It is the time of year when Carnaval balls unleash the Viennese. With Johann Strauss’ waltzes, Vienna is Europe’s ballroom. The most popular evening is that of Mardi-Gras which unfolds in the grand ballroom of the Society of the Friends of Music, which Schubert had directed. The redoubt is, of course, masked, but only the women hide their faces. Sissi, who has just presided an official, boring ball, decides to go to the ball which has the whole town talking. Such a ball, where she can protect her incognito, is a perfect example of what the Empress is always seeking: to see and hear without being recognized. Sissi is completely at ease with this plan, set up in Franz-Josef’s absence.
The Empress, like a disobedient young girl, pretends to retire to her apartments, dons a yellow brocade domino, hides her hair under a blonde wig and her face behind a black, lacy mask. As a precaution, Ida Ferenczy, who is in a red domino, decides to call the Empress “Gabrielle”, to steer any eventual suspicions onto Gabrielle Schmidt, Sissi’s chambermaid.
Eleven o’clock at night. Having arrived at the ballroom where it is difficult to resist the enticing violins, the two women remain on the gallery which dominates the frenetic farandoles. The Carnaval encourages all sorts of audacities; women can address gentlemen. Ida Ferenczy notices a man on his own, who is young, very elegant, and whose face is unknown to her. The Empress’ companion goes up to him, passes her arm under his, and asks him all sorts of questions to try to situate him. Does he belong to the aristocracy? Is he familiar with the Court? The answers are clear: the young man is a civil servant and his name is Frederic Pacher of Theinburg. Very excitedly, Ida asks him:
“A pretty woman is with me. She is getting bored all alone up there on the gallery. Would you like to distract her for a little while?”
He agrees. The civil servant is intrigued by the lady in the yellow domino, who speaks with a gentle voice but asks questions which are too precise to be innocent:
“I am a stranger here… What do people think of the Emperor? Are they happy with the Government’s politics?”
He is prudent, but answers sincerely. Then the face behind the lacy mask asks more troubling questions:
“Do you know the Empress? Do you like her? What do people say about her?”
The young man hesitates. No, the lady in yellow cannot be the Empress. The Empress would never come to a redoubt, and it is this reasoning which prods Elisabeth to be so imprudent. The civil servant replies frankly:
“The Empress is a very beautiful woman. I saw her on horseback at the Prater. She is reproached with fleeing the crowd and being present so little, while she spends so much time with her dogs and her horses.”
This answer amuses Sissi. The following question burns her lips:
“How old do you think I am?”
Sissi shudders. He has exactly guessed her age, she whose youthful appearance is praised by thousands of admirers. It is true that she is a grandmother… Suddenly, this flirtation is no longer amusing Gabrielle. She wants to leave. But the Carnaval has its customs, and it is not acceptable for a lady in a domino to disappear after having asked so many questions, without a gesture of thanks. The young man wants to kiss her hand, on condition that Gabrielle remove her glove. She refuses; the young man’s frankness seduces her, his audacity pleases her and, finally, reassures her. The charm returns. Joyfully she says to him:
“Stay and take me down to the ballroom.”
Then, the young man will live two surprising hours. His companion is assuredly someone of high rank, doubtless a princess. It is enough to see the way that she walks, her luxurious domino, and how ill-at-ease she is to be bumped in the joyous crowd. And the lady in yellow talks to him continuously, passing in revue the political situation, sliding to higher subjects, unusual in a Mardi-Gras ball. The young man who, before talking with Gabrielle, was wandering slowly in search of a one-night stand, is enthusiastic and perplexed. The lady in yellow admits:
“Men are usually only flatterers. One can only treat them with disdain. As for you, you seem different.”
Gabrielle wants to know if he suspects her identity. A vague feeling… which he doesn’t dare mention. She refuses to unveil her hand, but announces to him:
“We shall see each other again. For example, would you come to Munich or Stuttgart, if I fixed an appointment there with you?”
Frederic Pacher of Theinburg is ready for any rendez-vous, at the end of the world if necessary. What a strange woman, what an unusual, grave conversation amidst the laughing of Columbines…
The lady in yellow demands an ultimate promise:
“Take me to a fiacre, then leave the ballroom…”
The young man keeps his promise, but, while the ordered fiacre is driving up, he can no longer resist and tries to raise the bottom of the black mask hiding her face. Ida Ferenczy rushes over and throws the lady in yellow into the fiacre, which leaves at a trot.
Mr Frederic Pacher of Theinburg remains alone. And what if it was the Empress? His head is inflamed, his thoughts are confused. Is it possible? Is it a dream? On the following days, he tries to see her at the Prater. By keeping watch, he finally sees her carriage drive by. Their eyes meet. It seems to him that the Empress displays emotion before closing the carriage’s curtain.
A week goes by. The civil servant, who had given his address to the unknown lady from the ball, receives a letter posted in Munich. With a mixture of emotion and curiosity, he reads:
“Dear friend, you will be surprised to receive my first lines from Munich. I am passing through here for a few hours and I take this occasion to give you a sign of life as I promised you.”
Miracle: she has not forgotten… The young man rushes to his pen. Gabrielle has indicated that he could write to her poste restante in Munich. A second letter arrives, written from London. Gabrielle complains about the fog, finds the city odious and is living amongst elderly aunts who have a cranky bulldog.
Frederic Pacher of Theinburg, whom Gabrielle calls Fritz, is perplexed. The letter has been sent from London, but the Empress is still in Vienna, he has made enquiries. Gabrielle stops writing. No letter arrives from London, Munich or Vienna.
To be continued.