On 1 May 1865, the imperial couple inaugurates the Ringstrasse, a long, circular Viennese artery, the work on which had begun seven years earlier. A new capital is rising from the ground. But the gaiety of the ceremonies is attenuated by Rudolf’s health. He has grown a lot, and is very pale. His mother fears that he might have diphtheria.
July. Holidays at Bad Ischl. On the programme: hunting and excursions. Little by little, trophies are hung on the walls, starting at the entrance to the Kaiservilla. The Emperor will collect here the antlers of two thousand chamois and one thousand six hundred deer, to which can be added an immense eagle killed in Hungary, the head of a bear killed on the Tsar’s territory, a boar’s head, and even a derisory weasel shot at Schonbrunn, on 29 December 1860.
Sissi and her husband go hiking like they did during their engagement. And the Bad Kissingen cure? Elisabeth feels well, she walks for hours without the slightest fatigue. Must she take the waters? Doctor Fischer is adamant: the annual regularity of the treatment is the best guarantee of its efficiency. Elisabeth reluctantly agrees, but she will make the briefest stay possible, barely a week. Her cousin, King Louis II of Bavaria, does not come. He has lost his illusions about Wagner, although he continues to have his operas played, and refloats his finances.
When she returns to the Kaiservilla, Sissi finds Bad Ischl ravaged by fire. It is said that two drunken coachmen had been smoking in some straw. A regional catastrophe. Twenty-two houses destroyed. The flames had licked the walls of the imperial villa, where the children were sleeping. Emperor Franz-Josef is very upset, his beloved Bad Ischl is devastated.
On 18 August the Austrian Emperor celebrates his thirty-fifth birthday. At Bad Ischl, where the destroyed houses are being rebuilt, thousands of people surround the imperial couple, who cross the esplanade on horseback. Popular enthusiasm is at its peak when Rudolf appears in a little carriage drawn by donkeys.
Rudolf incarnates the immediate future of the monarchy. However, his education poses a very serious problem for his mother. The child’s nervosity comes, of course, from his heredity, but the way that he is being raised aggravates his too-sensitive nature even more. The Empress leads a tardy and difficult enquiry on this domain reserved for her mother-in-law. She discovers that Rudolf’s governor, Colonel Leopold of Gondrecourt, chosen by the Archduchess, is a military bigot who ostensibly goes to daily Mass to be seen by the family, in particular by the Emperor and his mother. The governor unites two qualities, one of them glorified by Franz-Josef, the other sung by the Archduchess: he is a perfect soldier, he is an excellent Christian.
What does the Emperor want? He wants his son to learn the profession of arms at an early age, therefore, that he become familiar with courage and danger. Gondrecourt finds nothing better than to lock the little boy inside a hunting reserve near Schonbrunn and, having left him alone inside, cry out:
“Prince! Take care, a boar is charging you!”
The stupidity of this experience is consternating. Gondrecourt also finds it indispensable to impose cold showers on the child, and thinks it instructive to fire shots from a revolver during his sleep. Rudolf is, quite simply, terrified.
What does the Archduchess want? She wants to prepare a prince of high moral value, raised in the faith of God. But gossips report to Elisabeth – she now has her allies – that Gondrecourt is only a Tartuffe, who purposely passes under Franz-Josef’s windows at six o’clock in the morning, holding a Rosary and a Book of Prayer. It is said that the volume contains, in reality, a box of cigars, and that the governor, instead of devotions, is going to take breakfast with his mistress, a blonde chorus girl from the theatre. Dismayed, Sissi exclaims:
“This is madness!”
In fact, this very special education given to Rudolf can only accentuate his fragility. The child is often ill, he is afraid of the dark, and of noise. Franz-Josef and his mother do not agree with all of Gondrecourt’s initiatives, but think that Rudolf needs a bit more vigour. Sissi is enraged. A discussion begins with her spouse. Franz-Josef hesitates, as he always does as soon as it concerns the Archduchess. Sissi plays her last card:
“I can no longer tolerate this. It is Gondrecourt or I!”
On this 24 August 1865, the Empress of Austria addresses a veritable family ultimatum to the Emperor, putting her whole life in the balance, confirming in writing her intentions:
“I wish to have full powers for everything that concerns the children, the choice of their entourage, their place of residence, the complete direction of their education, in a word, it is I who will decide everything until their majority. Further, I desire that, for everything concerning my personal business, such as the choice of my entourage, my place of residence, all changes in the household, etc., I be the only one to decide.
She couldn’t have been clearer nor firmer. This is no longer anger from Sissi, this is a warning from the Empress who is twenty-eight-years-old. For the first time since their marriage, Elisabeth refuses to give up one inch of her authority. In a few lines, she has become perfectly adult.
This peal of domestic thunder is followed by a Court revolution: Franz-Josef gives in, he agrees with his wife. Gondrecourt is replaced by Count Josef Latour of Thurnberg, who reveals himself to be an excellent educator. And Prince Rudolf’s health is entrusted to a new doctor, Dr Widerhoger. Sissi will ask him for frequent reports, and will read them attentively, when before, she was kept in ignorance by his predecessor.
It is an immense victory.
A radiant and serene Autumn succeeds these upheavals. Sissi, very beautiful, calmer, is supported by her husband. Her victory is also that of their united, fortified couple. On 4 October, the day of Saint Francis (Franz), Sissi organizes a dinner to celebrate the Emperor’s patron saint. To Rudolf, she recounts:
“At table, we laughed a lot, I made all the ladies empty a flute of Champagne to Papa’s health.”
And she adds that one lady-in-waiting had almost “become too gay” and that another “had difficulty standing upright”.
Sissi has only snatched her independence from the Emperor so that she can be closer to her husband. Sissi is happy. Her victory is that of love.