Joseph II and His Court

Author: Luise Mühlbach

Chapter XLII. The Mirror.

Six fearful weeks had gone by—six weeks of anxiety, suspense, and care, not only for the imperial family, but for all Austria.

Like the lightning flash, intelligence had gone through the land that the empress was in danger, and her subjects had lost interest in every thing except the bulletins issued from the palace where Van Swieten and Von Storck watched day and night by the bedside of their beloved sovereign. Deputations were sent to Vienna, sympathizing with the emperor, and the avenues to the palace were thronged with thousands of anxious faces, each waiting eagerly for the bulletins that came out four times a day.

At last the danger passed away. Van Swieten slept at home, and the empress was recovering.

She had recovered. Leaning on the arm of the emperor, and surrounded by her happy children, Maria Theresa left her widow’s cell to take up her abode in the new and splendid apartments which, during her convalescence, Joseph had prepared for her reception.

She thanked her son for his loving attention, so contrary to his usual habits of economy, and therefore so much the more a proof of his earnest desire to give pleasure to his mother. She, in her turn, sought to give strong expression to her gratitude, by admiring with enthusiasm all that had been done for her. She stopped to examine the costly Turkey carpets, the gorgeous Gobelin tapestries on the walls, the tables carved of precious woods, or inlaid with jewels and Florentine mosaic, the rich furniture covered with velvet and gold, the magnificent lustres of sparkling crystal, and the elegant trifles which here and there were tastefully disposed upon etageres or consoles.

"Indeed, my son," cried the empress, surveying the beautiful suite, "you have decorated these rooms with the taste and prodigality of a woman. It adds much to my enjoyment of their beauty to think that all this is the work of your loving hands. But one thing has my princely son forgotten; and therein he betrays his sex, showing that he is no woman, but in very truth a man."

"Have I forgotten something, your majesty?" asked Joseph.

"Yes; something, my son, which a woman could never have overlooked. There are no mirrors in my splendid home."

"No mirrors!" exclaimed Joseph, looking confused. "No—yes —indeed, your majesty is right, I had forgotten them. But I beg a thousand pardons for my negligence, and I will see that it is repaired. I shall order the costliest Venetian mirrors to be made for these apartments."

While Joseph spoke, his mother looked earnestly at his blushing face, and perfectly divined both his embarrassment and its cause. She turned her eyes upon her daughters, who, with theirs cast down, were sharing their brother’s perplexity.

"I must wait then until my mirrors are made," said the empress, after a pause. "You must think that I have less than woman’s vanity, my son, if you expect me to remain for weeks without a greeting from my looking-glass. Of course the small-pox has not dared to disfigure the face of an empress; I feel secure against its sacrilegious touch. Is it not so, my little Marie Antoinette? Has it not respected your mother’s comeliness?"

The little archduchess looked frightened at the question, and timidly raised her large eyes. "My imperial mamma is as handsome as ever she was," said the child, in a trembling voice.

"And she will always be handsome to us, should she live until old age shall have wrinkled her face and paled her cheeks," cried Joseph warmly. "The picture of her youthful grace and beauty is engraved upon our hearts, and nothing can ever remove it thence. To the eyes of her children a noble and beloved mother is always beautiful. "

The empress said nothing in reply. She smiled affectionately upon her son, and inclining her head kindly to the others, retired to her sitting-room. She walked several times up and down, and finally approached her mirror. In accordance with an old superstition, which pronounces it ill-luck to allow a looking-glass in the room of a sick person, this large mirror had been covered with a heavy silk curtain. The empress drew it back; but instead of her looking-glass, she was confronted by a portrait of her late husband, the emperor. She uttered an exclamation of surprise and joy, and contemplated the picture with a happy smile. "God bless thee, my Franz, my noble emperor!" whispered she. "Thou art ever the same; thy dear smile is unaltered, although I am no longer thy handsome bride, but a hideous and disfigured being, from whom my children deem it fit to conceal a looking-glass. Look at me with thy dear eyes, Franz; thou wert ever my mirror, and in thy light have I seen my brightest day of earthly joy. My departed beauty leaves me not one pang of regret, since thou art gone for whom alone I prized it. Maria Theresa has ceased to be a woman—she is nothing more than a sovereign, and what to her are the scars of the small-pox? But I must see what I look like," said she, dropping the curtain. "I will show them that I am not as foolish as they imagine."

