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Gödöllő Palace, Hungary
Sisi could have offered any number of explanations as to why it was so different. Had someone asked her, it would have been simple enough for her to provide an answer. But what was the truth? she wondered. Why was it that twilight here in Gödöllő, her country estate just outside of Budapest, felt so different from twilight in Vienna?
She might have said that it was the view: the unruly, wild, perfectly inviting view. Here, in the soft light of the coming evening, the grounds rolled open before her, unfurling in waves of gentle green before meeting thousands of acres of virgin woodlands. Clusters of wildflowers dotted the meadows, so different from Vienna’s imperial grounds and gardens, where sensible, stately tulips intersected lawns so symmetrical and tight clipped that it looked as though mankind had heeled nature into complete submission. Which of course, in Vienna, it had.
Or was it the sound of Gödöllő at dusk? Evenings out here echoed with the bark of her sheepdogs; the carefree laughter of the Hungarian stable boys as they scrubbed down her horses; the first stirrings of the crickets and frogs as they welcomed dusk from the overgrown fields, nature’s unrivaled orchestra tuning up for its nightly symphony. It was a collection of sounds so entirely unlike those to be had in Vienna, where Sisi might hear the one-two of polished boots as the imperial guards paraded across the courtyards; the clatter of coaches rolling past the Hofburg gates; the cries of the Viennese mob gathered outside the palace at all hours, begging for her to give them a florin coin or a glimpse of her celebrated silhouette, her legendary hairstyles.
Perhaps it was the aroma in the air. Here a medley of sweet scents traveled across the breeze: the faint trace of wild rose and acacia, the earthy musk of the stables, the heady perfume of overgrown grass and straw and mud. It was a lush bouquet of smells so natural and pleasing, entirely different from what she might breathe in back in Vienna, where she inhaled the cloying eau de parfum of obsequious courtiers; the stink of so many bodies and chamber pots jammed into the Hofburg Palace; the fear of the noble men and women who were always watching, calculating as to how they might raise their own status or knock down a rival’s. Yes, fear was something one could smell. Sisi knew that, after all of her years in Vienna.
But no, it was not the view, or the sound, or the scent that made twilight in Hungary so different from twilight in Austria. It was not anything outside of her or around her; it was a sensation entirely inside of her. It was how she felt each evening at dusk that made Gödöllő so different from the Hofburg.
In Vienna, by this hour of the day, Sisi would feel withered. Her head would ache from the unpleasantness of an argument with her husband or his iron-willed mother. Sisi’s stomach would be coiled into a gnarled mess, her chest tight with anxiety from a day of sorting gossip and rumors from truth, of watching for and trying to address the judgment or disapproval that seemed to pass across every courtier’s face. She would be looking drearily ahead to a night spent with the Imperial Court—a tedious evening ensconced in the damask and gold gilt of the staterooms, the sound of the violins overpowered by the chatter about trivial scandals. Hours spent watching women fawn before her husband, forcing a weary smile while men paid her the same trite compliments they used night after night. Days in Vienna were long, but the nights were interminable—and Sisi would limp back to her room each evening feeling spent, depleted. So fatigued that she already dreaded the next day before that day even came.
Here in Gödöllő she felt spent, too, but in the best way possible. Like a vessel poured out, light and free of burdens. Today, like all days at her Hungarian estate, she’d been free. She’d been outdoors since five in the morning, having risen at four. In keeping with her daily routine, she’d ridden hard and returned to the palace just briefly for a light broth at midday. The afternoon found her atop her horse once more and back in the fields and woodlands, where she practiced jumps, galloped to the point of breathlessness, and joined her charming neighbor, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, in chasing foxes and racing across the untamed landscape.
That was why twilight in Gödöllő was always so different. By the time the sun began to sink over the western fields in the direction of Budapest, Sisi’s body would ache with a pleasant, well-earned fatigue. Her cheeks, brightened by the clean country air and the physical exertion, would glow a deep rose. Her heart would feel light, her spirits buoyant, and her body strong.
