|Твори О.С. Пушкіна.Переклад англійською мовою.>THE BLACKAMOOR OF PETER THE GREAT|
Transformed by Peter's iron will.
I am in Paris;
I have begun to live, not just to breathe.
DMITRIEV, "DIARY OF A TRAVELLER'
Among the young people whom Peter the Great sent to foreign lands to acquire knowledge needed in the transformed Russian state, there was a blackamoor called Ibrahim, a godson of the Emperor. He received his training at the Military Academy of Paris, graduated with the rank of captain of artillery, distinguished himself in the Spanish War, and returned to Paris severely wounded. The Emperor, engrossed though he was in his vast undertakings, never neglected to inquire after his favorite, and always received laudatory reports about his progress and conduct. Highly satisfied with him, Peter urged him several times to return to Russia, but Ibrahim was in no hurry to do so. He kept excusing himself under various pretexts, such as his wound, his desire to complete his education, and his lack of money. Peter, for his part, acceded to the young man's wishes with indulgence, told him to take care of his health, and expressed his appreciation for his industry, and — though always extremely careful about his own expenses — he liberally provided for his godson from the Treasury, adding fatherly advice and cautionary exhortation to the gold coins.
All historical records show that the frivolity, folly, and luxury of the French of that time was unprecedented. No trace was left by then of the last years of Louis XIV's reign, which had been characterized by fastidious piety at Court and by a grave tone and decorum. The Duke of Orleans, whose brilliant qualities were combined with faults of all kinds, did not possess, unfortunately, one modicum of hypocrisy. The orgies at the Palais Royal were no secret in Paris, and the example was contagious. Just then Law made his appearance on the scene; greed for money was united with thirst for amusement and dissipation; fortunes went to ruin; morality perished; and the French laughed and calculated, while the state was falling apart to the playful tunes of satirical vaudevilles.
Society provided an entertaining spectacle. Education and the demand for amusement drew the different estates together. Wealth, good manners, fame, talent, even eccentricity — all attributes that excited curiosity or promised enjoyment — were accepted with equal indulgence. Literature, scholarship, and philosophy emerged from quiet study rooms to appear in the midst of high society, both bowing to fashion and governing it. Women ruled, but no longer demanded adoration. Superficial courtesy took the place of profound respect. The pranks of the duc de Richelieu — of this Alcibiades of a latter-day Athens — are a matter of historical record, providing an insight into the mores of the period.
Temps fortune, marque par la licence,
Ou la folie, agitant son grelot,
D'un pied leger parcourt toute la France,
Ou nul mortel ne daigne etre devot,
Ou l'оn fait tout excepte penitence.
As soon as Ibrahim arrived in Paris, his outward appearance, his education and native intelligence, caught everyone's attention. All the ladies, wishing to see le Negre du czar in their drawing rooms, vied with each other in trying to captivate him; the Regent invited him to his merry soirees more than once; he was present at dinner parties enlivened by the youth of Arouet, by the old age of Chaulieu, and by the conversation of Montesquieu and Fontenelle; he did not miss one ball, one festivity, one premiere; in general, he threw himself into the whirl of social life with all the ardor of his youth and race. What daunted Ibrahim, however, was not just the thought of exchanging this libertinage, all these splendid amusements, for the austere simplicity of the Petersburg Court. Other, more powerful bonds tied him to Paris. The young African was in love.
The Countess D., though not in the first bloom of youth, was still renowned for her beauty. At the age of seventeen, right after leaving the convent school, she was married to a man to whom she had not had time to grow attached, a fact that had not particularly worried him, then or later. Rumor ascribed lovers to her, but thanks to the lenient code of high society, she enjoyed a good name simply because she could never be accused of any ridiculous or scandalous escapades. Her house was among the most fashionable, attracting the best Parisian society. Ibrahim was introduced to her by the youthful Merville, generally regarded as her latest lover — a rumor that the young man made every effort to make people believe.
The Countess greeted Ibrahim politely but without fanfare, which flattered him. As a rule, people looked at the young black man as if he were some strange phenomenon — they surrounded him and showered him with salutations and questions. Their curiosity, though disguised as courtesy, offended his pride. The sweet attention of women, almost the sole aim of our efforts, not only did not gladden his heart, but filled it with downright bitterness and indignation. He felt that in their eyes he was a kind of rare animal, a peculiar and alien creature who had been accidentally brought into a world that had nothing in common with it. He even envied people who attracted no one's attention, regarding their insignificance as a happy state.
The thought that, by nature, he was destined not to have his affections reciprocated saved him from presumptuousness and vanity, and this lent a rare charm to his conduct with women. His conversation was simple and demure, and it attracted the Countess D., who had grown tired of the endless jests and subtle insinuations of French wit. He became a frequent guest at her house. Little by little she grew accustomed to the young Black's appearance and even began finding something attractive in that curly head, standing out with its blackness among the powdered wigs in her drawing room. (Ibrahim had been wounded in the head and was wearing a bandage instead of a wig.) He was twenty-seven years old, tall and well built; and quite a few beautiful young women glanced at him with feelings more flattering than mere curiosity, though he in his prejudice either did not notice anything or fancied only flirtation. When, however, his eyes met those of the Countess, his distrustfulness vanished. Her glance conveyed such good nature, her conduct with him was so simple and unaffected, that it was impossible to suspect in her even a shade of coquetry or mockery.