She took up her little golden bell and rang. The door of the next room opened, and Charlotte von Hieronymus entered. The empress smiled and said: "It is time to make my toilet. I will dine to-day en famille with the emperor, and I must be dressed. Let us go into my dressing-room."

The maid of honor courtesied and opened the door. Every thing there was ready for the empress. The tire-woman, the mistress of the wardrobe, the maids of honor were all at their posts; and Charlotte hastened to take her place behind the large arm-chair in which the empress was accustomed to have her hair dressed.

But Maria Theresa saw that she had not been expected in her dressing-room, for her cheval-glass was encumbered with shawls, dresses, and cloaks. She took her seat, smilingly saying to herself, "I shall see myself now, face to face."

Charlotte passed the comb through the short hair of the empress, and sighed as she thought of the offering that had been laid in the emperor’s coffin; while the other maids of honor stood silent around. Maria Theresa, usually so familiar and talkative at this hour, spoke not a word. She looked sharply at the cheval-glass, and began carelessly, and as if by chance, to remove with her foot, the dresses that encumbered it; then, as if ashamed of her artifice, she suddenly rose from the chair, and with an energetic gesture unbared the mirror.

No mirror was there! Nothing greeted the empress’s eyes save the empty frame. She turned a reproachful glance upon the little coiffeuse.

Charlotte fell upon her knees, and looked imploringly at the empress. "It is my fault, your majesty," said she, blushing and trembling; "I alone am the culprit. Pardon my maladroitness, I pray you?"

"What do you mean, child?" asked the empress.

"I—I broke the looking-glass, your majesty. I stumbled over it in the dark, and shivered it to pieces. I am very, very awkward—I am very sorry."

"What! You overturned this heavy mirror!" said Maria Theresa. "If so, there must have been a fearful crash. How comes it that I never heard any thing—I who for six weeks have been ill in the adjoining room?"

"It happened just at the time when your majesty was delirious with fever; and—"

"And this mirror has been broken for three weeks!" said Maria Theresa, raising her eyebrows and looking intently at Charlotte’s blushing face. "Three weeks ago! I think you might have had it replaced, Charlotte, by this time; hey, child?"

Charlotte’s eyes sought the floor. At length she stammered, in a voice scarcely audible, "Please your majesty, I could not suppose that you would miss the glass so soon. You have made so little use of mirrors since—"

"Enough of this nonsense," interrupted the empress. "You have been well drilled, and have played your part with some talent, but don’t imagine that I am the dupe of all this pretty acting. Get up, child; don’t make a fool of yourself, but put on my crape cap for me, and then go as quickly as you can for a looking-glass."

"A looking-glass, your majesty?" cried Charlotte in a frightened voice.

"A looking-glass," repeated the empress emphatically.

"I have none, your majesty."

"Well, then," said Maria Theresa, her patience sorely tried by all this, "let some one with better eyes than yours look for one. Go, Sophie, and bid one of the pages bring me a mirror from my old apartments below. I do not suppose that there has been a general crashing of all the mirrors in the palace. In a quarter of an hour I shall be in my sitting-room. At the end of that time the mirror must be there. Be quick, Sophie; and you, Charlotte, finish the combing of my hair. There is but little to do to it now, so dry your tears."

"Ah!" whispered Charlotte, "I would there were more to do. I cannot help crying, your majesty when I see the ruins of that beautiful hair."

"And yet, poor child, you have spent so many weary hours over it," replied the princess. "You ought to be glad that your delicate little hands are no longer obliged to bear its weight—Charlotte," said she suddenly, "you have several times asked for your dismissal. Now, you shall have it, and you shall marry your lover, Counsellor Greiner. I myself will give you away, and bestow the dowry."

The grateful girl pressed the hand of the empress to her lips, while she whispered words of love and thanks.

Maria Theresa smiled, and took her seat, while Charlotte completed her toilet. Match-making was the empress’s great weakness, and she was in high spirits over the prospect of marrying Charlotte.

The simple mourning costume was soon donned, and the empress rose to leave her dressing-room. As she passed the empty frame of the Psyche, she turned laughing toward her maid of honor.

