Tag Archive: Mayerling


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

Everyone is always expecting Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) to take off again on a voyage.

“God knows where we shall be going next,”

writes the First Chamberlain, Baron Nopcsa, to Ida Ferenczy.

“Most fortunately, Her Majesty is a lot calmer.”

But death stalks still.  On 22 May 1889, part of Sissi’s special train derails in a curve near Frankfurt.  The victims suffer only light wounds and very great fear.  Sissi, who had been thrown against the wall of her carriage-salon, says to her daughter Maria-Valeria:

“Man is born only for unhappiness.”

Sissi drags her sadness to Bavaria, where her daughters are worried, not without reason, when they hear her sigh:

“How I envy Rudolf…”

She returns to the Tyrol, at Meran.  Praiseworthy, devoted zeal causes the publication of a notice prescribing that no-one pay attention to the Empress, who wishes “to remain in absolute retirement”.  The result is catastrophic.  The peasants hide in their fields and children run away screaming whenever the Lady in Black appears.

Climbing the little tracks – her sciatica has disappeared – she declaims in Greek.  Her professor, Doctor Widerhofer, has trouble following her, and is obliged to mount a mule.  As it is hot, the Empress removes her petticoat.  Out of discretion, the doctor wants to turn away, but, a bad cavalier, he falls from the mule and breaks his clavicule.  Sissi has only one comment, implacable:

“A malediction weighs down on all that I undertake and the beings who surround me support the consequences.”

She flees.  Palermo, Malta, Tunisia, Carthage see the Lady in Black, who now forbids that her Name Day be celebrated.  On 4 December, she is back in Vienna.  To return to the Hofburg is to live the nightmare again.  Emperor Franz-Josef writes to his actress friend Frau Schratt:

“For us, there are no more presents nor Christmas.”

On 30 January 1890, the first anniversary of Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria’s death, Franz-Josef, Sissi and Maria-Valeria go to Mayerling.  Elisabeth had never been there before.  During the trip, she says not a word.  The pavillion has disappeared, pulled down for the most part, and, in expiation, a new church and a Carmelite convent have been built at the place of the drama.  The altar is on the spot where the Archduke had lain on his bed.

***

On 18 February, death returns to strike one of the rare men whom Elisabeth had always estimed, Andrassy.  He succumbs at sixty-seven-years-old, after months of suffering.

“My last friend, my only friend is dead,”

murmurs the Empress, weighed down by the dramas which surround her like a fatal halo.  In May, Sissi’s sister Helena, who should have been Empress of Austria, falls seriously ill.  Elisabeth goes to Ratisbonn.  Helena dies in Sissi’s arms, after an appalling battle.  The Empress is broken by so many ordeals, and the Vienna Court lives in a perpetual atmosphere of funeral wake.  Franz-Josef suffers a lot because of it.

At Bad Ischl, time passes a little less sadly.  Electricity has just been installed at the Imperial Villa, which lights up on 31 July for Maria-Valeria’s wedding.  But for Sissi, her favourite daughter’s departure is unbearable.  Elisabeth will flee, exhaust herself, give herself up to a senseless race against fatality, all the better to provoke it.

The Empress goes back to her favourite element:  the sea.  On a Danish cutter, the Chazalie, she leaves from Dover, travelling under the name of Mrs Nicolson.  The elegant steamer belongs to the Danish Ambassador to London.  The English Channel is rough.  Face to face with an angry sea, Sissi has herself attached to the main mast under the fearful gazes of the crew.  She affirms

“In the tempest, I often believe that I have, myself, become a foaming wave.”

At last, she arrives at Lisbon where there is an epidemic of cholera.  She is dissuaded from an excursion on the Tage.  Then it’s Gibraltar, Oran, Algiers, Tunisia, Ajaccio – she visits the house where Napoleon was born – Naples, Pompei, Capri, Florence.  A tour of the Mediterranean Sea which lasts two months, studded with forced marches in the little streets of the cities of the sun.

In October 1891, the palace that she has had built in Corfu is finished.  In honour of Achilles, Sissi names it the Achilleon.  A statue of the Trojan War hero is installed in front of the columns.  It is a “dying Achilles”.  Other statues, one of Rudolf and one of the German poet Heinrich Heine, take place amongst the “Roman” furniture.

But the flight continues.  The Empress is in Egypt, walking so quickly that “the secret police can only follow the sovereign by carriage”.  Sissi’s incapacity to remain still and her instantaneous movements from place to place had given her an amusing nickname in Greece:  “the railway”  or “the locomotive empress”.

