Is This the End of Childhood?
Schönbrunn: May 1766
My mother liked to boast that her numerous daughters were “sacrifices to politics.” I never dared admit to Maman, who was Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, that the phrase terrified me more than she could know. Every time she said it, my imagination painted a violent tableau of Abraham and Isaac.
Unflinchingly pragmatic, Maman prepared us to accept our destinies not only with grace and equanimity, but with a minimal amount of fuss. Thus, I had been schooled to expect, as sure as summer follows spring, that one day my carefree life as the youngest archduchess of Austria would forever change. What I never anticipated was that the day in question would come so soon.
In the company of my beloved sister, Charlotte, I was enjoying an idyllic afternoon on the verdant hillside above the palace of Schönbrunn, indulging in one of our favorite pastimes-avoiding our lessons by distracting our governess, the Countess von Brandeiss.
A bumblebee hummed lazily about our heads, mistaking our pomaded and powdered hair for dulcet blossoms. Charlotte had kicked off her blue brocaded slippers and was wiggling her stockinged feet in the freshly cut grass. So I did the same, delighting in the coolness of the lawn, slightly damp against the soles of my feet, although we’d surely merit a scolding for staining our white hose. Affecting a grim expression and pressing my chin to my chest until I achieved our mother’s jowly appearance, in a dreadfully stern voice I said, “At your age, Charlott-ah, you should know better than to lead the little one into childish games.”
My sister laughed. “Mein Gott, you sound just like her!”
Countess von Brandeiss suppressed a smile, hiding her little yellow teeth. “And you should know better than to mock your mother, Madame Antonia.
“Ouf!” Startled by the bee, which now appeared to be inspecting with some curiosity the ruffles of her bonnet, our governess began to bat the air about her head. Nearly tripping over her voluminous skirts as she leapt to her feet in fright, Madame von Brandeiss began to hop about in such a comical fashion that it was impossible for us to feel even the slightest bit chastised.
Maman’s scoldings were so easy to duplicate because they came with far more regularity than her compliments. From middle spring through the warm, waning days of September, she was a familiar presence in our lives, tending to affairs of state from the outskirts of Vienna in our summer palace of Schönbrunn, a grand edifice of ocher and white that resembled a giant tea loaf piped with Schlag, whipped cream. With scrubbed faces we were presented to her in the Breakfast Room, its walls, the color of fresh milk, partitioned into symmetrical panels by gilded moldings and scrollwork. Charlotte, Ferdinand, Maxl, and I looked forward to the invitation to the day when we would be old enough to merit an invitation to join her, along with our older siblings, for a steaming pot of fragrant coffee and terribly adult conversation about places like Poland and Silesia, places I remained unable to locate on the map of Europe that hung on the wall of our schoolroom.
For the remainder of the year, when the prodigious Hapsburg family resided at the gray and labyrinthine Hofburg palace in the heart of Vienna, we, the youngest of the empress’s brood, scarcely saw Maman more than once every ten days. We even attended daily Mass without her, a line of ducklings, dressed in our finest clothes, kneeling on velvet cushions that bore our initials embroidered in silver thread. Charlotte and I remained side by side as our pastel-colored skirts, widened by the basketlike panniers beneath them, nudged one another; our heads swam with the pungent aroma of incense while our ears rang with ritual-the resonance of the grand pipe organ and the bishop’s solemn intonations in Latin.
And as the days grew shorter we began to forget the woman who had almost dared to have fun during those departed sunlit months. Mother became matriarch: a forbidding figure clad all in black, her skirts making her appear nearly as wide as she was tall. Marched into her study for inspection, we would stand still as statues-no fidgeting allowed-while she peered at us through a gilt-edged magnifying glass and inquired of our governess whether we were learning our lessons, eating healthy meals, using tooth powder, and scrubbing our necks and behind our ears. The royal physician, Dr. Wansvietten, was put through the same paces with questions about our general health. The answers were invariably in the affirmative, since no one would dare to admit any act of negligence or weakness, and so she dismissed us from her presence, satisfied that we were dutiful children.
I slid across the grass on my bottom, nestling beside our governess, adjusting my body so that I could whisper in her ear, “May I tell you a secret, Madame?”
“Of course, Liebchen.” Madame von Brandeiss smiled indulgently.
“Sometimes . . . sometimes I wish you were my mother.” The pomade in her hair, scented to disguise its origin as animal fat, smelled of lavender. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. The fragrance was so pleasant, it nearly made me sleepy.
