The imperial family at Godollo.

Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) considers Godollo to be her true home.  Godollo is her refuge;  a meeting-place for hunts, for games with Maria-Valeria, for celebrations in which everyone participates.  Emperor Franz-Josef is so happy to find her in excellent humour that he is transformed.  He had been deprived of her for three months, he had feared for her health and now, at last, family life is back, with its simple joys, his days of hunting and the hope of a serene existence.  But melancholy waits, tenacious.  One day in October, Sissi loses her faithful companion, Shadow.  The big dog, who followed his mistress like a shadow, is buried in the park.  Sissi loses a friend who had never disappointed her, and locks herself up in her bedroom, in tears.

She notices that Rudolf has changed a lot.  The Heir to the Throne is seventeen, and his relations with his mother are distant.  His intelligence is superior.  His open mind and his loving qualities have already made him very popular, in both Vienna and Budapest.  [The towns of Buda and Pest were united in 1873.]  He speaks very well in public, fluently speaks several languages, and both his historical and economic knowledge are very advanced, with a marked interest for social preoccupations.  Rudolf, well-informed about European politics, has just drawn up a memorandum destined for his preceptor in which he reveals very liberal ideas and sympathy for the republican system.  Franz-Josef is satisfied with his son’s intellectual value and hopes that his political ideas will be modified with age and experience.

Sissi regrets that her son is so little interested in the Arts and, in particular, in poetry.  It is not however through lack of imposing a great number of verses on him to learn by heart.  From her, he has a free spirit and a passionate nature which asks questions.  He says:

“My mind is always occupied with one thing or another.  Everything interests me.  Each thing speaks a different language to me.  Sometimes, I have cheerful, happy thoughts, sometimes they are sombre and bitter…  I realise that I shall never know all that I wish to know…”

It is understandable that Franz-Josef is worried about these tendencies.  In definitive, Rudolf’s lively temperament, which is nervous and a bit exalted, makes him more Sissi’s son than Franz-Josef’s.

After a few months of harmonious life, Sissi leaves for England, at the end of February, with the intention of participating in the last hunts of the season.  Franz-Josef has given in.  How can he retain this beautiful bird who still suffocates as if life is only a cage?  His love, revived by four months of life in common, has just tripled the annual pension that the Empress would receive if he died.

In London, Queen Victoria, remembering that Sissi had twice declined her dinner invitation, makes it known to the Empess that her timetable does not allow her to receive her.  Elisabeth protests to her husband, on 5 March.

An intrepid horsewoman, she worries the English who receive her for a hunt.  The Sassetot accident is in everyone’s mind.  Captain George Middleton, nicknamed Bay, is chosen to escort the Empress.  This mission does not really enchant him.  He says to Lord Spencer, the organizer of the hunt:

“What do I care if she’s an empress?  How am I supposed to watch over her?  Of course, I’ll do it, but I would prefer to follow the hunt how I want.”

Lord Spencer’s choice surprises his friends.  Bay Middleton is one of the best horsemen in the Kingdom, but he takes risks.  Lord Spencer knows Sissi too well to ignore that she would not put up with a timorous companion.  Around one hundred cavaliers take part in this hunt which unfolds in Northamptonshire.

In an excellent mood, Sissi, who has finally been received by Queen Victoria and fulfilled the role assigned to her by Franz-Josef, is truly untiring.  She donates a trophy, it is Bay who wins it.  She observes this horseman with a critical eye.  He is not very tall, but he is racy, sure of himself, cultivating humour which is sometime ferocious.  At thirty-years-old, he has the privilege of both interesting men and seducing women.

At the end of the first day of hunting, the officer recognizes that the Empress is an exceptional amazon.  On 26 March, Elisabeth writes to Franz-Josef:

“Everyone is asking me if you will not decide to come over here one day.”

But Franz-Josef, faithful to his principles, is absorbed in the examination of international politics.  Tsar Alexander II dreams of taking revenge for the Crimean War, and it is vital that the great European powers have a common vision of the situation.  The Emperor is counting a lot on the support of Queen Victoria, and is relieved that she had received Sissi to luncheon.  Sissi doesn’t want to hear anything about politics.

On 4 April, the Empress returns to Vienna.  Franz-Josef is happy:  Sissi has not had an accident.

A letter arrives for Elisabeth, written by Louis II of Bavaria, at two o’clock in the morning.  Between a migraine headache and a toothache, the King, who has just financed the construction of Wagner’s theatre, in Bayreuth, delivers his anguish to his only ally:

“Perhaps a day will come when I, in turn, will make peace with this heavy Earth!”

And the tormented King concludes by strikingly resuming  his life:

“I want to remain for myself and for others an eternal enigma.  Dear and precious, you are and will remain, for I know that never have you doubted me.”

An eternal enigma…  Louis II’s wish will come true.  The Earth appears heavy to him because he is unable to efface from his memory the vision of his brother Othon, who has completely descended into madness.  And the fear of sinking, himself, into dementia leaves him prostrate.  If the Wittelsbach heredity is considered responsible for these neuroses, it must however be recalled that on his mother’s side, a Prussian princess, Louis could also have gained a few genetic faults:  one of his aunts believed that she had swallowed a piano, which is not a sign of absolute equilibrium.

To be continued.