And that was precisely how Sisi felt on this sultry late-summer evening, as she handed her horse off at the stables and thanked the Hungarian groom with an easy smile. She turned toward the palace, its red-domed roof cutting a fanciful outline against the fading sky. Even this structure, so whimsical and unpretentious, stood in contrast to the stately, solid form of Vienna’s imperial residence, the Hofburg. As Sisi looked now over the strawberry-pink and cream façade, her eyes moved to the second floor, finding the window on the eastern wing of the house. She smiled, picking up her pace. She had almost expected to see the tiny cherubic face peeking back at her from within a glow of early-evening candlelight; and suddenly she couldn’t wait to be back inside the palace, this place where she had made a home for herself, carving out a safe corner of domesticity and freedom away from the crushing hold of Vienna and the Imperial Court.
“Hello, Shadow.” Sisi’s favorite dog, an oversized mound of wagging white fur, trotted up, lapping a sloppy greeting on her as she reached the front door. “You miss me today?” She stroked the massive hound a moment before nodding at the nearby footman and walking into the front hall, her dog trailing behind her in accordance with his name.
“Empress Elisabeth.” Ida Ferenczy, Sisi’s attendant and longtime friend, curtsied as the empress entered. Beside her snored the empress’s other dog, a heavy Saint Bernard named Brave. Her mother-in-law despised oversized dogs—the Archduchess Sophie only ever kept dogs small enough to sit in her lap. Perhaps that was why here, in Gödöllő, Sisi surrounded herself with the enormous, lovable beasts.
“Hello, Ida.” Sisi tossed her riding gloves onto a nearby chair as she crossed the spacious, high-ceilinged front hall toward her attendant. “I will change quickly out of these riding clothes. I miss my little one. Is everything as it should be in the nursery?”
“The Archduchess Valerie is in perfectly good health this evening, thanks be to God.”
“Has she cried today?”
“Only the normal fretting of any small baby. But the nurse reports that the little archduchess has had her milk without incident, and she should be in good spirits for Your Majesty’s visit to the nursery.”
“Good. I’ll change and then go straight to her.”
“Of course. And was Your Majesty’s ride pleasing today?”
“Yes.” Sisi nodded, making her way to the broad, curving staircase that led upstairs toward her suite of private rooms. “It was a wonderful day. The fox thought he had found a safe haven in the southern woodlands, but Nicky rooted him out, and we nearly—” Sisi paused on the steps, her mind pulled in several directions at once. “That reminds me, Ida, we shall be four for dinner tonight instead of three. Nicky—rather, Prince Esterházy—practically begged me for an invitation, and I hadn’t the heart to refuse him. He’ll join the two of us and Countess Marie.”
“In that case, Madame, I believe that we shall be five instead of four.” Ida’s lips curled upward in a sheepish smile, but she offered nothing more by way of explanation.
“Who?” Sisi asked, her hand bracing on the stairway’s carved balustrade. “Who else is coming?” Had Franz decided to plan a last-minute visit? Sisi’s stomach coiled—the emperor’s presence, as rare as it was out here, had a way of disrupting the fragile, carefree peace she fought so hard to cultivate in this household.
As an answer, Ida held forth the small golden mail dish, piled with papers. “Your Imperial Majesty’s personal correspondences.”
“Thank you.” Sisi took the dish, riffling through the pile. “You’ve forwarded all of the official petitions and letters on to my secretary in Vienna?”
Sisi’s eyes landed on the one calling card, its lettering long and graceful—and familiar. No, this was not news of the emperor. This was a sight so longed for that Sisi felt her heart lurch in her breast, aching now with the first kindling of hope. Andrássy! But could it be? Was Andrássy back in Hungary? Sisi fixed a questioning gaze on her attendant, aware of how her eager tone betrayed her as she asked: “Did he . . . did Count Andrássy come by today?”
Leaning forward, her voice low, Ida whispered: “Count Andrássy came calling while you were riding. He said he’d return for dinner.”
Sisi clutched the banister, her heart feeling like it might trip down the carpeted stairs even as she stood frozen in place. “Well, that’s a surprise. A most pleasant surprise. Come, I must dress at once.”
As she dressed for the evening, Sisi made her way through the remaining pile of letters, her mind wandering every few moments back to Andrássy. Had he missed her these past months as she had missed him? How long would he stay? Would all be the same between them? She blinked, forcing herself to focus on the news from her family; she had only so much time to read these letters and visit the nursery before dinner. Before he arrived.
