The death of a lady equerry of French origin, Emilie Loisset, following a fall from a horse, greatly saddens Empress Elisabeth (Sissi), but her equestrian passion is replaced more and more by forced marches which resemble races; she is tiring her entourage to the brink of exhaustion.
“Suddenly, for no reason, I lost my courage, and I who, just the day before, suspected no danger, saw a threat in each bush and could not liberate my mind from its anguish”,
she would later say to a lady-in-waiting, while trying to analyze the disappearance of her passion for riding. It must be noted that Sissi detests wasting her time, she does everything quickly. She liked galloping on horseback, she now gallops on foot. The police officers affected to her security are unable to explain how she is able to really gallop on foot, for six hours non-stop, without collapsing. The ladies-in-waiting, exhausted by Sissi’s forced marches, declare forfait.
“Soon, no-one will be able to follow her”,
states her daughter Maria-Valeria, who is fifteen. And a young, robust Hungarian girl becomes the Empress’ walking companion. When Wilhelm I visits Bad Ischl, on 9 August 1882, he invokes his great age – eighty – as an excuse not to participate in these outings worthy of a chamois. The Emperor of Germany is, however, delighted to accompany Sissi and Maria-Valeria to the theatre. He will regret it: the play, entitled The Promise Behind the Stove, ridicules a Prussian. It takes all Sissi’s grace to repair this diplomatic error and bring laughter back to his shocked entourage.
An official voyage to Trieste and Dalmatia is planned in September. It looks as if it is going to be delicate. Extremists continue to agitate, and police reports are of the opinion that an attempt against the Emperor’s life cannot be excluded. Franz-Josef wants to leave alone, but Sissi, informed of the dangers, refuses to remain behind.
She demands to share the peril. She flees the Court, but faces the risks connected with being Head of State. Sissi senses drama. In fact, the programme must be changed at the last minute, for some conspirators are arrested and assassination inscriptions appear at the foot of an effigy of Franz-Josef. Sissi does not leave her spouse, even exposing herself in an open carriage to better protect him. On the steamship Berenice, a ball is supposed to take place. A storm is raging, and it is discovered that the ship is leaking everywhere. As always when she is really worried, Sissi is very calm. They must reach the gunboat Lucifer, which has great difficulty in accosting. The four days of tense voyage end on a comical note: at the last grand dinner, one of the guests, perhaps moved by Sissi’s beauty, confuses his finger-bowl with one of his glasses and empties it completely. Elisabeth has the greatest trouble not to burst out laughing.
On 2 September, Stephanie, Rudolf’s spouse, gives birth to a little girl, at Laxenburg. The child is named Elisabeth, a homage that Rudolf had wanted to give his mother, but everyone will call her Erszi, the Hungarian diminutive for Elisabeth.
Stephanie, who wanted a boy, cries. But Rudolf is happy. He assures:
“It doesn’t matter; a girl is much nicer!”
One remarkable fact, noted by Maria-Valeria: Sissi, leaning over the cradle, does not find, this time, that the baby is ugly.
Franz-Josef offers an emerald and forty thousand florins to the new-born girl and, twenty days later, Rudolf is named Commander of the 25th Division, which is in garnison in Vienna. This measure seems to compensate the advanced ideas held by the Crown Prince, which he doesn’t try to hide. In fact, for the last year, he has become friendly with a liberal journalist, Moriz Szeps, the Director of a big Viennese daily. Rudolf writes anonymous articles in it criticising the Government and the Empire’s foreign policy.
Maria-Valeria notes in her diary, at the date of 27 November, that a new actress has come to Burg Theater. Her name is Katharina Schratt.
“She is magnificent…”
Little by little, it is noticed that, when Frau Schratt is onstage, Franz-Josef is in his box.
In April 1884, Elisabeth leaves again, this time for health reasons: sciatica is making her suffer and the best way of treating it is to discontinue walking and horse-riding.
A great specialist of muscular troubles, Doctor Metzger, installed in Amsterdam, receives the Empress. He does not hide his pessimism: Elisabeth risks an infirmity if she continues her “outings”. He notes that his patient mounts four horses a day, practises with a fleuret, and is surprised at having a swollen knee. His greatest victory over the stubborn Empress is to obtain that she eat normally. Astutely, the doctor does not speak of malnutrition, anaemia or nervous fatigue provoked by a stomach which is nearly always empty. He speaks only of beauty, judging that if the Empress continues absorbing only milk, she will be “old and wrinkled” within two years. The argument is decisive. Sissi cannot bear for an instant the thought that her strange ways of caring for herself to remain slim is arriving at the same age phenomenon as that of women whose only exercice is opening their parasols…
While Stephanie and Rudolf undertake a voyage in the Balkans, Sissi makes a pilgrimage to Mariazell, on 11 September. She had made a vow to give precious objects to the Virgin, Austria’s protectress, if she was cured of her sciatica. Elisabeth is terrified at the idea of being confined to a wheelchair. This would mean that she could no longer flee. Worried, she again goes to Holland, in March 1885, to consult Doctor Metzger. Massages having helped her, in May, she returns to Austria via Heidelberg, where she meets Maria-Valeria. Mother and daughter are enchanted by the old university city, steeped in German romantism.
At the end of May, the Empress feels the need to know what has happened to the young man she had met at the Mardi-Gras ball in Vienna, eleven years before… She again uses her pseudonym of Gabrielle. The addressee, Frederic Pacher of Theinburg, who is still living in Vienna, replies on 9 June:
“Dear Yellow Domino,
“Nothing could have astonished me more than the sign of life that you give me. It is not enough to say that I was stunned. What has been happening over these eleven years? Doubtless you still shine with your proud beauty like before; as for me, I have become a respectable, bald spouse, I have a wife as tall as you and a delicious little girl. You can, if you judge it convenable, leave aside your domino without fear after the passage of eleven years and shed light on this enigmatic adventure, the most troubling of those that I have ever lived (…).”
Sissi is enchanted. Eleven years after his brief encounter, Frederic is still there.
In a lyrical frame of mind, the Empress decides to visit Louis II of Bavaria.