"Speak on, speak on!" said he, when she became silent. "It is delightful to listen to you, princess."
"Why do you call me so?" asked she, with a slight contraction of her brow. "It is such a strange cold word! It does not at all belong to me, and it is only within the last few months that I have been thus addressed. With wise and tender forbearance, Paulo long delayed informing me that I was a princess, and that was beautiful in him. To be a princess and yet an orphan, a poor, deserted, helpless child, living upon the charity of a friend, and tremulously clinging to his protecting hand! See, that is what I am, a poor orphan; why, then, do you call me princess!"
"Because you are so in reality," responded Orloff, pressing the hem of her garment to his lips—"because I am come to lead you to your splendid and powerful future!—because I will glorify you above all women on earth, and make you mistress of this great empire."
She regarded him with a dreamy smile. "You speak as Paulo often spoke to me," said she. "He also swore to me that he would one day place an imperial crown upon my head, and elevate me to great power! I understood him as little as I understand you!"
A slight scornful smile momentarily passed over Orloff's features. "Catharine has therefore rightly divined," thought he, "and her wise mind rightly understood this Rasczinsky. There was, indeed, question of an imperial crown, and this was to have been the new little empress!"
Aloud he said: "You will soon understand me, princess, and it is time you knew of what crown Paulo spoke."
"I know it not," said she, "nor do I desire to know it! Perhaps it was a jest, with which he sought to console me when I complained of being a homeless orphan, a poor child, who knew not even the name of her mother!"
"Do you not know that?" exclaimed Orloff, with astonishment.
She sadly shook her head. "They would never tell it me," said she. "But I have her image in my heart, and that, at least, I shall never lose or forget!"
"I knew your mother," said Orloff; "she was beautiful as you are, and mild and merciful."
"You knew her!" exclaimed the young maiden, grasping his hand and looking at him with a confiding friendliness. "Oh, you knew her! You will now be doubly dear to me, for those bright eyes have seen my mother, and perhaps this hand which now rests in mine has also touched hers!"
"That," said Count Orloff, with a smile, "I should not have dared to do; it would have been high-treason!"
"Was she, then, so great a sublime a princess?" asked Natalie.
"She was an empress!"
"An empress!" And the young maiden, sprang up with beaming eyes and glowing cheeks. "My mother was an empress!" said she, breathing hard.
"Empress Elizabeth of Russia."
Overcome by the feelings suddenly excited by this news, Natalie sank again upon her seat and covered her face with her hands. Tears gushed out between her delicate, slender fingers; her whole being was in violent, feverish commotion. Then, raising her arms toward heaven, with a celestial smile, while the tears overflowed her face, she said: "I am, then, no longer a homeless orphan; I have a fatherland, and my mother was an empress!"
Count Orloff respectfully kissed the hem of her garment.
"You are the daughter of an empress," said he, "and will yourself be an empress! That was what Paulo wished, and therefore have they condemned him as a criminal. What he was unable to accomplish must be done by me, and for that purpose have I come. Princess Natalie, your fatherland calls you, your throne awaits you! Follow me to your crowning in the city of your fathers—follow me, that I may place the crown of your grandfather, Peter the Great, upon your noble and beautiful head!"
From this time forward Alexis Orloff was the inseparable companion of Natalie. With the most reverential submission, and at the same time with the tenderest affection, seemed he to be devoted to her, and equally to adore her as his empress and his beloved.
He took pains to represent to her that she was necessarily and inevitably destined to become an empress.
And she had comprehended him but too well. Ambition was awakened in this young maiden of eighteen years; it was an imperial crown that called her—why should she not listen to this call coming from the lips of one in whom she had unlimited confidence, and toward whom she felt infinitely grateful?
He had unfolded and explained all to her. He had told her of her mother, the good Empress Elizabeth, who had made Russia so great and happy; he had explained to her how Count Paulo Rasczinsky had flown with her on the day of her mother's death, in order to preserve her from the pursuits of her mother's successor, the cunning and cruel Peter III., and to insure to her the realm at a later period. He had then spoken to her of Catharine, who had forcibly possessed herself of the throne of her unworthy husband, and taken the reins of government into her own hands. He had spoken to her of Catharine's cruelty and despotic tyranny; he had told her that all Russia groaned under the oppression of this foreigner, and that a universal cry was heard through the whole realm, of lamentation and longing, a cry for her, the Russian princess, the grand-daughter of Peter the Great, the daughter of the beloved Elizabeth.
"You are called for by all these millions of your oppressed subjects now trodden in the dust," said he; "toward you they stretch forth their trembling hands, from you they expect relief and consolation, from you they expect happiness!"