The idea of love had not crossed his mind, but to see the Countess daily was becoming a necessity for him. He sought her out everywhere, and meeting her seemed to him an unexpected favor from heaven each time. The Countess recognized his feelings before he himself did. Whatever you say, love without aspirations and demands touches the feminine heart more surely than all the wiles of seduction. When she was with Ibrahim, the Countess followed every movement he made and listened carefully to every word he said; in his absence she grew thoughtful and sank into her habitual distractedness. Merville was the first to notice this mutual inclination, and he congratulated Ibrahim. Nothing inflames love so much as the encouraging remark of an outsider. Love is blind, and distrustful of itself, eagerly grasps any support. Merville's words awakened Ibrahim. Until then the idea that he might possess the woman he loved had not even occurred to him; now hope suddenly lit up his soul; he fell madly in love. The Countess, frightened of the violence of his passion, tried to counter with friendly exhortations and prudent admonitions, but all in vain; she herself was weakening. Incautiously granted favors followed one another in quick succession. And at last, carried away by the force of the passion she had herself inspired, overpowered by its moment, she gave herself to the ecstatic Ibrahim...
Nothing can be hidden from society's watchful eyes. The Countess's new liaison soon became common knowledge. Some ladies were surprised by her choice, but many found it perfectly natural. Some laughed; others thought she had committed an unforgivable indiscretion. In the first transports of passion, Ibrahim and the Countess did not notice anything, but the double entendres of the men and the caustic remarks of the women soon began to catch their attention. Ibrahim's demure, cold manner had previously protected him from all offensive behavior; now he suffered the attacks with impatience and did not know how to ward them off. The Countess, accustomed to the respect of society, could not resign herself to being the butt of gossip and jests. She would now complain to Ibrahim in tears, now reproach him bitterly, now beg him not to take up her defense lest some useless row bring about her complete ruin.
A new circumstance confounded her situation even further. The consequence of her imprudent love had become apparent. All consolations, counsel, suggestions, were considered, and all rejected. The Countess saw that her ruin was inevitable, and waited for it in despair.
As soon as the Countess's condition became known, common talk started up with renewed vigor. Ladies of sensibility moaned with horror; men took bets on whether the Countess would give birth to a white or black baby. Epigrams proliferated at the expense of her husband - the only person in Paris who knew nothing and suspected nothing.
The fateful moment was approaching. The Countess's situation was terrible. Ibrahim came to see her every day. He watched her spiritual and physical strength gradually wane. Her tears and horror burst forth every minute. At last she felt the first pains. Measures were taken quickly. A pretext was found for sending the Count away. The physician arrived. A couple of days before, a destitute woman had been persuaded to give up her newborn son; now a trusted agent was sent to fetch him. Ibrahim waited in a study right next door to the bedroom where the unfortunate Countess lay. Hardly daring to breathe, he heard her muted groans, the whisperings of the maid, and the doctor's commands. She was in labor for a long time. Every groan rent his heart, every silent interval submerged him in horror... Suddenly he heard the feeble cry of a child; unable to contain his joy, he rushed into the Countess's room. A black baby lay on the bed at her feet. Ibrahim went up to it. His heart throbbed violently. He blessed his son with a shaking hand. The Countess gave a faint smile and stretched her weary hand toward him, but the doctor, anxious to protect the invalid from too much excitement, drew Ibrahim away from her bed. The newborn was placed in a covered basket and taken out of the house by a secret staircase. The other child was brought in, and its cradle placed in the young mother's bedroom. Ibrahim left somewhat reassured. The Count was expected. He returned late, learned about his wife's successful delivery, and was satisfied. Thus the public, which had anticipated an uproarious scandal, was frustrated in its expectations and had to content itself with mere vilifications.
Everything returned to normal, but Ibrahim felt that the course of his life would have to change, since his love affair might sooner or later come to the Count D.'s knowledge. In such a case, whatever the circumstances might be, the ruin of the Countess would be inevitable. Ibrahim was passionately in love, and was loved with an equal passion, but the Countess was capricious and careless. It was not the first time she had been in love. Revulsion and hatred might replace the most tender feelings in her heart. Ibrahim imagined the moment she would grow cold toward him. He had not experienced the feeling of jealousy before, but now he had a terrifying presentiment of it, and he fancied that the torments of separation would probably be less painful. He contemplated breaking up his ill-fated liaison, leaving Paris, and returning to Russia, where he was being summoned both by Peter and by his own vague sense of duty.
No more does beauty lull me so,
No more does joy's enchantment linger,
Nor is my fancy quite so free,
My spirit so serenely pleased...
By honor's fever I am seized:
The sound of glory calls on me!
Days, months went by, but the enamored Ibrahim could not bring himself to leave the woman he had seduced. The Countess became each day more and more attached to him. Their son was being brought up in a remote province. The gossip began to abate, and the lovers enjoyed greater peace, silently remembering the storm that had passed and trying not to think of the future.
One day Ibrahim attended the levee of the Duke of Orleans. Passing by him, the Duke stopped and gave Ibrahim a letter, telling him to read it at leisure. It was a letter from Peter I. The Emperor, guessing the real reason for Ibrahim's extended stay abroad, wrote to the Duke that he did not wish to coerce his foster son in any way, leaving it to him to decide whether he wanted to return to Russia or not, but that he, the Emperor, would in no case leave him without support. This letter touched the very heartstrings of Ibrahim. From that moment his fate was sealed. The next day he informed the Regent of his intention to leave for Russia immediately.
"Think what you're doing," the Duke said to him. "Russia is not your native land; I doubt whether you'll ever have an opportunity to see your own sultry fatherland again, but your long sojourn in France has made you unfit for both the climate and the way of life of semibarbarous Russia. You were not born a subject of Peter's. Listen to me: take advantage of his generous permission. Stay in France, for which you have already shed your blood, and you can rest assured that here, too, your services and talents will earn their just rewards."
Ibrahim sincerely thanked the Duke but remained firm in his decision.
"I'm sorry to see you go," said the Duke, "but, actually, you are right." He promised to release Ibrahim from the service, and reported the whole matter to the Russian Tsar.
