Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary, by Raab (1867).

For more than a year, the Empress of Austria has been very closely watching Hungary;  her knowledge of the Hungarian language has made very great progress.  One evening, Elisabeth and Emperor Franz-Josef take place in their box at the theatre.  Archduchess Sophia of Austria is seated in hers.  She notices, as the spectators rise and turn out of deference, that the Empress is wearing a gold-embroidered headdress similar to those in use with the wives of influent Hungarians.  The Archduchess adjusts her opera-glasses and studies her daughter-in-law.  An ostensible gesture which does not escape the public.  After a long examination, the Emperor’s mother places her opera-glasses on the edge of her box, and everyone can see her face, which is both astounded and extremely angry.

This incident is revealing.  Sissi, who loves to rattle convention, sees no reason not to honour Hungary, and the Emperor, who is struggling with persistent difficulties in Buda and Pest, is unable to deprive himself of such a sublime ally as his spouse.  When they see how naturally and with what brilliance Elisabeth wears their national costume, the Hungarians will understand that she could be their best ambassadress.

To deepen her linguistic knowledge, Sissi decides, in Autumn 1864, to have an Hungarian lady companion, to avoid her having to flick through dictionary pages, but also to talk to her about the state of mind of the Magyar people.  In the most absolute secret, a list of the greatest names of Hungarian aristocracy is drawn up.  Sissi chooses a young girl who lives in Kecskemet, an agricultural town, in the South of the country.  A photograph and precise information about little Ida Ferenczy will quickly convince the Empress that she has found the right person.  She is simple, natural, she is only twenty-three-years-old and, most importantly, she is not acquainted, by near or by far, with Archduchess Sophia…

One morning in November, she is presented to Sissi who declares, after a few seconds, in Hungarian:

“I like you.  We shall be together a lot.”

As can be expected, the Archduchess, furious, will attempt to submit the young girl to her influence.

“Address yourself only to me in all things and tell me everything that Her Majesty says.”

But Sissi had forseen the manoeuvre and explained things to the young Hungarian girl.  In turn, she questions her about her mother-in-law’s interrogations.  Ida Ferenczy is submitted to a crossfire of exigencies, but, intelligently, she does not betray Sissi.

It is certain that a sort of mutual admiration exists between the Empress and her Hungarian attendant.  Elisabeth is charmed by the patriotism and the intelligence of the young girl with very black hair and eyes.  On her side, the young Hungarian girl admires Sissi’s beauty and understands her fantasque, tolerant character.  And, very frequently, while the Empress brushes her abundant hair in the evening, Ida remains beside her and converses with her in a way that totally escapes the official entourage.  Ida is Elisabeth’s best ally.  She at last has total confidence in a lady of her suite.

The Hungary which fascinates Elisabeth is giving numerous worries to Franz-Josef.  The population is divided between two tendencies, the irreductibles, inspired by Lajos Kossuth, exiled in Italy, and the moderates, represented notably by the attractive Count Gyula Andrassy, ready for numerous conciliations with the Habsburgs.  In December, having come to the Hungarian capital for the opening of Parliament, the Emperor notices that people are talking only of the Empress.  Her popularity has attained new degrees and he has to promise to come back with her.  And what if Elisabeth could succeed there where the politicians are failing?  Why couldn’t she be the bridge between the opposing clans?  Upon his return, he promises himself to organize that voyage that is being asked of him.

On 8 January 1866, the Empress receives an Hungarian delegation which has come, officially, to wish her happy birthday two weeks late.  The event is much more important than a simple manifestation of goodwill.  Sissi waits in the throne room, wearing the Hungarian national costume which suits her so well:  embroidered skirt, lace apron, velvet bodice with muslin sleeves, bonnet surmounted by a diamond crown.  She is not only the prettiest of Hungarians, but also the sovereign of a Viennese Court where Hungary is now represented in a spectacular manner.  In fact, Sissi is surrounded by eight palace ladies, all of Hungarian nationality.  They have just been named, and comments are raining down from offended Austrian families.

The moment is solemn.  The Cardinal Primate of Hungary leads the delegation of these important people who have great allure in their uniforms with frogging, their mantelets thrown over the shoulder and their boots polished like mirrors.  One man towers over them – both literally and figuratively – by his height, Count Andrassy.  Elisabeth has of course heard of him.  His political and worldly legend is very spicy.  Exiled in Paris since 1848, he had been condemned to death by hanging.  As he had fled, firstly to England then to France, he had only been hanged in effigy.  And in Paris, he had lost count of his feminine conquests.  Women called him “the beautiful hanged man of 1848”.  Elegant, racy, he married a rich countess whose ancestors are, for the Austrians, one of the symbols of fidelity to the Habsburgs.  Since being accorded personal amnisty by Franz-Josef, he is an efficient supporter of the Habsburgs.

The Cardinal addresses the Empress by speaking about “the indefectible loyalty of the Hungarian nation to its Queen” and underlines that “like all Hungarians, he hopes to have the honour of receiving her in their capital”.  Sissi replies in Hungarian:

“I have no dearer wish than to see again that splendid city.”

Lightning striking the Hofburg would have had less effect.  An ovation rises from the decorated breasts:

Eljen Erzsebet!  Long live Elisabeth!”

In these magical seconds, Sissi is able to savour an immense personal triumph.  Her marriage had changed her into an empress, Hungary transforms her into a future popular sovereign.  In fact, Franz-Josef and Sissi have still not been crowned in Buda-Pest.  That which laborious constitutional discussions, false parliamentarianism and tenacious susceptibilities had been unable to obtain, a gracious angel has just succeeded in doing.  Sissi replaces all the ministers, all the public servants.  She has signed a pact of love with Hungary.

To be continued.