Last photo of the Empress (left) at Territet, the day before her assassination.
The imperial odyssey continues: Seville, Majorca, the Italian Riviera. In her absence, Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) asks Ida Ferenczy to take care of the Emperor. The lady companion organizes little luncheons where steaming sausages and hot, Hungarian bread delight the Emperor, doubly sad because his actress friend Frau Schratt is also absent. Franz-Josef finally joins his invisible spouse in Switzerland, at Territet. In passing, he stops at their daughter Maria-Valeria’s home, where she has just given birth to a son.
“I can’t help thinking about Rudolf,”
says the sixty-three-year-old grandfather.
Fleeting instants of happiness dare to slip inside the couple’s bitterness; the Emperor and Empress are happy to be together, in Geneva, in perfect harmony. A lady-in-waiting notes:
“With her charm, the Empress puts her spouse completely in her pocket!”
But an ill is eating away at Elisabeth. Still the same one: she is destined to roam, wandering throughout the world.
The Empress leaves again. Milan, Genoa, Naples, then returns to Austria in May for the engagement of her granddaughter Augusta, Gisela’s daughter.
After a stay in Ofen, she leaves again, terrified by the latest news about Othon, the late Louis II of Bavaria’s demented brother: now he thinks that he is a dog… New stop in Algiers, then Sissi arrives in Madera. She hasn’t been here for thirty-three years. What memories, what emotions, what dramas… Another Christmas where Franz-Josef is deprived of Elisabeth’s presence. Luckily Katharina Schratt, the friend, is there. The Emperor writes very moving letters to his wife:
“The word happiness is hardly suited to us, we need only a bit of calm, good understanding and a life less heavy with unhappiness.”
At the end of February, she disembarks at Menton and goes to the Cap-Martin Hotel where Franz-Josef will soon join her. A compact crowd presses around the hotel’s gardens where “Security agents disguised as peasants or farmers, surge at the right moment to shoo you on your way”, writes the local Press. Frau Schratt, whose presence had initially been planned, is not there. The spouses consider that incognito is impossible and that the criticism would be malevolent. The Emperor writes to the lady friend, asking her not to join them.
“This place is unfortunately not at all tranquil and very visited.”
On 15 March, he embraces the Empress twice, begs her not to nourish herself with only oranges and violet ice-cream – a dessert in fashion – and boards his special train. Sissi will remain another month. Good news draws her from the Cote d’Azur: Maria-Valeria has a second son.
1895. The Empress returns to Cap-Martin. Her alimentation is making Franz-Josef furious:
“You treat hunger by fasting instead of satisfying it, like reasonable people do, and this worries me. But these are useless words, and it is better not to begin this chapter.”
The Empress absorbs only milk, and even then it is only milk from certain cows which she buys then sends to Austria, where Ida Ferenczy receives the unexpected mission to create a model dairy.
Protected by her fan or her sunshade, the solitary Empress goes from Corfu to Venice, where she occupies the same apartments as when Venitia was Austrian. Noticing that her weight exceeds fifty kilos by three hundred grammes, she considers herself to be obese and recommends to Frau Schratt, who is a bit rounder, to watch herself.
Her diet seems to be organized, systematic autodestruction. As soon as she eats almost normally, her body comes to life, and she worries about spoiling her silhouette. Then, she makes sure that the scales go down to fifty kilos.
The "Bazar de la Charite" fire inspired ballads by street-singers.
Paris, Tuesday 4 May 1897. At 17 rue Jean-Goujon, in a long wooden construction, feverish animation reigns around the counters held by women who bear the greatest names. The place is called the Bazar de la Charite. At ten-past-four in the afternoon, a flame erupts from a cinematographic apparatus which functions with ether… Drama. The doors of the projection room, which open from the inside, are blocked. With admirable abnegation, Sissi’s sister, Sophia, Duchess of Alencon, cries out to the young girls around her:
“Everyone pass before me! I shall leave last…”
She will be one of the one hundred-and-fifty victims. She sacrificed herself. She was a great lady.
The news arrives the following day at Biarritz, where Elisabeth is. Her youngest sister burnt alive, her hands joined, praying… The Empress, broken, murmurs:
“The malediction is growing…”
She says to her daughter Maria-Valeria:
“This will all end one day… Eternal rest will be so much better.”
Bad Ischl, 16 July 1898. For the last two months, the Empress, who is tired, is resting in the Imperial Villa.
Sissi is anaemic. Eating only eight oranges a day is insufficient, despite the vitamins. She is also suffering from nevritis, insomnia and a slight cardiac dilation. She is going to leave this same day on a cure. She gives a last rapid look at the screen decorated with photos of Maria-Valeria.
The Emperor, upset to see the one he has loved for exactly forty-five years in this state, embraces her. The carriage is already descending the driveway which leads to the iron bridge over the river.
They will never see each other again.
Sissi boards her train which leaves for Munich.
After travelling through Germany, the Empress arrives in Switzerland on 30 August, in Caux, above Montreux. Franz-Josef writes to her the day after her departure:
“I miss you infinitely…”
The Emperor’s sadness is aggravated by the fact that Katherina Schratt is also ill… and just as impatient as Sissi.
“She’s a second Empress”,
complains the Emperor, saddened by this imitation.
Sissi, enchanted by the beauty of the Caux site, chooses excursions which are a bit tiring for her heart. On 9 September, the weather is splendid. The Empress, reinvigorated, boards the steamer which will take her from Territet, South of Montreux, to Geneva. Elisabeth, in an excellent mood, having spent the four-hour trip on deck, has finally accepted Baroness de Rothschild’s invitation to luncheon. It takes place in Pregny, a magnificent villa on the outskirts of Geneva.
Baroness Julie de Rothschild receives the Empress sumptuously. Orchids flower the table which has been laid for three, for Elisabeth is accompanied by a lady-in-waiting, Countess Irma Sztaray. Sissi honours the menu. She savours some “petites timbales a l’imperiale”, a “truite du lac du Bourget”, a “mousse de volaille Perigueux”, a “chaud-froid de perdreaux en Bellevue”, a “creme glacee a la hongroise” and a “marquise au chocolat”. It’s an event. In celebration, she drinks a flute of Champagne frappe. She asks her lady-in-waiting to send the menu to the Emperor, and to insist on the fact that the Empress had greatly enjoyed it.
To be continued.