Elizabeth - Empress of Austria - George Upton




The Empress in Vienna

The year 1873 was a memorable one to Franz Joseph and Elizabeth. Their eldest daughter, Gisela, was married, April 20, to Prince Leopold of Bavaria in the Church of the Augustins, where the imperial pair had celebrated their union nineteen years before. The bride was led to the altar by her mother and left that same afternoon with her husband for Munich. The Viennese overwhelmed the Archduchess with gifts and entertainments, and the streets were lined with crowds eager to witness the departure of the young couple.

A few days afterward, May 1, 1873, the Emperor and Empress opened the World's Exposition at Vienna, an event that was celebrated with all sorts of festivities and made the occasion of a perfect jubilee. The Exhibition was a great success as well as a source of pride to Austria, as it demonstrated what the country could accomplish in the way of arts and manufactures in a comparatively short space of time. Many of the crowned heads of Europe came as guests to the capital. The old Emperor William and his clever wife Augusta visited at the Hofburg and Schonbrunn; Czar Alexander Second of Russia and King Victor Emmanuel of Italy also came, as did the Shah of Persia and many others.

Elizabeth, however, cared little for people of her own rank. "Titles mean nothing," she declared; "they are only the trappings with which we try to hide our nakedness; they do not change our real selves." Little to her taste as court ceremonies were, she bore her part in them with ease and dignity and was always the centre of interest and admiration wherever she went. Some years before the fail of the French Empire, the Austrian sovereigns met Napoleon and Eugenie at Salzburg. The French Empress was then at the zenith of her beauty, but Elizabeth with her glorious eyes and hair and the wonderful charm of her personality did not suffer by comparison with the Spaniard nor even with younger princesses.

In 1873 the twenty-fifth anniversary of Franz Joseph's accession to the throne was celebrated with great rejoicings, the festivities culminating in the evening by the triumphal progress of the imperial pair with the Crown Prince through the streets of Vienna, which were brilliantly illuminated and decorated and filled with cheering throngs. But even on this occasion it was evident Elizabeth found it an effort to appear in public, and she avoided the noise and confusion as much as possible. Her growing reserve and dislike of self-display were taken as a personal offence by the spectacle-loving Viennese and added to her unpopularity. She was considered cold and proud and was taxed with heartlessness and indifference, a fact of which she was well aware and which only added to her melancholy.

She adored children, rich and poor alike, and at the close of the Vienna Exposition took into her service a little Berber boy named Mahmoud, who had acted as page in the Cairene house erected in the Prater by the Khedive of Egypt and afterward presented to the Empress. Mahmoud adored his mistress and she was exceedingly kind to him. When the climate of Vienna affected his lungs and he fell ill with pneumonia, she nursed and tended him herself, and he became the favorite playmate of the Archduchess Valerie, greatly to the horror of the Austrian aristocracy. Patience was not one of the Wittelsbach virtues, and so many false and cruel reports were circulated about her in Vienna by careless tongues that when Elizabeth was informed of the indignation she had aroused by her kindness to Mahmoud she responded by having the two children photographed together and the picture displayed in public. This act of defiance naturally added to the number of her detractors, and many even began to hint that the Empress' restlessness and eccentricities were certain signs of approaching insanity.

But there was still another reason for the Empress' unpopularity in the Austrian capital. Her husband's German subjects keenly felt her lack of sympathy with them and resented her unconcealed preference for Hungary. It was even rumored that she intended to bestow all her Austrian possessions upon the Magyars, but this was a rank injustice to Elizabeth, for throughout the Empire, Austria as well as Hungary, there was scarcely a charitable institution or cause that she did not aid or support, nor a case of suffering and need that she did not attempt to relieve. When Austria took possession of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878, the Empress found a fresh field for her energies in caring for the wounded soldiers and providing for the families of those who were killed; and when cholera and small-pox broke out in Budapest, she insisted upon accompanying the Emperor, who was obliged to go there for the opening of the National Assembly, declaring that in time of danger her place was at her husband's side.

In 1879 Franz Joseph and Elizabeth celebrated their silver wedding, an occasion not unmixed with sadness to them both, as they looked back on the trials and disappointments of their married life. They had requested that there should be no public observance of the day, and that the sums contributed for that purpose should be given to charity. An exception to this was made, however, in Vienna, where a great ovation had been prepared for the imperial pair. On the spot where the Emperor had been attacked by Libeny, the Hungarian, a church had been erected to commemorate his fortunate escape, and this was to be formally dedicated as part of the ceremonies of the day. The city was en fete, and crowds had gathered to salute the Emperor and Empress as they drove to and from the church. There was little in their appearance to suggest the storms that had shaken their lives, for Franz Joseph was still in the prime of his manhood and Elizabeth the youngest and most beautiful of grandmothers (her eldest daughter Gisela had several children at that time). The festivities, which lasted several days, concluded on the twenty-seventh of April with an historical pageant, arranged by the celebrated painter Hans Makart and carried out on the most magnificent scale. Every class, institution, and province in the kingdom was represented, and the various groups costumed with historical accuracy, the whole procession making a most imposing spectacle as it moved slowly along the Ringstrasse amid the deafening cheers of the spectators.