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Isabelle de Bourbon 1741-1763

THE TRAGIC CHILD (part 2)

Her father, the Duke, made his way into the studiolo and found his daughter at her desk, busily engaged in writing a treatise. Being of a brutal and insensitive nature, as is often the case with men of little intelligence, he displayed no great tact, announcing to his daughter straight away that she had been promised to the future Holy Roman Emperor, the future King of Hungary and of Bohemia. The weary expression, which was so often to be found on the duke’s features, now gave way to a somewhat infantile grin. Isabellita burst into tears. For a moment, her father thought that this might be on account of the emotion, yet he soon realised that Isabellita was deeply grieved. Himself now troubled, he ventured to question her, however she refused to reply. He tapped his foot on the ground and demanded that she speak, however the tears rolled still more freely down her cheeks in her despair.

You have a few days to pull yourself together, to give your response. “You will accept!” cried the Duke as he slammed the door.

Finding herself once more alone, Isabellita stopped crying but remained unable to move or to react, such was her discouragement. That was bound to happen one day, she told herself, yet she had managed to convince herself, little by little, that perhaps it could be avoided. It was not becoming empress and queen that bothered her; it was that she was already in love; secretly, yet madly in love.

Louise of Saxony who, in around 1930, told the story of her ancestor, Isabellita, said that the love affair sparked into life in the summer residence in Colorno. Overlooking every corner of this vast four-walled castle was a tower. It was not a particularly graceful place, however it was pleasant to live in and all the comforts available at the time were to be found there. It was its park – vast, beautifully ornate with flowers, shaded from the heat of the sun, and possessing many fountains – which gave it its charm.

Every night of that summer, Isabellita and her lover met. She managed to slip unseen out of her room and out of the castle into the arms of her lover who waited for her in the shade of a wooded path. One wonders whether he might perhaps even have found the courage to scale the branches of the old wisteria which clung to the wall outside her bedroom in order that he might make it on to the balcony and, even, into her chamber. Their nights were given entirely over to pleasure and their days to writing each other letters. They sent love letters, poems and the princess no doubt added a few essays that she had written and passed to Nicoletta, her favourite chambermaid. Both Isabellita and her lover were sure that their love would last forever.

Following the visit of her father, Isabellita rushed to warn her lover through means of a note to be carried by her chambermaid. Her anguish had served to reinforce her determination that she must act and to accelerate her plan to flee which must be implemented at the first opportunity to present itself.

At the return of spring, the court moved once more to Colorno and Isabellita could again see her lover. Their love had reached a new intensity, made ever greater by the anticipation of the escape from danger. They kept quiet, no longer spoke of fleeing and chose to spend their nights together either in Isabellita’s chamber or hidden in the gardens. The happiness they had already tasted was enough for them. Only Nicoletta the chambermaid knew of this double life: princess by day, lover by night.

A few months later, as the court was still residing at Colorno, the princess’ lady-in-waiting, trembling with excitement, announced that a visiting embassy had arrived from Vienna and that, at that very moment, her venerable father, the Duke of Parma, was receiving the ambassador. Isabellita felt as if her heart had stopped.

Shortly afterwards, her father entered the princess’ chamber to inform her that the Empress, Maria Theresa, had officially requested her hand in marriage for her son and heir to her title, the Archduke Joseph. This request had, of course, been accepted; he now observed the reaction of his daughter. However Isabellita did not react, neither did she respond. The duke seemed surprised yet kept himself from insisting. Taking her silence for acquiescence, he retired from the room.

Isabellita, in her wisdom, had used this period to plan for such an eventuality. She rushed to her desk to write out a detailed escape plan for her lover, which she then entrusted to Nicoletta.

She had thought of everything. The young man would prepare the horses for the following night and would come to collect them in the gardens of Colorno at two o’clock in the morning. He would wait under the large tree which stood closest to Isabellita’s balcony, holding a peasant’s outfit as a disguise for her. They would have to leave the duchy with the utmost haste, which should not be too difficult given its proximity to the border. They would stop neither in the Papal States nor in the Duchy of Modene, which were closely allied to Parma and where they would therefore risk facing extradition. Dressed in their disguises, they pushed on to Venice the Serene Republic, which was generally far more tolerant towards exiles and refugees of all sorts. In this shelter they would be able to share their love in complete freedom. Isabellita would take her jewels, which would provide a short-term source of income. They would then inform….

That evening Isabellita received her lover’s reply: he would never ever consent to losing his beloved princess but he must first face up to the risks: should they be discovered, it would likely be a lifetime in a convent for her and a lifetime in prison for him or, worse still, decapitation. He was, however, undeterred and made his way to the agreed meeting point.

Isabellita did not sleep that night. The following day crept slowly by. In her excitement she let slip in front of her chambermaids and Maria-Louisa some clues, which risked revealing her plan. As the day finally gave way to night, she dressed herself with particular care for what she thought would be her final dinner with her family.

Leaving her father and the courtesans to their game of whist, she retired early to her room. Her chamber, to which she hastened back, was ornate with elegant murals of antique dances. Her attention distracted, she looked over the room that she would soon be leaving for ever whilst her chambermaids undressed her. After they had finished, the princess bade them goodnight as they blew out the candles and left the room. As soon as the door closed, she sprang out of bed and, still wearing her nightdress, ran to the balcony.

She knew that she must wait; as a precaution she had set the meeting time for two o’clock that morning, since she knew that, at that time, the entire court would be asleep. Although it was a moonless night the stars shone in the sky over the meeting place. The air was completely still; nothing moved, not even a single leaf on a tree. There was not a sound to be heard. Suddenly, the silence was broken by a cry: a cry of surprise, of suffering. She froze, immobilised by fear, not knowing what to do. A few minutes later a second cry, less clearly audible than the first, half stifled, followed. She could remain still no longer. Lifting up her nightdress, she climbed down from the balcony, hanging off the wisteria branches that her lover had so often used to climb up to meet her. As she descended, the branches cut and scratched her skin, yet she made it to the bottom without too much difficulty. She ran towards the place from which the cry had emanated and, in the middle of a sandy path spotted a figure standing immobile in the darkness. She moved towards the shape and saw that it was her lover who was losing blood from his various wounds that he had suffered. In his hand he held the peasant clothes that he was to give her. Isabellita remained where she was, leaning over him; he was in too much suffering to know what she was doing. He opened his eyes, recognised her and whispered, with difficulty:

– Two men…They were waiting for me…They stabbed me

The effort of speaking was too much for him. He closed his eyes once more, pain etched across his face. Then he reopened them, fixing her with his dying gaze:

– In three…you…
Death then took him. She fainted, falling to the ground.

To be followed….


by Prince Michael of Greece