Eleonore’s words had brought reflection to Elizabeth. She comprehended that her legitimate daughter would certainly be threatened with great dangers after her death; she had shudderingly thought of poor Ivan in Schlusselburg, and she said to herself: “As I have held him imprisoned as a pretender, so may it happen to my daughter, one day, when I am no more! Ivan had but a doubtful right to my throne, but Natalie is indisputably the grand-daughter of Peter the Great—the blood of the great Russian czar flows in her veins, and therefore Peter will fear Natalie as I feared Ivan; therefore will he imprison and torment her as I have imprisoned and tormented Ivan!”
By this affectionate anxiety was Elizabeth induced to make a secret of the existence of her daughter, which was imparted to but a few confidential friends.
The little Natalie was raised in a solitary country-house not far from the city, and her few servants and people were forbidden under pain of death to admit any stranger into this constantly-closed and always-watched house. No one was to enter it without a written order of the empress, and but few such written orders were given.
Elizabeth, then, as it were to recompense herself for the trouble of signing the letter to the King of France, resolved to visit her daughter to-day with her husband.
“Rasczinsky may precede and announce us,” said she. “We will take our dinner there, and he may say to our major-domo that we are going to Peterhoff. Then no one will be surprised that we make a short halt at my little villa in passing, or, rather, they will know nothing of it. Call Rasczinsky!”
Count Rasczinsky was one of the few who were acquainted with the secret, and might accompany the empress in these visits. Elizabeth had unlimited confidence in him; she knew him to be a silent nobleman, and she estimated him the more highly from the fact that he seemed much attached to the charming, beautiful, and delicate child, her daughter. She remarked that he appeared to love her as a brother, that he constantly and fondly watched over her, and that he was never better pleased than when, as a child, he could jest and play with her.
“Rasczinsky, we are about to ride out to the villa on a visit to Natalie!” she said, when the count entered.
The count’s eyes beamed with pleasure. “And I may be permitted to accompany your majesty?” he hastily asked.
The empress smiled. “How impetuous you are!” said she. “Would not one think you were a dying lover, a sighing shepherd, and it was a question of seeking your tender shepherdess, instead of announcing to a child of eleven years the speedy arrival of her mother?”
“Your majesty,” said Count Rasczinsky, laughing, “I am not in love, but I adore this child as my good angel. I can never do or think any thing bad in Natalie’s presence. She is so pure and innocent that one casts down his eyes with shame before her, and when she glances at me with her large, deep, and yet so childish eyes, I could directly fall upon my knees and confess to her all my sins!”