F Heritage History | Elizabeth - Empress of Austria by George Upton

Elizabeth - Empress of Austria - George Upton




Death of the Empress

The Empress Elizabeth had no fear of death, though the thought of it was often in her mind. "I am ready to die," she used to say; "all I ask is that I may not live to suffer." She had a presentiment that she was to die an unnatural death and believed it would be by drowning. Sometimes when walking along the shore or on the deck of her yacht she would say: "The sea will have me some day; I know I belong to it." Her forebodings were destined to be fulfilled, though in a manner that neither she nor any one else could have foreseen, for the life that began so like a summer idyl ended in a tragedy.

In the Spring of 1897 a terrible fate befell her sister Sophie while assisting at a charity bazaar held in Paris by the ladies of the French aristocracy. About four o'clock in the afternoon of the fourth of May the lamp of a cinematograph exploded, setting fire to some draperies. The hall was a flimsily built structure, and the flames spread with such rapidity that in a few moments the whole place was a sea of fire and the greater part of those present were unable to escape. One hundred and thirty people perished in this frightful disaster, among them the Duchess d'Alencon, Ludwig of Bavaria's former fiancée. It was known that she must have perished, for her wedding ring was found among the ruins soon after the conflagration, though it was not till some days later that her body was found and identified.

The Queen of Naples and Mathilde of Trani were now Elizabeth's only surviving sisters, and of these the latter was her favorite. They had many traits in common, particularly their aversion to society and their love of travel. The Countess of Trani, who spent most of her time at hotels and watering-places, usually went by the modest title of "Fraulein Nelly Schmidt." The last Christmas of Elizabeth's life the two sisters spent together in Paris, but an acute attack of neuritis forced the Empress to hasten southward, and taking her yacht Miramar at Marseilles, they went to San Remo. Here they stayed for two months, leaving on the first of March for Territet in Switzerland, where they parted never to meet again.

Elizabeth was fond of returning to familiar places, and Lake Geneva was one of her favorite spots. From Territet she used to go every day by rail to Glion and from there on foot to Mont de Caux, accompanied only by one of her ladies or her reader, a young man named Frederick Barker.

After a six weeks' stay in Switzerland she returned to Vienna and went with the Emperor to Lainz. Never had her mind appeared so clouded as now. The veil of melancholia had settled over her thicker and heavier than ever. Her glance was restless, there was an unspeakable weariness in her expression, and hard and bitter lines had appeared about her mouth. Constant suffering made life a torment to her and she could find no rest day or night.

Early in August she went as usual with her husband and Valerie's family to Ischl to celebrate the Emperor's birthday. It was the only day in the year on which she laid aside her mourning, and the imperial pair usually went together to church. This time, however, she left earlier and went to Mannheim to take some special massage treatment recommended by her physicians. Her health improved so much that she was able to eat and sleep again and to resume her excursions about the neighborhood, though still too weak to take the long walks and climbs she was so fond of.

On the twenty-ninth of August she went back to Switzerland, this time by special train to Mont de Caux, where she could be more quiet than at Territet. She seemed unusually well, and those who met the slender black-robed foreign lady, chatting familiarly with her one companion, little surmised that she was the sovereign of one of the greatest powers of Europe and ruler over more than forty million people. In a letter to the Emperor written at this time she expressed regret that he was not sharing the peace and pleasure of her stay here and urged him to join her, declaring that she was feeling so much better she hoped to be present at his approaching jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of his accession to the throne.

On the ninth of September she suddenly decided to make a visit to Pregny, a beautiful villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, that had once belonged to Joseph Bonaparte, but is now in the possession of the Rothschild family. The Baroness Adolph Rothschild had been very kind to the Queen of Naples in her days of misfortune, and Elizabeth was anxious to show her some attention.

She had gone for a stroll the preceding afternoon in the neighborhood of Territet with her reader, Mr. Barker, who had taken with him a basket of fruit for her refreshment. Seating herself on some moss-grown rocks, the Empress peeled a peach, half of which she offered to her companion. Just as she was in the act of handing it to him, a huge raven flew down from a tree near by, flapping its wings almost in her face and knocking the peach from her hand. Remembering the famous legend of the raven, which is always said to appear to the Hapsburgs as a forerunner of misfortune, the startled reader sprang to his feet in alarm and begged her to abandon the trip to Geneva.

"I am not afraid, my friend," replied Elizabeth. "We must all meet our fate sooner or later, and whatever is destined to happen will happen. Nothing we can do will alter it. You know I am a fatalist."

The next day she went to Pregny, as she had planned, accompanied only by her Hungarian lady-in-waiting, the Countess Sztaray. She was in a remarkably cheerful mood, most gracious and friendly with the Baroness and much pleased with her visit. Late in the afternoon she arrived at the Hotel Beaurivage, where she was in the habit of staying. Every precaution had been taken as usual to preserve her incognito, though the servants, remembering her from former visits, were no doubt well aware of her identity. On her first arrival in Switzerland the police of the canton had been charged to watch over her safety, but she had wished as usual to be spared their espionage and left to go her own way.

At noon on the tenth of September, 1898, she left the hotel with her lady-in-waiting to take the steamer to Mont de Caux. They were a little late, and the Countess Sztaray hurried on in advance of her mistress to signal the captain to wait for them. Just at that moment a man arose from a bench on the quay where he had been sitting as they passed. It was the Italian Luigi Luccheni, a dangerous anarchist on whom the Swiss authorities had been warned to keep a watchful eye. With one bound he flung himself upon the Empress and plunged a dagger into her breast. The Countess was unaware that anything had happened, but turning just in time to see her mistress stagger, ran and caught her in her arms.

