Emperor Franz-Josef returns from Russia at the end of February. Elisabeth is dreamy, withdrawn inside herself, certain that people are looking at her as if she were a strange animal. She declares to her lady-in-waiting:
“As soon as there is something to see, everyone rushes to see it; whether it be a monkey dancing on a Barbary organ or me, it’s the same thing.”
She refuses to go to an evening attended by both Liszt and Wagner in Vienna, and soon, Franz-Josef begins an exhausting voyage in Dalmatia, pronouncing around one hundred speeches in one month.
At the same time, the young civil servant, Frederic Pacher of Theinburg, who is becoming desperate at Gabrielle’s silence, receives another letter. The lady in yellow is surprised that he doesn’t believe her stay in England and thinks that her name is not Gabrielle. She even tells him that she detests dogs… but Fritz is more and more persuaded that Gabrielle is none other than Elisabeth, the Empress. He writes this to her and obtains only silence. For good. In light of this audacity, Gabrielle has vanished. The Carnaval games will go no further than these letters.
The truth about her identity will only be definitely established nearly sixty years later when, by cross-referencing several documents, Count Corti, the author of the Empress’ first complete biography, finds Mr Fritz Pacher of Theinburg. Before his death in 1934, at eighty-six-years-old, he remembered the details of the ball very well and had conserved these precious letters.
In July, the Emperor is relaxing at Bad Ischl. Elisabeth is with him, but soon her travelling frenzy incites her to leave. On 27 July, she boards her train, accompanied by her daughter Maria-Valeria and her Hungarian confidantes. Her final destination is the Isle of Wight, off the English coast, which she reaches on 2 August.
Another island, another refuge. The Isle of Wight benefits from a gentle climate, and the vegetation is rich in magnolias and lauriers. The Ambassador of Austria-Hungary has rented a castle for Elisabeth in the island’s South, overlooking the English Channel. It is surprising that the Empress had chosen to stay there at such a time, knowing full well that Queen Victoria is residing nearby, at Osborne House, her vast Summer residence. When one knows Sissi’s phobia for anything that imposes an official life, why did she place herself in the way of inevitable obligations? It is another paradox. Sissi’s relative incognito, she is travelling under the name of Countess Hohenembs – one of the many titles carried by Franz-Josef – is quickly pierced. Her suite – domestics and Hungarian pastrycook, governesses, nurses, masseurs and lady companion – are not invisible. A French chef is among them. We could ask why: the Empress eats almost exclusively meat juices and chicken soup.
The day of her installation, Queen Victoria visits her. She wants to make the Empress’ acquaintance. Between the slim Sissi and the plump Victoria, there is a world of difference. Maria-Valeria writes to her father:
“I had never seen such a fat woman before.”
Accompanied by the Prince of Wales, future Edward VII, Victoria amiably enquires if her guest is satisfied with her installation. Bathrooms have been put in, the billard-room has been transformed into a gymnasium, and a Jersey cow, visited each week by a veterinary surgeon, gives rich milk for Maria-Valeria. Sissi reassures Franz-Josef:
“I was very polite and everyone seemed surprised about it… They know perfectly well that I want to be left in peace and don’t want to disturb me…”
But Victoria comes back ten days later, invites Elisabeth to Osborne House, insists, but Sissi refuses. Queen Victoria is not used to having her invitations refused, particularly when she gives them herself. The Empress is beautiful but really has no sense of duty. Everything that is said of her is therefore true.
To flee this neighbour, Sissi decides to visit London. A London curiosity attracts her, the famous Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. A surprise is awaiting her there: an image of Franz-Josef, in uniform, with his fluffy side-whiskers.
Her visit to this magical place lasts more than one-and-a-half hours.
Another visit is more worrying. It has become a habit: she wants to see mental asylums. Bedlam is the biggest one in the world, it shelters thousands of mentally ill people. Elisabeth, fascinated, questions the doctors. She speaks gently to the deranged, and when one of them tells her he is Saint Peter, she answers in a natural tone:
“Then, you will soon be liberated.”
The Empress is unable to forget that her cousin, Othon of Bavaria, Louis II’s young brother, is now locked away. And how can she not think of her sister-in-law Charlotte, Maximilien’s widow, closely watched in Belgium, in prey to attacks of dementia which are stronger and stronger?
At the end of August, she accepts one of the numerous invitations which have arrived on the Ambassador of Austria-Hungary’s desk, that of the Duke of Rutland who is organizing the season’s first hunt on his splendid lands at Belvoir Castle, near Nottingham. Two days on horseback… Elisabeth is happy. Returning to the Isle of Wight – Victoria has left for Balmoral, in Scotland – Sissi tries to make Franz-Josef come over, but guesses that the answer will be negative:
“Think about it for a few days before immediately saying no with your usual obstination…”
But Franz-Josef’s grandeur is to always place his mission before his pleasures.
Sissi decides to return home, for she is missing him, and she wants to see her son Rudolf after the Galicia manoeuvres where he had accompanied his father.
“I know how much you love me, with or without demonstrations, and we are only happy precisely because we know not to disturb each other.”
A good example of conjugal lucidity and tolerance…
To be continued.