"And I will bring them happiness," exclaimed Natalie, with emotion. "I will dry the tears of misery and console the suffering. Oh, my people shall love me as my mother once did!"
"The noblest of the land have pledged their property and their lives to give you back to your people," said Orloff; "we have solemnly sworn it upon the altar of God, and for the attainment of this end no one of us will shun want or death, treason or revolt. Look at me, Natalie! I stand before you a traitor to this empress, to whom I have sworn faith and obedience; she has heaped favors upon me, and at one time I was even passionately devoted to her! But Count Paulo awoke me from that intoxication; he roused me from the condition of a favorite of the empress; he taught me to see the cruel, bloodthirsty empress in her true form; he spoke to me of your sacred rights, and when I recognized and comprehended them, I collected myself, vowed myself your knight, devoting myself to the defence of your rights, and swore to leave no artifices, no dissimulation, nor even treason itself, unessayed for the promotion of this great, this sublime object! Princess Natalie, for your sake I have become a traitor! The admiral of the Russian fleet, he whom the world calls the favorite of the empress, Count Alexis Orloff, lies at your feet and swears to you eternal faith, devotion, and adoration!"
"Alexis Orloff!" she joyfully exclaimed, "at length, then, I have a name by which I can call you! Alexis, was not that the name of my father? Oh, that is a good omen! You bear the name of my father, whom my mother so dearly loved!"
"And whom the empress, impelled by love, raised to the position of her husband," whispered Orloff, bending nearer to her and pressing her hand to his bosom. "Could you, indeed, love as warmly and devotedly as your mother loved her Alexis?"
The young maiden blushed and trembled, but a sweet smile played upon her lips, and although she cast down her eyes and did not look at him, yet Count Orloff saw that he had given no offence, and might venture still further.
He gently encircled her delicate form with his arm, and, inclining his mouth so close to her ear that she felt his hot breath upon her cheek, whispered: "Will Natalie love her Alexis as Elizabeth loved Alexis Razumovsky? Ah, you know not how boundlessly, how immeasurably I love you! Yes, immeasurably, Natalie. You are my happiness, my life, my future. Command me, rule me, make of me a traitor, a murderer! I will do whatever you command; at your desire I could even murder my own father! Only tell me, Natalie, that you do not hate me; tell me that my love will not be rejected by you; that this passion, under which I almost succumb, has found an echo in your heart, and that you will one day say to me, as Elizabeth said to your father, 'Alexis, I love you, and will therefore make you my husband!' You are silent, Natalie; have you no word of sympathy, of compassion for me! Ah, I offer up all to you, and you—"
He could proceed no further; he saw her turn toward him; he suddenly felt a glowing kiss upon his lips, and then, springing up from her seat, she fled through the rooms like a frightened roe, and took refuge in her boudoir, which she locked behind her.
Orloff glanced after her with a triumphant smile. "She is mine," thought he; "I am here living through a charming romance, and Catharine will be satisfied with me!"
Yes, she was his; she now knew that she loved him, and with joyful ecstasy she took this new and delightful feeling to her heart; she welcomed it as the joy-promising dawn of a new day, a precious new life. She permitted this feeling to stream through her whole being, her whole soul; she made it a worship for her whole existence.
"You see," she said to Marianne, "so had I dreamed the man whom I should one day love. So brave, so proud, so beautiful. Ah, it is so charming to be obliged to tremble before the man one loves; it is so sweet to cling to him and think: 'I am nothing of myself, but all through thee! I am the ivy and thou the oak; thou wilt hold and sustain me, and if a storm-wind comes, thou wilt not waver, but stand firm and great in thy heroic strength, and protect me, and impart courage and confidence even to me!'"
She loved him, and clung to him with boundless confidence, but she was yet so full of tender maiden timidity that she could confess to him nothing of this love; and since that kiss she shyly avoided him, and constantly left his often-renewed love-questions unanswered.
At this Alexis secretly laughed. "She will come round," said he; "she will finally be compelled to it by her own feelings. I will give her time and leisure to come to a knowledge of herself!"
And for some days he kept away from the villa, pretending pressing business, and left the poor isolated princess to her languishing love-dreams.
It was precisely in these days that, on one forenoon, a carriage of indifferent appearance, adorned with no heraldic arms, stopped before the villa; a man closely enveloped in a mantle, his hat pressed deeply down over his forehead, issued from the carriage and rang the bell.
Of the servant who answered the bell he hastily inquired if the princess was at home and alone; these questions being answered in the affirmative, and the servant having asked his name in order to announce him, the stranger said, almost in a commanding tone: "The princess knows my name, and will gladly welcome me; therefore lead me directly to her!"
