If men would examine how many are killed with weapons and how many eat and drink themselves to death, there would be found more dead from the cup and the kitchen than from the thrust of a sword. — Thomas More

Elizabeth - Empress of Austria - George Upton




Death of Crown Prince Rudolf

On the thirty-first of January, 1889, a terrible affliction befell the Emperor and Empress in the sudden and violent death of their only son. The tragedy of Mayerling is well known in its main points, and hundreds of different stories have been told concerning it, but the real circumstances of the affair are wrapped in impenetrable secrecy, and perhaps it is just as well if what the King of Belgium wrote to his brother, the Count of Flanders, is true.

"Any report," he said, "is better than that the real truth should be revealed."

All that is known with certainty is that the Crown Prince was found dead in his bed with a frightful wound in his head at his hunting lodge at Mayerling, near Vienna, where he had been spending a few days. In the same room lay the body of a young girl, the Baroness Vetsera, with whom he had been in love. It was difficult to believe that both had committed suicide, and there are facts which seem to indicate that Rudolf may have been murdered. The rest is all conjecture.

The unfortunate Prince was extremely popular with all classes and had many brilliant qualities, but after his marriage he developed habits which caused some anxiety as to his future. There was one person, however, who never lost faith in him, and that was his mother. She had wisely and carefully prepared him for the position he was to occupy in the world, and it was to her training and influence that he owed much of his early popularity. All Vienna was paralyzed with horror on the cold gray morning when word was brought from Mayerling of the Crown Prince's death. No one knew just what had happened. No details of the affair were published and the confusion was indescribable. It was thought best to convey the news at once to the Empress, though many feared the shock might destroy her life or reason. As events proved, however, her mind and nerves were stronger than those of most people. She seemed stunned at first and turned away without speaking, her face drawn and colorless, but collecting herself she inquired in a dry, unnatural tone where her son was.

Then her thoughts flew at once to her husband, who as yet knew nothing of what had happened. No one had the courage to tell him, but while the matter was being discussed Elizabeth stepped forward, pale but quite self-possessed, and declaring that it was her place to break it to the Emperor, left the room immediately. During the terrible days that followed the Empress gave ample proof, if it were needed, of her true nobility and strength of character. With heroic courage she stifled her own feelings to soothe and comfort her grief-stricken husband, and supported him bravely all through the endless ceremonies that accompanied the burial of their unfortunate child with whom so many hopes had perished. Well might Franz Joseph say, as he did when expressing his thanks to the people of Vienna for their sympathy: "What I owe to the courage and devotion of my beloved wife in this time of trouble, I can never adequately express, and I thank God with all my heart for bestowing on me so noble a consort." Ten days later, the imperial pair, accompanied by Marie Valerie, left Vienna for Hungary.

Rudolf had been the first prince of the reigning house to give promise of being a really constitutional monarch. He wrote and spoke the Hungarian language like a native, was thoroughly familiar with all parts of the country, and well liked by both the people and the aristocracy. In his death Hungary suffered an irreparable loss, and throughout the kingdom there was genuine grief over his tragic fate, while the depth of public sympathy for the afflicted parents was shown in the warmth of the reception they received in Budapest. In a conversation with Dr. Christomanos some years before her death Elizabeth declared: "In every human life there is a moment when one dies inwardly and that need not necessarily be the time when death actually takes place." This moment to her was when they brought her the news of her son's death. She was never the same afterward. At the time of the catastrophe she had shown the courage of a heroine, but after her wonderful self-control had given way, the reaction was terrible and her despair heart-breaking. "I have no longer the strength to live nor the desire to die," she said. It was reported in Berlin that her reason was destroyed, nor would it have been surprising if this had been the case after such a shock. Of course it was not true, but she did begin to develop symptoms of a serious heart trouble from which she suffered until her death. She never wished to see the Crown Princess Stephanie again, nor could she endure the presence of the little Archduchess Elizabeth, the grandchild who had inherited her father's nature with the features of a mother to whose behavior the Empress attributed the changes in Rudolf's way of life and his tragic fate. She shrank from contact with people more and more and often wounded her husband and children by her craving for solitude. Even her favorite palace of Lainz failed to attract her for more than a few weeks, while at Godollo the roses drooped and faded and the grass grew thick upon her once-loved bridle paths.

Elizabeth of Bavaria
EMPRESS ELIZABETH IN LATER YEARS.