“Why, Madame Antonia!” The countess managed to appear both touched and alarmed, her cheeks coloring prettily as her gray eyes stole a reflexive glance to see who might be listening. “How can you say such a thing, little one-especially when your maman is the empress of Austria!”
Madame von Brandeiss tenderly stroked my hair. I could not remember whether my mother had ever done so, nor could I summon the memory of any similar display of warmth or affection. It was enough to convince me that they had never taken place. I felt my governess’s lips press against the top of my head. Somehow she knew, without my breathing a word, that the empress’s demeanor rather frightened me. “I’m sure your maman loves you, little one,” she murmured. “But you must remember, it is the duty of a sovereign to attend to great and serious affairs of state, while it is a governess’s responsibility to look after the children.”
I wriggled a bit. My leg had become entangled in my underskirts and had fallen asleep. “Are you ever sorry you didn’t have any of your own?” I asked the countess. Inside my white stockings I wiggled my toes until the tingling was gone.
“Antonia, you’re being impertinent!” Charlotte said reproachfully. “What did Maman tell you about blurting out whatever comes into your head?” I loved and admired my next oldest sister more than anyone in the world, but she had the makings of quite a little autocrat-Maman in miniature in many ways. Already her adolescent features had begun to resemble our mother, especially about the mouth.
Ignoring my sister, I tilted my chin and gazed earnestly into our governess’s eyes. “If you could have, would you have had sixteen children, like Maman?” There were only thirteen of us now, owing to the ravages of smallpox. I’d contracted the disease when I was only two years old and by the grace of God recovered fully. Only a tiny scar by the side of my nose remained as a reminder of what I had survived. When I grew older I would be permitted to hide it with powder and paint, or perhaps even a patch, although Maman thought that women who covered their pox scars withmouches had no morals. “If you had a little girl, Madame, what would you want her to be like?”
Countess von Brandeiss swallowed hard and fingered the engraved locket about her neck. She was perhaps nearly as old as Maman; the brown hair that peeked out from beneath her straw bonnet and white linen cap was threaded with a few strands of silver. She tenderly kissed the top of my head. “If I had had a little girl, I would have wanted her to be just like you. With strawberry blond curls and enormous dark blue eyes, and a generous heart as big as the Austrian Empire.” Tugging me toward her, she readjusted the gray woolen band that smoothed my unruly tendrils off my forehead. It wasn’t terribly pretty but it served its turn, and was ordinarily masked by my hair ribbon. But that afternoon I had removed the length of rose-colored silk and used it to tie a bouquet I plucked from the parterres-tulips and pinks and puffy white snapdragons.
“Yes, Liebchen,” sighed my governess, “she would be exactly like you, except in one respect.” I looked at her inquiringly. “If I had had a little girl, she would be more attentive to her lessons!” Madame von Brandeiss gently clasped my wrists and disengaged my arms from her neck. Her eyes twinkled. “She would not be clever enough to invent so many distractions, and she would pay more attention to her studies. And, she would not ask so many”-she glanced at Charlotte, who was feigning interest in splitting a blade of grass with her pale, slender fingers-“impertinentquestions.
“Now,” she said, urging me off her lap and onto the lawn. “Enough games. Like it or not, ma petite, it is time for your French grammar lesson. You too, Charlotte.” The countess clapped her hands with brisk efficiency. “Allons, mes enfants.”
In the blink of an eye, a liveried footman handed Charlotte our copybooks.
Before I could stop myself, I pursed my lips into a petulant little moue. Our governess stuck out her lower lip, playfully mocking my expression. “You mustn’t pout, Antonia. It was you, little madame, who convinced me to move your lessons out of doors today.”
Rolling onto my belly and propping myself on my elbows, I lifted my face to the breeze and filled my nostrils with the scents of summer. The boning in my bodice pressed against my midriff and my skirts belled out above my rump like a pink soufflé. “But I’m not pouting, Madame. It’s how God made me,” I said brightly. In truth, what Maman calls “the Hapsburg lower lip” gives the impression of a permanent pout, even when I’m not sulking. Our entire family looks the same way; with fair hair, a pale complexion, and a distinctly receding chin, I resembled every one of my siblings and ancestors.
