You see,

It’s all a decree,

An ideology,

When the prince and his mistress

Are a mote in the eye.

The imperium says they must die.

According to standard encyclopaedia entries, Baroness Maria Vetsera, a girl of seventeen, began relations with Rudolf, Archduke and Crown Prince of Austria, in October 1887, and for reasons still to be puzzled on accepted his offer of a suicide pact. The official story is that Rudolf had ideas for himself as a future King of Hungary, who in that role would resuscitate a Kingdom of Poland. But there were forces against him, and he was frustrated in these efforts, and furthermore was unhappy in his marriage – hence his mistress Maria Vetsera.

On the morning of the 30th of January 1889, he and Maria were found shot dead in the hunting lodge at Mayerling. The emperor and his advisers in attempting to disguise the facts only provoked rumours, though depression resulting from his political isolation is recorded as the best explanation of Rudolf’s suicide.

Now for the unofficial story—

We begin in the crags and bluffs of a landscape brooding under a leaden sky, and a filthy night of rain. A coachman hunched in the folds of his coat moaned at his secret mission, and paused mid-oath when a reddish-looking ember streaked across his horizon. He watched through the slits of his eyes as it gently arced to earth, and in a pirouette of orange flames cratered the hillside. There it fizzed out abruptly – two intertwining twists of smoke under an icy sheet of rain.

His coach had been newly retouched, and gleamed in the violet zigzags of light forking through the valley. He thundered on, through the mud and ruts, almost overturning where two enormous boulders – grey, sluggish shapes – loomed from nowhere through the rain. Abruptly the road twisted and rose, fell and rose again, then plunged finally into the forest. He lashed at the horses, and had as his sole thought his destination – only his destination – and how to accomplish that without mishap.

Borne along with him were two passengers, their embassy the cargo propped precariously between them. They were brothers – merchant bankers both – who despite the wrap of expensive furs shivered uncontrollably. That was because the little flakes of frost that chilled their blood was fear, a new pang for a pair more accustomed to life in the rococo drawing rooms their leisured clientele inhabited. That lumpy sack of cargo wedged between them, all too ghoulish, and greatly inconvenient, was a cadaver – in fact their dead niece, who at seventeen had been pretty, vivacious, and a baroness. Her name was Maria Vetsera, too young and good-looking to die. Nevertheless that loll of her head, as the coach clattered on through all those spooky rain-dark pines, told you she was dead.

The coachman’s task was to deliver his two bankers and one deadweight to the monastery of Heiligenkreuz, under whose bell tower a sexton and his mate had already knocked the soil from their shovels, and stood waiting by the grave they’d dug. They like the brothers couldn’t guess at what it was, this prologue all four mummered in – or that the drama was destined to repeat itself twenty-five years later.

But now to Vienna. The year 1889. At that time southern Europe was dominated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, under its emperor Franz Joseph, in extents oppressive to some. In its favour there was breadth of religion, language, culture and economics – those four monsters hard to tame or control. By contrast, other countries the emperor ruled had an unhappy knack of self-mutilation, for even then intractable contours rumpled the cloth, such as the Balkans. We shall also see there were things the emperor didn’t find amusing. A case in point was the one thumbprint grazing his escutcheon, in the person of his son, the Crown Prince Rudolf, whose fads he sought effective means of dealing with, by excluding him from all functions or fiascos grounded in affairs of state. You couldn’t be surprised at Rudolf’s reaction against this, whose interests were counter to the military education his father had set out for him. His preferences were natural history and literature. One sultry afternoon – or so we come to imagine it – Rudolf was thinking of how best to resist his father’s proscriptions. Activism was one thing, and required effort, while a life wrapped in cotton wool was a misfortune reserved for the effortless. With these two at odds, Rudolf gazed into just that limbo where nothing much of consequence could ever be achieved by him.

Our own historical moment must have taught us something of everlasting monarchs, whose longevity their heirs have to suffer in finding a role for themselves. That conundrum, when it visited the Habsburgs, did so on a late January morning in 1889. The emperor had spent tranquil moments unrolling the scrolls of his signature onto one of his crested documents, and had planned for an hour with one of his ladies. Alas that wasn’t to be. The shrill of voices, then the sudden sweep of his padded doors, shattered that illusion. His wife thundered in, and had in train the royal physician – a sombre, spindly man whose coat tails flew up behind him. The emperor, who paused to catch his breath, nevertheless had to deal instantly with marital torpedoes fired across his blotting pad.

