Their duties soon took them away from their young daughter. Stéphanie and Rudolf visited Constantinople and Bulgaria, followed by visits to Carinthia, Carniola, Tyrol, Albania, Greece and Montenegro. They returned to Belgium to celebrate Stéphanie’s father’s 50th birthday in 1885. The following year, both Rudolf and Stéphanie became ill. Stéphanie was in bed for weeks, and doctors diagnosed her with peritonitis. Both recovered, and wishes were renewed for Stéphanie to give birth to an heir. Stéphanie was allowed to take it easier that year in hopes of conceiving. However, the Crown Prince was often not with her, and his restlessness took him elsewhere. When she saw him again, she found him looking very unhealthy.
Stéphanie began to believe he had moved away from her completely. By then, Rudolf had probably been infected with a venereal disease, and he, in turn, had infected Stéphanie. It was most likely gonorrhoea, and two gynaecologists came to examine her. She then learned that “the Crown Prince was responsible for my complaint.”1 Gonorrhoea had caused pelvic inflammation and had destroyed her fallopian tubes. She would never again conceive a child. She was sent to several spas, and while she seemed to improve, he did not. The diagnosis had destroyed her purpose in life – to provide an heir for the Austrian throne. Rudolf began to depend on a dangerous mixture of drugs to alleviate the painful symptoms of gonorrhoea.
When Elisabeth learned of the difficulties in Rudolf and Stéphanie’s marriage, her first instinct was to do nothing. She told her lady-in-waiting, “Sometimes I have wondered what I could do. But I am reluctant to interfere, for I myself suffered so unspeakably under my mother-in-law that I do not wish to incur the reproach of a similar fault.”2 It is also unlikely that Elisabeth knew of the extent of Rudolf’s illness.
In the summer of 1887, sick of the many years of pretending not to notice her husband’s affairs, Stéphanie took a lover of her own. But, unlike Rudolf, she was discreet with the 38-year-old Count Artur Potocki. His codename was Hamlet, and she used her sister Louise as a go-between.
In October 1888, Stéphanie returned from a trip to Greece. She wrote in her memoirs, “But I was horrified as soon as I set eyes on the Crown Prince. His decay was so greatly advanced as to have become conspicuous. He was frightfully changed; his skin was flaccid; his eyes were restless; his expression had completely changed. It seemed as if his lineaments had lost the inner substantially, which can only come from strength of will, as if a process of internal dissolution were going on. I was profoundly sorry for him and wondered how the devastation would end.”3 Stéphanie wanted to confront her father-in-law about Rudolf, hoping to save him from disaster. However, the Emperor saw nothing wrong with his son and dismissed her concerns. On 26 January 1889, Stéphanie and Rudolf attended a big soirée, followed by a reception on the 27th. From the 28th, there was to be a shoot at Mayerling. Rudolf promised her he would be back the next day for a family dinner. They would never see each other again. Rudolf excused himself from the family dinner the following day. Stéphanie told the family that he had come down with a cold.
Stéphanie awoke on 30 January 1889 to a gloomy winter day. She had a singing lesson as was usual, but she felt anxious. The lesson was interrupted by her chief lady-in-waiting, who privately gave her the bad news from Mayerling. Stéphanie immediately realised what had happened and sobbed, “He is dead!”4 Not much later, she was summoned by the Emperor and Empress. They questioned her, but Stéphanie had no answers for them. It was the Empress who told her the whole story. Rudolf had been found in the early hours of the morning shot in the head, with the body of Mary Vetsera by his side. Stéphanie later wrote, “The Emperor sat at the centre of the room, the Empress, dressed in dark clothes, her face white and rigid, was with him. In my bewildered, shaken state, I believed that I was being looked at like an unfaithful wife. A crossfire of questions, some of which I could not answer, descended on me.”5
They also handed her the Crown Prince’s farewell letter, which read, “Dear Stéphanie, You are freed henceforward from the torment of my presence. Be happy, in your own way. Be good to the poor little girl who is the only thing I leave behind. Give my last greetings to all my acquaintances, especially to Bombelles, Spindler, Latour, Nowo, Gisela, Leopold, etc. etc. I face death calmly; death alone can save my good name. With warmest love, your affectionate Rudolf.”6
Stéphanie was angry and indignant. She wrote, “True, death had relieved me from conjugal life which was full of anxieties, cares, and sorrows – but at what cost! My own future and that of the country, for which I had endured so much unfailing patience, seemed to have been shattered. Nothing remained but a burning wound in my heart. My hopes, the meaning of life, had been pitilessly destroyed. Long did it go on burning, this wound, like the bite of a venomous serpent. Nothing could close it, nothing could heal it; and I did not begin to feel relief until I found myself able, in all humility, to accept it as the will of God.”7
The loss of Rudolf did nothing to improve the relationship between Elisabeth and Stéphanie. Elisabeth placed the blame for Rudolf’s death at Stéphanie’s feet and said, “If one comes to know this woman properly, one must excuse Rudolf for looking elsewhere for distraction and a narcotic to ease the emptiness of the heart in his own home. It is certain: things would have been otherwise had he had a different wife, one who understood him.”8
- Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and Penny Wilson p.52
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.331-332
- H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.240
- H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.246
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.340
- H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.248
- H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.249-250
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.342