"The princess receives no one," said the servant, placing himself in a position to prevent the stranger's entrance.
"She will receive me," said the unknown, dropping some gold-pieces into the servant's hand.
"I will conduct you to her," said the suddenly mollified servant, "but I do it on your own responsibility."
Princess Natalie was in her boudoir. She was alone, and thinking, in a languishing reverie, of her friend, who had now been two days absent. On hearing a light knock at the door, she sprang up from her seat.
"It is he!" she murmured, and with glowing cheeks she hastened to the door.
But on finding there a strange and closely-enveloped form, Natalie timidly drew back.
The stranger entered, closing the door behind him, threw back his mantle and took off the hat that shaded his face.
"Cardinal Bernis!" cried Natalie, with surprise.
"Ah, then you yet recognize me, princess!" said Bernis. "That is beautiful in you, and therefore you will not be angry with me for calling upon you unannounced. I knew that I should find you alone, and this was a too fortunate circumstance for me to let it pass unimproved. I must speak to you, princess, even at the hazard of proving tiresome."
Natalie said, with a soft smile: "You were the friend of Count Paulo, and therefore can never prove tiresome to me! I bid you welcome, cardinal!"
"It is precisely because I was Count Paulo's friend, that I have come!" said Bernis, seriously. "The count loved you, princess, and what I did not know at the time is known to me now. Because he loved and was devoted to you, he hazarded his life, and more than his life, his liberty."
"And they have robbed him of that precious liberty," sighed Natalie. "For his fidelity to me they have condemned him to a shameful imprisonment!"
"You know that!" exclaimed Bernis, with astonishment, "you know that, and nevertheless—" Then, interrupting himself, he broke off, and after a pause continued: "Pardon me one question, and if you deem it indiscreet, please remember that it is put to you by an old man and a priest, and that his only object is, if possible to be useful to you. Do you love Count Paulo Rasczinksy?"
"I love him," said she, "as one loves a father. I shall always be grateful to him, and shall never esteem myself happy until I have liberated him and restored him to his country!"
"You liberate him!" sadly exclaimed Bernis. "Ah, then you know not, you do not once dream, that you are yourself surrounded by dangers, that your own liberty, indeed your life itself, is threatened."
"I know it," calmly responded the young maiden, "but I also know that strong and powerful friends stand by my side, who will protect and defend me with their lives."
"But how if these friends are deceiving you—if precisely they are your bitterest enemies and destroyers?"
"Sir Cardinal!" exclaimed Natalie, reddening with indignation.
"Oh, I may not anger you," he continued, "but it is my duty to warn you, princess! They have undoubtedly deceived you with false pretensions, and in some deceitful way obtained your confidence. Tell me, princess, do you know the name of this count whom you daily receive here?"
"It is Count Alexis Orloff," said the young maiden, blushing.
"You know him, know his name, and yet you confide in him!" exclaimed the cardinal. "But it cannot be that you know his history: have you any idea to whom he is indebted for his prosperity and greatness?"
"The Empress Catharine, his mistress," said Natalie, without embarrassment.
The cardinal looked, with increasing astonishment, into her calm, smiling face. "I now comprehend it all," he then said; "they have laid a very shrewd and cunning plan. They have deceived you while telling you a part of the truth!"
"No one has deceived me," indignantly responded Natalie. "I tell you, Sir Cardinal, that I am neither deceived nor overreached, easy as you seem to think it to deceive me!"
"Oh, it is always easy to deceive innocence and nobleness," sadly remarked the cardinal. "Listen to me, princess, and think, I conjure you, that this time a true and sincere friend is speaking to you."
"And how shall I recognize that?" asked the young maiden, with a slight touch of irony. "How shall I recognize a friend, when, as you say, it is precisely my pretended friends who are my enemies!"
"Recognize me by this!" said the cardinal, drawing a folded paper from his bosom and handing it to the princess.
"That is Count Paulo's handwriting!" she joyfully exclaimed.
"Ah, you recognize the handwriting," said the cardinal, "and you see that this letter is addressed to me. Count Paulo therefore considers me his friend!"
"May I read this letter?"
"I beg you to do so."
Natalie unfolded the letter and read: "Warn the Princess Tartaroff; danger threatens her!"
"That is all?" she asked with a smile.
"That is all!" said the cardinal; "but when Paulo considered these few words of sufficient importance to send them to me, you may well suppose they are of the utmost significance."
"Count Paulo is in Siberia," said Natalie, shaking her head; "how could he have written you from thence?"
"How he succeeded in doing so, I know not, but the firm, determined will of man often conquers supposed impossibilities! Enough—in a mysterious, enigmatical manner was this letter put into the hands of our ambassador at St. Petersburg, with the most urgent prayer that he would immediately send it to me by a special courier, with all the necessary particulars."
