The imperial family at Godollo.

During the Summer of 1876, the situation in the Balkans flares up.  Counting on Russia’s aid, Serbia and Montenegro declare war on Turkey.  Andrassy, whose anti-Russian feelings are exacerbated, makes it difficult for Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria to meet the Tsar.  The Emperor negotiates in the greatest secret with Alexander II, who wants to drag Austria-Hungary into a war of conquest.  He would like to occupy Bulgaria while Franz-Josef would annex Bosnia-Herzegovina.  However, Franz-Josef does not formally agree.

Disappointed that Franz-Josef is unable to join her, Sissi goes to Bavaria, accompanied, among others, by her new companion Plato, a shepherd dog who has replaced Shadow whom she will never be able to forget, however:  a marble statue of the big dog holding out his left paw has found a place in the smoking-room of the Imperial Villa in Bad Ischl.

Then she decides to return to Corfu, which had enchanted her fifteen years earlier.  Franz-Josef buys her a personal yacht, the Miramar.  It can be seen how much the Emperor shows almost unending material generosity to his spouse.  This time, Corfu retains her for only a short time, but Athens attracts her.  Her visit is of course concentrated on the ancient city.  She has read over and over again the Odyssey, seeking perhaps a comparison between Ulysses, the lost navigator, and herself, the wandering empress.

September unites the whole family at Godollo.  And a surprise guest arrives at Budapest Station:  Bay Middleton.  The Empress had invited him to come to hunt in Hungary when she had left England.  The presence of this officer, whose only merit is the fact that he is an excellent “gentleman rider”, surprises a few courtiers.  Sissi appreciates his simplicity, his frankness, and is amused by the permanent misunderstandings between Franz-Josef and Bay, without mocking him, however.  In fact, following a fall from horseback, the Englishman is almost completely deaf.  In approximative German and choppy English, the conversation between the two men is often funny.

Bay Middleton is an elegant man of around forty.  Fairly corpulent, he has flaming red hair and a tiny, matching moustache.  His face is literally covered in freckles and his nose seems a bit too big.  To compensate these faults, his teeth sparkle with whiteness and his blue eyes bubble with gaiety, making him attractive.  That Bay Middleton had begun by admiring the amazon, then the woman, is not original, since all men who approach the Empress fall in love with her.  That this dazzlement transforms into love, and that it is shared, is not proven.

In the Empress’ legend, nothing definitely proves that she accorded her favours to the officer, to the seductive Andrassy, or to other men overwhelmed by her beauty.  And they were very numerous.  On the other hand, the shared passions for horses, a political idea, dreaming, and other communities of views, either literary or poetic, are certain on Elisabeth’s side.  She has a vital need to use her energy, her enthusiasm, her gifts, even if, in the end, this whirlwind does not calm her anguish.  Her essential need is to communicate.

***

Franz-Josef and the Tsar have had laborious and long negotiations, but, on 15 January 1877, they sign an ultrasecret treaty in which Austria-Hungary will remain neutral in the case of a Russian war in Bulgaria or in Turkey.  Alexander II confides to the Emperor, in April, that a pacific solution must be excluded, since the new Sultan, Abdul Hamid, refuses the reforms wanted by the powerful countries.

“The moment for action has arrived.  My armies are receiving the order to enter Turkey.”

The 1877 conflict greatly recalls the Crimean War.

A young man is following the progression of the Russian troops with great interest.  It is Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria.  At seventeen, he had manifested his wish to not remain submitted to Prussia.  And, turning toward the Slavic peoples of the South, he had written:

“Austria must found a strong Danube empire”.

On 27 July, he is nineteen and is declared major.  He no longer has a preceptor, he now has a Household.  His Intendant is Count Charles of Bombelles who had been in the service of his uncle, the unfortunate Maximilien.  This choice suscitates diverse comments, for Bombelles is known for his immorality and Rudolf displays a great appetite for the joys of life.  One of his educators gives him a last piece of advice:

“Do not rush to empty life’s goblet in one swallow.  Enjoy the pleasures of existence in a measured way.”

On the other hand, Franz-Josef shows great open-mindedness about the Prince’s too-liberal lifestyle.

“My son’s youth must not be stolen from him like mine was,”

he says, remembering the heavy burden that he had received at the age of eighteen.

Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria.

Having spent Christmas at Schonbrunn, Elisabeth decides to go back to England, but she will be accompanied by Rudolf.  It is their first voyage together to a foreign land.  Elisabeth is happy that her son accompanies her but their intimacy remains glacial.  It is a new paradox:  she greatly appreciates his generous ideas, but remains awed by his intelligence.  Both very sensitive, they are unable to become completely close.  It is curious that Elisabeth, who is so instinctive, does not feel that her son is sometimes paralysed, even hurt by this fantasque mother, who is so seductive, and has so often left his father alone.  And when they make this voyage together, they see each other in London almost as little as in Vienna.  However, it must be noted that when the Empress dines with her son, she is particularly careful of her appearance.  Rudolf’s blue eyes contemplate, admirative, this mother who, at over forty, conserves a young girl’s silhouette.

Elisabeth remains only a short time in London, where she finds her sister, Maria of Naples, and goes to Cottesbrook Park, a Georgian home in Northamptonshire that she has rented for six weeks.  She is the queen of the hunt while numerous horsemen make spectacular falls.  Bay Middleton prevents the Empress from performing too many equestrian acrobatics.

Meanwhile, Rudolf is getting to know the political and business milieux of England.  His stay is very instructive.  Between a debate in the House of Commons and a technical visit to a spinning factory, he is discovering the workings of a country that is the workshop of the world.  His visit to Queen Victoria is a particular highlight.  The sovereign, who has been reigning for forty years and has been Empress of India for the last two, is charmed by Rudolf.  She invites him to spend a few days in the Isle of Wight, at Osborne House, to rest from the joys of London organized by the Prince of Wales, who is an expert in the matter – his reputation in this domain is well-established.

To be continued.

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