***

The year 1892 begins with two family events.  On 26 January, Princess Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria, Elisabeth’s mother, dies at the age of eighty-four.  The last tie connecting the roaming Empress to her childhood is broken.  The next day, Maria-Valeria gives birth to a girl, four weeks early.  She is, of course, baptised Elisabeth, but, to differentiate her from her cousin, Rudolf’s daughter, she is called Ella.  The joy of this birth almost hurts Sissi, who is overwhelmed by her mother’s death.

Corfu welcomes her from February to May, then a cure at Karlsbad and a stay at Godollo take her to Autumn.  She has to be forced to eat.

Christmas.  Christmas without the Empress…  The Miramar is sailing to Spain.  To be pardoned for her Christmas absence, Sissi has ordered two paintings of Katharina Schratt from the painter Franz von Matsch, one a miniature, the other a full-length portrait.

Franz-Josef writes to her every two days.  The letters await her in the Consulates:

“I want to join my most sincere wishes for happiness to the express demand that you be, in the possibly brief future accorded to us, as good and as amiable as you have always been to me…  As I do not know how to show it to you enough and because it seems to bore you, I would like to tell you that I love you infinitely…  May God bless you, protect you and allow us to see each other agreeably again.  We have nothing more to desire nor to hope…”

To be continued.

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Elisabeth and Franz-Josef at Cap Martin in 1894.

The third observation which can be made about Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria’s death at Mayerling in the night of Tuesday 29 to Wednesday 30 January 1889, is that the dossier given by Emperor Franz-Josef to Count Taafe, the Prime Minister – and his childhood friend – has also disappeared in a suspicious fire at his castle.  The copy of this dossier, deposited with a lawyer of the imperial family, was stolen.

Fourthly, Herr Frederic Wolf, a carpenter in the village of Alland, near Mayerling, has recounted that his father, also a carpenter, was called to clean up the hunting pavillion two days after the drama.  Herr Wolf had always said that the bedroom had been the scene of a terrible combat.  The furniture had been knocked over and broken, there were bullet impacts on the furniture and in the walls.  There were traces of blood everywhere and, in particular, an enormous puddle of it near the bed.  To make it go away, his father had had to plane the floor-boards.  He added that the bedroom window was broken and that a ladder was leaning against the outside wall.

Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria.

Fifthly, Archduchess Maria-Theresa, the widow of Archduke Karl-Louis, who was one of Emperor Franz-Josef’s brothers, had certified that Rudolf had said to her husband:

“I am going to be assassinated.”

Rudolf was alluding to a European conspiracy which was aiming to depose Franz-Josef from Hungary’s throne and place his liberal son in his place.  According to Empress Zita, Austria’s last empress and last Queen of Hungary, in her 1983 newspaper interview, Rudolf had refused to participate in the plot against his father.  He had said to his uncle Karl-Louis:

“I would have no scrupules in revealing this conspiracy but if I do, I will be killed.”

Sixthly, Archduchess Maria-Theresa saw Rudolf dead and touched his hands.  She declared to Empress Zita:

“The gloves had been stuffed with cotton, for his hands were broken.”

This remark can be connected to the statement by Prince Xavier de Bourbon-Parme (Empress Zita’s brother) published in the December 1982 number of the magazine Historia:

“I have it from a reliable source, believe me, because it is from the mouth of an official person who had entered the bedroom of the drama when the body of Maria Vetsera had just been removed, that Archduke Rudolf’s right wrist had been severed by a blow from a sabre.”

Seventhly, Doctor Karl Georg von Boroviczeny, a Berlin doctor and grandson of the Princess of Lowenstein, whose sister had married Don Miguel of Braganza.  Don Miguel was a great friend of Rudolf.  Invited to the hunt which was to take place on the morning of the drama, he had declined the invitation at the last moment.  But he recounted later to his family that Rudolf had said to him:

“I am going to be assassinated.  I know too many things.”

Eighthly, when the Carmelites at the convent built near Mayerling are asked if they pray for the Archduke who committed suicide, they reply only that he is dead.  The 1983 Mother Superior declared that each new Carmelite is taught that the Archduke did not commit suicide but that he had been killed.

Ninthly, Rudolf’s faithful coachman, present on the night of the drama, repeated, without giving details:

“It’s not like they always say, it’s not a suicide.”

Tenthly, Empress Elisabeth’s daughter Gisela told Empress Zita that she had touched her brother’s head and that it was crushed, as if it had received a blow.  The official version claims that Rudolf had killed Maria Vetsera by applying the weapon to her left temple, the bullet having exited through the right temple.  However, on 7 July 1959, undertakers from Baden in the Viennese forest, near Mayerling, proceeded to the exhumation of the defunct girl, in the presence of a forensic doctor.  It was noted that

“the cranium presented an oval hole of seven centimetres”.

