As most of my readers know by now, I've been diligently working on my next historical fiction piece, THE PERPETUAL TRAVELER for some time, and the third book of my Country Girl Empress series is nearly ready to hit a bookshelf near you. I can also well imagine that many of you wouldn't mind a sneak peek. Well, you won't have to wait any longer. Here it is....Enjoy!
PS: Please keep in mind that this is just an excerpt of an unpublished manuscript, and although it has undergone several rounds of vigorous editing already, it's not the polished, final product. Thank you! =)
The summer of 1874 was a hot and humid one, but a fresh breeze blew over the Isle of Wight. In the hallways of Osborne House reigned a lively air. Messengers came and went, carriages arrived and left, and the footmen were busy announcing the arrival of a steady flow of members of the royal family and British government.
Queen Victoria, who had been on the throne for thirty-seven years now, enjoyed in this way what she called a holiday. But in this, she didn’t differ from other monarchs, who almost without pause had to attend to their government business. The Queen of England was an energetic, albeit rotund lady and her caustic remarks were much feared. And for the past few days, she definitely took her humor a little too far, because a certain high-born visitor had arrived on the small island, who added further responsibilities to her daily obligations, the kind that were common courtesies among the reigning houses of Europe.
This visitor to the Isle of Wight was none other than Empress Elisabeth of Austria.
Queen Victoria envied this woman, who knew how to escape the responsibilities and duties of a monarch and actually enjoy going on holiday.
The wing adjutant of the Duke of Wales, who had been virtually deaf for years, but didn’t want to miss the sight of the famed beautiful Empress from Austria, patiently awaited an answer from his Queen, who sat at her desk working through mountains of paperwork with a frown on her face.
“She just arrived three days ago, Bradford,” she explained. “She must first get settled in with her extensive entourage, and from what I’ve been told, the Empress wishes to be left alone.”
“Your Majesty,” Bradford purred, who, long and skinny as he was, pretended to be patient, and with his eyebrows arched, was quite the strange opposite of his sovereign. “Her Imperial and Apostolic Majesty is here because of her youngest daughter. The child is very ill and requires rest.”
“Yet another reason to leave them alone. However, I will not be able to avoid paying them a short, private visit. That’s the least I can do. Empress Elisabeth is here in her private capacity, and not as part of an official state visit.”
Bradford arched his eyebrows just a little further, so they almost reached his receding hairline. The Queen looked up
“What’s the matter, Bradford? Someone steal your crown?” she mocked him. “I am certain Her Imperial Majesty will afford our courtiers and cavaliers ample opportunity to admire her. I can only hope that she won’t turn all of my gentlemen’s heads.”
Bradford couldn’t think of an adequate reply. The Queen seemed to have guessed his most intimate thoughts. The news of Sisi’s presence seemed to have spread like wildfire already throughout the country estates all the way to Scotland and was viewed as quite a sensation. It appeared to have caused a sudden influx in wanderlust amongst the country gentry as well as nobility alike, because Sisi, the Empress of Austria, was considered one of the most beautiful and extravagant women in Europe. A title which could undeniably not have been bestowed upon their own monarch.
At the same hour that Queen Victoria decided to pay Sisi a private visit, Ida von Ferenczy, the Hungarian-born lady-in-waiting and confidante to the Empress, drew closer to a small hill near the island beach. The salty air blew across the sea, and the narcotic perfume of the blooming magnolia trees nearby, spread along the coastline.
From the grassy hill, one could see all the way to the beach, where the waves crashed down in a well-timed rhythm. A truly spectacular force of nature to behold. Sisi leaned back in a lounge chair on the highest point of the hill. She did not see the roaring waves. She was asleep. As Ida von Ferenczy drew closer, she noticed that Her Majesty’s sleep was not a peaceful one. Worried, Ida stopped. She did not dare step any closer while the Empress was asleep even though she had come here with an important message.
