“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?”