On 12 June 1867, Empress Elisabeth and Emperor Franz-Josef, exhausted, leave the Hungarian capital for Bad Ischl where they go to rest. On Wednesday 19 June, in the calm of the Kaiservilla, Archduchess Sophia of Austria opens her diary and notes:
“The news from Mexico City makes us hope more and more for Max’ return. God be praised for that.”
She cannot know that her son Maximilien has already been shot at Queretaro. The execution squad fired six bullets which all traversed his body, and the impacts form a cross. This tragic end is the lamentable result of an adventure in ambition. That of a younger brother, unhappy at not being the first-born; that of his spouse, the unfortunate Charlotte, who was looking to wear a crown, that also of Napoleon III, who had wanted to profit from the difficulties of the young United States of America, torn by a war of Secession, to constitute a latin empire in Mexico which would be protected by France. When the United States, now really united, had risen against the intervention decided by Paris, Mexico was faraway, and its destiny embarrassing. Maximilien found himself abandoned, facing a population which was unanimous against him. He knew how to leave this life with dignity, in the spirit of the Habsburgs.
The news of his execution, a message from the Austrian Ambassador in Washington, reached Franz-Josef and Sissi at Ratisbonn, where they were attending the funeral of Helena’s husband, the Prince of Tour and Taxis. Sissi is in tears, more personally touched by the premature decease of her brother-in-law, who formed with Helena a very united couple. But she cannot forget a letter that she had written to Charlotte to inform her of her hostility to this Mexican adventure:
“Why look for sterile honours and the slavery of a throne when you have the privilege of living your own life? Why compromise your happiness by so many unpleasant tasks and fastidious ceremonies?”
A real self-portrait. At the time, Sissi would have voluntarily exchanged her crown with the secondary destiny of her sister-in-law.
Poor Charlotte having already lost her mind, the most difficult part remains to be done. Franz-Josef has to inform Archduchess Sophia, who has returned to Vienna. The shock breaks the elderly lady, and when a telegramme from Napoleon III arrives, she turns away, refusing to see this message of condoleance. Drunk with anger, she no longer wants to hear of “that assassin of her son”.
Sissi returns to Bad Ischl on 2 July. She is worried. To the drama of her sister Helena, brutally widowed, is added that of her other sister, Sophia, the neglected fiancee of Louis II of Bavaria. The unhappy girl is in despair, with no news of her bizarre fiance who does not stop sending the carriage that she is supposed to use on the day of her wedding to roll empty through Munich. When Tannhauser is again performed in Munich, on 1 August, Louis II appears alone in the royal box. Sophia, like before their engagement, is in a lateral box. The King only visits her at the intermission, for five minutes, to give her a bouquet. Liszt resumes the spectators’ impression when he writes to a female friend:
“His Majesty’s matrimonial ardours seem very temperate.”
It is learnt that the date of the wedding has been pushed back to 12 October. Princess Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria, Sophia’s mother, lets her anger explode. Sophia cries out her sadness:
“But, don’t you see that he doesn’t love me? He is playing with me!”
In fact, Louis II is playing at his wedding instead of living it. Sissi, who receives a distressed letter from her little sister, doesn’t know what to think. Her cousin’s comportment is beginning to be embarrassing. She mentions it to her husband, who promises her to try to find out what is wrong, but there is something more urgent. Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie are coming to Salzburg, more or less for a visit of reparation and condoleance for Franz-Josef. Sissi, remaining at Bad Ischl while Franz-Josef returns to Vienna, writes to him to try to avoid being present at the Salzburg interview. She invokes the fact that she is not feeling well and is very tired. En reply, he reminds her of her duty and insists on her presence in Salzburg, four days later.
On 18 August, the French train stops in Salzburg Station. The handshake between the two men is not very enthusiastic. Napoleon III, the man who had prodded Maximilen to Mexico, is amiable but ill; Franz-Josef is deeply troubled. It must be recognized that these habits that European sovereigns have of warring against each other, betraying each other, and then making polite visits to each other, are sometimes exasperating.
Apart from the condoleances and the political conversations to encourage closer ties between Vienna and Paris, the main interest of the meeting is, for the population, the awaited confrontation between the two Empresses. One question is circulating on everyone’s lips: which of them is the more beautiful? At first, opinions are divided. But, very quickly, the comparison turns to Sissi’s advantage, for she is taller and slimmer than the French Empress, and the first meeting between the two women ends, five days later, with the Austrians’ impression that they have the prettiest European lady sovereign. And Sissi’s prestige, tarnished by her favouritism toward Hungary, is a little more gilded.
On 23 August, Sissi leaves to see her sisters Maria and Mathilda in Zurich. Franz-Josef comes to find her and she begs him to stop in Munich. Her father is beginning to be unable to put up with Louis II any longer. He debarks at midnight to make his purely literary court to Sophia and then disappears for days, leaving the young girl in tears. The truth is out: Louis, the impossible fiance, is an improbable husband. He admits to his secretary at the Court:
“I would prefer to throw myself into the lake rather than get married now.”
While Franz-Josef is receiving a delegation of Czechs who also want a Coronation in Prague, Sissi is resting. Her doctor has confirmed the happy news: she is pregnant. She writes in her diary:
“I would like to give a son, a king to Hungary, a clear mind, a strong man.”
At the beginning of October, Louis II, ostensibly fleeing the realities of marriage, is ordered by Prince Max to make up his mind. The honour of the ducal branch of the family is at stake. Exasperated, Sophia’s father fixes the date of the ceremony on 28 November, at the latest. Furious, Louis II takes this ultimatum very badly. He asks his secretary:
“Is this how one addresses one’s sovereign?”
The public servant replies:
“Sire, Duke Max has not written to you as a subject but as a father.”
The King seizes this pretext. After three days of torment, he writes a letter of rupture to Sophia. He tells her of his “fraternal, true and faithful love”, he assures her that he loves her “like a tender sister”.
To be continued.