Last photo of the Empress (left) at Territet, the day before her assassination.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sissi)’s assassin is doubly mistaken.  He believes that he has killed someone satisfied with her official role, fond of the advantages of public life, capriciously abusing her power.  This is the first error.  The anarchist had killed a Court anarchist, a woman who knew only the weight of the Crown.  Lucheni should have known that she had written:

“What do sceptres, crowns and purple ceremonial mantels matter?  They are only derisory, coloured rags, ridiculous rattles with which we vainly try to cover the nudity of our souls, when we should be thinking of safeguarding our life and our intimate feelings.”

This is a democratic empress, a popular queen, a modern sovereign.  The assassin kills an image, but this image is false.  With unparalleled audacity, Sissi had unleashed many worldly and social revolutions in Vienna.  This is a woman who is scandalised by small-mindedness, by injustice and by egoism.  Even if it beat in slight disorder, her heart, which had suffered so much, was very loving.  Elisabeth was nothing like a tyrant.  Sissi was more of a revolutionary than her aggressor.

To this first mistake, the assassin adds a second one, even more flagrant.  He did not kill a living being, he helped someone who wanted to die.  Armed by fatality, the assassin’s arm at last carried the coup de grace to the wounded Seagull who was circling in the sky of despair.  Lucheni did not know, either, that Elisabeth had said:

“The thought of death accompanies me day after day, it acts like a gardener who cleans the garden, but who wants to be alone and becomes irritated if curious people look over the wall.  So, I hide my face behind my sunshade and my fan, so that the idea of death is able to work peacefully inside me.”

There is something even more surprising.  Sissi had said:

“I know that I am walking towards a frightening goal which is assigned to me by Destiny…  I shall leave like smoke that drifts away, my soul will flee through a tiny little opening in my heart.”

A singular premonition…  And her assassin also did not know that she had declared, at the end of 1897:

“I don’t want to survive the Emperor.”

And, speaking of him and their daughter Maria-Valeria:

“I don’t want them to be present at my death, I want to die alone.”

Her wish was granted…

It must also be recalled that the church raised at Mayerling comports a little baroque chapel.  Beside the altar, the statue of a stabbed Virgin had been erected before Sissi’s assassination, by the sculptor Tilgner.  A Mater Dolorosa whose heart, which is apparent, is pierced by a knife;  the Virgin has Elisabeth’s features…

Finally, Lucheni killed someone in view, but he gave birth to a myth.  Death has made Elisabeth even greater.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

When we look back on the Empress’ impressive destiny, we can only bow before so much pain in her family:  Maximilien shot, Rudolf dead (assassinated?), Louis II drowned [or heart attack in the lake], Sophia of Alencon burnt alive, Charlotte demented…  A family?  An obituary.  And each of these deaths had withdrawn a reason for living from Elisabeth.  Fatality is in this presentiment of Sissi when she says one day:

“We all die violent deaths.”

The implacable cogs will turn again, tenacious like a malediction, striking down Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo.  The first shots fired in the Great War…

***

In October 1898, Luigi Lucheni is judged by the Geneva Court.  Furious that the death sentence had been abolished on the territory of the Republic of Geneva, he asks the President of the Swiss Federation to be judged according to the laws of the Canton of Lucerne, where the death sentence is still in vigour.  His letter is signed:

“Luigi Lucheni, anarchist, and one of the most dangerous.”

The sad boasting of the assassin could have cast doubts on his reason.  He was, however, declared to be sane, and considered, to his great disappointment, as a common prisoner and not as a political one.  Condemned to perpetual reclusion, the assassin attempts to kill himself with the key of a tin of sardines, on 20 February 1900.  Nervous, susceptible, he finally hangs himself in his cell on the evening of 16 October 1910.

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary, by Raab (1867).

So much unhappiness attached to so much charm have made Sissi an unforgettable person.  On 7 June 1907, in the Garden of the People, in the centre of Vienna, Emperor Franz-Josef inaugurates a monument to Elisabeth, Empress of Austria.  The city renders posthumous homage to the lady who fled it.  Sissi is seated, two big dogs at her feet.  She is looking at the Hofburg.

In Hungary, despite the political upheavals, her memory is far from being effaced.  In Budapest, Erzsebet Bridge still spans the Danube, and Erzsebet Avenue has not been renamed…

Sissi was also unforgettable for her unhappy spouse, dignified and courageous in these recurring disasters.  Strapped inside his duty, walled inside his mourning, the Emperor fights melancholy.  He wanders through the empty rooms where each object reminds him of his adored spouse, “even the scales where she weighed herself each day”.  On the verge of tears, he comes across all the reminders of the defunct Empress, her fan in wood and leather, riding-crops in sculpted ivory, one for her, one for him, each having the photo of the other and his or her initials surrounded by rubies, her ivory opera glasses, her silver cigarette case, her Book of Prayer with its clasp, her paper-knife encrusted with ladybirds and dragonflies…  And he raises his eyes to the portraits of the departed, as if he wants to reassure himself with her gaze.  Until his death on 21 November 1916, he will never cease to repeat:

“No-one will ever know how much I loved her…”

***

Empress Elisabeth of Austria with Shadow.

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