Elizabeth - Empress of Austria - George Upton

Travels and Sorrows

Nothing had been originally farther from the wishes of the young Empress than to fill her throne in solitary state, surrounded only by a few chosen families of noble birth. What she most wanted was to go about among the people and get acquainted with her new subjects, and during the early part of her married life she was often seen in the streets of Vienna. Wherever she went crowds gathered, struggling and pushing good-naturedly to get as near a view of her as possible. One day she went out to walk, accompanied only by one of her ladies-in-waiting and without informing any one of her intention. On one of the principal squares, seeing something in a window that attracted her, she entered the shop, but on turning to go out again was unpleasantly surprised to find hundreds of faces peering in at the door and windows, and it was only with the aid of the police that she was able to reach the street again. This incident excited the greatest disapproval at court.

"Her Majesty seems to imagine herself still in the mountains of Bavaria. She forgets that she is the Empress of Austria and what she owes to her husband's position," was whispered about her.

Discouraged at the result of her attempts to mingle with the people, she thenceforth avoided appearing in public as much as possible, confining her walks to the secluded portions of the palace gardens or the park about Schonbrunn. But even this did not satisfy the court, which now found fault with her for neglecting to show herself before the people on every possible occasion. This hostility and opposition that met the young Empress at every turn only made her retire the more within herself, and really inflicted an irreparable wrong, for it developed in her an inherited love of solitude that, once acquired, soon became too fixed ever to be renounced.

Meanwhile the outlying portions of the Empire—Bohemia, Moravia, Galicia, and Hungary—were waiting anxiously to welcome the imperial pair, and soon after the wedding they began a series of short journeys. In September, 1856, they made a visit to the Austrian Alps that is still remembered and talked of even in the remotest mountain valleys. From Heiligenblut, where they spent the night, the Emperor and Empress climbed the Grossglockner. About four o' clock in the morning, after hearing mass in the little parish church, they began the ascent, accompanied by two experienced guides, Elizabeth riding part of the way, while her husband walked. During the walk he gathered a bunch of edelweiss growing on a steep cliff and handed it to his wife, saying, "This is the first edelweiss I ever picked."

At the Wallner Hut, as it was then called, the Empress stopped to rest, while Franz Joseph climbed to the lofty Glockner-saddle, and it was in remembrance of this visit that the Wailner Hut received the name of Elisabeth-ruhe. From there they went to Steiermark and thence to Gratz, where they arrived on the eleventh of September, and where, as at all other places, they were received with the greatest enthusiasm. In November of the same year they visited the Italian provinces which at that time formed part of their dominions. Owing to the political disturbances of the period and the feeling of the Italians against Austria, it was feared the sovereigns would meet with a cold reception; but the "mistress of the Adriatic" had decked herself magnificently to greet the young Empress. The streets and market-places were brilliantly illuminated and gorgeous masked balls were given in her honor. All hearts were won by Elizabeth's beauty and charm of manner, and the delighted Emperor said to her:

"Your smile has done more toward conquering the people than all my armies have been able to accomplish!"

Franz Joseph, as we have seen, was a mere youth when his uncle, the Emperor Ferdinand, abdicated in his favor and retired to Prague to end his days. The young sovereign had scarcely ascended the throne when rebellion broke out in Hungary, and unable to quell the disturbance alone he was forced to seek aid from Russia. Czar Nicholas placed one hundred thousand men at his disposal, and the revolt of 1848—1849 was crushed with a firm hand. Countless towns, villages, and estates were laid in ashes, and the country was left bleeding from almost incurable wounds. The people bore their hard fate in sullen defiance, and five years later, when the Emperor married, time had done little to soften their hatred of Austria.

The pardon that Franz Joseph had granted on his wedding day to all political offenders in his dominions formed one step toward reconciliation, but the first real signs of a more friendly feeling were due not to him but to the Queen. It was her smile that finally appeased the wrath of the Hungarians, her beauty and goodness that laid the foundation of more amicable relations between them and their sovereign. She devoted herself assiduously to the study of their language, one of the most difficult in Europe, interested herself in the art and customs of the country, and showed such deep concern for their welfare that she is said to have wept on occasions when her husband refused to grant their wishes.

The reason for Elizabeth's sudden and strong attachment to this hitherto unknown country could have been only a psychological one. When she first came to Vienna, she was impressed with the violent prejudice that existed at court against the Hungarians. Each attempt of that liberty-loving people to throw off their chains was regarded as a fresh crime by the Archduchess Sophie and her adherents, and the Empress heard much harsh criticism of her subjects beyond the Leytha. Her natural perversity and independence, however, led her to investigate the matter for herself, and she soon gained a very different idea of the open-hearted, chivalrous Hungarians, whose natural character was so like her own. Hoping to learn more of the inner life of the people by means of the language, she began the study of it with a zeal and industry that shrank from no difficulties till in time she acquired perfect mastery of it even to speaking it like a native.

"Queen Elizabeth speaks our language without a trace of foreign accent," said the Hungarian poet, Maurus Jokai, "speaks it like a peasant woman and without any of the affectation common with most of our court ladies."

Her first teacher was an old professor named Homokh, with whom she learned the grammar and to read easily. But this did not satisfy her. She wanted a thorough knowledge of Hungarian literature and engaged as her instructor Dr. Max Falk, at that time a journalist in Vienna. His methods were far less tedious than those of Homokh, and she began to read the best passages of Scripture, together with a history of the people. He also gave her for translation into Hungarian the French correspondence between Joseph Second of Austria and Catherine Second of Russia, published by Arnath, a task she found most delightful. Her tutor was charmed with her enthusiasm and the accuracy with which she performed her duties as pupil. One morning as she handed him her written translation, she said:

"All day yesterday my time was taken up with audiences, and in the evening there was a court concert. After that I was so tired I went directly to bed, but no sooner had I lain down than I remembered my Hungarian translation had not been written. So I tore a leaf from the almanac that lay on a table beside my bed and did it there. Excuse the pencil."

It was not until May, 1857, however, that she made her first visit to Hungary. Her arrival was hailed with enthusiasm, and the young Queen was everywhere greeted with shouts of joy. An extensive tour of the country had been planned by the sovereigns, but a sad event forced them to abandon it.

The Emperor and Empress had two children at this time, the little Archduchesses Sophie and Gisela. Scarcely had the court established itself in the royal palace at Ofen when word was received of the illness of the two-year-old Sophie. The physicians' first reports were reassuring, but on reaching Debreczin, May 28, the despatches announced a change for the worse. The anxious parents hastened back to Budapest, where on the next evening they heard that their oldest child was dead.

Elizabeth left Hungary with tears in her eyes. Her first great sorrow had befallen her on her first visit among the Magyars, and it may have been that grief attached her still more closely to this people whom in after years she loved so well and by whom she was adored as a sovereign and reverenced as a guardian angel.