‘Rudolf is dead. Rudolf has shot himself.’

The emperor put away his pen, and was staggered.

Earlier that morning, Rudolf’s body had been found in the bedroom of his hunting lodge, in the leafless Vienna woods. To complicate things the prince had not been there alone. In the same deadly pact the corpse of Baroness Maria Vetsera rumpled and bloodied the bedding too – for they’d both been shot.

‘Then it’s clear,’ the emperor said. That vixen, in a fit of God knew what, had murdered his son.

His court physician begged to differ, though trembled as he did so. He’d examined, he said, both bodies, and had no doubt that the prince had shot the baroness, then trained the revolver on himself.

‘My son is not a murderer,’ the sad-eyed king decreed, and that was true – the emperor’s son was not a murderer.

We pause for the official course of action, when rumours in Vienna invaded every drawing room. The emperor’s next instructions were categorical: to prepare the family vault for the prince’s body. This was at the Church of Capuchin Friars. The hunting lodge would close, and re-open as a shrine, with a service. After that came the official investigation, which the emperor ensured was headed by Baron Krauss, the top man at that time in the Vienna police. Krauss would report to the emperor, and reporting to Krauss was Baron Friedrich d’Oc.

Krauss took immediate action over the Vetsera burial, which went ahead, symbolically, under an angry, swollen sky, and was veiled in secrecy. It was, potentially, the biggest scandal of European society – just that sort of state dilemma the d’Ocs, with their wealth, connections, and more important a centuries-old diplomacy, were trusted to dampen down. Therefore what history fails to record is Friedrich’s velvet glove, and the iron claw that drew it on. Gathered in its grip were members of the press, whose hold on things correspondingly diminished. Even Moritz Szeps, a close friend of Rudolf’s, and proprietor of the Neues Wiener Tagblatt, couldn’t do more than mumble into his pocket handkerchief. What paragraphets he manufactured offered nothing conclusive, with the revelation only that Rudolf – or rather he and his ‘paramour’ – had been shot dead at Mayerling, a village on the Schwechat River, about twenty-five kilometres southwest of Vienna. The hunting lodge is now a Carmelite convent.

The barons Krauss and d’Oc did a thorough job, and made sure no one was able to say what had prompted these events. Inextricably bound to them was the emperor’s wife, Elizabeth – Empress of Austria and Bavaria (and also Queen of Hungary).

One person Elizabeth might have trusted was the ambitious Count Andrassy, who as the most powerful man in Hungary sought to extricate its kingdom from the empire. He was backed in this by Bismarck, the German Empire’s first chancellor (1871–90), whose influence on European politics left its mark on the dual murders of Mayerling. Emperor Franz Joseph had too readily bowed to his medic’s opinion, even if it made his son a murderer, or worse than that, guilty of the mortal sin of suicide. Against all, he ordered the crown prince laid to rest in the imperial vault – with no post mortem, and no inquest. There was a token investigation, entrusted to Baron Krauss, whose job included the disposal of Maria Vetsera’s remains, but of course, only the moment’s realpolitik drove these things along. The secret treaty of 1877, between Russia and Germany, amounted to a handshake effectively uniting the emperor’s two biggest enemies.

That was a treaty the crown prince was likely to approve of, and that surely made Rudolf’s suicide unlikely. He’d been eliminated, for fear of what politically he was likely to develop into. Franz Joseph, the prince’s father, saw to his removal, with the barons Krauss and d’Oc trusted to do the work and dust his tracks. The emperor’s motto was: ‘never apologise, never explain’. That served an empire not simply steeped in power and wealth and military might. To Franz Joseph, it was something more ancient and much more permanent than that. It was his on divine trust. If to maintain it meant sacrificing his son, then unlike Abraham his regal hand would not be stayed, and Rudolf had to die.

Rudolf’s successor was his cousin Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose political thinking was more in line with the emperor’s, but whose domestic affairs were not as polished. In opting to marry beneath him, any future offspring couldn’t accede after him. But then on the 28th of June 1914 he and his spouse were shot in Sarajevo – an assassination sparking World War I, and a final confirmation that the archduke wouldn’t succeed to the throne.

More on this in the novel New King Palmers, winner of the 2018 Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction.