Elizabeth - Empress of Austria - George Upton
As time went on, the hereditary disease of the Wittelsbachs, now known as neurasthenia, which for generations had manifested itself in one form or another, became more and more pronounced in the Empress Elizabeth. Her passion for solitude, her aversion to mingling with people, and constant craving for change must certainly be regarded as inherited peculiarities, though she was more ill than was generally suspected. A complication of disorders together with neuritis made her later years a perpetual martyrdom, yet she bore her sufferings with a patience and fortitude that her physicians pronounced almost superhuman.
It was a bitter sacrifice for her to give up her riding, but fortunately she was still able to take the walks and climbs that meant so much to her. Often, indeed, it was not so much the love of exercise as the effort to find relief in physical exhaustion from the sleeplessness that tortured her and secure the rest so necessary to her overwrought nerves.
Always a remarkably small eater, her tastes were extremely simple. For weeks at a time she would live on nothing but milk, and even at state banquets often took nothing but a slice or two of wheat bread, a cup of bouillon, and some fruit. She detested liquor of any sort, and never tasted it except when the physicians insisted upon her drinking a little wine for her health. As a rule, she had little respect for medical knowledge and much preferred to treat herself with her own remedies. She had a morbid horror of getting stout. Every day she had herself weighed, and if her usual weight increased at all she would live on oranges till it was reduced to the proper amount, in spite of her physicians' warnings of the danger of so slender a diet.
But although Elizabeth cared so little for eating, when at home she gave much attention to the menus presented to her each morning by the chef, which she often altered to suit herself. No table could be served more daintily and artistically than that of the Austrian court when the Empress was present. She selected the costliest porcelain and glass and had gold and silver services for all her palaces, though they were rarely used owing to her long absences.
Maria Theresa had sixteen children, and her son the Leopold Second seventeen; so the Austrian imperial family is a large one, aside from the number of foreign princes in Vienna who are related to the house of Hapsburg-Lorraine. But except on one or two state occasions in the course of the winter these distant connections rarely saw either Franz Joseph or Elizabeth. Absorbed in cares of state and caring for little but his shooting trips in later years, the Emperor led almost as solitary a life as his wife. When they were together with their children, the Empress always strove to make these reunions as happy and cheerful as possible, as if to make up in some degree for the family life her long absences deprived him of. They would spend long cozy evenings on the terraces or by the fireside, and Rudolf would often join the party, or, if the Emperor were busy, Elizabeth would entertain herself with Marie Valerie and some of her ladies-in-waiting. The court in general, however, kept aloof from her. Her manner was cold and forbidding to those she did not like, though her intimate companions had the deepest love and admiration for her and she was worshipped by her servants, none of whom was too humble to share her sympathy and interest.
One morning in Vienna it was learned that one of Elizabeth's maids had died during the night, and very harsh comments were made on the fact of the Empress having been seen riding in the Prater on that very same afternoon. It was not told, however, that she had spent the whole of the previous night at the dying woman's bedside, and it was only when death had ended the maid's sufferings that the Empress had gone out into the fresh air.
Nature endowed Elizabeth with great beauty, a noble nature, and a good mind; fate gave her wealth and the most exalted position a woman can occupy, and she seemed to have been destined for a life of ease and happiness. Perfect as she seemed in outward appearance, however, her character was full of contradictions. She loved nothing so much as freedom and solitude, yet when forced to appear in public, no princess in Europe could equal her for grace and majesty. Simple and economical in her own tastes and habits, in many respects she had no idea of money, as, for instance, when she furnished her cousin Ludwig of Bavaria with enormous sums to gratify his passion for building palaces. Her generosity was boundless, and wherever she went she scattered gifts and money broadcast. She never followed the freaks of fashion, yet her slender figure was the delight and envy of modistes. She dressed as simply as any of her attendants, but whatever she wore it was impossible to conceal her inborn dignity and air of distinction. Her favorite costume for every-day wear was a short, close-fitting skirt with loose waist, and she never put on her elaborate court dresses except when absolutely necessary, though even these always bore the stamp of her individuality. In her later years she was rarely seen in anything but black or white; on a few special occasions she would wear light gray or lilac, but never bright colors. Her hair never lost its beauty, though before her death it began to show a trace of silver here and there,—much to her annoyance, for she had a horror of growing gray. When loosened, it fell far below her knees and enveloped her like a mantle. She used to have it brushed for hours every day and often grew impatient of the trouble it caused her.
"My hair tires me," she said one day to her Greek teacher, running her hands through its waves as if to relieve herself of a burden, "it is such a weight upon my head."
"It is Your Majesty's crown!" was the courtly answer.
"But not so easy to remove as the other kind of a crown!" she retorted with a melancholy smile.
Another time she declared impatiently: "I am a perfect slave to my hair! I think I shall have it all cut off sometime."
But remarks such as these were made only in moments of annoyance and weariness. As a matter of fact, she was very proud of her magnificent tresses. It was almost the only sign of vanity she ever displayed.