Elizabeth - Empress of Austria - George Upton
One of the first journeys Elizabeth made with her parents and sisters was to Ischl. It was there that Franz Joseph's parents were in the habit of spending the summer months, and the two sisters, the Archduchess Sophie and the Duchess Ludovica, had agreed to meet here in the Summer of 1853. The five years that had passed since the Emperor's accession to the throne had been years of struggle and anxiety. Only a few months before, he had been wounded by the dagger of an assassin. The internal disorders of the Empire, however, had not prevented his name from being linked with that of various European princesses,—reports which were finally silenced by his clever and strong-willed mother, who swayed him completely and had determined that a princess of her own house should share her son's double throne. This was natural enough. Both the Wittelsbachs and Hapsburgs are among the oldest reigning families of Europe, both have remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, and for six hundred years alliances between them have been common.
The Archduchess had heard much of the talent and amiability of her sister's daughter Helene. She and the Duchess Ludovica were on the best of terms and had already secretly decided on the marriage. It only remained for the young people to meet and take a fancy to each other,—a matter of some concern to the Emperor, who, though an obedient son, was also a passionate admirer of the fair sex. It was certainly mutual attraction that drew Franz Joseph and Elizabeth together, though there are many tales told of how their betrothal came about. The following account, however, is probably nearest the truth.
On the sixteenth of August, 1853, the Emperor went to visit his parents at Ischl and meet Max Joseph's family. As the travelling carriage rolled along the dusty highway, his adjutant suddenly uttered a cry of admiration:
"Look, your Majesty, look yonder!"
Franz Joseph drew out his field glass and caught a glimpse of a beautiful child playing with a flock of goats on a meadow near by. The next instant the road turned and the town appeared in sight.
An hour later he was sitting with his mother when a young girl burst into the room, unannounced, with a bunch of wild roses in her hand. She wore a short white frock, and a mass of silky chestnut hair fell in soft waves about her slender figure. It was the same youthful beauty he had seen from the carriage. It was the first time they had met, but she recognized him at once from the portraits she had seen, and without a trace of embarrassment approached and greeted him, saying heartily:
"How do you do, cousin?"
Who are you?" inquired the Emperor, almost fearing lest the lovely apparition might vanish before his eyes.
"I am Elizabeth!"
The smile in the wonderful blue eyes won his heart upon the spot.
A few hours later he was presented to the Princess Helene, who, if not beautiful, was a bright, intelligent-looking girl with an air of great distinction. Had not Franz Joseph seen Elizabeth first, Helene would undoubtedly have become his Empress. The same day he was to dine with his aunt and uncle. As he entered their hotel in Ischl, he heard two voices from behind a half-closed door.
"I beg of you not to go out, Princess!" said one; "you know it has been forbidden."
"That is the very reason why I want to," retorted the other in soft girlish tones which he recognized; and the next moment Elizabeth stood before him, all smiles and blushes.
"Why must you not go out?" he asked,
"Because I am only a child and am not expected to appear till my older sister is married. It is all your fault, and I shall have to eat by myself, too!"
"Princess, what are you thinking of?" cried the governess, who now made her appearance, crimson with anger. "Pardon, your Majesty!" she added, turning to the Emperor, "but I have had strict orders."
Without heeding her, he offered his arm to the young girl.
"Let us go out together, cousin," he said.
"No, no, I dare not!" she replied in alarm. "Papa would be furious."
"Come back!" cried the governess, and taking advantage of her pupil's momentary hesitation, she drew her into the room and closed the door with a low courtesy to the Emperor.
At the close of the meal Franz Joseph turned to the Duke. "I have a favor to ask of my kind host," he said. "Is it not the custom in Bavaria for the children to come in after dinner? I would like to become better acquainted with your second daughter, whom I saw for a moment at my mother's this morning."
All exchanged glances, and there was a moment's silence, as Duchess Ludovica felt all her hopes for Helene slipping away. The Duke replied:
"It shall be as you wish, your Majesty," and in a few moments Elizabeth made her appearance, blushing and frightened.
Franz Joseph had not a high opinion of women as a rule. Young as he was, he had already had some experience of them, but this lovely, innocent child wrought a sudden change in him, and through the political clouds that darkened the first years of his reign love flashed like lightning into his heart. That evening the Archduchess Sophie gave a ball at which both nieces were present. The court, suspecting that fateful events were brewing, watched the Bavarian princesses curiously. The Archduchess showed marked favor to Helene; the son devoted himself to both. When during the cotillion he handed Elizabeth a magnificent bouquet of roses, the interest increased. Would the mother yield to the son, or the son give way to the mother?
Franz Joseph's choice was already made, however, and at the close of the ball he announced that he would have no one but Elizabeth for his wife. The Archduchess' surprise and chagrin at the failure of her cherished plan knew no bounds, but she determined not to oppose her son's choice. She had wanted him to marry her other niece, hoping to rule her as she did him; if the crown were to go to an immature child of sixteen instead of her clever sister of twenty, no doubt it would be so much the easier.
At nine o'clock the next morning the royal carriage stopped before Max Joseph's door. The Emperor hastened up the steps, asked for an interview with the Duke and the Duchess, and then and there made a formal request for the hand of Princess Elizabeth. This was an affront to Helene that neither her father nor her mother found it easy to endure, but the suitor was persistent. If he could not have the one he loved, then he would not marry at all, and at length they were forced to yield. Franz Joseph wanted Elizabeth to be notified at once, but they would not consent to force her in any way. She was still as much a child in heart and feeling as in appearance, and when first told of the Emperor's wishes she clasped her hands in dismay, exclaiming:
"It is impossible! I am much too young!"
Love had entered her dreams, however, even if her heart was not yet awakened. Franz Joseph's impetuous wooing appealed to her impulsive nature. She was attracted by his person and his temperament, and without pausing to reflect, she joyfully promised to be his wife. The betrothal took place on the Emperor's twenty-third birthday, August 18, 1853.
Great were the public rejoicings when the news reached Vienna. The glamour of romance that enveloped the affair appealed to the popular fancy, and a thousand tales were woven about the lovely child who was to be the bride of their young sovereign. Her pictures were scattered broadcast throughout the Empire, and people were never weary of dwelling on her beauty and the simple home life of her early days. During the month that the betrothed pair remained at Ischl with their parents, crowds flocked thither daily to gaze upon their future Empress, and returned full of praises of her modesty and charm.