There were several letters from Bavaria, where Sisi’s beloved older sister, Helene, had recently returned to the family home at Possenhofen to live with their parents. “Poor Néné.” Sisi could almost see the tears that had fallen as her widowed sister penned this note. Helene, the eldest sister and the only one of the five Wittelsbach girls to be happily married, had found her groom—a kindly prince of Thurn and Taxis—later in life. She hadn’t married until her twenties, and yet she’d lost her husband just a few precious years after the wedding. Helene wrote of her own deteriorating health, of her daily sadness, but also of her deepening faith. She, who had once longed for a life in a nunnery, wrote Sisi now that daily prayer provided “the one balm against grief in the otherwise chaotic environment of our childhood household.”
Sisi sighed, her heart heavy for Helene as she turned to her next letter from home. This one came from her darling younger sister Sophie-Charlotte.
My dearest Sisi,
I am to be married! You cannot possibly know how happy my heart is. Or perhaps you can, and do, understand my bliss; I was too young to witness it when you yourself fell in love with your husband and accepted his hand.
Sisi looked away for a moment, blinking as she absorbed the startling news. If Néné’s letter had seeped sad resignation, a contemplative widow’s acceptance that her life’s dreams would never be realized, then Sophie-Charlotte’s note burst with youthful cheer, raw and naïve exuberance, an as yet unshaken optimism that felt as fragile and ill-fated as a bowl of blown glass in a child’s hands. Sisi turned back to her sister’s words.
Oh, my darling sister, you know our cousin Ludwig as well as I do. Perhaps even better, as he always tells me that you alone of the sisters (other than me, of course!) truly know him and love him. And how he returns that love to you! How he admires you! And how happy it makes me when he tells me that I, of all our sisters, most resemble you in beauty and sensitivity.
Oh, Sisi, mine is a blissful, giddy state of happiness. Ludwig, King of Bavaria, to be my husband!
He is a man without equal. Why, look at his palaces. He has taste and elegance enough to make me feel like quite the simpleton. And not to mention how beautiful he is to look on. I know that every girl in Bavaria is sick with envy, as they should be. I have won for myself the best husband in our country! Perhaps the world! (Your beloved Franz Joseph excluded, of course.)
You will come home to Bavaria for the wedding, won’t you? I shall tell Ludwig that you will—the promise of seeing you will induce him to name a wedding date!
I am now and shall remain your most loving and devoted sister,
Sisi put Sophie-Charlotte’s letter down and folded it twice, an inexplicable sense of uneasiness settling over her. She was taken aback that the happy news filled her with such misgivings. Her sister was correct: Sisi did love Ludwig. He was her cousin and—other than Néné—her most cherished childhood playmate. She and Ludwig had spent so much of their youths together in Bavaria, the two of them running wild through the fields around Possenhofen and sharing their fantastic daydreams for both the present and the future. Perhaps Ludwig had even been a bit in love with the young Sisi. He had hinted at it enough.
But Ludwig—now to be Sophie-Charlotte’s husband? The idea did not fill Sisi with the joy that such news ought to have aroused. Were they well suited? Certainly her mother, Duchess Ludovika, would be elated at such a match, thrilled by the fact that her youngest daughter would remain so close to her home in “Possi.” And Sophie-Charlotte was euphoric, evidently. Sisi tucked her sister’s note into her escritoire, determined to revisit the topic later. She did not wish to rob her darling baby sister of any of her bridal joy, but neither did she herself have the most optimistic view of matrimony these days. She’d need to think before crafting her reply.
Only two letters remained, and Sisi stared at them now. The top one bore the seal of archduchess gisela, imperial princess of austria and hungary. Gisela, Sisi’s twelve-year-old daughter, writing from the Imperial Court in Vienna. Gisela rarely wrote. She and Sisi were not close; they had never been given a chance at closeness. Gisela, from her earliest days as an infant, had preferred her grandmother, the Archduchess Sophie, the woman who could somehow be as soft and maternal with her grandchildren as she was cold and domineering with her daughter-in-law.