Wednesday 30 January 1889. The great Hofburg clock marks ten o’clock in the morning. The Empress has just finished her gymnastics. In her bedchamber-salon, she is now taking her Greek lesson by listening to a professor who is reading Homer. Eleven o’clock. Ida Ferenczy, her Hungarian lady companion, who is one of the rare people whom Elisabeth authorizes to enter her apartments without being announced, knocks at the door. She is distressed. In an expressionless voice, she says:
“Your Majesty, Baron Nopcsa wants to speak to you immediately.”
“Have him wait or tell him to come back later.”
Sissi’s lady companion insists: the First Chamberlain should be received straight away. To justify her insistence, she adds:
“He brings bad news about His Highness the Crown Prince.”
The professor leaves. Baron Nopcsa, who loves Elisabeth as if she were his daughter, speaks gently, with intense emotion:
“Your Majesty… The Crown Prince, Rudolf, is dead…”
Sissi bursts into tears and collapses onto her bed. A rapid, supple step is heard. It is the Emperor… Elisabeth cries out to Ida Ferenczy:
“Don’t let him in! Not yet!”
The Empress tries to dry her tears.
“Can you tell? Well, too bad, let him come in and may God come to my aid!”
The atrocious tete-a-tete is brief. No witness is able to tell us the words Sissi used to announce the appalling truth to the Emperor. After a few instants, the salon door opens. Franz-Josef, shattered, broken, passes before the Chamberlain.
Sissi descends to Ida Ferenczy’s rooms, for she knows that the actress Katharina Schratt is waiting there for her visit to the Emperor. The Empress makes a superhuman effort. Frau Schratt, so gentle, so calm, will know how to help the Emperor surmount the shock. Now, Maria-Valeria must be told. Elisabeth returns to her chamber. Her daughter will find her there in tears.
“Rudolf is very, very ill… There is no hope for him!”
Maria-Valeria passes her arm around her mother’s neck.
“Did he kill himself?”
“Why do you say that? No, no… He has doubtless been poisoned…”
Franz-Josef appears. The two women throw themselves into his arms, crying. Between two sobs, Elisabeth repeats:
“When he starts destroying, the great Jehovah is like a tempest.”
These are roughly the same words that she had used upon learning of Louis II of Bavaria’s death. And, as for Louis II, the Empress refuses to believe in her son’s suicide.
On 31 January, in the middle of the night, a van escorted by cavaliers with drawn sabres brings Rudolf’s body back to the Hofburg. By order of Franz-Josef, he is installed in his bed as if he had died there. At seven o’clock, the Emperor, in full ceremonial uniform, white gloves and sabre, enters the bedchamber with its closed shutters. Rudolf’s head is wrapped in a bandage. The Archduke’s aide-de-camp pulls a white, flannel blanket up to Rudolf’s chin, a detail which will set off the rumour that Rudolf had had his hands cut off… His chest is surrounded by flowers. A quarter-of-an-hour passes. The Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary is face to face with his only son, his direct heir. Apart from his suffering, apart from the family drama and all possible remorse, the future of the double monarchy is at stake. In twenty-four hours, the unhappy father has aged ten years.
At midday, the Empress enters the bedchamber and dissolves into tears at the foot of the bed. For two days, she has been living on her nerves and remaining strong, for all her thoughts are for Franz-Josef. In times of tragedy, Elisabeth is always a courageous woman. But she is also in revolt against Heaven which has allowed this tragedy.
Franz-Josef, saved by work, silent before his dossiers during these tragic hours, continues his job of uniting the peoples of the Danube. Behind his extraordinary discipline, Sissi is helping him. To the Parliamentarians who have come to present their condolences, he says:
“I am unable to finds words strong enough to say how grateful I am to my dear, adored wife, the Empress, for her support during these sad days. I should be grateful to you if you would make that known around you.”
Tuesday 5 February. The funeral takes place one week after the drama. Franz-Josef asks Sissi not to attend, for he fears her nervous reaction.
Four days later, on Saturday 9 February, the Empress retires very early to her apartments. As usual, Elisabeth prepares herself for the night. Her chambermaids and her lady companion have just left. Silently, Elisabeth re-dresses and hides her face under a black, silk veil. At nine o’clock, she leaves the Hofburg by a little door, hails a fiacre and has herself driven to the crypt of the Convent of the Capucines. Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria, is the one-hundred-and-twelfth Habsburg to lie there.
She rings, a young monk opens the door. What does this woman want in the middle of the night? She asks to see the Prior.
“I am the Empress. Take me to my son…”
Torches are lit. Elisabeth descends the staircase and says:
“I wish to be alone with my son.”
The Empress passes by the rows of sarcophagi. In front of that of her son, covered in flowers, she freezes. And suddenly, in the sepulcral night where eleven emperors and fifteen empresses repose, a cry echoes, twice, surprising the monks:
Then silence. The crowned skulls on the tombs are in bronze.
The next day, Sissi having confessed her nocturnal visit to Franz-Josef and their daughters, the Emperor decides to maintain their planned voyage to Hungary. It is necessary to snatch her from this even sadder Court atmosphere, from this town in black, struck by mourning, where the craziest rumours are circulating. In her diary, Maria-Valeria notes:
“Mummy remains prostrated.”
To her terribly worried daughter, Sissi repeats:
“If only Jehovah would call me to him…”
The suffering Empress is calling Death to her. She is hoping for it. She is going to meet it.
To be continued.