Ibrahim was soon ready to leave. He spent the eve of his departure, as he would most evenings, at the house of the Countess D. She was not aware of anything: Ibrahim had not had the heart to reveal his plans to her. She was calm and cheerful. She called him to her side several times and teased him about his pensive mood. After supper all the guests left. Only the Countess, her husband, and Ibrahim remained in the drawing room. The unfortunate Ibrahim would have given anything in the world to be left alone with her, but the Count D. seemed to be so serenely settled by the fireplace that there was no hope of getting rid of him. All three were silent.
"Bonne nuit" said the Countess at last.
Ibrahim's heart sank as he suddenly apprehended the full horror of parting. He stood motionless.
"Bonne nuit, messieurs" repeated the Countess.
He still did not move... At last his vision became blurred, his head began swimming, and he could just barely walk out of the room. Having reached home, he wrote the following letter in an almost unconscious state:
I am leaving, my dear Leonore, abandoning you forever. I am writing to you because I have not the strength to explain myself to you otherwise.
My happiness could not last. I have enjoyed it in defiance of fate and nature. You were bound to cease loving me: the enchantment was bound to vanish. This thought always haunted me, even at those moments when it seemed I was oblivious to everything, when I lay at your feet intoxicated with your fervent self-sacrifice, with your boundless tenderness... Society, with its fickle ways, ruthlessly persecutes in practice what it permits in theory: its cold mockery would have sooner or later overpowered you, it would have humbled your soaring spirit, and you would in the end have grown ashamed of your passion... What would then have become of me? No! I'd sooner die, I'd sooner leave you, than wait for that terrible moment...
Your tranquility is dearest of all to me, and you could not enjoy it while the gaze of society was fixed on us. Remember everything you have suffered through, all the humiliations, all the torments of fear; remember the terrifying birth of our son. Just think: should I subject you to the same worries and dangers even longer? Why struggle to unite the fate of such a tender and graceful creature with the unlucky lot of a Negro, a pitiful being, scarcely granted the title of man?
Farewell, Leonore, farewell my cherished, my only friend. Abandoning you, I abandon the first and last happy moments of my life. I have neither fatherland nor family. I am leaving for gloomy Russia, where my only comfort will be my complete solitude. Hard work, to which I am going to devote myself from now on, will, if not stifle, at least divert agonizing recollections of those days of rapture and bliss... Farewell, Leonore - I am tearing myself away from this letter as if from your arms; farewell, be happy - and think sometimes of the poor Negro, of your faithful Ibrahim.
The same night he left for Russia.
The journey did not turn out to be quite as grim as he had expected. His imagination prevailed over reality. The farther behind he left Paris, the more vividly, the more immediately, he could recall the forms he had abandoned forever.
He was on the Russian border before he knew it. Autumn was setting in, but the drivers, despite the bad roads, drove him along with the speed of the wind, and on the morning of the seventeenth day of his journey he arrived in Krasnoe Selo, through which the main highway led in those days.
Only twenty-eight versts were left from here to Petersburg. While the horses were being harnessed Ibrahim went into the post station. In the corner a tall man, in a green caftan and with a clay pipe in his mouth, was leaning with his elbows on the table, reading the Hamburg newspapers. Hearing somebody enter, he raised his head.
"Ha! Ibrahim?" he exclaimed, getting up from the bench. "Welcome, godson."
Ibrahim, recognizing Peter, was about to rush up to him with joy, but stopped respectfully. The Emperor came up to him, embraced him, and kissed him on the head.
"I was informed you'd soon be arriving," said Peter, "and I came out to meet you. I've been here waiting for you since yesterday." Ibrahim could not find words to express his gratitude. "Let your carriage follow behind us," continued the Emperor, "while you sit with me. Let's set out for home."
The Emperor's carriage was driven up; he and Ibrahim got in, and they galloped off. They arrived in Petersburg in an hour and a half. Ibrahim looked with curiosity at the newborn capital that had risen from the swamp at the bidding of autocracy. Open dikes, canals without embankments, and wooden bridges testified everywhere to the recent victory of human will over the resistance of the elements. The houses, it seemed, had been erected hastily. There was nothing impressive in the whole city except for the Neva, not yet adorned by a granite frame but already strewn with warships and merchantmen. The Emperor's carriage stopped by the palace in the so-called Tsaritsyn Garden. A woman, aged about thirty-five, attractive and dressed according to the latest Parisian fashion, met Peter on the portico. He kissed her on the lips and, taking Ibrahim by the hand, said:
"Have you recognized my godson, Katenka? Please welcome him and be kind to him as in the old days."
Ekaterina turned her dark, penetrating eyes on Ibrahim and amiably gave him her hand. Two beautiful young girls, tall, graceful, and fresh as roses, stood behind her and respectfully approached Peter.
"Liza," he said to one of them, "do you remember the little black boy who used to steal apples for you from my garden in Oranienbaum? Here he is: I present him to you."
The Grand Duchess laughed and blushed. They entered the dining room. The table had been laid in anticipation of the Emperor's arrival. Peter sat down to dinner with his family, inviting Ibrahim to join them. Over dinner he talked with Ibrahim about various topics, questioning him about the Spanish War, the internal affairs of France, and the Regent, whom he loved though in many ways disapproved of. Ibrahim had a remarkably precise and perceptive mind; Peter was highly satisfied with his answers; on his part he remembered some details of Ibrahim's childhood and related them with such warmth and gaiety that nobody would have suspected this cordial, gracious host of having been the hero of Poltava, the mighty, dreaded reformer of Russia.