There was no hole through which a bullet could have exited.

Eleventhly, the physical elimination of the Prince, for political reasons, is perfectly conceivable.  Different hates were unleashed against the Habsburg family.  We have seen, for example, that of Bismarck, ceaselessly trying to weaken Austria.  There were many others.  Empress Zita affirms that some of the assassins were foreigners.  In the hypothesis of an assassination, Maria Vetsera would have been killed only because she was with Rudolf.  This is far removed from the “Romeo and Juliet” version.

Twelfthly, according to a letter conserved in the Royal Archives of Windsor Castle, the British Prime Minister is convinced that it is a double assassination.  This letter was written on 12 February 1889 by the Prince of Wales to Queen Victoria:

“You tell me that Lord Salisbury is certain that poor Rudolf and that unfortunate young girl were killed…”

This letter can be connected to another contemporary one addressed by the King of the Belgians, Leopold II (Rudolf’s father-in-law) to his brother in Brussels.  Telling him of the uncomfortable voyage to Vienna to attend the funeral, the Belgian monarch adds:

“It is sovereignly important that the suicide version be affirmed and maintained.  (…)  Suicide and madness were the only means of avoiding an unforgettable scandal the details of which I cannot confide in my letter, but which I shall narrate in all details Saturday.

Your brother, Leopold.”

This capital letter was found in the personal papers of Monsieur Paul Hymans, Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, one of the signatories of the Treaty of Versailles, after his death in 1942.

In light of these troubling elements, it is now impossible to blindly uphold the suicide thesis.  The possibility of assassination can no longer be systematically denied.  Doubt has always existed and is singularly reinforced by technical observations which give pause for thought.  Franz-Josef sometimes admitted:

“The truth is even more serious than anything than anyone one has ever said.”

More than a century after this drama, we are perhaps very close to the truth…

***

Elisabeth and Franz-Josef at Cap Martin in 1894.

What happened at Mayerling in the night of Tuesday 29 to Wednesday 30 January 1889?  What happened exactly?  The most fantastic historical enigma of the XIXth Century, the most poignant drama of old Europe, still suscitates the most diverse interpretations.  Mayerling is the drama of a man, a family, a world.  What tragedy unfolded in a pretty pavillion in the heart of a peaceful valley?  A ravishing, romantic place.  A nightmare in the Viennese forest.

What was the official version?  Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria, intelligent but depressive, brilliant but unstable, was very unhappy in his private life.  Married for State reasons to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, he felt only lassitude at his spouse’s side.  The birth of their daughter Erszi had, for a while, permitted the hope of a reasonable, if not idyllic, understanding within the couple.  Unfortunately, Stephanie’s delivery had been difficult, and the doctors had warned her that she could not have any more children.  Rudolf, deeply saddened by the impossibility of giving a son to the dynasty, is supposed to have detached himself definitively from his spouse, judged to be ungracious, nasty and jealous.

Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria.

In his public life, Rudolf nourished ambitions greater than those offered by the functions which he exercised.  His clandestine contacts with progressist and liberal milieux were many…  His writings, published under pseudonyms, criticised the line followed by Vienna.

In 1888, he had fallen in love with one of the daughters of the enterprising Baroness Helena Vetsera, the very young Maria – she is seventeen.  Rudolf is so taken with her that he addresses a marriage annulment request to Pope Leon XIII.  The request is refused and provokes, it is said, a violent scene between Franz-Josef and his son.  The Emperor is said to have ordered the Archduke to cease this scandalous liaison.  At the German Embassy reception on 27 January, Maria Vetsera is said to have ostensibly refused to curtsy to Stephanie.

Doubly disappointed, Rudolf is supposed to have decided to kill himself and asked Maria Vetsera to follow him in death.  Mayerling was the lovers’ last rendez-vous.

The official enquiry will attempt to establish the circumstances of the double death, carefully omitting to mention Maria Vetsera’s body.  Officially, the young girl was not at Mayerling…  Maria is buried very rapidly, during a clandestine ceremony which is particularly macabre:  her body, held upright by a stick, had been transported, seated, by carriage, to the forest cemetery of Heiligenkreuz, a few kilometres from Mayerling.

A series of confused and contradictory communiques will cast doubt – and discredit – on the Archduke.  There will be talk of Rudolf being poisoned by Maria Vetsera, who then killed herself.  After that, it was said that the Prince suffered from an embolism and that his mistress killed herself in despair.  Then, the version of a hunting accident is retained, founded on Rudolf’s passion for firearms.  But the “definitive” version is that of murder-suicide.  Maria Vetsera is killed by Rudolf, who then kills himself.  However, this official explanation comes too late, after too many others, to be accepted without question.

