Rumours about the continual presence of Bay Middleton at his mother’s side finally come to the ears of the Heir to the Throne. And at a dinner given by the Prince of Wales, Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria, turns his back on Middleton. The incident, reported to Empress Elisabeth (Sissi), affects her greatly. That there are always eyes and ears which see and hear the worst insinuations, Sissi already knows. But that she is calumnied to her son, she cannot bear. Between Sissi and Rudolf, the climate is tense. And on 23 February 1878, she returns alone to Vienna, for Rudolf has to meet Bismarck in Berlin.
Russia has just beaten Turkey and is preparing its dismemberment by creating a “great Bulgaria” protected by the Tsar. This ruling, imposed by the Treaty of San Stefano on 3 March 1878, cannot be accepted by either England, who had sent a fleet to protect Constantinople from the Russians, or Austria-Hungary, who sees its route to the East barred by it.
Sissi joins her very worried husband. And, on 8 March, Franz-Josef’s father, Archduke Franz-Karl, dies. The Emperor is very affected, the Empress doesn’t leave him. Although she has renounced all direct political influence, she is plunged into the divisions among the Court, which is protesting the San Stefano Treaty, a new step in the weakening of Austria; Bismarck proposes what he calls his help as “an honest courtier”. And on 13 July, a Congress meets in Berlin. Franz-Josef is aiming for the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and he knows that England will support him, for she can only support anything which will slow Russia’s territorial expansion. The Congress stipulates therefore that Bosnia-Herzegovina will be administered and militarily occupied by Austria-Hungary. The advantage is that Franz-Josef does not risk seeing a great Slavic State created on his southern borders. The inconvenience being that the Sultan conserves a European presence.
On 9 September, Sissi joins her parents for a grand family reunion, for Ludovika and Max are celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. The celebration takes place South of Munich, at Tegernsee, beside a ravishing lake nestled between the forest mountains and pastures. All the children, grandchildren, cousins and relatives meet in a former Benedictine Abbey. In the North wing, transformed into a brasserie, litres of an excellent beer are poured. In the South wing, transformed into a castle, Karl-Theodore, Sissi’s favourite brother, receives the family. Elisabeth and Rudolf reconcile, and the atmosphere is joyous. The only big problem is what is happening to Louis II. He lives only at night, dressing as an Oriental prince while Schiller’s play William Tell is recited to him. His cousin is asking herself if he is not going to fall into total dementia.
On 11 December, the Court is seized with emotion. Rudolf wounds himself with a carabine. The wound, on the left hand, is the result of the Prince’s sinister habit of ceaselessly playing with firearms and firing on any game passing within reach. It is rather curious that Rudolf manifests such passion for animals on the one hand and a wish to kill them on the other.
Between Sissi and her son, relations are difficult. Rudolf is becoming independent which leads him to escape his mother’s influence. Affected as Colonel of the 36th Regiment of Infantry in Prague, he leads an active life, from seven in the morning to six at night, discovering with interest the rigours of military life.
1879. Elisabeth decides to travel back across the English Channel. It is not England that attracts her, but Ireland. The English hunts, she has been told, are nothing beside those of Ireland. Franz-Josef objects that, vis-a-vis Queen Victoria, Ireland’s anti-English atmosphere does not allow the Empress of Austria this stay, without her presence being badly interpreted. She answers that these political tensions have been greatly exaggerated by the London Press.
At the end of January, the Empress arrives at Meath Castle, to the West of Dublin. Her lady-in-waiting panics: there are more little walls and ditches than in England. Elisabeth risks falling from horseback even more. And, in fact, her manner of mounting at full gallop for hours at a time astounds the inhabitants. Refusing to wear gloves so as to better hold the reins, her hands are bleeding. The amazon Empress gives herself daily challenges. She writes to her mother:
“Here, at last, I feel free and at ease. The great advantage of Ireland is that one doesn’t meet any Royal Highnesses here.”
Total peace will be refused her even at the end of the world. Unhappiness joins her in the heart of magical Ireland. In the night of 11 to 12 March, a catastrophic inundation destroys the Hungarian commercial city of Szegedin, around ninety kilometres to the East of Budapest. Tens of thousands of people find themselves without a home and two thousand deaths are deplored. Very quickly at the city, Franz-Josef circulates on a barge in the middle of the muddy lake. The Queen’s absence shocks the Hungarians. It is only four days later that Elisabeth is completely informed of the size of the disaster. She writes to the Emperor:
“The sad news decides me to leave immediately… It is the greatest sacrifice that I can make, but in such a case, it is necessary”.
It is even indispensable, but the word “sacrifice” used by the Empress is not too strong: when a passion is anchored in her head, only a drama can turn her from it.
Eleven days later, Franz-Josef is radiant, Sissi returns in excellent condition. He is dazzled. Like the day of his marriage. She is “the prettiest grandmother in the world”, as the newspapers say, and that rather annoys Sissi. However, twenty-five years have gone by since their union. On 24 April 1879, Vienna celebrates the imperial couple’s Silver Jubilee.
From all of the Empire’s provinces, delegations are announced in a mixture of languages and costumes. The day before the Jubilee, three thousand five hundred guests press into the Palace. The imperial couple makes its entry, acclaimed by a fantastic ovation. Elisabeth is wearing a gown of light green satin. Her hair flowing down her back sparkles with diamonds and rubies. The delegations are stunned: the lady sovereign appears to be barely twenty-five… On the other hand, Franz-Josef is aged by his balding head and his pepper-and-salt side-whiskers.
To be continued.