In 1852, four years after his accession to the throne, the emperor was out with his gun on the outskirts of Muerzzuschlag, near Vienna, where he owned some shooting in the middle of the preserves. As was his wont, he was alone, having sent away even his bearer, to get the full egotistical enjoyment out of his favorite pursuit. In his excitement he failed to notice that he had crossed the boundaries of the imperial property. Suddenly, a few paces ahead of him, a magnificent pheasant got up. Francis Joseph took aim and was about to fire, when a loud voice broke upon his ears, “If you shoot that pheasant, I will put a charge of lead through you.”
Lowering his gun and scarlet with anger Francis Joseph asked who it was that dared to speak to him thus. “I do, my young fellow,” said a big man in shooting costume, as he emerged from the wood. Francis Joseph was on the point of revealing that he was the emperor, but restrained himself in rueful amusement at the unforeseen incident. But it was with his customary haughtiness that he replied, “What have I done wrong, my fine fellow?”
“Don’t take the trouble to be humorous, or you will tire yourself. You are shooting on my property, that is all, and you are well aware of the fact. Come now, follow me to the house, where I will write out my statement of complaint. And meanwhile give me your gun.”
“Suppose I decline?”
“If you decline, all is quite simple. You come from the imperial preserves and I shall complain to the emperor.”
Francis Joseph could not check a smile as he asked, “Are you acquainted with the emperor?”
“No, I am not, but you need not look clever. His majesty is fond of shooting and he cannot refuse to be just. He will understand my position.”
“Very well, you are right and I admit that I am to blame.” The emperor handed over his gun and followed the surly sportsman without further talk to the house, or rather the farm. Now, this country gentleman was Baron N., and in the hall they met the baroness, a sweet and gracious young lady, who, for all her fragile appearance, seemed to dominate her big, burly husband. The baron told her what had happened and led the way to his room. The young emperor assumed his most winning air, while he constrained his handsome features to wear a submissive, pleading and sorrowful look. The lady of the house was not proof against these wiles and, when Francis Joseph had extenuated his mistake saying that he had sinned through ignorance and devotion to sport, she intervened to ask that he might be forgiven. The baron held out until she begged him in a soft, musical voice not to refuse her request. Then he caught her in his arms, and in spite of her embarrassed struggles planted a sounding kiss upon her neck, and, turning to his prisoner, said with a loud, clumsy laugh, “You ought to thank heaven, young man, that the baroness presented me with a son only three weeks ago. But for that you wouldn’t get off. Shake hands now.” Francis Joseph put his hand into the baron’s great, horny fist and peace was declared. The baron proposing a drink, to show that no ill feeling remained, a move was made to the dining room. As the glasses chinked, tongues became looser, and after a long talk the emperor (who had made himself out to be an officer in the imperial guard) learning that the baptism of the son and heir was to take place in fifteen days’ time, offered to be the godfather. The offer was accepted with good will and as soon as the young sportsman had taken his departure the little house rang with praises of his genteel manners and unaffected affability. This estimate was doomed to be soon upset.
On the day of the baptism there was a gathering at the farmhouse of all of N.’s family and friends. They were waiting for the promised godfather, when, preceded by the imperial outriders, a state coach drew up at the door. The young sportsman got out in full general’s uniform, followed by two aides-de-camp, while a footman announced, “His majesty, the emperor.” The confusion of the baron and baroness can be imagined.
A very valiant youth, no doubt, but at the same time impetuous and sensual. In fact, he admired fresh, handsome women. Why not? He was young and handsome. Besides, he was the emperor. But the noble damsels resorted to all sorts of devices to escape him. Here is an example. At that time there was a very fashionable dance. First the men, that is, the emperor and the noblest lords, took their places in the chief hall with their partners, all the prettiest Contesseln, or little countesses, as they were called with an affectionate diminutive. The old dignitaries, the honest pot-bellied fathers of families, the mothers who hid their elderly bodies in vast crinolines, were all banished to adjacent rooms. Only the young people were admitted to the chief hall. Now the men grouped themselves on one side, the ladies on the other. There was a big empty space in the middle, so that the servants could draw a curtain that hung on a rope from one wall to the other at a little more than a man’s height above the floor. It was of rich red velvet, with long, gilded fringes that shivered and glittered in the splendor of the illuminations. These fringes, unlike most things in this world, were there for an object. All the girls were drawn up in a row behind the curtain and each had to show a little foot under the fringe, and one hand—I forget whether it was the right or left—had to be stretched above the rope. It was a fancy pair of feet and hands, where the men had to choose partners from those graceful indications. When all the choices had been made, the curtain fell, each claimed his partner and the dance began. Unless a foreign sovereign was among the guests, the emperor had the privilege of the first choice, and he was very keen about it, for he had to stand in the middle of the hall with his partner, while the other couples gathered around him slowly one by one. And in order that his choice might not be left entirely to blind chance, he used, if rumor may be believed, to have recourse to all sorts of strange stratagems in collusion with the venal shoemakers of Vienna. The shape or color of the shoes, some cunning innovation, an eccentric buckle, served to betray the little countesses. But they were quick enough to tumble to the game and, much craftier than he, would change their little shoes behind a door or screen, under the very nose of some fat excellency.
One evening, when the aide-de-camp came up to my young mother to command her to dance with the emperor, her father, the Count of Strachwitz, an old and very great noble, replied with firmness and dignity, “I forbid it.” And his courage was secretly admired.
Herbert Vivian, Francis Joseph and His Court, from the Memoirs of Count Roger de Resseguier, 1917
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: His Imperial Majesty was well-known for his enthusiasm for the chase. He is said to have shot more than 55,000 game animals in his 86 years. The Empreror was, of course, married to the exquisitely beautiful Elisabeth, known as Sisi. She did not care for the Emperor’s attentions, leaving him to seek solace elsewhere. Since the Emperor did not keep a game book listing his feminine conquests, we have no statistics on that point. Count Roger de Resseguier, whose mother was a lady-in-waiting at the Austrian court, waxes deeply insinuating on the topic.