After dinner the Emperor, in keeping with Russian custom, retired to rest. Ibrahim was left with the Empress and the duchesses. He did his best to satisfy their curiosity, describing the Parisian way of life, the festivities held in the French capital and its capricious fashions. In the meanwhile some persons of the Emperor's immediate circle were gathering at the palace. Ibrahim recognized the illustrious Prince Menshikov, who, seeing the black man conversing with Ekaterina, cast a haughty glance at him; Prince Iakov Dolgorukii, Peter's stern counselor; the learned Bruce, who had the reputation of a Russian Faust among the people; the young Raguzinskii, Ibrahim's onetime friend; and others who were either bringing reports to the Emperor or awaiting his instructions.
The Emperor reappeared in about two hours.
"Let's see whether you still remember how to carry out your former duty," he said to Ibrahim. "Take a slate and follow me." Peter locked the door of the turnery on the two of them and busied himself with state affairs. One by one he called in Bruce, Prince Dolgorukii, and the chief of police, de Viere; and he dictated several decrees and resolutions to Ibrahim. The latter was astounded by his quick and firm grasp of problems, the power and versatility of his concentration, and the diversity of his activities. When the work was done, Peter pulled out a pocket notebook to check if everything planned for the day had been accomplished. Then, as he was leaving the turnery, he said to Ibrahim:
"It's getting late; you're tired I suppose. Spend the night here as you used to. I'll wake you up in the morning."
Ibrahim, left by himself, could scarcely collect his thoughts. He was in Petersburg; he had once again met the great man in whose company, not yet comprehending his worth, he had spent his childhood. He had to confess to himself, almost with a sense of guilt, that for the first time since their separation the Countess D. had not been the sole preoccupation of his day. He could see that the new way of life that was awaiting him - the work and constant activity -would be able to revive his soul, fatigued by passions, idleness, and an unacknowledged despondency. The thought of being closely associated with a great man and of shaping, together with him, the destiny of a great nation awoke in his heart, for the first time in his life, a noble sentiment of ambition. It was in this state of mind that he lay down on the camp bed prepared for him. His wonted dreams soon carried him to faraway Paris, into the arms of the dear Countess.
Like clouds in summer skies,
Thus thoughts within us change their fleeting shapes,
And what we love today, tomorrow we detest.
The next day Peter woke up Ibrahim as he had promised, and congratulated him on his appointment as first lieutenant in the Preobrazhenskii Regiment's artillery platoon, of which he himself was the captain. The courtiers surrounded Ibrahim, each trying in his own way to show esteem for the new favorite. The haughty Prince Menshikov shook his hand cordially. Sheremetev inquired after his Parisian acquaintances, and Golovin invited Ibrahim to dinner. Others followed Golovin's example, so much so that Ibrahim received enough invitations to last him at least a month.
Ibrahim's days were unvaried but busy; consequently, he felt no boredom. With every day he became more and more attached to the Emperor, more able to comprehend his lofty mind. To follow the thoughts of a great man is a most engrossing intellectual occupation. Ibrahim saw Peter in the Senate, where Buturlin and Dolgorukii were disputing with him and where he grappled with important legislative matters; watched him in the Admiralty, where he was building Russia's naval might; observed him in the company of Feofan, Gavriil Buzhinskii, and Kopievich, and in his hours of leisure as he examined translations of foreign political writers or visited merchants' warehouses, craftsmen's workshops, scholars' studies. Russia seemed to Ibrahim like an enormous manufacturing plant, where only machines were in motion and where each worker, subject to an established order, was busy with his assignment. He, too, felt obliged to work at his bench, trying to think of the amusements of Parisian life with as little regret as he possibly could. It was more difficult to dismiss from his mind another, dear recollection: he often thought of the Countess D., imagined her just indignation, tears, and despair... At times a dreadful thought took his breath away: the distractions of high society, a new liaison, another lucky man — he shuddered. Jealousy began to seethe in his African blood, and burning tears were ready to course down his black face.
One morning he was sitting surrounded by official papers in his study when he heard a loud greeting in French; turning around in excitement, he found himself in the embrace, accompanied by joyous exclamations, of the young Korsakov, whom he had left behind in Paris, in the whirl of society life.
"I've only just arrived," said Korsakov, "and come directly to see you. All our Parisian acquaintances are missing you and send their regards; the Countess D. enjoined me to summon you to return without fail. Here is a letter from her."
Ibrahim grabbed the letter with a trembling hand and looked at the familiar handwriting on the envelope, not daring to believe his own eyes.
"I'm glad to see that you have not yet died of boredom in this barbarous Petersburg," Korsakov continued. "What do people do here, how do they pass their time? Who is your tailor? Has at least an opera house been established?"
Ibrahim, lost in thought, answered that the Emperor was probably at work in the shipyard. Korsakov burst out laughing.
"I can see that your mind is elsewhere at the moment," he said. "We'll have a good talk later; right now I'll go and present myself to the Emperor." Having said this, he spun around on one heel and ran out of the room.
Left by himself, Ibrahim hastened to open the letter. The Countess tenderly complained, reproaching him for his dissemblance and distrust. "You say," she wrote, "that my tranquility is dearest of all to you. Ibrahim! If that were true, could you have subjected me to the predicament to which the unexpected news of your departure reduced me? You were afraid that I would hold you back, but I assure you that though I love you, I could have sacrificed my love for your well-being and for what you consider your obligation." She concluded the letter with passionate assurances of love and implored him at least to write to her occasionally, even if there was no hope for them ever to meet again.
Ibrahim reread this letter twenty times, kissing the precious lines in ecstasy. He burned with impatience to hear more about the Countess, and was just about ready to go to the Admiralty in the hope of finding Korsakov still there, when the door opened and Korsakov himself reappeared: he had already presented himself to the Emperor and, as usual, seemed to be very satisfied with himself.
