cousin Louis II of Bavaria, a sovereign who, in three months, has already caused a lot of talk. The King on the Munich throne’s sole political programme is to find a musician of genius, who has been insupportable almost everywhere, Mr Richard Wagner. Wagner, fleeing, covered in debt, pursued by creditors, jealous husbands and policemen, had launched this cry to a lady friend:
“Only a miracle can save me!”
This miracle is called Louis II.
At Bad Kissingen, Europe is taking the cure. A veritable thermal congress, where the Tsar rubs shoulders with the German princes. When Sissi sees her royal cousin, she is seduced by his allure. One metre ninety, with very dark, curly hair, very blue, interrogative eyes, the King of Bavaria is the youngest ruler in the European Courts. Strange rumours are already circulating about him. Some judge him to be supremely intelligent. He is. Others find him original. He is that too. Between Elisabeth, twenty-seven, and Louis, nineteen, an immediate bond is formed. Both of them detest protocol, they read poetry, they love impromptu things, horseracing and, more than anything, their country, luminous Bavaria. The young King, whose taste for women is inexistent, had announced that he would remain at Bad Kissingen only a few days. Under Sissi’s charm, he stays a month. Louis II’s strange character fascinates Elisabeth, the Empress’ radiant beauty subjugates the King.
This beauty is rising to the zenith. On 10 October, a very great artist finishes the sketch of a work which will become a famous painting. He is called Franz Winterhalter. German, he has become the great illustrator of the European Courts. Invited to Vienna, he will paint Sissi several times. Franz-Josef admires the painter’s work and recognizes:
“These are the first portraits which truly resemble her.”
In February 1865, Sissi goes to Dresden for the wedding of her favourite brother Karl-Theodore and Princess Sophia of Saxe. When Sissi appears in a violet gown embroidered with sliver clover leaves, covered by a coat in silver lace, her hair woven with diamond stars, each one of them with a ruby in its centre, given to her by Franz-Josef for Christmas, the Empress of Austria, twenty-eight, eclipses her new sister-in-law, aged twenty. The Queen of Saxe confides to a lady friend, four days later:
“You cannot imagine the enthusiasm that the beauty and amiability of the Empress have suscitated here.”.
On 15 February, as her special train is leaving Dresden for Vienna, Sissi asks one of the members of her suite:
“Could you tell me the time?”
With no hesitation, the man, dazzled like all men, affirms:
“One minute after sunset, Your Majesty.”
Sissi is compared to the sun which is disappearing from Saxe as she leaves it… However, although such notoriety can content Sissi and calm her anxieties, she regrets having to leave her children, in particular Rudolf, who is a fast learner, and with whom she already speaks several languages, but mostly Hungarian.
She is hardly back, than she leaves for Munich. She arrives there at the time when a platonic love affair of her cousin, the King, with Wagner is unleashing anger in the whole of Bavaria. It should be recognized that the musician has a gift for antagonizing. His inextinguishable debts, his liaison with Cosima, the daughter of Liszt and wife of his orchestra conductor, as well as his progressist ideas, displease. Sissi is curious to see the King again. His comportment is enigmatic, divided between puerile crushes and romantic obsessions. On 29 February, Sissi receives her cousin. His arrival is singular: it is raining, and the King, in Austrian uniform, is under an umbrella, but holding his hat in his hand so as not to mess up his hair which he has had curled. He alights from his carriage, drawn by four horses and escorted by pike-bearers and equerries, dashes to Sissi and kisses her hands so many times that the Empress’ mother asks herself if he won’t wear them out.
Louis II’s visit leaves a tenacious memory: he had inundated himself with Cyprus perfume. Elisabeth is torn between uncontrollable laughter and worry. The King is passionate, but his bizarreries are harming the Crown’s prestige. Despite the comments which run on his manners, she judges him with indulgence and tenderness. She admires him almost. He has arrived at the same result as she. Without travelling far, he escapes to dreams of a world where Art is the only reason for living and reigning.
To be continued.