On the Christmas Eve following the death of the Crown Prince, her mother's fifty-second birthday, the Archduchess Marie Valerie was betrothed to her cousin Franz Salvator, Duke of Tuscany, an event that was a cause of happiness and satisfaction to all concerned. Next to her parents' blessing she was anxious to have that of her grandmother, and the day after Christmas accordingly she left for Munich, accompanied by her mother and her lover. Duke Max had died in 1888, shortly after the diamond wedding celebration at Possenhoffen, but the Duchess Ludovica, though bowed with age and many sorrows, had lost none of her mental acuteness and the meeting between the old lady and her daughter and granddaughter was most touching. From there they went to Wiesbaden and Heidelberg, where they spent the spring months. As they were returning to Vienna, they narrowly escaped death by the derailing of the train near Frankfort. Several of the coaches were overturned and crushed, but none of the imperial party, strange to say, was injured. Scarcely had the Empress reached home when she was called to Regensburg by the sudden death there of her eldest sister, Helene of Thurn and Taxis, and after the funeral she went again to Munich to comfort her grief stricken mother.

The marriage of Marie Valerie and Franz Salvator that summer was one of the few happy events of Elizabeth's later life. On that occasion she laid aside her mourning for a pale gray silk gown, and for the first time since Rudolf's death made an effort to smile and appear cheerful. But the brief gleam soon vanished. The Archduchess had been the one bright spot in her life, and even though she was to remain in the country as the wife of an Austrian prince, Elizabeth realized that the relations between them could never be the same again. She had lost her dearest companion.

On the twenty-fifth of January, 1892, her burden of sorrow was increased by the death of her mother, and she retired to Achilleon, where she had had a monument erected to her unfortunate son that she might be alone with memories of her beloved dead. Even her attendants saw her for only a short time each day, and she lived mostly in a world of dreams. Her favorite poets still afforded her solace and diversion, but she grew to care less for books than for the solitude, which she peopled with creations of her own fancy. Her reader sometimes tried to interest her in new authors, but her thoughts would soon wander and her absent expression prove the uselessness of such attempts. Only Shakespeare or Heine had power to fix her attention, and she would often interrupt her reading to recite favorite verses or passages to herself.

The only court ceremony at which the Empress appeared after the death of her son was on the occasion of the visit of the present Czar and Czarina of Russia to Vienna. Her presence at the state reception given in their honor excited even more interest and curiosity than did that of the young Czarina herself, and all eyes were fixed upon her as she entered on the arm of the Russian Emperor, smiling and bowing graciously to those about her. She was dressed in black, as usual, but looked twenty years younger than any of her contemporaries. In spite of all her sorrows and sufferings she could still be truthfully called the most beautiful woman at her court. But her thoughts were continually straying from her guests and from the brilliant scene about her.

"There often seems to be a thick veil between me and the world, as if I were masquerading in the costume of an Empress," she once remarked. "When I am with people I only show the part of me that we have in common, and they are surprised that I am so much like them when I talk about the weather and the price of candy. It is like taking a dress out of the wardrobe and putting it on for certain occasions."

In 1896 Hungary celebrated her thousandth anniversary. Elizabeth was even more miserable than usual at the time, and did not feel that she could be present, but it was urged that her absence would cast a shadow over the festivities, and, ill as she was both in body and mind, she finally was persuaded and appeared beside her husband on the throne. Dressed all in black, with a long veil worn Hungarian fashion over her hair, she sat pale and motionless as a statue, her long eyelashes drooping and an expression of unspeakable sadness on her lovely face. Not a muscle moved as the speaker began his address of welcome. She seemed neither to see nor hear until he spoke the word "Elizabeth" and a mighty shout went up from the whole assembly that seemed to shake the marble walls of the throne room. Then the majestic head was lowered slightly, almost imperceptibly, but with wonderful grace and charm in acknowledgment of this tribute. Again the cheers rose louder than before and lasted several minutes, even the highest nobles of the kingdom waving their tufted kalpaks high in the air.

The Queen's head sank, her deadly pallor giving place to a faint flush. Her eyes opened wide with a flash of their old brilliancy, and a tear rolled slowly down her cheek. It was plain that the affection between Elizabeth and her Hungarian subjects had undergone no change. The speaker went on with his address, the flush slowly faded from her cheeks, and soon she sat beside the Emperor, a Mater Dolorosa once more. It was her last visit to Hungary and her last appearance on the throne.