As always, when she saw the Empress, and Ida had been in her service for many years and could genuinely claim to be her confidante, she felt nothing but admiration for her, and not just for her beauty’s sake. The Empress was now 37 years old. In the year that Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, Sisi was born in Possenhofen as a daughter of Duke Max in Bavaria and his wife, Duchess Ludovika. Sisi had a sunny and carefree childhood amid her siblings, encouraged by her lively and unconventional father. She grew up like a magical, happy bird who knew nothing of the reins of etiquette.
Her mother, Ludovika, was a sister of Archduchess Sophie of Austria. The Archduchess had taken a bold and courageous step many years ago. During the crisis of that revolutionary year of 1848, when the Viennese court had feared for its safety, the imperial family fled the capital city and sought refuge in Olmütz. The Emperor abdicated, and Sophie had convinced her husband, Archduke Franz Karl to renounce his claim to the throne. Back then, she would have had the chance to become the Empress of Austria and wear the crown with distinction. But she was smart enough to look to the future, and with the foresight of a shrewd politician, she made it possible for her son, Franz Joseph to ascend to the throne instead.
Naturally, she understood how to steer his actions from the beginning. The young Emperor, who had been raised to be a responsible and conscientious ruler, always obeyed his mother’s sage advice in all things but one.
Back then, in Bad Ischl, when he met Sisi and fell head over heels in love with the young girl. He had come to the little resort town to look for a bride. However, it was not Sisi whom he was supposed to court. The two sisters, Sophie and Ludovika, had decided on Sisi’s older sister Helene as his bride. But next to her younger sister, graceful Helene paled in comparison. The young Emperor only had eyes for the spry country girl. He was enchanted by her appearance and fell head over heels in love with her. Utterly amazed, his mother Sophie realized that her son was not going to obey her in this matter. Whether she wanted to or not, Sophie had to give her consent to their marriage, and when the beaming bride arrived in Vienna, she won the people over in no time.
The Emperor’s mother was very much in favor of adhering to the Spanish Court Ceremonial as she was careful to follow the archaic family principals. In this world of strict rules, the young Empress didn’t feel well from the beginning. She was like a shimmering, exotic bird, who suddenly found itself locked up in a gilded cage. Now she was in her mid-30s already, yet still looked young and beautiful. When Ida saw her laying there, she thought about all this and what fate still had in store for her, because Elisabeth’s life was indeed an unusual one.
Ida von Ferenczy was correct. Sisi had a nightmare. She dreamed about that horrible night in 1872 that she spent at the deathbed of her mother-in-law. Sophie had caught a cold during a capricious April night. After she attended a performance at the overheated Burgtheater, Sophie followed her need for fresh air and decided to sit on the balcony of her apartment for a little while. But she fell asleep. The cold night air did not wake her.
The ill woman had been brought to Schönbrunn. The council of physicians discussed which necessary steps to take next. Sophie’s health temporarily improved so that everyone began to hope for a full recovery, but then her condition deteriorated. Her fever skyrocketed, and she was unconscious most of the time. The Emperor sent his personal physician. Now that the danger had taken on a more acute form, he pushed aside many of his appointments and spent much of his precious free time with his mother. Slowly the members of the imperial family gathered, along with the palace pastor.
Barely three weeks later the council of physicians abandoned all hope. They were unable to heal her pneumonia. In the night of the 26th of May, a footman appeared in Sisi’s anteroom, to fetch her. The Archduchess wished to see her daughter-in-law, with whom she had argued on so many occasions, one last time.
The clock just struck midnight when Sisi entered the death room. Sophie laid in her bed, trying to catch her breath, with her eyes wide open, she feverishly looked up at Sisi. The Empress kneeled down next to her bed, leaned over and then turned around to the two nurses, outraged.
“Don’t you have a sweat cloth? She is soaking wet.”
“Don’t you have a sweat cloth? She is soaking wet.”
