June 17, 1769
My name is Archduchess Maria Antonia, called Antoinette, and I am thirteen years and seven months old, and this is the record of my life.
Writing in this journal is my punishment. Father Kunibert, my confessor, has told me to write down all my sins in this journal so that I may reflect on them and pray for forgiveness.
“Write!” he said, pushing the book toward me, his thick white eyebrows going up, making him look ferocious.
“Write what you have done! Confess!”
“But I have done nothing wrong,” I tell him.
“Write it down. Then we will see. Put there everything you did, starting with last Friday. And leave nothing out!”
Very well, I will put down in this book all that I did on the day I went to see Josepha, and what happened afterward, and then I will show Father Kunibert what I have written and make my confession.
Tomorrow I will begin.
June 18, 1769
It is very hard and sad to write what happened, because I am so very sorry that my sister was in such pain. I tried to tell Father Kunibert this, but he just opened the journal and handed me the box of sharpened quills. He is a hard man, as Carlotta says. He does not listen to explanations.
On Friday morning, then, this is what I did.
I borrowed a plain black cloak and hood from my maid Sophie, and put a silver crucifix around my neck such as the Sisters of Mercy wear. I prepared a basket with fresh loaves and a ripe cheese and some strawberries from the palace garden. Without telling Sophie or anyone else where I was going, I went at night to the old abandoned stables where I was sure my sister Josepha was being kept.
Josepha had been missing for a week, ever since she became hot with fever and began to cough. No one would tell me where she was, so I had to find out by asking the servants. Servants know everything that happens in the palace, even what goes on between the master and mistress in the privacy of their bedroom. I found out from Eric, the stable boy who grooms my riding horse Lysander that there was a sick girl in the basement of the old riding school. He had seen the Sisters of Mercy going there at night, and once he saw our court physician Dr. Van Swieten go in and come out again very quickly, holding a handkerchief over his mouth and looking very pale.
I was sure my sister Josepha was there, lying in the dark probably, sick and lonely, waiting to die. I had to go to her. I had to tell her that she was not forgotten or abandoned.
So I wrapped the black cloak around me and went out. The candle I carried guttered in the wind as I crossed the courtyard and made my way along the arcaded walkway and out into the stable yard. There were no lights in the old riding school, no one ever went there and no horses were kept tethered in its stalls.
I tried to keep my thoughts on Josepha, but my fear rose as I entered the dark building with its high domed ceiling. Dim shapes loomed up amid the darkness. When I shone my light on them they turned out to be cupboards for harnesses and empty bins that had once held hay.
All was silent, except for the creaking of the old timbers in the roof and the distant calling of the palace sentinels as they made their rounds. I found steps leading down into more darkness. I started to go down, praying that my candle would not go out, and trying not to think of the stories Sophie liked to tell about the palace ghost, the Gray Lady who walked weeping through the corridors at night and sometimes flew in at the windows.
“Don’t be foolish, Antonia,” my mother would say when I asked her about the Gray Lady, “there are no ghosts. When we die, we die. We do not live on as disembodied spirits. Only peasants believe such nonsense.”
I respected my mother’s wisdom, but I wasn’t sure about the ghosts. Sophie had seen the Gray Lady several times, she said, and many others had seen her too.
To keep my mind off ghosts I called out to Josepha as I descended the stairs.
I thought I heard a weak cry.
I called out again, and this time I was sure I heard an answer.
But the voice I heard was not my sister’s. Josepha had a strong, laughing voice. The voice I heard now was pinched and thin, and terribly anxious.
“Don’t come any nearer, whoever you are,” it said. “I have the pox. If you come near me you will die.”
“I hear you, I’m almost there,” I called out, ignoring the warning.
I found her in a small, cell-like room where a lantern hanging from a nail in the wall gave the only light. I could not help but gag, the stench in the room was so overwhelming. A powerful, cloying odor, not the odor of decay or dirt but a sickly, ghastly stench of rot.
From where she lay in her narrow bed Josepha lifted one weak arm as if to ward me off.
“Please, dearest Antonia, turn back. Go back.”
I was crying. What the weak lantern-light showed me was monstrous. Josepha’s skin was purple, and full of blisters. Her face was swollen and red, her cheeks puffed out grotesquely, and there was blood dripping from her nose. Her eyes were bloodshot.
“I love you,” I said through my tears. “I am praying for you.” I put down the basket, wondering whether rats would come and eat the food I had brought. But then I thought, the smell in this room is so terrible not even rats would come near.
“I am so thirsty,” came the voice from the bed.
I took from my basket the bottle of wine I had brought and set it beside Josepha’s bed. With difficulty she raised herself, reached for the bottle and drank. I could tell she was having trouble swallowing.
“Oh, Antonia,” she said when she had put the bottle down, “I have such terrible dreams! Fire coming down, and burning us all up. Mother on fire, screaming. Father, laughing while he watches us all burn.”
“It is only the sickness that makes you dream such things. We are all safe, there is no fire.” But there is, I thought. There is the fire of the cowpox, that makes Josepha burn with fever and turns her brain to madness.
“You must have medicine, you must get well.”
“The sisters give me brandy and valerian, but it doesn’t help. I know they have given up on me.”
“I have not. I will come back, I promise.”
“No. Stay away. Everyone must stay away.”
Her voice grew fainter. She was going to sleep. “Dear Antonia . . .”
My tears were falling fast, but I knew I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t risk being missed. No one knew where I had gone, I hadn’t even told Carlotta, with whom I share my bedroom.
So I left Josepha, and went back up the dark stairs and out through the old riding school and back along the torchlit arcade to the palace.
The next day I was in the room when Dr. Van Swieten came to see my mother the empress. My brother Joseph, who is twenty-six and who has just buried his second wife, was also there. Ever since our father died, our mother has looked to Joseph for help in governing her many lands. One day after she dies Joseph will rule them all, so he needs to learn. Already he has the firmness that my mother says all rulers need. But I have heard her say to Count Khevenhüller that Joseph does not yet have the necessary compassion and concern for people that he will need if he is to rule well.
“What of Josepha?” my mother asked the doctor as he bowed and murmured “Your imperial highness.”
“It is the black pox.”
I saw my mother blanch, and Joseph turn his face away. The black pox was the severest kind of cowpox. No one ever survived it. When there was black pox in Vienna we children were always taken away at once into the country, so that we would not become ill. Servants with black pox were turned out of the palace and sent as far away as possible. None ever returned. And now my sister Josepha was dying of it too.
“It is perfectly horrifying,” the doctor was saying. “I have seen it often before. There is no point in trying to preserve life once the pox takes hold. The archduchess cannot be saved. She can only make others ill.”
“Is she receiving every care?” I heard my mother ask.
“Of course. The Sisters of Mercy visit her, and the dairymaids.” It was well known that dairymaids were spared from being struck down with the cowpox. For some reason, they could care for sick people without fear of becoming sick themselves.
“No one must know who she is,” Joseph boomed out. “No one from the court must be allowed near her. We cannot have another outbreak of Pox Fear, like last summer.”
Whenever the cowpox appeared, people panicked. The entire town caught the Pox Fear. There were frenzied efforts to escape the sickness. Terrified householders, trying to flee, were trampled or crushed to death.
No one wanted the Pox Fear to invade the palace, where hundreds of servants and officials lived in close quarters and served the empress and our family.
“That is understood,” Dr. Van Swieten said. “The archduchess is being kept where no one will find her.”
I almost spoke up then, but managed to hold my tongue. Standing beside my mother, I heard her black silk skirts rustling, and was aware that she was trembling.
“I can’t lose any more of my children,” she was saying. “First my dear Karl, and then Johanna, only eleven when she died, poor girl, and now my lovely Josepha, so young, and about to be married—”
“You have ten of us left, maman.” Joseph’s voice was cutting. He knew that although he was the eldest son, and our mother’s heir, she had preferred Karl, and loved him more. “Surely ten children is a sufficient number.”
I am fond of my brother Joseph, but he does not understand what it is to love someone. When our father died four years ago he did not weep, but snorted with contempt.
“He was a lazy do-nothing, surrounded by idle hangers-on,” I heard him say. He refused even to lay a wreath on father’s grave, though he did offer his arm to mother at the funeral.
Joseph is twenty-six, and has been married twice, but he did not grieve for either of his wives when they died, or for the poor little dead baby his first wife gave him. Joseph is hard for me to understand.
“How much longer will she live?” Joseph asked Dr. Van Swieten.
“A few days perhaps.”
“When she dies, have the body taken away quickly. Let there be no announcement. She will not be missed. One excess daughter more or less—”
“Joseph! That will do.” My mother spoke firmly, but I could hear the panic in her voice.
But my brother, in his bitterness, went on.
“And I want the body burned. Along with all her clothes and effects.”
“Enough! What you propose is unchristian. I will never allow it. You forget yourself.”
“Such foolishness!” I heard Joseph mutter. “To believe that some day all the bodies of the dead will sit up in their graves, and come back to life. A priest’s fairy tale.”
“We will abide by the teachings of the church,” my mother said quietly. “We are not heathens, or sectarians. Besides, Josepha is still alive. And while she lives, there is hope. I will retire now to my chapel to pray for her. And I recommend that you do the same.”
To the doctor she said, “I want to be informed if there is any change in her condition.”
At this I could keep still no longer.
“Oh maman, there is such a terrible change in her. You would not believe it!” Tears ran down my face as I spoke.
My mother looked down at me, her eyes grave. Joseph glared at me in fury. Dr. Van Swieten gasped.
“Explain yourself, Antonia,” said mother calmly.
“I have seen her. She is all puffed up, and black and purple, and she smells horrible. And they keep her in a dark rathole under the old riding school, where no one ever goes.” I looked up into my mother’s eyes. “She’s dying, maman. She’s dying.”
Instead of enfolding me in her black silk skirts, as I expected her to do, my mother took several steps back from me, so that I could no longer smell her familiar smell, a combination of ink and rosewater.
“Your imperial highnesses must withdraw,” Dr. Van Swieten said to my mother and Joseph, who were both putting more distance between themselves and me. “I will take charge of her. She will be watched for signs of the black pox.” He motioned to one of the tall footmen standing at the back of the large room, waiting for orders.
“Send for my assistant, at once. And the dairymaids.”
I was taken to the old guards’ quarters and kept there, watched by two village women, one old, one young, until they were certain I was not going to become sick like my sister. All my clothes were taken away and burned, and Sophie sent new clothes. When I was putting them on a note fell out. It was from my sister Carlotta.
“Dearest Antoinette,” she wrote, “how brave you were, to visit poor Josepha. Everyone knows what you did. We all have to pretend to disapprove but we admire you. I hope you don’t get sick. Joseph is angry. I love you.”
July 3, 1769
I have decided not to show this book to Father Kunibert. It will be my record, my private journal, of my life. Mine alone.
So much has happened to me in the past several weeks. I have been kept away from poor Josepha, who died on the third day after I visited her. I try not to think of her in her suffering, but I know I will never forget how she looked, there in her cot, when I found her.
Father Kunibert says I must reflect on my disobedience, and pray to be forgiven. He says I must be grateful to be alive. But I do not feel grateful, only full of sorrow. I was not allowed to attend the brief funeral mass for Josepha, because I was still being watched by the dairymaids, who inspected my hands and arms and face every morning and evening for pox blisters and murmured to one another and shook their heads over me.
I have thought about death, and how Josepha only had seventeen years on earth, so brief a season! Why do some die and some live? I can write no more about this, I am too full of sorrow.
July 15, 1769
Finally Dr. Van Swieten has let me return to the apartments I share with Carlotta. I do not have the cowpox.
July 28, 1769
This morning Sophie got me up early and dressed me with extra care. I asked her why but she wouldn’t tell me. I knew it had to be something important when I saw her bring out my pale blue silk ball gown with the silver lamé trim and the pink satin rosettes on the bodice.
My hair was brushed and pinned back from my face and a silver-gray wig put over it. The wig was becoming, and made me look very old I thought, especially when Sophie threaded pearls through it.
I have always been told that I look like my father, who was very handsome. Like him I have a wide forehead and large eyes set far apart. My eyes are light blue like my mother’s and she likes me to dress in blue to bring out their color.
I could tell, as Sophie dressed me, that she was satisfied with the effect. She smiled to herself and hummed as she worked. Sophie has been my maid ever since I was seven years old and she was fifteen, and she knows me better than anyone, better even than my mother and Carlotta.
When I was ready I was taken into the grand salon where my mother was. There were several men with her, and they all stared hard at me as I entered the room and walked to my mother’s side.
“Antonia, dear, this is Prince Kaunitz and this is the Duc de Choiseul.” Both men bowed to me and I inclined my head in acknowledgment, feeling the unaccustomed weight of the wig as I did so.
My dancing master Monsieur Noverre came forward and signaled for the court musicians to play. He led me in the polonaise and then the allemande as the gentlemen watched closely. My harp was brought forward and I played several simple tunes—I am not a very accomplished harpist—and I sang an aria by Herr Gluck who had taught me to play the clavichord when I was younger.
Trays of coffee and pastries were brought in and I sat with my mother and the prince and the duke talking of one thing and another. I felt rather foolish in my ball gown but we passed a pleasant half-hour chatting, and I did my best to answer the questions put to me, questions about everything from my religious education to my knowledge of geography and history to my ideas about marriage.
“Naturally you hope to marry one day,” Prince Kaunitz said amiably. “And what is your idea of the perfect wife?”
“One who loves her husband dearly, as my mother loved my father.”
“And presents him with sons,” the Duc de Choiseul added.
“Yes, of course. And daughters too, if the lord wills it.”
“To be sure. Daughters too.”
“Do you believe, archduchess, that a wife must obey her husband in all things?”
I thought for a moment. “I hope that when I marry, my husband and I will decide together what is best, and act as one.”
The two men looked at one another, and I thought I saw a faint look of amusement in their faces.
“Thank you, Archduchess Antonia, for your frankness and your courtesy.”
My mother and the men rose and walked the length of the enormous room, deep in conversation.
“Physically, she is perfect,” the duke said. “Her education has been inadequate, but she can be taught. There is great charm—”
“And a good heart, a very good heart,” I heard my mother add.
They took their time, walking and talking, Prince Kaunitz gesticulating, the duke more measured, more calculated in his movements and his tone.
“This is the alliance we have long hoped for,” I heard my mother say. “The union of Hapsburg and Bourbon will secure our fortune, long after I am gone.”
“Austria is not our enemy,” the duke said. “Britain is. We must fortify ourselves against Britain.”
“And we must fortify ourselves against Prussia,” Prince Kaunitz countered. “The interests of both Austria and France will be served by this marriage. And the sooner it is made, the better.”
Copyright © 2005 by Carolly Erickson. All rights reserved.