"Entre nous" he said to Ibrahim, "the Emperor is a peculiar man: just imagine, when I found him he was wearing some sort of sack-cloth vest and was perched on the mast of a new ship, where I had to clamber after him with my dispatches. Standing on a rope ladder, I did not have enough room even to bow properly and became all confused, which had never happened to me before. But the Emperor, having read the papers I had brought, looked me over from head to foot and was, to all appearances, pleasantly surprised by the taste and refinement of my attire: at least he smiled and invited me to tonight's assembly. But I am a total stranger in Petersburg: during my six-year absence I have completely forgotten the local customs, and I'd like to ask you to please be my mentor, come with me and introduce me."
Ibrahim agreed and hastened to steer the conversation to a topic more interesting to him. "Well, how is the Countess D.?"
"The Countess? As you might expect, she was at first very much upset by your departure; but then, as you might expect, she gradually regained her equanimity and took a new lover. Do you know whom? That lanky Marquis of R. But what are you staring at me for with those Negro eyeballs of yours? Or does all this seem strange to you? Don't you know that lasting grief is not in the nature of the human being, especially of a woman? Think this over thoroughly while I go to take a rest after my jouney, and don't forget to come and fetch me."
What sensations filled Ibrahim's heart? Jealousy? Rage? Despair? No; rather a deep, benumbed feeling of depression. He kept repeating to himself: I foresaw this; this had to happen. Then he opened the Countess's letter, read it once more, hung his head, and burst into bitter tears. He wept for a long time. The tears eased his sorrow. Then, looking at his watch, he realized it was time to go. He would have been glad to excuse himself, but the assembly was an official function, and the Emperor rigidly insisted on the attendance of the members of his close circle. Ibrahim got dressed and set out to fetch Korsakov.
Korsakov was sitting in his dressing gown, reading a French book.
"So early?" he asked seeing Ibrahim.
"Mercy," the latter responded; "it's already half past five. We'll be late; get dressed quickly and let's go."
This threw Korsakov into a flurry, and he started ringing with all his might; his servants rushed in; he began dressing hastily. His French valet brought in his red-heeled shoes, his blue velvet breeches, and his pink caftan embroidered with spangles; his wig, quickly powdered in the anteroom, was brought in, and he thrust his close-cropped small head into it; he asked for his sword and gloves, turned around before the mirror about ten times, and declared himself ready. The footman helped him and Ibrahim into their bearskin coats, and the two young men set out for the Winter Palace.
Korsakov showered Ibrahim with questions. Who was the most beautiful woman in Petersburg? Who had the reputation of being the best dancer? What dance was currently in vogue? Ibrahim satisfied his friend's curiosity grudgingly. In the meanwhile they had arrived at the palace. A large number of long sleds, old coaches, and gilded barouches stood in the field already. By the portico there was a large crowd of liveried and mustachioed coachmen, of mace-bearing footmen resplendent in tawdry finery and plumes, of hussars, pages, and awkward-looking haiduks, loaded down with their masters' fur coats and muffs - an indispensable retinue in the opinion of the boyars of that time. Ibrahim's arrival provoked a general murmur among them: "The blackamoor, the blackamoor, the Tsar's blackamoor!" He led Korsakov through this motley crowd of servants as fast as he could. A palace servant opened the doors wide for them, and they entered the hall. Korsakov was dumbfounded... In the large room, lit by tallow candles that burned dimly in the clouds of tobacco smoke, droves of dignitaries with blue sashes across their shoulders, ambassadors, foreign merchants, officers of the Guards in green coats, and shipmasters wearing short jackets with striped trousers were moving up and down to the incessant sound of a brass band. The ladies sat along the walls, the young ones glittering with all the finery of fashion. Gold and silver glistened on their robes; their slim waists rose from their luxuriant hooped skirts like flower stems; diamonds twinkled in their ears, in their long tresses, and around their necks. They cheerfully glanced left and right, waiting for cavaliers and for the dance to begin. The elderly ladies' outfits represented shrewd attempts to combine the new mode of dress with the old styles frowned upon: their head-dresses were very like the Tsaritsa Natalia Kirilovna's sable hat, and their gowns and mantles resembled sarafans and wadded jackets. They attended these newfangled spectacles with more bewilderment, it seemed, than pleasure, and looked askance at the wives and daughters of Dutch skippers who sat in their calico skirts and red blouses, knitting socks, laughing, and chatting among themselves, as if they were at home. Korsakov could not regain his presence of mind. Noticing the newly arrived guests, a servant came up with beer and glasses on a tray.
"Que diable est-ce que tout cela?" said Korsakov to Ibrahim under his breath. Ibrahim could not suppress a smile. The Empress and the grand duchesses, glittering with beauty and elegance, walked through the rows of guests, amicably conversing with them. The Emperor was in another room. Korsakov, wishing to show himself to him, had a hard time pushing his way there through the constantly moving crowd. In that room sat mostly foreigners, solemnly smoking their clay pipes and emptying their earthenware mugs. Bottles of beer and wine, leather pouches with tobacco, glasses of rum punch, and chessboards were placed on the tables. Peter sat at one of them, playing checkers with a broad-shouldered English skipper. The two of them kept zealously saluting each other with salvos of tobacco smoke, and the Emperor was so preoccupied with an unexpected move of his partner's that he did not notice Korsakov, much as he twisted and turned around them. At this moment a massive gentleman with a massive nosegay on his chest came bustling into the room, to announce in a thunderous voice that the dancing had commenced; then he was gone again, and many of the guests, among them Korsakov, followed after him.
