The imperial family at Godollo.

At the end of May 1875, when Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) manifests her intention of making a stay in France, Emperor Franz-Josef replies that this trip worries him:

“Something bad will happen to you.”

And Elisabeth, doubtless struck by her husband’s anxiety, draws up her Will.  On 31 July, her train stops at Fecamp Station.  Her arrival could not be a banal event at the Sassetot-le-Mauconduit Chateau, an elegant manor built during the reign of Louis XV, offering twenty-five windows on each facade, in the heart of an agreeable park where immense stables are installed.  It is situated right near Petites Dalles Beach.  The Chateau belongs to Monsieur Albert Perquer, who is from a Le Havre family.  Work has been completed in record time;  a salon has been transformed into a dining-room and boudoir, the room above Elisabeth’s bedchamber becomes a wardrobe, the billiard-room becomes a salon.  How could Sissi pass unseen in this part of the Caux where she arrives with seventy people?  Curiosity pushes the population to come to see the sovereign.  Albert Perquer says:

“Just think!  At no time has either a crowned head, nor even a President of the Republic, ever shown themselves in the region.”

The Archbishop of Rouen appears every five years, at the moment of his pastoral tour, and the Prefet of the Seine-Inferieure presides, once a year, the Revision Council.  In these conditions, the presence of an empress and queen is a revolution…

Although she had chosen to travel under her pseudonym, the size of her suite, her luggage – she has brought her little, narrow, hard, iron bed – her enormous dog Shadow, everything, in fact, draws attention to Sissi, who alights from her carriage in a dark suit of blue cheviotte.  Maria-Valeria is accompanied by her two governesses, one English, one French.  Two Court chefs are assisted by a French chef, engaged in Paris.  According to Elisabeth’s Intendant,

“his presence will allow the experimental study of the culinary art of a country which prides itself on knowing all of its secrets.”

To close this food chapter, we must also signal two Austrian confiseurs, experts in mounted presentations and in sweet dishes.

Sissi’s first visit is for her three horses, who have arrived by the same train as she.  She brings them carrots.  The Empress’ presence at the Sassetot church, for Sunday Mass, causes a sensation.  Her walks from the beach to the Chateau, with her dog “as big as a mule” and her little black boy, are not very discrete.  To avoid being seen, Sissi has a canvas corridor installed from the Chateau to the sea, where she bathes every morning.  Today still, near the Sassetot-le-Mauconduit Chateau, there is a vicinal track which bears the name Allee Elisabeth-d’Autriche.

She has a professor of equitation, whom she had met the year before, a Mr Allen, come over from England.  He is a cavalier who has a tendency to ask the impossible of both horses and people.  He persuades the Empress to seriously attempt an obstacle course and sets one up in the park.  On the morning of 11 September, Elisabeth is trying a new horse, Zouave.  But when the Empress arrives in front of a little hedge, the horse hesitates, leaps with a formidable jump and, landing badly on its front legs, falls to its knees.  Elisabeth is thrown against a shoot from an oak tree and remains unconscious, while her mount takes off limping.

A cry shakes Countess Festetics, one of the Hungarian ladies-in-waiting, absorbed in her book while the rest of the Empress’ suite indulges in the joys of the beach.  An out-of-breath equerry is calling:

“A doctor!  Quickly, a doctor!  There has been an accident in the park!  Her Majesty is half-dead!”

With precaution, Sissi is transported to a garden seat about two hundred metres away.  Doctor Widerhofer, who has at last been found on the beach, examines her in silence, very worried.  Elisabeth opens her eyes, but her gaze is glazed and a bruise is appearing on her forehead.  Her lips are trembling.  She wants to speak:

“What has happened?”

“Your Majesty has fallen off her horse.”

“But I didn’t mount.  What time is it?”

“Half-past-ten, Your Majesty.”

“In the morning?  But I have never mounted on horseback at this time of day.”

Countess Festetics is crying and cannot forgive herself for not having been able to restrain the imprudent Empress.

Sissi wants to see the horse.  He is bleeding and it is noted that, with the violence of the shock, Elisabeth’s saddle is detached.

Sissi continues to speak mechanically, recovering her spirits little by little but with anguishing questions:

“Where are we?”

“In Normandy, Your Majesty.”

“But, what are we doing in Normandy?  If it is true that I fell, I beg you, do not frighten the Emperor.”

The doctor diagnoses concussion.  The night is bad.  Sissi suffers a lot from her head and vomits.

Despite her plea, Franz-Josef has to be told.  The Emperor panics and wants to leave immediately for France.  Andrassy begs him to wait for another message, for the hasty arrival of Franz-Josef on French territory would not escape the Republic’s police.  And if the Empress sees the Emperor alarmed, his presence could risk harming the absolute rest that the hurt Empress needs.

After a sleepless night in his Schonbrunn study, the Emperor receives another message:  his wife is feeling better.

Pathetic letters arrive in Normandy, in which the sovereign thanks Heaven:

“I do not dare to imagine what could have happened.  What would become of me without you, the good angel of my life?”

Franz-Josef makes her promise not to mount again immediately.  Elisabeth is shattered.  Her remarks are those of a resigned woman, who knows that all is written and that one cannot modify the march of fatality:

“They don’t want me to mount on horseback any more.  Whether I do or not, I shall die according to my destiny.”

And she caracoles in defiance, accompanied by one of the Emperor’s aides-de-camp, sent by him with the mission of preventing the Empress from performing any equestrian acrobatics.  But suddenly tired, she wants to see her family again.  She announces to her spouse:

“Now, I am quite ready to come home.”

To be continued.