Elizabeth - Empress of Austria - George Upton
Not long after their wedding the Emperor and Empress visited an exhibition of paintings in Vienna. Franz Joseph was anxious to purchase some of them, but left the choice entirely to his wife, who went back accordingly a few days later with one of her ladies and selected twenty-four, every one of which when sent to the palace proved to be of horses. Both at the Hofburg and at Schonbrunn her chief interest was in the imperial stables, where she spent most of her mornings trying different mounts. She loved exercise of all kinds, but riding was her greatest delight and her skill and daring as a horsewoman were remarkable. Authorities in these matters have declared that she outshone any rider of her own sex, for she had a singular, almost hypnotic power over horses, and even the most vicious ones would allow her to approach and stroke them. Her slender wrists were like steel, and there was no horse she could not ride when once she had made up her mind to do so. Fear and fatigue were alike unknown to her, and she used often to terrify the director of the riding-school in Vienna by asking him to send her one or two of his wildest specimens to try. A cavalry officer once expressed his surprise to the Emperor at his allowing the Empress of Austria to spend so much time in the stables and make companions of jockeys and circus riders. "Ah, my young friend," replied the Emperor kindly, "it is evident you do not know women. They usually do as they please without waiting for our permission.
Elizabeth never appeared to better advantage than when on horseback. Her habit, which seemed as if moulded to her figure, was usually dark blue, trimmed with fur. She also wore a low round hat and heavy riding-gloves, but never a flower or bow or anything superfluous except a black fan, which she carried in her hand or hung by a strap to her saddle. Strangers generally supposed this was to protect her complexion, but her friends were well aware that it was merely to guard herself from the inevitable photographers who pursued her everywhere. "I hate being photographed," she once declared: "every time in my life that I have been, something dreadful has happened to me." She liked to attend to her horses personally and visited them every morning, taking sugar and carrots in her pocket for them, sometimes even going into their stalls to pet or rub them down. At Schonbrunn she had a room the walls of which were completely covered with pictures of horses. "Look," she once said to her Greek teacher when showing him this room, "all these are friends I have lost. Many of them have died for me, which is more than I can say of any human being. People would far rather have me killed." She was never so happy as when in the saddle, dashing through the forests of Austria or the wide Hungarian plains. But these long rides also served another purpose. On both sides of the house she had relatives whose lives were darkened by the fatal inheritance of the Wittelsbachs; so it was not strange that as she grew older her sensitive nature should have brooded over the fear of developing the family disorder. To banish these terrible fits of depression she would gallop for hours, insensible to weather or physical exhaustion, sometimes drenched to the skin, and it was only when she felt her horse quiver under her with fatigue that she would slacken her pace.
Immediately after the coronation the Hungarians presented to their Queen the castle of Godollo, situated in the depths of the forest, not far from Budapest, and for many years it was her favorite residence. Here there was nothing to break the peaceful seclusion but the plaintive notes of the Zingaris' violins. Here she was her own mistress, spending long, happy, care-free days. She usually rose at four o'clock, and was in the saddle from five till eleven, when she breakfasted. It was an ideal country for riding, and she became familiar with every forest pathway for miles around, often stopping at some camp of the Czikos to chat with these half-savage Bedouins of the Hungarian Puszta, in whom she felt the greatest interest. She brought them gifts of tobacco, and was always welcomed with delight by these strange herdsmen.
But there were gay times also at Godollo in those days, when her husband and children were there and the castle was full of guests. Her stag hunts were famous, and the walls were covered with trophies of the chase. "There is a tree at Godollo," she once said to a companion, "who is one of my best friends. He knows all my inmost thoughts, and whenever I go back there I tell him all that has happened to me since we parted."
Wherever she might be her thoughts turned longingly toward her beloved Hungary, where she was happiest, and among whose romantic, impulsive people she always felt most at home. All classes in Budapest adored their beautiful Queen, who wore the national costume of the country and lost no opportunity of remaining among them. Her courage, gentleness, and open-hearted generosity made her universally beloved. She would go about among the poorest and vilest quarters of the city, helping the suffering and needy, quite unconscious of danger or fear. The wretched creatures often little suspected who she was, but she was welcomed everywhere as an angel of mercy, and could go unharmed where even the police would scarcely venture.
One evening she was riding with a companion through the outskirts of Budapest, and was just passing a hovel set back a little from the main road when they were startled by hearing piercing shrieks from within. The voice was that of a woman evidently in the greatest distress. On the impulse of the moment they leaped from their horses, and rushing to the door and bursting it open, found themselves in a low, dirty room, where a huge ruffian of a man was dragging a woman about the floor by her long, unbound hair, kicking her vigorously as he did so. Without a moment's thought Elizabeth dealt him a blow in the face with her heavy hunting-crop, which so surprised the fellow that he dropped his victim and stared at her in blank amazement. Elizabeth's own astonishment was still greater, however, when the ill-used woman arose and sprang at her like a tiger, overwhelming her at the same time with the vilest abuse for presuming to attack her husband. The Empress burst into a peal of laughter, and taking a gold piece from her pocket she handed it to the man, exclaiming: "Beat her, my friend. Beat her all she wants; she deserves it for being so loyal to you."