"Is Your Majesty ill?" she asked in alarm. "I do not know," said Elizabeth.

"Will Your Majesty take my arm?"

"Thank you. I do not think I need it."

Though ghastly pale, she walked to the steamer without assistance, crossed the gang-plank, and then fell fainting to the deck. The steamer started, and the Countess Sztaray with some of the women on board endeavored to restore her to consciousness. No one suspected that she had been wounded until the Countess, loosening her dress to give her more air, discovered stains of blood on her clothing. Just then Elizabeth opened her eyes and in a clear, distinct voice asked, "What has happened?" then sank again into unconsciousness. Now thoroughly alarmed, the Countess informed the captain of her mistress' identity, and the boat was turned back at once to Geneva, where Elizabeth was carried on a stretcher to the hotel and laid upon her bed. Three physicians who happened to be staying there at the time were hastily summoned and did all in their power to revive her, but in vain: about three o'clock she gave one or two deep sighs and passed away quietly and painlessly, as she had so often expressed a wish to do.

So cold-blooded and unprovoked an assault in broad daylight and in the public street of a large city was one of the most shocking crimes of modern times and aroused the horror and indignation of the whole civilized world. Elizabeth of Austro-Hungary had no enemies. She had exerted no influence in politics, directly or indirectly, nor was she interested in state affairs. As her grief-stricken husband said of her, "she had done much good and never harmed a human being."

The Empress' salon in the hotel was quickly transformed into a mortuary chapel. The walls were hung with black, tall candles placed about the coffin, at the foot of which knelt monks reciting prayers for the dead, and over the bier fell a purple velvet pall, in the corner of which some young Swiss girls had embroidered the words "Repose en paix." Elizabeth was dressed as she had been in life, in black, her hands folded over a rosary and an ivory crucifix. The beautiful features were not altered, but had changed their look of suffering to an expression of wonderful majesty and peace.

On the evening of the eleventh of September a special train bearing her remains left Geneva and passed slowly through Switzerland and Austria amid the tolling of bells, and was met at every stop by sorrowing throngs eager to pay a last tribute to the dead Empress.

The Emperor was overwhelmed with messages of sympathy from all parts of the globe. Flowers and funeral wreaths came from high and low alike in every land that she had visited. Even China and the Transvaal sent offerings to lay upon the Empress' coffin. From Cairo came a wreath made of desert blooms, hundreds of Jericho roses, the old Christian emblem of the resurrection, and lotus blossoms, symbolic of eternity.

Her death made almost as deep an impression in most of the foreign capitals as in Vienna, where for years she had been so little seen that her Austrian subjects had almost forgotten how she looked, and her assassination aroused less sorrow than rage against the wretch who could have slain a defenceless woman.

In Hungary, however, the public mourning was deep and profound. Every flag was at half-mast and the streets were full of sobbing men and women. The great autumn maneuvers were abandoned, and it was decreed that her biography should be recorded in the national archives, so that her memory might be forever preserved in the history of the country.

The Empress Elizabeth's personal fortune was a large one. Her jewels alone—presents from Franz Joseph and other royal personages—were valued at four million gulden. Her will was made at Budapest in 1896. It was very short and written in her own hand. Her palace at Lainz was bequeathed to her daughter Valerie; Achilleon, in Corfu, to the elder, Gisela. All her servants and ladies-in-waiting received legacies, and a number of old friends were also remembered. To her old reader and companion, Ida von Ferenczy, who had been with her for thirty years, she left an annuity, besides a considerable sum of money and a life residence in the imperial palace.

In earlier days Elizabeth had expressed a wish to be buried at Godollo, then her favorite residence, but in her will she mentioned Achilleon as her chosen place of burial. Her desire was not fulfilled, however. Indulgent as Franz Joseph had been toward his wife's eccentricities during her lifetime, he was not willing that her hatred of conventionality should be exhibited in her death, and determined that her body should be laid to rest with those of former Empresses and members of his family.

In the heart of Vienna there stands an insignificant-looking chapel belonging to the Capuchins. Above a side door are the words "Imperial Vaults," and a flight of well-worn steps leads down into the dim burial-place of the royal race of Hapsburg. It was into this chamber that the great Maria Theresa used to force her gay young daughters to descend to meditate on the perishability of all earthly greatness, and here she herself would spend hours beside the tomb of her husband. At the end of a cross passage stands the tomb of the murdered Empress, between that of her brother-in-law, the murdered Emperor of Mexico, and her son Rudolf, who also met with a violent end.

In life she had shunned all religious observances; now masses are said day and night for the repose of her soul. Every morning the gates of the crypt are opened, and she who in life so loved solitude and seclusion is a mark for the gaze of hundreds of curious sightseers.

How much more fitting a place of rest for the nature-loving Empress the sunny shores of her Greek island would have been than the gloomy burial chamber of the Capuchins! How much finer a requiem the sighing of winds and waters than the chantings of vestured priests!

To the world in general Elizabeth of Austria and Hungary will be little remembered as the queenly sovereign in all the insignia of her lofty rank, but rather as the beautiful and unfortunate daughter of the Wittelsbachs, following her solitary way through life, her lonely spirit ever seeking rest and peace in vain. Terrible as it seemed to die by the hand of an assassin in a foreign country, far from all she loved, the dagger of Luccheni was but the instrument of fate, and death came to her almost as a friend. She died, as she had often wished to die, swiftly and painlessly and under the open sky. Who shall say that her last earthly breath was not a sigh of thankfulness and peace?