“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?