Elisabeth and Franz-Josef at Cap Martin in 1894.

It is in Bavaria that Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) learns terrible news, feared by all the family:  King Louis II has just been arrested in his Neuschwanstein Castle, by order of a Medical Commission presided by a famous Munich psychiatrist, Doctor von Gudden.

A heated discussion erupts between the Empress and her mother Princess Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria.  Sissi does not believe in her cousin’s dementia.  Of course, he is extravagant, wasteful to the point of having plunged his country into a debt of several million marks.  Ludovika no longer knows what to think about her daughter Sophia’s former fiance.

Sissi and her daughter Maria-Valeria settle into a little hotel in Feldafing, opposite Berg Castle where the King is interned.  Does she want to keep herself informed about the treatment that will be inflicted on her unhappy cousin or is she seeking to protect him, help him and possibly even organize his flight?

On Sunday 13 June, Pentecost, a lady-in-waiting observes that Elisabeth is very pale and that she has been crying.  Messages leave for Emperor Franz-Josef and Crown Prince Rudolf.  Sissi can’t keep still, walking along the bank of the lake despite very threatening weather.

The next day, Sissi and Maria-Valeria are finishing their breakfast when Gisela arrives, shattered:

“The King has thrown himself into the lake!”

All day, Sissi swings between tears and anger.  The Government has killed the King of Dreams!  Louis II’s uncle, given the task of assuring the Regency, is an assassin!  In the evening, while the news is spreading throughout astounded Bavaria, Sissi throws herself on the floor of her bedchamber and says:

“Jehovah!  You are great!  You are the God of revenge, you are the God of grace, you are the God of wisdom.”

It has been affirmed that the Empress, informed by a domestic who had remained faithful to the King, may have tried to help him escape.  Traces of a carriage in front of the gates of Berg Castle were in fact seen, printed in the mud wet with rain.  This hypothesis, very romantic and worthy of the two cousins, is unfortunately not substantiated by any proof, apart from the traces of this closed carriage.

Louis II of Bavaria in his youth.

However, it can be established today that the King, whose very calm attitude after his internment contrasted with his bizarreries, had wanted to escape by approaching the lake during a walk with his doctor.  He had strangled Doctor von Gudden and headed for the centre of the lake, doubtless to flee, but an attack, in the middle of the digestion of a heavy meal, had struck him down.  He did not die from drowning, but from cardiac arrest.  Destiny had been faster than his willpower, which excludes suicide.

Sissi is in pieces.  She had always felt close to this cousin who resembled her.  She and he fled the world, she in her voyages, he in his dreams of stone.  He had saved Wagner, he had maintained Bavarian identity within the German union, he had given work to painters, architects, decorators, he had encouraged the Red Cross.  And how could Elisabeth not remember the roses, the hundreds of roses that he had sent to his cousin?  And those letters signed the Eagle and the Seagull, hidden in a drawer?  Tortured by pain, Sissi sends a crown and a sheath of flowers, but she does not have the strength to bow over the body of the monarch, who has at last found peace.  She gives only one order:  that a branch of jasmin, the flower that he so loved, be placed on his breast.  A last gift from the wounded Seagull to the fallen Eagle…

Rudolf is delegated by his father to attend Louis II’s funeral in Munich.  On the way, he stops to see his mother, whose state worries him a lot, and displays sudden pain for her.  She repeats:

“I have reflected so much on Providence’s unsoundable secrets, on time and eternity, on punishment and reward, and I realize now that one must be humble and place one’s confidence in God…”

Before leaving Bavaria, Sissi opens her exercise-book and writes a few desperate lines:

Adieu, my lake.

Today I throw my country

To the bottom of your waters

And I leave without rest to travel the world

In quest of new horizons.

Bavaria suddenly horrifies her.  The Empress was the only one who understood Louis II.  Their dialogue has been interrupted forever.  She feels that she is alone to carry the burden of existence.  The King had the privilege of living his fantasies and had died because of it.  A fabulous romantic story ends in tragedy.

The disappearance of the King, betrayed and misunderstood, more or less destroys Sissi’s equilibrium within her disequilibrium.  The Eagle will fly no more.  All alone, the Seagull will circle around in the sky, lost, beating the air in despair.  She will often say:

“I would like to leave this world like a bird who flies away.

Elisabeth will never recover from this shock.  She has not however finished suffering.

***

In the Spring of 1887, she goes to Mehadia, an admirable site in the South of Hungary.  The Romans had installed the Baths of Hercules there, canalising hot water which spouted up between 41 and 62 degrees Centigrade.  The Summer heat is also exhausting, and the hotel managers recommend prudence for “there are a lot of scorpions under the stones”…  This will in no way stop Sissi from walking in the forest, the better to communicate with Nature.

Opening her window to the moonlight, the Empress dreams in the heart of the admirable Central European forest.  All would be perfect if there weren’t any snakes.  They are the only things that frighten her, but she sends one to the Schonbrunn menagerie…

Back in Vienna, Sissi notices that there is a lot of talk about Franz-Josef’s interest in the actress Frau Schratt.  Elisabeth goes to visit the actress, thereby displaying her support for the friendship solicited by the Emperor.  Franz-Josef writes to the actress:

“Your honour and your reputation are sacred to me above all else and I would like to say to you that I absolutely want to let our friendship appear to the world, exactly as it is, as I see nothing which can be reproached in it.”

Franz-Josef’s happiness appears to be simple:  it is enough for him to be near his wife.  Solitude pushes him to see Katharina Schratt, whose conversation is gay and distracting.  In her little house, not far from Schonbrunn, she is a perfect bourgeois hostess.  Her hot chocolate is unctuous, her delicatessen meats well smoked, and she is not obsessed with her weight.  Blonde Frau Schratt is appetising.  Nothing in their correspondence, however, permits us to say that their relationship was really physical, despite a tenacious legend about it.

To be continued.

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