Korsakov was struck by an unexpected sight. Along the whole length of the ballroom, resounding with peals of the most pitiful music, ladies and cavaliers were ranged in two rows, facing one another; the cavaliers bowed low and the ladies curtsied, bending even lower, first straight ahead, then to the right, then to the left, then straight ahead again, to the right again, and so forth. Korsakov stared at this intriguing sport wide-eyed and bit his lips. The bowing and curtsying continued for about half an hour; when it stopped at last, the massive gentleman with the nosegay announced that the ceremonial dance was over, and ordered the musicians to play a minuet. Korsakov rejoiced and prepared to shine. One of the young ladies present attracted him particularly. She was about sixteen, dressed expensively but tastefully; she sat by an elderly man of dignified and stern appearance. Korsakov scampered up to her and asked her to do him the honor of dancing with him. The young beauty looked at him with embarrassment, not knowing, it seemed, what to say to him. The man sitting next to her knitted his brows, looking even more stern. Korsakov stood waiting for her answer, but the gentleman with the nosegay came up to him, led him into the center of the ballroom, and said gravely: "My dear sir, you have committed a breach of etiquette: first, you went up to this young person without the required triple obeisance; secondly, you took it on yourself to select her, though in the minuet the right of choice belongs to the lady, not to the cavalier; for which reasons you are to be severely punished, namely you must drain the goblet of the Great Eagle."
Korsakov grew more and more astonished. The guests instantly surrounded him, loudly demanding the immediate execution of the sentence. Peter, hearing the laughter and shouts, and very fond of personally participating in such punishments, came out of the adjacent room. The crowd made way for him, and he entered the circle where the marshal of the assembly stood facing the culprit with an enormous goblet filled with malmsey. He was vainly trying to persuade the condemned to submit to the law voluntarily.
"Aha!" said the Emperor, seeing Korsakov, "you've been caught, brother! Please be so good as to quaff it down, monsieur, and don't let me see you wince."
There was no way to escape. The poor fop drained the whole goblet in one gulp and handed it back to the marshal.
"Listen, Korsakov," Peter said to him, "the breeches you're wearing are made of velvet, of a kind even I don't wear, though I am much richer than you. This is extravagance; watch out that I don't fall out with you."
Having listened to this censure, Korsakov wanted to leave the circle, but he lost his balance and almost fell down, to the indescribable joy of the Emperor and the whole merry company. This episode not only did not spoil the unity and interest of the main action, but enlivened it even further. The cavaliers began scraping and bowing, and the ladies curtsying and tapping their heels, with even greater zeal, no longer paying any attention to the rhythm of the music. Korsakov was unable to participate in the general merriment. The lady he had chosen went up to Ibrahim under orders from her father, Gavrila Afanasevich, and casting her blue eyes down, timidly gave him her hand. He danced a minuet with her and led her back to her seat; then he went to look for Korsakov, led him out of the ballroom, put him in a carriage, and took him home. On the way home Korsakov began muttering inaudibly, "Accursed assembly! Accursed goblet of the Great Eagle!," but he soon fell into a deep slumber, unaware of how he arrived home, how he was undressed and put to bed; the next morning he woke up with a headache and could only vaguely remember the scraping and curtsying, the tobacco smoke, the gentleman with the nosegay, and the goblet of the Great Eagle.
Our forebears were no hasty eaters,
Not speedily, you would have found,
Did jars and silver pledging-beakers
Of wine and ale go foaming round.
Ruslan and Liudmila
I must now acquaint my gracious reader with Gavrila Afanasevich Rzhevskii. A descendant of an ancient lineage of boyars, he possessed an enormous estate, was a generous host, loved falconry, and had numerous servants. In other words, he was a true gentleman of the Russian soil; as he himself was fond of saying, he could not endure the German spirit, and in his household he made every effort to preserve the cherished customs of olden times.
His daughter, Natalia Gavrilovna, was seventeen years old. She had been brought up in the old way, that is, surrounded by nurses and nannies, companions and maidservants; she knew how to do gold embroidery, but she was illiterate. On the other hand her father, despite his aversion to everything foreign, gave in to her desire to learn German dances from a captive Swedish officer who lived in their house. This worthy dance teacher was about fifty years old; his right leg had been shot through at Narva and was therefore not quite up to minuets and courants, but with his left one he could execute even the most difficult pas with amazing skill and lightness. His pupil did honor to his efforts. She was renowned as the best dancer at the assemblies, which had indeed been one of the things that led Korsakov to his faux pas. The latter came to Gavrila Afanasevich to offer his apologies the next day, but the easy manner and dandyish appearance of this young fop did not please the haughty boyar, who subsequently gave him the witty nickname of French monkey.
One festive day Gavrila Afanasevich was expecting several relatives and friends. A long table was being laid in the ancient hall. The guests arrived, accompanied by their wives and daughters, who had at last been freed from their domestic seclusion by the Emperor's decrees and personal example. Natalia Gavrilovna went up to each guest with a silver tray laden with gold cups, and the men emptied their cups, regretting that the kiss that used to accompany such occasions was no longer a custom. They sat down to table. In the place of honor, next to the master of the house, sat his father-in-law, Prince Boris Alekseevich Lykov, a seventy-year-old boyar; the other guests sat according to the rank of their families, thereby evoking the happy old days of the order of precedence. The men were seated on one side, the women on the other. At the end of the table were placed, as usual, the housekeeper in her old-fashioned headgear and bodice, a midget - a prim and wrinkled little darling of thirty - and the captive Swede in his timeworn blue uniform. The table, laden with a great number of dishes, was attended by numerous bustling domestics, among whom the butler was clearly distinguishable by his stern expression, large stomach, and majestic immobility. During the first minutes of the dinner, attention was devoted exclusively to the products of our old-fashioned cuisine; only the clatter of the plates and assiduously laboring spoons disturbed the prevailing silence. At last the host, judging that it was time to divert his guests with pleasant conversation, turned around and asked, "And where is Ekimovna? Call her here."
Several servants were ready to dash off in different directions, but just at that moment an old woman with a powdered and rouged face, bedizened with flowers and trinkets and wearing a damask robe with deep décolletage, danced into the room humming a tune. Her appearance evoked general delight.
"Good day, Ekimovna," said Prince Lykov. "How are you doing?"
"Never felt better, my good friend: singing and dancing, bridegrooms enticing."
"What have you been up to, old goose?" asked the host.
"I've decked myself out, friend, for your dear guests, for the holy day, by the Tsar's command, by the boyars' demand, to give the world a laughing fit with my German outfit."
These words were greeted with loud laughter, and the jester took up her position behind the master's chair.
"A fool may sometimes speak to purpose," said Tatiana Afanasevna, the master's elder sister, whom he sincerely respected. "Today's fashions really make the whole world laugh. Now that even you men have shaved off your beards and put on cut-off caftans, there is little to be said about women's rags; yet, I'll vow, one can't help missing the sarafan, the maiden's ribbon, and the married woman's headdress. Look at today's beauties — you have to laugh and weep at once. The poor things' hair is all fluffed up like tow, greased and bespattered with French flour; their tummies are laced in so tight it's a wonder they don't break into two; and with their petticoats hitched on hoops, they have to get into carriages sideways, and tilt over going through a door. No way to stand, sit, or breathe. Veritable martyrs, the poor darlings."
"My dear Tatiana Afanasevna," said Kirila Petrovich Т., a former administrative official of Riazan, who had in that capacity acquired, by hook or crook, three thousand serfs and a young wife, "in my opinion, let the wife dress as she will; I don't mind if she looks like a scarecrow or a Chinese Emperor as long as she doesn't order new dresses every month, throwing away old ones that are still perfectly good. It used to be that the granddaughter was given her grandmother's sarafan in her trousseau, but look at the latest robes: you see them on the lady today, on her serving girl tomorrow. What can you do? It's simply ruining the Russian gentry. A disaster, no two ways about it." As he spoke these words, he looked with a sigh at his Maria Ilinichna, who did not seem to be pleased either by his praise of the olden days or by his railing against the latest customs. The other beauties present shared her discontent but kept silent, because in those days modesty was considered an indispensable attribute of a young woman.
"And who is to blame?" asked Gavrila Afanasevich, filling up his mug with frothy sour kvass. "Aren't we to blame ourselves? The young wenches are playing the fool, and we let them have their way."
"But what can we do if it's not our choice?" rejoined Kirila Petrovich. "There's many a husband would be glad to lock his wife in the tower chamber, but she's summoned to the assembly by drums and clarion. The husband grabs after the whip, the wife grabs after her frippery. Oh, these assemblies! The Lord has inflicted them on us as a punishment for our sins."
Maria Ilinichna was on tenterhooks: she was itching to speak. Finally she could not bear it any longer, and turning to her husband, she asked him with an acid smile just what it was that he found wrong with the assemblies.
"I'll tell you what's wrong with them," answered her husband, flushed. "Since they've begun, husbands have been unable to cope with their wives. Wives have forgotten the Apostle's words, Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands'; their minds are on new dresses, not on the household; what they care about is catching the eyes of featherbrained officers, not pleasing their husbands. And is it becoming, my dear lady, for a Russian noblewoman to consort with German snuffers and their maidservants? Whoever heard of dancing into the night and parleying with young men? Not with relatives, mind you, but with strangers who haven't even been introduced."
"I'd add a word or two of my own, but even the walls have ears," said Gavrila Afanasevich, frowning. "I must confess the assembly is not to my taste either: it doesn't take long before you run into a drunkard or find yourself forced to drink till you become a public laughingstock. If you don't watch out, some scamp will start playing pranks at the expense of your daughter. Today's young generation's been so utterly spoilt it's beyond belief. Look at the son of the late Evgraf Sergeevich Korsakov, for instance: he created such a scandal with Natasha at the last assembly that it made me blush. The next day, I suddenly notice, somebody's driving straight into my courtyard. Who in the name of heaven could this be, I say to myself; it isn't Prince Aleksandr Danilovich, is it? And who do you think it was? Ivan Evgrafovich! Do you think he could have stopped at the gate and troubled himself to come up to the porch on foot? No, not he! And then? You should have seen how he flew into the house, bowed and scraped, and gibble-gabbled. The fool Ekimovna can imitate him capitally; which reminds me: come, old goose, show us how the overseas monkey carries himself."
Ekimovna the jester seized the lid of a dish, put it under her arm as if holding a hat, and began making grimaces, bowing and scraping to all sides, and muttering words that resembled monsieur, mamselle, assemblee, pardon. Once more, general and prolonged laughter testified to the guests' delight.
"The spitting image of Korsakov, as like as two peas," said old Prince Lykov, wiping away the tears of laughter, as calm was gradually restored. "There's no concealing the fact: he's not the first, nor will he be the last, to come back a clown from those German lands to holy Russia. What do our children learn out there? To scrape with their feet and prattle in God knows what tongue, to treat their elders with disrespect, and to dangle after other men's wives. Of all the young people educated abroad (God forgive me), the Tsar's blackamoor's the one that most resembles a man."
"Indeed so," remarked Gavrila Afanasevich; "he is a solid, respectable man; you can't compare him with that good-for-nothing ... But who is this now driving through the gate into the courtyard? It isn't that overseas monkey again, is it? What are you gawking here for, idiots?" he continued, addressing his servants. "Run and turn him away, and tell him that in the future, too ..."
"Are you raving, graybeard?" the jester Ekimovna interrupted him. "Are you blind? It's the Imperial sled, the Tsar has come."