An evident reason for these hesitations is the shame felt by Franz-Josef, whose son is presented as a murderer and a suicide.  The only way to obtain the authorisation for a religious funeral from the Vatican is to prove a state of dementia.

According to this version, Rudolf, involved in sentimental failure, would have had no other issue but death.  By retaining this version, two essential variations can be added.  Firstly, Maria Vetsera, Rudolf’s mistress since 13 January [that is to say, for sixteen days], is pregnant and the rupture ordered by Franz-Josef comes too late.  Secondly, they are half-sister and half-brother, Franz-Josef having had a kindness for Helena Vetsera.  These two variations are not incompatible.

***

On Friday 11 March 1983, another version becomes public.  Austria’s last Empress and Hungary’s last Queen, Zita, was exiled from Austria from 1919 to 1982.  After the death of her husband, Emperor Karl, in 1922, she had lived some difficult times and raised her eight children.  While she was exiled in Switzerland, no historian nor journalist had ever officially asked her her opinion on the Mayerling tragedy.  The question was asked for the first time by the Special Correspondent of the Kronen Zeitung who published his enquiry in this Vienna newspaper in March 1983.

Born in 1892, three years after the tragedy, the former Empress was the only witness left of this imperial epoch who had very well known the contemporaries of the drama, in particular Franz-Josef and his two daughters Gisela and Maria-Valeria.  It is therefore natural to think that Empress Zita was better placed than historians to know what is hidden behind this State secret which is, after all, a family secret.

The Empress decided to speak so as to accomplish the mission entrusted to her by her husband Emperor Karl, who succeeded Franz-Josef, his great-uncle, in 1916, and who had received the task of rehabilitating Rudolf’s memory by producing the proof that he had been assassinated for political reasons.  War and death had prevented this.

Various remarks can be made about this new version.

Firstly, it is true that Franz-Josef made all those who knew about the drama swear to keep silent about it.  If Rudolf had really committed suicide after having killed Maria Vetsera, why continue to keep it secret once this official version had been given by the Court?  If Franz-Josef and Sissi had been very rapidly informed that their son had been assassinated and had accredited the suicide version for the public, it is because the political stakes were too high and high-ranking people in the Empire would have been compromised.  According to Empress Zita, Franz-Josef had said:

“I couldn’t do otherwise.  The monarchy’s existence was in danger.”

In this case, Mayerling would have been the first act in an enterprise of “destabilisation”, the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 being the second act.  The aim was achieved:  The Austro-Hungarian Empire, shaken by Mayerling, was dismantled at Sarajevo.

Secondly, after the first telegramme sent by the Emperor to the Pope to obtain the right to inhume Rudolf religiously, the Vatican had refused.  At this time, suicide excluded all indulgence by the Holy See.  Franz-Josef sent a second, coded telegramme to Rome, around two thousand words long, and the Pope immediately accorded the authorisation for a religious funeral.  The first telegramme has been found but the second has mysteriously disappeared.  It is in neither the Vatican’s archives nor those of Austria.  Why?  Countess Helena Esterhazy reported that her grandfather, who was Ambassador of Austria-Hungary to the Holy See and had received and decoded the famous second telegramme, told her later that its contents explained that it had been a political assassination.

To be continued.

Elisabeth and Franz-Josef at Cap Martin in 1894.

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.

Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria.

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:

“Rudolf!  Rudolf!”

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.

Elisabeth and Franz-Josef at Cap Martin in 1894.

Franz-Josef writes to the actress Katherina Schratt:

“I love my wife, and I want to abuse neither her confidence nor her friendship for you.  As I am too old to be a fraternal friend, allow me to remain your paternal friend and treat me with the same goodness and the same candour as you have until now.”

The Emperor also wants to render justice to Elisabeth (Sissi):

“The Empress has spoken of you several times, with the greatest goodness and kindness, and I can give you the assurance that she likes you a lot.  If you could learn to know this remarkable woman a little better, you would certainly have the same feelings.”

Only this frank correspondence allows us to measure the complicity which surrounds the amorous friendship between Franz-Josef and Katharina Schratt.

In July 1887, Sissi returns to Bavaria.  She is very relaxed, a stunning fifty-years-old, although she is tormented by religious questions, particularly since the death of her favourite cousin King Louis II of Bavaria.