And yet, if I’d had a glass I would have appraised my appearance. Was I pretty? Maman thought I was a perfect porcelain doll, but I’d overheard whispers among the servants. . . something about the way I carried my head. Or perhaps it was my physiognomy. Then again, I was a Hapsburg archduchess. I had every reason to delight in my lineage. Still-I wanted everyone to love me. If there were a way to please them, I wished to learn it. “Do you think my chin makes me look haughty?” I asked Madame von Brandeiss.
“People who have nothing better to do will indulge in idle gossip,” our governess replied. Charlotte placed her hand over her mouth to hide a smile. “Your chin makes you look proud. And you have every reason to be proud because you are a daughter of Austria and your family has a long and illustrious history. And,” Madame von Brandeiss continued, beginning to laugh, “you are doing it again.”
“Doing what?” I asked innocently.
“Doing everything you can think of to avoid your books. Don’t think you can fool me, little madame.”
She clapped her hands again. “Come now, you minxes, you’ve dawdled enough. Vite, vite! It’s time for your French lesson.” She shook Charlotte gently by the shoulder.
Charlotte rolled onto her back and sat up; she was diligent by nature, but if I began to dally, she could become as indolent as I when it came to our schoolwork. Our moods affected each other as if we had been born twins. Her grumble became a delighted squeal as something caught our eyes at exactly the same moment. “Toinette, look! A butterfly!” My sister shut her copybook with a resonant snap. Joining hands, we pulled each other to our feet and began to give chase. Without breaking her stride Charlotte swept up her net from where it lay in the soft grass with a single graceful motion.
“Ach! Nein! Girls, your shoes!” Madame von Brandeiss exclaimed, rising and smoothing her skirts. Her boned corset prevented her from bending with ease; she knelt as if to curtsy and scooped up one of my backless ivory satin slippers.
“No time!” I shouted, clutching fistfuls of watered silk as I hitched up my skirts and raced past Charlotte. The butterfly became a blur of vivid blue as it flitted in an irregular serpentine across the manicured hillside, its delicate form silhouetted against the cerulean sky. It finally settled on a hedge at the perimeter of the slope. Charlotte and I had nearly run out of wind; our chests heaved with exertion, straining against the stiff boning of our stomachers. My sister began to lower her net. I raised my hand to stay her. “No,” I insisted, panting. “You’ll scare her off.”
I held my breath. Gingerly reaching toward the foliage, I cupped my hands over our exquisite quarry. The butterfly’s iridescent wings fluttered energetically, tickling my palms. “Let’s show Madame,” I whispered.
With Charlotte a pace or two behind me, limping a bit because she’d put her foot wrong on an unseen twig, I cautiously tiptoed back across the lawn, fearful of tripping and losing the delicate treasure cocooned within my hands. The rapid trembling of the butterfly’s wings gradually slowed until there was only an occasional beat against my palms.
Finally, we reached the countess. “Look what I’ve got!” I crowed, slowly uncurling my fingers. The three of us peered at the motionless insect. Charlotte’s face turned grave.
Catching the troubled expression in her pale blue eyes, “Maybe she’s sleeping,” I said softly, hopefully, stroking one of the fragile wings with my index finger. My hands were smudged with yellow dust.
“She’s not sleeping, Toinette. She’s . . .” Charlotte’s words trailed off as she looked at me, her usually flushed cheeks now ashen with awareness.
My lips quivered, but the sobs became strangled in my throat. Drawing me to her, Charlotte endeavored to still the heaving in my shoulders, but I shrugged her off. I didn’t deserve to be comforted. An enormous tear rolled down my cheek and landed on my chest, marring the silk with an irregular stain. Another warm tear plopped onto my wrist. I closed my hands again as if to shelter the butterfly in the sepulcher made by my palms, while the full weight of my crime settled on my narrow shoulders.
“I. Didn’t. Mean. To. Kill. Her. I’ve. Never. Killed. Anything. I would. Never. Hurt . . .” My sobs finally came in big loud gulps, bursts of hysterical sound punctuated by apologies.
With a look of sheer helplessness I threw myself into my governess’s open arms.
“Shh, Liebchen,” soothed the countess, caressing my hair. “We know you meant no harm.” For several moments I remained in her embrace, my cheek pressed against the ruching at her bosom. Then Madame von Brandeiss knelt before me and used her lace-edged handkerchief to blot my tears. “Perhaps,” she said, gently taking my clasped hands in hers, “perhaps she was too beautiful to live.”