Elizabeth - Empress of Austria - George Upton
It was the Christmas Eve of 1837. The bells of Munich were proclaiming the festival when Max Joseph, wandering about in one of the poorer quarters of the city, met a woman dragging herself painfully toward him with a bundle of firewood on her back. She addressed him with the usual Bavarian greeting,
"Praised be Jesus Christ!"
"For ever and ever, Amen!" replied the Duke, adding kindly, "Why are you carrying such a load upon your back this holy Christmas Eve?"
"I will tell you why, gracious Duke," said the woman; "it is because my children have no Christmas gifts, and I have been in the forest gathering wood so that they may at least enjoy a warm room.
"You did right," returned the Duke. "As for me, I have already received my Christmas gift, for my wife presented me to-day with a charming little daughter who is to be called Liese, and I am so happy over it I wish you too to have a Merry Christmas."
He wrote her name and address in his notebook, and after the darkness had fallen two servants appeared at the poor woman's dwelling with two heavy baskets filled with food. At the bottom of each was a banknote for a considerable sum.
The child born on this day was Elizabeth, afterward Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. In many countries it is regarded as a sign of misfortune to be born on Christmas Eve, but the happy childhood of the little princess had no fore-shadowing of the experiences of her after life. 1Vlost of her early years were spent at Possenhoffen, which her father had bought some time before her birth. The great park and surrounding forests were the child's first playgrounds, and developed in her sensitive soul a deep love of nature and of freedom.
The Duchess's chief concern was the education of her eldest daughter, of whom she had great hopes. Helene was nearly four years older than her sister and was the favorite of the mother, whom she resembled both in character and appearance. Over-shadowed by her seemingly superior talents, with no interest in books and ignorant of the requirements of court life, Elizabeth—or "Sissi," as she was called—grew up almost unnoticed. She loved her sister with the enthusiasm of youth and with the natural tendency of the ignorant to look up to those more clever than themselves, but her father and brothers were dearer to her than either sister or mother.
The little girl was the darling of the Duke. She had inherited his love of nature, roamed about constantly with him through the mountains, visiting the peasants' huts, and learned to look at life and people through his eyes. Her bringing up in no way fitted her for the high station she was afterward to occupy. At the end of her fifth year she was given a governess, but "Sissi," though an unusually gentle and lovable child, soon learned how to wind her teacher round her finger and concerned herself little about study, for which she had no love. The Empress used to declare that in her youth she was the most ignorant princess in Europe, and the little she did know had been learned as she sat on her father's knee. But if not over-taxed with lessons, her education in other branches was by no means neglected. The Duke was determined that his children should be well developed physically, and one of the best dancing masters of the time was summoned to Possenhoffen to teach Elizabeth and her sisters to dance and carry themselves properly. Even in her later years the Empress was an excellent walker and famous for her easy, graceful carriage.
"Walking never tires me," she said once to one of her attendants, "and I have my father to thank for it. He was an indefatigable hunter and wanted my sisters and myself to be able to leap and spring like the chamois." She also learned to swim and ride and dearly loved to sit a horse and feel the wind blowing through her hair. She was never happier than when riding about Lake Starnberg on her little pony, and in the winter, when forced to stay in the capital, it was her greatest joy to escape to the stables, where she would mount the most unmanageable horses that could be found. One day while playing circus, as she often did, she was thrown by a wild, full-blooded animal. Her governess uttered a shriek of terror, but Elizabeth quickly rose to her feet, neither frightened nor hurt, and laughingly besought permission to mount the horse again, which the terrified governess refused to grant. The happiest time in the whole year to her was when the warm spring days made it possible for them to return to Possenhoffen and she could enjoy unlimited freedom once more. She was passionately fond of flowers, and it is still told among the Bavarian Alps how "Liese of Possenhoffen "used to scramble about the wild unbeaten mountain paths to return at last with her arms full of edelweiss.
Her father taught her to play the zither, and she often went with him on long tramps among the Alps, stopping now and then for rest and refreshment at some hut where they would play dance music on their own instruments or on some they found there. On one occasion they had done this in a remote region where the huntsman and his daughter were not known, and the people gave the pretty child a piece of money in payment. Elizabeth always kept it. "It is the only money I ever earned," she once said, when showing it to an acquaintance. There was never much pocket money for her to buy presents with, and she used often to spend the evenings knitting stockings for her mountain friends or sewing on some piece of needlework. The country folk about Possenhoffen idolized the little Liese, and when overtaken by one of the autumn storms she would often take refuge in their huts, quite alone, and sit down by the fire to chat and laugh with old or young. Her parents saw nothing amiss in this. Duke Max liked nothing better than to enter into the lives of his people, and when the mother was told how her daughter ran about with her brothers or played the zither in hovels while the peasants danced she but smiled indulgently, saying: "She is only a child. I will take her education in hand later on."
This free life at Possenhoffen taught the little Elizabeth to regard the woods and mountains as her second home, and the most splendid halls of the palace seemed small and stifling to her in comparison. It no doubt exerted a marked influence on her later development, and possibly furnished a clue to her character as Empress of Austria. Had her childhood been different, she would unquestionably have been better fitted for the position she was soon to occupy.