Immediately, one of the nuns stooped down to make up for what they missed. Sisi took the cloth out of her hand and dried Sophie’s sweaty brow herself.
Her touch woke the Archduchess. It took her a while to realize where she was, but then a weak smile crossed her lips.
“My child,” she groaned, “there are so many things for which I need to ask your forgiveness. We disagreed on so many issues, but I want you to know that I loved you as much as any of my own children. Franz Joseph adores you, and as his mother, I was always keen to make a good woman of you that is equal to the tasks of a dutiful Empress and wife. I know that you are a free spirit, a filly that cannot be held at any one feed trough. If you would have been brought up in Vienna instead of in Possenhofen, by a father who allowed you too many liberties, then things would probably have been different. But you must see that this is no way for an Empress to live and represent her country,” she sighed exhaustedly.
“Oh, Mama,” Sisi cried and sank to her knees in front of Sophie’s bed while she grabbed her feverish-hot hands. “Mama, please forgive me for all the grief I have caused you! Now, pull yourself together, Mama and get well again!”
“Oh no, my child! I don’t want that any longer. Perhaps I’ve been dead since my Max was killed in Mexico.”
And she had indeed never gotten over it. When the casket with the mortal remains of Emperor Maximilian arrived in Vienna from Mexico, his mother had collapsed. Everyone feared Sophie would end up like Maximilian’s wife, Empress Charlotte. She had lost her mind after the events in Mexico and lived in Belgium, mentally deranged. But Sophie had been strong- natured. She soon recovered and yet she was never the same again. She nearly spent all of her time in church.
Sophie smiled dully.
“Whatever once stood between us, let us forget about now. We cannot allow it to stand between us any longer, not in this hour. Do you hear me?”
In just this moment, the Emperor entered the room. He saw the two women together, the two people he loved the most, and who were, next to his children and work, the contents of his life.
“Mama! Sisi!” he cried out and hurried to his mother’s bedside. His wife looked up at him, and he saw tears shimmering in her eyes. The Emperor realized that a miracle had happened. Sisi and his mother had made their peace, but at the same time, he suspected that his mother would not survive the night.
As if Sisi had felt Ida’s gaze on her, she woke up. She saw the slender, brown-haired Hungarian lady standing close by her.
“Your Majesty had a bad dream?” Ida inquired worriedly.
“It was indeed a heavy dream,” Sisi nodded and sat halfway up in her lounge chair. “Over and over, my dreams lead me back into my past. It’s almost as if there is no future.”
“But there is a future,” Ida smiled encouragingly. “And it’s close by! We just received a message from Osborne House. Queen Victoria his coming for a visit!”
Sisi jumped up. Her dream was forgotten. She quickly found her way back to the here and now.
“Oh, my Heavens!” she cried out. “Is that really necessary?”
“Apparently it is, Your Majesty,” Ida nodded and smiled. “It appears to be an English custom.”
“We will probably be obligated to suffer through several more of those courtesy visits,” Sisi sighed and turned to stare out at the ocean. “But if anyone thinks that I will reciprocate in kind, they are sadly mistaken. Dressing in formal gowns and large receptions are plenty to be had at the Hofburg Palace and in Schönbrunn. I did not come to England to endure the same here!”
“But His Majesty specifically ordered to maintain good relations between the Austrian Empire and Great Britain,” Ida reminded her. Indignant, Sisi stomped with her dainty, lace-up boots through the grass. It was as if an already saddled horse could no longer be subdued.
“I know! I know!” Sisi nodded. “So, we shall be obedient and receive the Queen and pretend we thoroughly enjoy ourselves.”
“Your Majesty, it will pass. Does Your Majesty wish to see the Archduchess now?”
“Of course, Ida! How is my daughter today? What did the doctor say?”
A few minutes later they had reached the country house where the Empress stayed, along with Ida von Ferenczy, Countess Marie von Festetics, and the inescapable hairdresser, Fanny Feifalik.
