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...