"And was that done?" asked Natalie.
"It was done! I know why your life is threatened! Princess Tartaroff, you are the daughter of the Empress Elizabeth; and therefore it is that this Empress Catharine, upon her usurped throne, trembles with fear of you—therefore was it that she said to her favorite: 'Go, and deliver me from this troublesome pretender. But do it in a sly, cautious, and noiseless manner. Avoid attracting attention, murder her not, threaten her not; I wish not to give people new reasons for calling me a bloodthirsty woman. Entice her with flatteries into our net, induce her to follow you voluntarily, that the people of no country in which she may be may have an occasion to accuse us of using force.' Thus did Catharine speak to her favorite; he understood her and swore to execute her commands, as he did when Catharine ordered him to throttle her husband, the Emperor Peter; as he also did when she ordered him to shoot poor Ivan, the son of Anna Leopoldowna, for the criminal reason that he had a greater right to the imperial crown of Russia than this little German princess of Zerbst!"
"And he shot that poor innocent Ivan!" shudderingly asked Natalie. "Ah, this Catharine is bloodthirsty as a hyena, and her friends and favorites are hangmen's servants—ah, history will brand this murderer of Ivan!"
"It will," solemnly responded Cardinal Bernis, "and people will shudder when they hear the name of the man who strangled the Emperor Peter, who shot Ivan, and who, at the command of Catharine, has come to Italy to ensnare the noble and innocent Princess Tartaroff with cunning and flatteries and convey her to St. Petersburg. Shall I tell you this man's name? He is called Alexis Orloff!"
The young maiden sprang up from her seat, her eyes flashed, and her cheeks glowed.
"That is false," said she—"a shameful, malicious falsehood!"
"Would to God it were so!" cried the cardinal. "But it is too true, princess! Oh, listen to me, and close not your ears to the truth. Remember that I am an old man, who has long observed men, and long studied life. I know this Russian diplomacy, and this Russian craft; they have in them something devilish; and these Russian diplomatists, they poison and confound the shrewdest with their deceitful smiles and infernal cunning. Guard yourself, princess, against this Russian diplomacy, and, above all things, be on your guard against this ambassador of the Russian empress, Alexis Orloff!"
"Ah, you dare to defame him!" cried the young maiden, trembling with anger. "You have, therefore, never seen him; you have never read in his noble face that Count Alexis Orloff can never betray. He is a hero, and a hero never descends to a murder! Ah, if the whole world should rise up against him, if it should point the finger at him and say: 'That is a murderer!' I would cry in the face of the whole world: 'Thou liest! Alexis Orloff can never be a murderer! I know him better, and know that he is pure and clear of every crime. You may continue to call him a betrayer! I know why he suffers himself to be so called! I know the secret of his conduct, and a day will come when you will all learn it; when you will all feel compelled to fall down at his feet and confess, "Alexis Orloff is no false betrayer!" For the sake of her to whom he has vowed fidelity has he borne this shame. For her whom he loved has he staked his blood and his life. Alexis Orloff is a hero!'"
She was strangely beautiful while speaking with such spirit and animation. The cardinal observed her noble and excited features with an admiration mingled with the most painful emotions.
"Poor child!" he murmured, dropping his head—"poor child, she loves him, and is therefore lost!"
"You, then, do not believe me!" he asked aloud.
"No," said she, with a glad smile—"no, all the happiness I ever expect, all the good that may hereafter come to me, I shall receive only from the hands of Alexis Orloff!"
"Poor child!" sighed the cardinal. "In many a case even death may prove a blessing!"
"Then will I also joyfully receive even that from his hands!" cried the young maiden, with enthusiasm.
"It is in vain, she is not to be helped!" murmured the cardinal, with a melancholy shake of the head, and, grasping the hand of the young maiden, with a compassionate glance at her fair face, he continued: "I would gladly aid you, and thereby expiate the evil you once suffered at my festival! But you will not consent to be aided. You rush to your destruction, and it is your noblest qualities, your innocence, and your generous confidence, which are preparing your ruin! May God bless you and preserve you! How glad I should be to find myself a liar and false prophet!"
"And you will so find yourself!" exclaimed Natalie.
"You believe it, because you are in love, and when a woman loves she believes in the object of her love, and smilingly offers up her life for him! Like all women, you will do so! You will sacrifice your life to your love; and when this barbarian thrusts the dagger in your heart, you will say with a smile: 'I did it! I, myself—'"
And, bowing to her with a sad smile, slowly and sighing, the cardinal left the room.
