7 February 1869. Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria, who is heading for his eleventh birthday, is being rewarded for his excellent school marks. He is attending a theatrical performance for the first time, in his parents’ company. The play, The Enchanted Prince, is perfectly appropriate for the Archduke. Franz-Josef is most satisfied with his son’s studies. The boy is passionate about History; a Life of Alexander the Great that he reads all the time has to be snatched from his hands. But his sensitivity is developing in parallel with his intelligence. Ill-luck having unfortunately caused him to witness a young man’s suicide in the Schonbrunn park, he has been particularly marked by it.
His mother is fighting boredom. She can no longer confront Vienna. How can she support the permanent criticism, the jealousy and the pettiness when, in five hours by train, she can be at Ofen or at Godollo, feasted, acclaimed, loved? She is therefore absent from Vienna at the inauguration of the new Opera House, on 25 May, the first Ringstrasse edifice to be finished. Vienna is being transformed, and is growing bigger. The new theatre has been built with inspiration from the plans of the Paris Opera House and those of the Chatelet Theatre. It has cost six million florins. The Habsburgs have always spent colossal sums of money for music. It is therefore a long tradition, which is being continued by Franz-Josef with this performance of Don Juan by Mozart, given in front of two thousand seven hundred spectators, by an orchestra of one hundred and eleven musicians. For the Ascension, the Empress consents to put in an appearance in the Saint Etienne Cathedral, after three hours of dressing and hairdressing. The Belgian Ambassador affirms:
“If she hadn’t come, I believe that there would have been a revolution”.
In June, the Empress flees to her native Bavaria. A shadow, however, hangs over this stay: she has taken only Maria-Valeria with her. Gisela and Rudolf are at Bad Ischl with their grandmother. Franz-Josef asks her to come back. Sissi agrees, but remarks to him:
“I make concessions and sacrifices for you, I hope that you will do the same for me.”
Just the idea of returning to Austrian soil is a “sacrifice”. Elisabeth doesn’t want anything to do with what is happening in Vienna. This is a mistake. But it is too late. She is punishing the Viennese, when only the Court is “guilty”.
In Autumn, Franz-Josef has to go to Egypt for the inauguration of the Suez Canal, one of the ultimate prides of the immense economic work of the French Second Empire. The Emperor does not want to miss the opening of the new scientific and technical marvel by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who has succeeded, in ten years, in vanquishing the desert and all sorts of financial and political difficulties. Will Sissi accompany him? In definitive, no. The voyage looks like a long one, charged with official manifestations. A new correspondence, very rich, begins between the spouses. They are unable to live constantly together, nor one without the other, as their daily letters show. In all points of view, they miss each other. With military precision, Franz-Josef describes to Sissi the stables, the Arab stallions and the eight hundred Court horses of Sultan Abdul Aziz, and the feasts on the illuminated Bosphorus, worthy of the Arabian Nights. A tone of complicity and lightheartedness characterises these epistolary exchanges.
After a strong tempest, the imperial yacht Greif has joined, on 16 November, the most extraordinary pacific meeting of boats from all the nations of Europe. There are eighty ships at anchor. Empress Eugenie is representing the French Emperor. Quite naturally, she forms with the Austrian Emperor, a prestigious official couple. He is seated on her right at the banquet given by the Khedive Ismail Pacha. Sissi makes an affectionate scene of jealousy to Franz-Josef:
“… So there you are once again with your dear Empress Eugenie. I am very jealous because you are flirting with her while I am alone here and cannot even take revenge.”
Sissi can be reassured; Franz-Josef is above all annoyed by the banquet, which comports thirty courses and is late beginning. Seven thousand people have to be fed in the middle of a desert…
While the Emperor is on his way home, Sissi learns that her sister Maria, ex-Queen of Naples, who has finally reconciled with her husband, is on the point of giving birth in Rome. The pretext for leaving is convenient. She must, however, obtain permission from the Emperor. So, she goes to meet him at Trieste. Their meeting is brief but Franz-Josef does not retain his spouse.
On 8 December, having arrived in Rome, which she has never visited, she is met by her sister and brother-in-law, who reside in the Farnese Palace. Pope Pius IX visits her. After this inevitable concession to her official role, Sissi literally disappears in Rome, which she visits incognito. The diplomatic and aristocratic corps are unable to convince her to come to a reception. Her sister gives birth on 24 December, the day of the Empress’ thirty-second birthday, and Sissi, devoted to the point of circulating in a simple neglige at night in the Farnese Palace to help the mother, catches a cold. With her mania for treating herself in strange ways, she drinks donkey milk. Miracle: she is cured. The real remedy is, however, completely different: it is an invitation to a hunt in the countryside around Rome, which she immediately accepts.
Christmas without the Empress. At the Hofburg, the family is used to Elisabeth’s absences but, in secret, no-one is happy about it. When she comes back, the Court’s humiliation will be total: she avoids Vienna, and goes to Godollo, where she spends long hours on horseback.
The Emperor is very absorbed by the French political situation, which is worrying in this 1870 Spring. Franz-Josef has already charged his Ambassador in Paris to assure the Emperor of the French of his support in a war against Prussia. But he underlines as well that it is wise to be prudent. Having arrived in Bad Ischl in June, Elisabeth, forewarned that Franz-Josef will not be able to join her as they both wished, declares, crushed:
“I only hope that there is not another war, that would be awful.”
To be continued.