Franz-Josef’s fifty-seventh birthday is celebrated in Bad Ischl with the family.  The Emperor raises his glass to his son’s health.  Elisabeth whispers to her spouse that they can also celebrate the birthday of Archduke Francesco-Salvator of Tuscany, Maria-Valeria’s suitor.

Elisabeth, who is certain that Maria-Valeria will marry the young man – she is right – gently objects to their youth.  He is only twenty-one, she is only nineteen.

“You must see each other a lot more yet.  One never knows the other enough.  Do not believe, like a lot of people, that I want to make you marry Maria-Valeria to keep her near me.  Once married, if she leaves for China or remains in Austria, it’s all the same…”

And, immediately, she promises never to be a frighful, invasive mother-in-law.  More than thirty years after her beginnings as a young bride, Sissi is unable to forget Archduchess Sophia’s eagle claws crushing her happiness..

***

Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria.

In the night of 19 to 20 October, Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria, who has just renovated a ravishing hunting pavillion in the heart of the Viennese forest, makes his first stay there.  The place is called Mayerling…

In January 1888, the family is getting over a double fright with Rudolf:  firstly, while stalking a deer, he wounds a gamekeeper;  secondly, he is thrown to the ground in a carriage accident.

The Crown Prince alarms his spouse, for he disappears for whole nights, with unfitting companions, drinks too much and, according to the Police, amuses himself in a regrettable manner.  He also worries his entourage, for it is said that he has secret contacts with political men from the Hungarian Opposition.  And with foreigners:  Clemenceau comes to Vienna, where Rudolf receives him at midnight, at the Hofburg, in a climate which resembles that of conspiracy.  In fact, Rudolf, who is curious and has an open mind, likes to keep himself informed.  He learns of a project for a Franco-Russian alliance, and he listens to Clemenceau who criticises imperial politics.

On 12 November, Sissi is at Corfu when she receives a message which panics her:  her father has just had an attack of apoplexy.  She telegraphs the Emperor, announcing that she is leaving as soon as possible.  But, on 15th, another telegramme arrives, from Franz-Josef, telling her that her father is dead.  Sissi is in deep mourning.  It is another adieu to her childhood, but it is the most serious one, for the joyful Duke Max, who disappears at the age of eighty, embodied all the fantasy in the world.  A poet of life has gone, but, unlike his daughter, he had been always gay.  Once more, the Empress dresses in black, the colour of fatality.

***

On 2 December, the fortieth anniversary of Franz-Josef’s reign, the gathered family learns two pieces of news, one happy, the other surprising.  The first is that Maria-Valeria announces her intention of becoming engaged to Archduke Francesco-Salvator, which her mother had always forseen.  Laughter, emotion.  The other is that Sissi admits that she has had a blue anchor tatooed on her shoulder.

On Christmas Eve, the Empress turns fifty-one and deep happiness surrounds the imperial family…  for forty-eight hours.  The day after Christmas, Elisabeth leaves again for Munich without anybody being able to criticise her:  she is going to spend a few days with her mother, whom she hasn’t seen since her father’s death.  Franz-Josef, who has remained in Vienna, sends a tender letter to Sissi:

“My best wishes to all, but particularly to you, my golden angel.  May all your wishes, which are realizable and don’t cost me too much, come true.  Keep for me your love, your indulgence and your goodness.”

Before returning to Vienna in the middle of January, Sissi, a slender, black silhouette, visits Louis II’s tomb.  The Seagull has not forgotten the Eagle.

Everything would be almost perfect if Rudolf’s state weren’t more and more alarming.  Exactly what ill is eating away at the Crown Prince?  It is the first mystery of an immense tragedy which sows incredible confusion among the imperial family, among the families of millions of men and women throughout the Empire and, if the truth be known, will rattle the world with an ineffacable traumatism.

Great prudence must therefore command the most objective examination possible of the causes, the circumstances and the consequences of this blow to the House of Austria by what must be called fatality.

On Sunday 27 January 1889, the German Ambassador is holding a reception in honour of Wilhelm II’s birthday.  Franz-Josef, the Court and High Society are present.  Sissi asks her daughter-in-law to represent her, for she does not feel like “harnessing herself”.  Rudolf appears crushed and sad.  His complexion is livid.  Tuesday 29th, a dinner gathers the family at the Hofburg, for Sissi and Franz-Josef are leaving two days later for Hungary.  Rudolf asks his father to excuse him at five o’clock in the afternoon, for he feels as if he has a bad cold.  He also informs his spouse that he will not be present at dinner.  The Crown Prince is already in his Mayerling pavillion for a hunt which is to begin the following day.  He hopes to have recovered by then.

To be continued.

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