The imperial family at Godollo.

On 25 April 1879, a storm breaks and the Silver Wedding Jubilee ceremonies have to be delayed until 28 April because of bad weather.  The crowd’s impatience has made it even more enthusiastic.  In bright sunshine, the Emperor and Empress take place under a dais at eleven o’clock precisely.  Franz-Josef is standing, wearing a helmet with a long green plume, saluting his standards and colours.  Elisabeth (Sissi) and her daughter Maria-Valeria are seated, sheltered by a parasol, between the Emperor and Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria, who is also standing.  All of the trade corporations advance in an incredible procession before the imperial tent.  A baker carries a giant bretzel, a piece of which is snatched as it passes, by some people in the second storey of a house on the Ring.  On the pastry-cooks’ float, a wedding-cake one metre in diameter is resisting the heat.  The Master Printer Manz, disguised as Gutenberg, raises a composition on which can be read “Fifteen Days on the Danube”.  This is the title of a memoir written by Rudolf which has just been published.  The prettiest Viennese women, seated on a float, recall one of Durer’s works.  Then there are the hunters with their noisy packs of hounds.  Two hundred and thirty thousand people vibrate with these rejoicings, which are unparalleled in Europe.  A total success.  Franz-Josef, very moved, thanks his Government:

“Throughout my thirty years of reign, I have shared with my peoples many difficult hours and a lot of joys;  one could not procure me a purer nor deeper one than that of these last days.”

And the homage received by the Empress can be interpreted as a reconciliation between the city and the amazon sovereign.  A joke is circulating, in French, which makes Sissi laugh:

“The Empress is not celebrating twenty-five years of marriage but rather twenty-five years of manege!”

Vienna manifests a deep attachment to the couple.  It is the irrefutable proof that the peoples of Austria nourish a lively and warm sympathy for their monarchs.  The couple will receive a charming gift in the form of a great screen.  On five panels, their Jubilee is painted in a delicate and naive manner like Epinal images.  Sissi and Franz-Josef will place this screen in the Red Salon of the Imperial Villa, in Bad Ischl.

Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria.

At Godollo, the equestrian festivities begin again, between hunting and dressage.  The Empress is seeking to correct her faults by mounting all available horses.  This is no longer sport, it is a vocation.  The hunting season for the Crown Prince is also open.  Rudolf, who has several feminine successes to his credit, is literally pursued by a half-Greek widow, Baroness Helena Vetsera.  Viennese aristocracy watches, with a mixture of amusement and curiosity, the way in which the Baroness, who has two daughters, tries to marry them “well”.  Beseiged, Rudolf chooses to laugh about it.  Sissi and Franz-Josef are a lot less indulgent.  At the family dinner of 3 December, the day after the thirty-first anniversary of his rise to the throne, the Emperor remarks:

“This woman’s activity around Rudolf is incredible.  She follows him step by step.  Today, she even gave him a gift.”

Rudolf’s real thoughts are elsewhere.  He is living the happiest time of his life.  His travels have rendered him famous in Europe.  At twenty-two-years-old, he is the most observed Crown Prince and the most sought after.  His personal life, very agitated, doesn’t really bother his father, but the Emperor thinks that he should find a wife for his son.  It’s about time…  And Franz-Josef already has an idea.  Having made a precise examination of all the possible young ladies, he has shown interest in Stephanie of Belgium, the daughter of King Leopold II.  Her mother, Queen Marie-Henriette, was born Archduchess of Austria.  The King of the Belgians is favourable to the union.  So, when Elisabeth manifests her intention of leaving for Ireland at the end of January 1880, Franz-Josef asks her to pass through Brussels on her way back.

***

The new stay in Ireland is marked by a succession of falls from horseback and spectacular accidents.  The Empress gives the impression of wanting to stretch her efforts – and her luck? –  to their limit, by looking for more speed, wider ditches, higher banks.  Her habitual admirers follow her, when they can.  Around her, the best cavaliers fall, including Middleton.  She recounts to Franz-Josef, frightened by this recital of stunts and accidents:

“He remained attached to his stirrup and it was almost more terrifying than the other day…”

The Empress is more in danger of killing herself on horseback than of having a love-affair with Captain Middleton…

However, Elisabeth is recalled to reality by a message from Franz-Josef.  He asks her to see Queen Victoria to compensate for the effect of the Empress of Austria’s presence, for more than a month, in Irish territory.  Sissi is not happy but she doesn’t argue.  On 10 March, she lunches at Windsor Castle.  Returning to the Claridge Hotel, in London, Elisabeth receives a telegramme.  She blanches.  Her lady-in-waiting trembles as she opens the message.  She reads:

“The Crown Prince is engaged to Princess Stephanie of Belgium.”

She exclaims:

“God be praised!  It’s not a misfortune!”

Sissi replies:

“May God make that true.”

This fear, unfortunately founded, shows the premonitory instinct of the Empress.  Although, her anxiety is mostly about the ages of the fiances;  Stephanie is only fifteen.  Since her own marriage, Sissi is afraid of premature unions.

On the way home to Austria, she stops in Brussels.  All the royal family is there.  Splendid in a blue gown with a mink border, Sissi captivates all gazes.  The comparison with Princess Stephanie is not to the young girl’s advantage.  She is fresh, a little plump.  Elisabeth questions Queen Henriette:  Stephanie is not yet pubescent…  Sissi is convinced:  this marriage is madness.  It must be delayed…  And Rudolf?  Is he in love or is he submitting to his father, who is negotiating a marriage for State reasons?  A brutal change has occurred in the Heir to the Throne’s behaviour.  A few weeks ago, he declared to his former preceptor:

“I am not ready to be a husband and I have no intention of becoming one as long as I can prevent it.”

But, on Sunday 7 March, after his last interview with Stephanie, he writes to this same Count Latour:

“I have found what I was looking for.  Stephanie is pretty, good, astute, very distinguished and will become for the Emperor a daughter worthy of trust, a faithful subject and a good Austrian.”

Having known many pretty, easy girls, Stephanie’s absence of maturity has perhaps moved him.

Franz-Josef is happy and reassured.  But the Empress is worried.  The discussion turns nasty.  Sissi obtains only one thing:  that the date of the wedding be not fixed immediately.  Rudolf complains that his mother is very reserved about his fiancee, but he returns to his garnison’s Command, in Prague.

Back in Bavaria, and thinking that Louis II is at Berg Castle, Sissi crosses the lake.  The sovereign is absent, and the Empress, disappointed, wants to leave her cousin a mark of her passage which is more affectionate than a visiting card.  In the park, she picks a branch of jasmin and adds it to her card.

***

To be continued.

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