Some hours later came Alexis Orloff. Natalie received him with an expression of the purest pleasure, and, extending both hands to him, smilingly said:
"Know you yet what my mother said to her lover?"
Looking at her, he read his happiness in her face. With an exclamation of ecstasy he fell at her feet.
"I know it well, but you, Natalie, do you also know it?" he passionately asked.
Natalie smiled. "Alexis," said she, "I love you, and therefore will I raise you to my side as my husband!" and with a charming modest blush she drew the count up to her arms.
"You do not deceive me, and this is no dream?" he cried, while glowingly embracing her.
"No," said she, "it is the truth, and I owe you this satisfaction. You have been slandered to me to-day. Ah, they shall see how little I believe them. Alexis, call a priest to bless our union, and make me your wife. Whatever then may come, we will share it with each other. If I am one day empress, you will be the emperor, and I will always honor and obey you as my lord and master."
On the evening of this day a very serious and solemn ceremony took place in the boudoir of Princess Natalie. An altar wreathed with flowers stood in the centre of the room, and before the altar stood Natalie in a white satin robe, the myrtle-crown upon her head, the long bridal veil waving around her delicate form. She was very beautiful in her joyful, modest emotion, and Count Alexis Orloff, who, in a rich Russian costume stood by her side, viewed her with ecstatic and warm desiring glances. The inhuman executioner led the lamb to the slaughter without pity or compunction!
At the other side of the altar stood the priest, a reverend old man, with long flowing silver hair and beard. Near him the sacristan, not less reverend in appearance. No one else was present except Marianne, who, in tears, knelt behind her mistress, and with folded hands prayed for her beloved princess, who was now marrying Count Alexis Orloff.
The solemn ceremony was at an end, and the young wife sank weeping into the arms of her husband, who, with tenderest whisperings, led her into the next room.
Marianne, overcome by her tears and emotions, hastened to her own room, and the reverend priest remained alone with his sacristan.
They silently looked at each other, and their faces were distorted by a knavish, grinning laugh.
"It was a wonderful scene," said the priest, who was no other than Joseph Ribas. "In earnest, I was quite affected by it myself, and I came near weeping at my own sublime homily. Confess, Stephano, that a consecrated priest could not have better gone through the ceremony."
"We have both performed our parts," simpered Stephano, the sacristan, "and I think the count must be satisfied with us."
At that moment the count returned to the room. Natalie had begged to be left alone—she needed solitude and prayer.
The priest, Joseph Ribas, and the sacristan, Stephano, gave him sly, interrogating glances.
"I am satisfied with you," said Orloff, with a smile. "You are both excellent actors. This new little countess was pleased and touched by your discourse, Joseph, my very worthy priest. Where did you learn this new villainy?"
"In the high school of the galleys, your excellency," said Ribas. "Only there is one taught such precious things. We had a priest there, a real consecrated priest, who was sentenced for life. From ennui he gave lessons to the smartest among us in his art, and taught us how to fold the hands, roll the eyes, and render the voice tremulous. But now, your excellency, one thing! You desired to know who it was that warned your princess to-day. I can now give you information on that point. It was the French Cardinal Bernis!"
"They are, therefore, beginning to observe our movements," thoughtfully remarked Orloff, "and these gentlemen diplomatists wish to take a hand in the game. Ah, we understand the French policy. It is the same now that it was when they helped to make the Princess Elizabeth empress. At that time they interposed, that Russia might be so occupied with her own affairs as to have no time for looking into those of France. Precisely so is it to-day. They would compassionate the daughter as they did the mother. With the help of Natalie they would again bless Russia with a revolution, that we might not have time to observe the events now fermenting in France. But this time we shall be more cautious, my shrewd French cardinal. Stephano, let every preparation be made for our immediate departure. We are no longer safe and unobserved here. Therefore we will go to Leghorn."
"We alone, or with the princess?" asked Stephano.
"My wife will naturally accompany me," said Orloff, with a derisive smile.
"Will she consent to leave Rome?" asked Joseph Ribas.
"I shall request her to do so," proudly replied Orloff, "and I think my request will be a command to her."
And the proud count was not mistaken. His request was a command for her. He told her she must leave Rome because she was no longer in safety there, and Princess Natalie believed him.
"We will go to Leghorn, and there await the arrival of the Russian fleet," said he. "When that fleet shall have safely arrived, then our ends will be attained, then we shall have conquered, for then it will be evident that the empress has conceived no suspicion; and I am the commander of that fleet, which is wholly manned with conspirators who all await you as their empress. Will you follow me to Leghorn, Natalie?"
She clung with tender submissiveness to his bosom.
"I will follow you everywhere," murmured she, "and any place to which you conduct me will be a paradise for me!"
THE RUSSIAN FLEET
Unsuspectingly had she followed Orloff to Leghorn; full of devoted tenderness, full of glowing love, she was only anxious to fulfil all his wishes and to constantly afford him new proofs of her affection.
And how? Did he not deserve that love? Was he not constantly paying her the most delicate attentions? Was he not always as humbly submissive as he was tender? Did it not seem as if the lion was subdued, that the Hercules was tamed, by his tender Omphale, whom he adored, at whose feet he lay for the purpose of looking into her eyes, to read in them her most secret thoughts and wishes?
She was not only his wife, she was also his empress. Such he called her, as such he respected her, and surrounded her with more than imperial splendor.
The house of the English Consul Dyke was changed into an imperial palace for Natalie, and the young and beautiful wife of the consul was her first lady of honor. She established a court for the young imperial princess, she surrounded her with numerous servants and a splendid train of attendants whose duty it was to follow the illustrious young empress everywhere, and never to leave her!
And Natalie suspected not that this English consul received from the Empress of Russia a million of silver rubles, and that his wife was rewarded with a costly set of brilliants for the hospitality shown to this Russian princess, which was so well calculated to deceive not only Natalie herself, but also the European courts whose attention had been aroused. Natalie suspected not that her splendid train, her numerous servants—that all these who apparently viewed her as their sublime mistress, were really nothing more than spies and jailors, who watched her every step, her every word, her every glance. Poor child, she suspected nothing! They honored and treated her as an empress, and she believed them, smiling with delight when the people of Leghorn—whenever she with her splendid retinue appeared at her husband's side—shouted with every demonstration of respect for her as an empress.
And finally, one day the long-expected Russian fleet arrived!
Radiant with joy, Alexis Orloff rushed into Natalie's apartment.
"We have now attained our end," said he, dropping upon one knee before his wife; "I can now in truth greet you as my empress and mistress! Natalie, the Russian fleet is here, and only waits to convey you in triumph to your empire, to the throne that is ready for you, to your people who are languishing for your presence! Ah, you are now really an empress, and marvellous will you be when the imperial crown encircles your noble head!"
"I shall be an empress," said Natalie, "but you, Alexis, will always be my lord and emperor!"
"Natalie," continued the count, "your people call for you!—your soldiers languish for you, the sailors of all these ships direct their eyes to the shore where their empress lingers. The admiral's ship will be splendidly adorned for your reception, and Admiral Gluck will be the first to pay homage to you. Therefore adorn yourself, my charming, beautiful empress—adorn yourself, and show yourself to your faithful subjects in all the magnificence of your imperial position. Ah, it will be a wonderful and intoxicating festival when you celebrate the first day of your greatness!"
And Count Orloff called her attendants. Smiling, perfectly happy at seeing the pleasure and satisfaction of her husband, Natalie suffered herself to be adorned, to be enveloped in that costly gold-embroidered robe, those pearls and diamonds, that sparkling diadem, those chains and bracelets.
She was dressed, she was ready! With a charming smile she gave her hand to her husband, who viewed her with joyous glances, and loudly praised the beauty of her celestial countenance.
"They will be enchanted with the sight of you," said he.
Natalie smilingly said: "Let them be so! I am only happy when I please you!"
In an open carriage, attended by her retinue, she proceeded to the haven, and all the people who thronged the streets shouted in honor of the beautiful princess, astonished at the splendor by which she was surrounded, and estimating Count Orloff a very happy man to be the husband of such an empress!
And when she appeared upon the shore, when the carriages stopped and Princess Natalie rose from her seat, there arose from all the ships the thousand-voiced cheers of their crews. Russian flags waved from every spar, cannon thundered and drums rolled, and all shouted: "Hail to the imperial princess! Hail, Natalie, the daughter of Elizabeth!"
It was a proud, an intoxicating moment, and Natalie's eyes were filled with tears. Trembling with proud ecstasy, she was compelled to lean upon Orloff's arm to preserve herself from falling.
"No weakness now!" said he, and for the first time his voice sounded harsh and rough. Surprised, she glanced at him—there was something in his face that she did not understand; there was something wild and disagreeable in the expression of his features, and he avoided meeting her glance.
He looked over to the ships. "See," said he, "they are letting down the great boat; Admiral Gluck himself is coming for you. And see that host of gondolas, that follow the admiral's boat! All his officers are coming to do homage to you, and when you, in their company, reach the admiral's ship, they will let down the golden arm-chair to take you on board. That is an honor they pay only to persons of imperial rank!"
Her glance passed by all these unimportant things; she saw only his face; she thoughtfully and sadly asked herself what change had come over Alexis, and what was the meaning of his half-sly, half-angry appearance.
The boats came to the shore, and now came the admiral with his officers; prostrating themselves before her, they paid homage to this beautiful princess, whom they hailed as their mistress.
Natalie thanked them with a fascinating smile; and, graciously giving her hand to the admiral, suffered herself to be assisted by him into the great boat.
As soon as her foot touched it, the cannon thundered, flags were waved on all the ships, and their crews shouted, "Viva Natalie of Russia!"
Her eyes sought Orloff, who, with a scowling brow and gloomy features, was still standing on the shore.
"Count Alexis Orloff!" cried she, with her silvery voice, "we await you!"
But Alexis came not at her call. He hastily sprang into an officer's boat, without giving her even a look.
"Alexis!" she anxiously cried.
"He follows us, your highness," whispered the wife of Consul Dyke, while taking her place near the princess. "It would be contrary to etiquette for him to appear at the side of the empress at this moment. See, he is close behind us, in the second gondola!"
"Shove off!" cried Admiral Gluck, he himself taking the rudder in honor of the empress.
The boats moved from the land. First, the admiral's boat, with the princess, the admiral, and the Englishwoman; and then, in brilliant array, the innumerable crowd of adorned gondolas containing the officers of the fleet.
It was a magnificent sight. The people who crowded the shore could not sufficiently admire the splendid spectacle.
When they reached the admiral's ship the richly-gilded arm-chair was let down for Natalie's reception. She tremblingly rose from her seat—a strange, inexplicable fear came over her, and she anxiously glanced around for Orloff. He sat in the second boat, not far from her, but he looked not toward her, not even for a moment, and upon his lips there was a wild, triumphant smile.
"Princess, they wait for you; seat yourself in the arm-chair!" said Madame Dyke, in a tone which to Natalie seemed to have nothing of the former humility and devotion—all seemed to her to be suddenly changed, all! Shudderingly she took her seat in the swinging chair—but, nevertheless, she took it.
The chair was drawn up, the cannon thundered anew, the flags were waved, and again shouted the masses of people on the shore.
Suddenly it seemed as if, amid the shouts of joy and the thundering of the cannon, a shriek of terror was heard, loud, penetrating, and heartrending. What was that? What means the tumult upon the deck of the admiral's ship? Seems it not as if they had roughly seized this princess whose feet had just now touched the ship? as if they had grasped her, as if she resisted, stretching her arms toward heaven! and hark, now this frightful cry, this heart-rending scream!
Shuddering and silent stand the people upon the shore, staring at the ships. And the cannon are silenced, the flags are no longer waved, all is suddenly still.
Once more it seems as if that voice was heard, loudly shrieking the one name—"Alexis!"
Trembling and quivering, Alexis Orloff orders his boat to return to the shore!
In the admiral's ship all is now still. The princess is no longer on the deck. She has disappeared! The people on shore maintained that they had seen her loaded with chains and then taken away! Where?
All was still. The boats returned to the shore. Count Orloff gave his hand to the handsome Madame Dyke, to assist her in landing.
"To-morrow, madame," he whispered, "I will wait upon you with the thanks of my empress. You have rendered us an essential service."
The people at the landing received them with howls, hisses, and curses!—but Count Orloff, with a contemptuous smile, strewed gold among them, and their clamors ceased.
Tranquil and still lay the Russian fleet in the haven. But the ports of the admiral's ship were opened, and the yawning cannon peeped threateningly forth. No boats were allowed to approach the ship; but some, impelled by curiosity, nevertheless ventured it, and at the cabin window they thought they saw the pale princess wringing her hands, her arms loaded with chains. Others also asserted that in the stillness of the night they had heard loud lamentations coming from the admiral's ship.
On the next day the Russian fleet weighed anchor for St. Petersburg! Proudly sailed the admiral's ship in advance of the others, and soon became invisible in the horizon.
On the shore stood Count Alexis Orloff, and, as he saw the ships sailing past, with a savage smile he muttered: "It is accomplished! my beautiful empress will be satisfied with me!"
She was satisfied, the great, the sublime empress—satisfied with the work Alexis Orloff had accomplished, and with the manner in which it was done.
In the presence of her confidential friends she permitted Orloff's messenger, Joseph Ribas, to relate to her all the particulars of the affair from the commencement to the end, and to the narrator she nodded her approval with a fell smile.
"Yes," said she to Gregory Orloff, "we understand women's hearts, and therefore sent Alexis to entrap her. A handsome man is the best jailer for a woman, from whom she never runs away." And bending nearer to Gregory's ear, she whispered: "I, myself, your empress, am almost your prisoner, you wicked, handsome man!"
And ravished by the beauty of Gregory Orloff, the third in the ranks of her recognized favorites, the empress leaned upon his arm, whispering words of tenderness in his ear.
"And what does your sublime majesty decide upon respecting the prisoner?" humbly asked Joseph Ribas.
"Oh, I had almost forgotten her," said the empress, with indifference. "She is, then, yet living, this so-called daughter of Elizabeth?"
"She is yet alive."
The empress for some time thoughtfully walked back and forth, occasionally turning her bold eagle eye upon her two favorite pictures, hanging upon the wall. They were battle-pieces full of terrible truth; they displayed the running blood, the trembling flesh, the rage of opponents, and the death-groans of the defeated. Such were the pictures loved by Catharine, and the sight of which always inspired her with bold thoughts.
As she now glanced at these sanguinary pictures, a pleasant smile drew over the face of this Northern Semiramis. She had just come to a decision, and, being content with it, expressed her satisfaction by a smile.
"That bleeding feminine torso," said she, pointing to one of the pictures, "look at it, Gregory, that wonderful feminine back reminds me of the vengeance Elizabeth took for the beauty of Eleonore Lapuschkin. Well, Elizabeth's pretended daughter shall find me teachable; I will learn from her mother how to punish. Let this criminal be conducted to the same place where the fair Lapuschkin suffered, and as she was served so serve Elizabeth's daughter! We have no desire to tear out the tongue of this child. Whip her, that is all, but whip her well and effectually. You understand me?"
And while she said this, that animated smile deserted not Catharine's lips for a moment, and her features constantly displayed the utmost cheerfulness.
"I think," said she, turning to Gregory, "that is bringing an expiatory offering to the fair Eleonore Lapuschkin, and we here exercise justice in the name of God!—As to you," she then said to Joseph Ribas, "we have reason to be satisfied with you, and you shall not go without your reward. Moreover, our beloved Alexis Orloff has especially recommended you to us, and spoken very highly of your information and talents. You shall be satisfied."(*)
(*) Joseph Ribas was rewarded by the empress with the place of an officer and teacher in the corps of cadets. Afterward, upon the recommendation of Betzkoi, he was made the tutor of Bobrinsky, one of the sons of the empress by Gregory Orloff. "He accompanied Bobrinsky in all his travels," says Massen, "and inoculated the prince with all the terrible vices he himself possessed." At a later period, as we have already said, he became an admiral and a favorite of Potemkin, the fourth of Catharine's lovers.
It was a dark and dreadfully cold night. St. Petersburg slept; the streets were deserted and silent. But there, upon the place where Elizabeth once caused the beautiful Lapuschkin to be tortured, there torches glanced, there dark forms were moving to and fro, there a mysterious life was stirring. What was being done there?
No spectators are to-night assembled around these barriers. Catharine had commanded all St. Petersburg to sleep at this hour, and accordingly it slept. Nobody is upon the place—nobody but the cold, unfeeling executioners and their assistants—nobody but that pale, feeble, and shrunken woman, who, in her slight white dress, kneels at the feet of her executioners. She yet lives, it is true, but her soul has long since fled, her heart has long been broken. The chains and tortures of her imprisonment have done that for her. It was Alexis Orloff who murdered Natalie's heart and soul. For him had she wept until her tears had been exhausted—for him had she lamented until her voice had become extinct. She now no longer weeps, no longer complains; glancing at her executioners, she smiles, and, raising her hands to God, she thanks him that at last she is about to die.
She is yet praying when her executioners approach and roughly raise her up, when they tear off her light robe, and devour with their brutal eyes her noble naked form. Her soul is with God, to whom she yet prays. But when they would rend from her bosom the chain to which Paulo's papers are attached, she shudders, her eyes flash, and she holds the papers in her convulsively clinched hands.
"I have sworn to defend them with my life!" she exclaims aloud. "Paulo, Paulo, I will keep my word!"
And with the boldness of a lioness she defends herself against her executioners.
"Leave her those papers!" commanded Joseph Ribas who was present by order of the empress. "She may keep them now—they will directly be ours!"
"Oh, Paulo, I have kept the promise I made thee!" murmured Natalie. She then implores to be allowed to read them, and Joseph Ribas grants her the desired permission.
With trembling hands she breaks the seal and reads by the light of a torch held up for her. A melancholy smile flits over her features, and her arms fall powerless.
"Ah, they are the proofs of my imperial descent, nothing further. How little is that, Paulo!"
And now lifting her up, they raise her high upon the backs of the executioners.
The knout whistles as it whirls through the air, the noble blood flows in streams. She makes no complaint, she prays. Only once, overcome by pain, only once she loudly screams: "Mercy, mercy for the daughter of an empress!"