"I give you this mirror, Charlotte," said she. "If the glass is really broken, it shall be replaced by the costliest one that Venice can produce. It will be to you a souvenir of your successful debut as an actress on this day. You have really done admirably. But let me tell you one thing, my child," continued Maria Theresa, taking Charlotte’s hand in hers. "Never be an actress with your husband; but let your heart be reflected in all your words and deeds, as yonder mirror will give back the truthful picture of your face. Let all be clear and bright in your married intercourse; and see that no breath of deception ever cloud its surface. Take this wedding-gift, and cherish it as a faithful monitor. Truth is a light that comes to us from Heaven; let us look steadily at it, for evil as well as for good. This is the hour of my trial—no great one—but still a trial. Let me now look at truth, and learn to bear the revelation it is about to make."

She opened the door, and entered her sitting-room. Her commands had been obeyed; the mirror was in its place. She advanced with resolute step, but as she approached the glass her eyes were instinctively cast down, until she stood directly before it. The decisive moment had arrived; she was to see—what?

Slowly her eyes were raised, and she looked. She uttered a low cry, and started back in horror. She had seen a strange, scarred, empurpled face, whose colorless lips and hard features had filled her soul with loathing.

But with all the strength of her brave and noble heart, Maria Theresa overcame the shock, and looked again. She forced her eyes to contemplate the fearful image that confronted her once beautiful face, and long and earnestly she gazed upon it.

"Well," said she at last, with a sigh, "I must make acquaintance with this caricature of my former self. I must accustom myself to the mortifying fact that this is Maria Theresa, or I might some of these days call for a page to drive out that hideous old crone! I must learn, too, to be resigned, for it is the hand of my heavenly Father that has covered my face with this grotesque mask. Since He has thought fit to deprive me of my beauty, let His divine will be done."

For some moments she remained silent, still gazing intently at the mirror. Finally a smile overspread her entire countenance, and she nodded at the image in the glass.

"Well! you ugly old woman," said she aloud, "we have begun our acquaintance. Let us be good friends. I do not intend to make one effort to lessen your ugliness by womanly art; I must seek to win its pardon from the world by noble deeds and a well-spent life. Perhaps, in future days, when my subjects lament my homeliness, they may add that nevertheless I was a GOOD, and—well! in this hour of humiliation we may praise one another, I think—perchance a GREAT sovereign."

Here the empress turned from the mirror and crossing over to the spot where the emperor’s portrait hung, she continued her soliloquy. "But Franz, dear Franz, you at least are spared the sight of your Theresa’s transformation. I could not have borne this as I do, if you had been here to witness it. Now! what matters it? My people will not remind me of it, and my children have already promised to love me, and forgive my deformity. Sleep, then, my beloved, until I rejoin you in heaven. There, the mask will fall for me, as for poor Josepha, and there we shall be glorified and happy."

The empress then returned to the dressing-room, where her attendants, anxious and unhappy, awaited her reappearance. What was their astonishment to see her tranquil and smiling, not a trace of discontent upon her countenance!

"Let the steward of the household be apprised that I will have mirrors in all my apartments. They can be hung at once, and may be replaced by those which the emperor has ordered, whenever they arrive from Venice. Let my page Gustavus repair to Cardinal Migazzi and inform him that to-morrow I make my public thanksgiving in the cathedral of St. Stephen. I shall go on foot and in the midst of my people, that they may see me and know that I am not ashamed of the judgments of God. Let Prince Kaunitz be advised that on to-morrow, after the holy sacrifice, I will receive him here. Open my doors and windows, and let us breathe the free air of heaven. I am no longer an invalid, my friends; I am strong, and ready to begin life anew."


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Joseph II and His Court

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Joseph II and His Court

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Luise Mühlbach, "Chapter XLII. The Mirror.," Joseph II and His Court, ed. CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb and trans. Coleman, Chapman, Mrs., 1813-1891 in Joseph II and His Court (New York: The Modern Library Publishers, 1918), Original Sources, accessed March 20, 2019,

MLA: Mühlbach, Luise. "Chapter XLII. The Mirror." Joseph II and His Court, edited by CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb, and translated by Coleman, Chapman, Mrs., 1813-1891, in Joseph II and His Court, New York, The Modern Library Publishers, 1918, Original Sources. 20 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Mühlbach, L, 'Chapter XLII. The Mirror.' in Joseph II and His Court, ed. and trans. . cited in 1918, Joseph II and His Court, The Modern Library Publishers, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 20 March 2019, from