Marie Valerie Mathilde Amalie, affectionately called Valerie, was a delicate, sickly child, six years of age, who always worried her mother with her frail constitution. The little girl, whom her mother loved very much as she was her youngest child, was the main reason for their visit to the Isle of Wight.
Tenderly, the little girl embraced her mother with her skinny arms.
“Oh, Mama!” she called out excitedly. “The horses have just arrived.”
The news was like music to Sisi’s ears because she, the passionate equestrienne, had ordered her favorite horses to be brought here. She just didn’t want to forego the pleasure of her daily riding routine.
“How wonderful!” Sisi exclaimed happily. “Shall we go to the stables now?”
Ida von Ferenczy followed them like a shadow. In the hall-like, massive stables of this country manor, the horses already stood in their straw-filled boxes, and the stable lads were busy brushing Sisi’s beloved horses. Fearless, Valerie jumped into their boxes and lightly patted the stallions and mares. Happily snorting, the horses greeted their mistress. Sisi stroked their manes, was handed some bread and sugar cubes, and devotedly fed her animals their treats.
“When you’re all grown up, you will realize that it’s easier to talk to them than some people,” she told Valerie. “And most importantly, you can trust them more than people, because they never dissemble.”
“But, Your Majesty,” interjected Ida von Ferenczy, who did not like it when she heard the Empress philosophize in this manner. Sisi just smiled.
“Well, and then there are the exceptions to the rules, and you, my dear Ida, are definitely one of them.”
Sisi had definitely experienced many disappointments within her close circle of so-called friends. The gossip-addicted ladies of the Viennese court, the intrigues of the powerful and the ones that wanted to be - Sisi had experienced it all up close, saw right through it, and adjusted her own behavior accordingly. However, it definitely had not improved her own standing within the Viennese high society, which often reached an all-time low, much to the dismay of the Emperor. This was regularly the cause of tensions between her and Archduchess Sophie.
She still couldn’t understand that there were people in this world whose character so depended on superficialities, whose lives only revolved around honors, titles, balls, and idle gossip.
Sisi was different. She did not judge people by the number of medals they wore, the cut of their robes, or the glittering of their jewels. She often preferred the company of commoners whose sincerity and warmth deeply touched her. More than once she offended the Viennese court with her preferences, and she consequently withdrew more and more from those circles. And so, the beautiful Empress, who complainingly carried the heavy burden of the crown, was a lonely woman. Her husband’s love helped her cope with many things, just as her love for their youngest daughter did, while her son had inwardly slipped away, along with their elder daughter.
The beginnings of Rudi’s upbringing still fell into Archduchess Sophie’s time. She and Franz Joseph thought to make Rudolph into a future soldier-emperor. However, the boy had inherited too much of his mother’s temperament to allow such a thing. But at least Sophie had succeeded in removing Rudolph from his mother’s influence, and it was one of Sisi’s most painful experiences to know that he had also inwardly distanced himself from her, and eventually followed his own path.
The Emperor, who was bogged down by government business, and the Empress, who carefully avoided the Viennese court, had little contact with their son. Sisi had left him in the care of his tutors and thought him in good hands.
Even here, in the stables of this English country manor, she didn’t think about him. For a short while, she was happy among her horses and Valerie’s company. She had even forgotten the impending visit of the British monarch, that was bound to throw some of Sisi’s staff into turmoil. From the clock tower of the manor, the bell rang midday. Sisi sincerely hoped that this summer would be a relaxing one.
Piper is the author of several non-fiction books, and recently added three historical fiction novels to her ever-expanding collection of published writings, In the Shadow of Her Majesty , The Country Girl Empress., and A Life in the Shadow of the Crown. When she isn't busy typing away on her computer, she can be found chasing after her furry children or holding on tightly to a good cup of coffee. Follow her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Goodreads and Google+.
Don't forget to share this post! Choose your platform below:
Don't forget to share this post! Choose your platform below: