Catharine proudly tossed her head, and her eyes flashed.
“I shall one day remember all the mortifications he has inflicted upon me,” said she, “and an hour will come when I shall have a reckoning with him, and full retribution! Ah, talk not to me of my husband—Russian emperors have never been immortal, and why should he be so?”
“Catharine!” exclaimed the Princess Daschkow, turning pale, “you cannot think—”
“I think,” interposed Catharine, with an unnatural smile, “I think the Russian emperors are not immortal, and that this good Empress Elizabeth is very fortunate in having no emperor who presumes to stand over her and have a will more potent than her own!”
“Ah, Elizabeth has no will at all!” laughingly responded the princess.
“But I shall have a will!” said Catharine, proudly.
The Princess Daschkow had spoken the truth. Elizabeth had no longer any will; she let Bestuscheff govern, and was herself ruled by Alexis Razumovsky, the field-marshal, her husband. She did whatever these two required, willingly yielding to them in all cases demanding no personal effort on her part. On this point only had she a will of her own, which she carried through with an iron hand.
“I have not become empress that I might labor, but that I might amuse myself,” said she. “I have not set the crown upon my head for the purpose of governing, but for the purpose of enjoying life. Spare me, therefore, the labor of signing your documents. I will sign nothing more, for my hand is not accustomed to holding the pen, and the ink soils my fingers, which is unworthy of an empress!”
“It is only one signature that I implore of you to-day,” said Bestuscheff, handing her a letter. “Have the great kindness to make an exception of this one single case, by signing this letter to King Louis XV. of France.”
“What have I to write to this King of France?” fretfully asked Elizabeth. “Why should I do it? It is a long time since he has sent me any new dresses, although he might well know that nothing is more important for an empress than a splendid and varied wardrobe! Why, then, should I write to this King of France?”
“You majesty, it is here question of a simple act of courtesy,” said Bestuscheff, pressingly; “an act the omission of which may be attended with the most disagreeable consequences, perhaps indeed involve us in a war. Think of the peace of your realm, the welfare of your people, and sign this letter!”
“But what does it contain that is so important?” asked the empress, with astonishment. “I now remember that for a year past you have been importuning me about this!”
“Yes, your majesty, I have been for the last three years daily imploring of you this signature, and you have refused it to me; and yet the letter is so necessary! It is against all propriety not to send it! For it is a letter of congratulation to the King of France, who in an autograph letter announced to you the birth of his grandson. Reflect, your majesty, that he wrote you with his own hand, and for three years you have refused to give yourself the small trouble to sign the answer I have prepared. This prince, for whose birth you are to congratulate the king, is now old enough to express his own thanks for the sympathy you manifest for him.”