The imperial family on holiday at Godollo.

The year 1873 is rich in festivities:  Austria celebrates, on 2 December, the Emperor’s Silver Jubilee.  This Jubilee, which consecrates twenty-five years of fidelity to Franz-Josef, throughout wars and dramas, is also the festival of the imperial couple.  And never has Elisabeth (Sissi) appeared to be so involved with her task and respectful of tradition.  Has she calmed down?

By leaving Vienna on 3 December 1873, the Empress proves the contrary and the Viennese are furious.  The Viennese all agree that the Empress is an “extraordinary woman”.  But that she prefers Hungary to them is unjust and unacceptable.  The criticism, which had dissipated during this exceptional year, reappears.  Elisabeth is not looking to hurt people, she is only seeking to protect herself.  So, she flees.

One of the ways in which she flees has just arrived from Bohemia.  It is a new carriage which is reserved for her in her special train.  This carriage is dark green on the outside, with olive-green hangings on the inside.  It has a bedroom compartment with a bed – a single one – parallel to the train’s direction, an armchair, a table on which the Empress places a register with her coat-of-arms, a pen surmounted by an eagle, a gilded calendar with ivory boxes recalling the day’s date, a clock and two thermometres.  The neighbouring compartment offers a dressing-table with silver-plating.  Four alveoles allow brushes and combs to be placed in them without risk during the rolling of the train.  The carriage, equipped with electric lights, is cosy, comfortable but discrete.  It is nothing like Louis II of Bavaria’s extravagant salon-carriage, which is light blue, surmounted by a gilded crown.  Its interior verges on nightmare with its neo-rococo furniture and its multicoloured allegories.  Elisabeth likes to disappear from the world without being noticed.  Inside her new special carriage, she will roll for thousands of kilometres, protected, insulated, with, for unique melody, the rhythm of the six wheels hammering the rails.

Refusing to be permanently submitted to Court immobility, desperately seeking to reach the horizons of her dreams, she sets off on a perpetual voyage.  Archduchess Sophia of Austria had left her a totally empty place.  Sissi had occupied it for a year.  While Elisabeth had fought for years to be the only First Lady of Austria, she now refuses the job, tired out by the struggle.  Her victory has come too late.  Vienna, from now on, will be only a stop, a station, a more or less long halt.  Sissi is beginning the chaotic migration of a bird who doesn’t know where to land and falls, exhausted, into a temporary haven.  Europe, fascinated, is going to discover the travelling Empress who crosses countries for a hunt.  Elisabeth is becoming the amazon queen.

***

1874 begins in family joy.  On 8 January, Gisela gives birth to a daughter.  Sissi is a grandmother at thirty-six-years-old.  She leaves immediately for Munich.  But her letter to Rudolf is not really worthy of a grandmother.  Describing the baby, she says:

“The child is extraordinarily ugly but very lively;  in fact, exactly like Gisela.”

Twenty-four hours after the baptism, Sissi absolutely wants to visit a hospital where cholera sufferers are treated.  Her lady-in-waiting does her best to remind her of her duty toward her husband and her people, and that it is not a good idea to voluntarily expose herself to the risks of this very contagious disease, Elisabeth doesn’t listen.  When she appears at the patients’ bedsides, they are grateful to this gentle face with the hazel eyes that see their Calvary.

A young man who holds out his hand says weakly:

“I am going to die…”

“Oh no!  God will help you.”

“May God bless Your Majesty.”

A few hours later, he dies.  Elisabeth then remarks to her lady-in-waiting:

“He dies and he will greet me one day, up there, with joy.”

They insist that Sissi change completely because of the immense risks that she has taken.  And she must be very careful with Gisela’s little daughter, who is even more vulnerable than the adults.  When, forty-eight hours later, the Empress feels faint upon rising, her entourage panics.  Without reason, luckily.

On 17 January, she visits Queen Maria of Bavaria, Louis II’s mother.  In the evening, Louis II absolutely insists on visiting his cousin.  Elisabeth is very struck with the sovereign’s physical degradation.  His features are puffy, he is overweight, having lost the magical beauty of the first years of his reign.  His blue eyes – as blue as the Bavarian lakes – are nearly always directed upward, in quest of the unseizable.

Where does madness begin?  Where does it end?  In 1874, Louis II’s drama is also that of a still approximative science;  the intermediary degrees, such as originality or excentricity, are too badly known to diagnose a neurosis.

The following day, the King’s mother asks the Empress to accompany her on a visit to a mental asylum.  The visit is appalling, because Queen Maria seems to consider the deranged people as being more or less normal, trying to hold a reasonable conversation with some, while a young girl persists in playing just one piano note, always the same one, or a painter exhibits the drawing of a deer whose antlers are replaced by a church.

Elisabeth leaves the asylum, horrified.  And her nervous system is even more tested as her diet consists almost exclusively of orange juice and milk.  To justify herself, she says:

“Look at the King.  He is really too fat.”

Four days later, she leaves Munich for Ofen, where Emperor Franz-Josef joins her the day after her arrival.  They meet with joy, although Franz-Josef has to leave on 11 February for Saint Petersburg, for a visit of courtesy to the Tsar.  The Emperor asks Sissi to remain in Vienna during his absence.  She promises.  She keeps her word.  The Emperor can go to hunt bears and contribute to cordial relations with the Tsar, his mind in peace.

To be continued.

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