With a cry of joy Alexis sank to her feet.
“Hail to my adored empress!” he exclaimed, with enthusiasm. “Hail Elizabeth, the fairest of all women!”
“With the exception of the beautiful Countess Lapuschkin!” said Elizabeth, with a bitter smile—“ah, when I am empress, I shall at least have the power to render that woman harmless, and to annihilate her!—You turn pale, Alexis,” she continued with more vehemence—“your hand trembles in mine! You must therefore love her very much, this exalted queen of godlike beauty? Ah, I shall know how to punish her for it!”
“Princess!” reproachfully exclaimed Alexis—“Elizabeth, you, my august and gentle empress, you will not sacrifice an innocent woman to a momentary jealous vagary!”
“Ah, he ventures to intercede for her!” cried Elizabeth, with a hoarse laugh, and, turning to Lestocq, she continued, with anger-flashing eyes: “Lestocq, I have yet a condition to make before consenting to become an empress.”
“Name your condition, princess, and if it be within the compass of human power it shall be fulfilled.”
Casting an angry glance at Razumovsky, Elizabeth said, with a sinister smile:
“Swear to me, by all you hold most sacred, to find some fault in this Countess Lapuschkin which shall give me the right to condemn her to death!”
“I swear it by all I hold most sacred,” solemnly responded Lestocq.
“And you will do well in that!” exclaimed Alexis. “For when a crime rests upon her, and she, only with a word or look, offends against my fair and noble empress, she will deserve such condemnation.”
“You will, then, defend her no longer?” asked the somewhat appeased princess, bending down to her kneeling lover.
“What is Countess Lapuschkin to me?” tenderly responded Alexis. “For me there is but one woman, one empress, and one beauty, and that is Elizabeth!”
The princess smiled with satisfaction. “Lestocq,” said she, “this time I keep my word. I am ready to dare all, in order to place the imperial crown upon my head. I must and will be empress, that I may have the power to reward you all, and to raise you, my Alexis, to me!”
And drawing the handsome Alexis up to herself, she gave him her hand to kiss.
“I now go to make all necessary preparations,” said Lestocq. “At midnight I will come for you. Be ready at that time, Elizabeth!”
“I will then be ready!” said Princess Elizabeth, nodding a farewell to Lestocq.
“At midnight!” she then thoughtfully continued. “Well, we have twelve hours until then, which will suffice for the invention of a suitable toilet. Alexis, tell me what sort of dress I shall wear. What color best becomes me and in what shall I please the soldiers? The toilet, my Alexis, is often decisive in such cases; an unsuitable costume might cause me to displease the conspirators, and lead them to give up the enterprise. You must aid me, Alexis, in choosing a costume. Come, let us repair to the wardrobe, and call my women. I will try on all my dresses, one after the other; then you shall decide which is most becoming, and that will we choose.”