Gavrila Afanasevich hastily rose from the table; everyone dashed to the windows and indeed beheld the Emperor, who was ascending the steps, leaning on his orderly's shoulder. There was a great commotion. The master of the house rushed to meet the Emperor; the servants ran in all directions as if bereft of reason; the guests were terrified, some of them even wondering how to slip away at the earliest opportunity. Then suddenly Peter's thunderous voice could be heard from the entrance hall; all fell silent; and the Tsar came in, accompanied by the master of the house, who was struck dumb with joy.
"Good day, ladies and gentlemen," said Peter with a cheerful expression on his face. They all bowed low. The Tsar glanced over the crowd quickly, seeking out the host's young daughter; he called her to him. She approached him quite boldly, though she blushed, not only to the ears but down to the shoulders.
"You're becoming prettier by the day," the Emperor said to her, kissing her, as was his habit, on the head. Then he turned to the guests: "Have I disturbed you, ladies and gentlemen? You were eating your dinner; please sit down again, and as for me, Gavrila Afanasevich, would you offer me some aniseed vodka?"
The host dashed to the majestic-looking butler, snatched the tray from his hands, filled a gold goblet himself, and proffered it to the Emperor with a bow. Peter, having downed his liquor, ate a pretzel and asked the guests once more to continue their dinner. All resumed their former places, except for the midget and the housekeeper, who did not dare remain at a table honored by the Tsar's presence. Peter sat down by the master of the house and asked for some cabbage soup. His orderly handed him a wooden spoon inlaid with ivory and a small knife and fork with green bone handles, for he never used anybody's cutlery except his own. The dinner party, which had been noisy and lively with good cheer and conversation only a minute before, now continued in silence and constraint. The host, overawed and overjoyed, ate nothing, and the guests were all stiff, reverentially listening as the Emperor spoke in German with the captive Swede about the campaign of 1701. The jester Ekimovna, to whom the Emperor put several questions, answered with a kind of timid coldness, which (I might say in passing) did not at all testify to innate stupidity. At last the dinner was over. The Emperor, and after him all the guests, rose to their feet.
"Gavrila Afanasevich," he said, "I would like to have a private word with you." And, taking his host by the arm, Peter led him into the drawing room, locking the door behind them. The guests remained in the dining room, discussing the unexpected visit in a whisper; then, not wishing to appear immodest, they soon began to leave one by one, without thanking their host for his hospitality. His father-in-law, daughter, and sister saw the guests off quietly, and finally remained by themselves in the dining room, waiting for the Emperor to emerge.
I shall find a wife for thee,
Or a miller I won't be.
FROM ABLESIMOV'S OPERA
In half an hour the door opened and Peter came out. He acknowledged the threefold bow of Prince Lykov, Tatiana Afanasevna, and Natasha with a solemn inclination of the head and went straight through to the entrance hall. The host helped him on with his red fur coat, accompanied him to his sled, and on the porch thanked him once more for the honor. Peter left.
As he returned to the dining room, Gavrila Afanasevich looked very worried. He curtly ordered the servants to clear the table fast, sent Natasha to her room, and informing his sister and father-in-law that he needed to talk to them, led them to the bedroom where he usually rested after dinner. The old Prince lay down on the oak bed; and Tatiana Afanasevna sat in an ancient damask-upholstered armchair, putting a little footstool under her feet. Gavrila Afanasevich locked all the doors, sat on the bed at Prince Lykov's feet, and in a low tone began the conversation with the following words:
"It was not for nothing that the Emperor came to see me: guess what it was his pleasure to speak to me about?"
"How could we know, dear brother?" said Tatiana Afanasevna.
"Did the Tsar command you to govern a province?" asked the father-in-law. "It was high time. Or did he offer you an ambassadorship? Why not? After all, men of nobility, not only scribes, can sometimes be sent to foreign monarchs."
"No," answered the son-in-law, knitting his brow. "I am a man of the old school; our services are not needed these days, though it is quite reasonable to think that an Orthodox Russian nobleman is worth today's upstarts, pancake peddlers, and infidels — but that's another story."
"Then what did he please to talk to you about for such a long time, brother?" asked Tatiana Afanasevna. "You haven't come upon some adversity, have you? The Lord preserve us and have mercy on us!"
"Adversity or no adversity, I must confess it gave me a start."
"But what is it, brother? What is the matter?" "It concerns Natasha: the Tsar came to arrange a marriage for her."
"Thank God," said Tatiana Afanasevna, making the sign of the cross. "The girl is marriageable, and if the matchmaker is anything to judge by, the bridegroom cannot be unworthy either. God grant them love and good counsel; the honor is great. And for whom does the Tsar seek her hand?"
"Hum," grunted Gavrila Afanasevich, "for whom? That's just it, for whom."
"Who is it then?" repeated Prince Lykov, who had been on the point of nodding off.
'Try to guess," said Gavrila Afanasevich.
"My dear brother," responded the old lady, "how could we guess? There are many eligible men at court; any of them would be glad to take your Natasha. It's not Dolgorukii, is it?"
"No, not Dolgorukii."
"It's just as well; he's so terribly arrogant. Is it Shein then, or Troekurov?"
"No, neither the one nor the other."
"I'm not keen on them either: frivolous young men, too much imbued with the German spirit. Well, is it Miloslavskii?"
"No, not he, either."
"Let him be: rich but stupid. Who then? Eletskii? Lvov? Neither? It's not Raguzinskii, is it? For heaven's sake, I'm at my wit's end. Who is it that the Tsar is asking Natasha's hand for?"
"The blackamoor Ibrahim."
The old lady gasped and clasped her hands. Prince Lykov lifted his head from the pillows and repeated with amazement, "The blackamoor Ibrahim!"
"Brother, my dearest," said the old lady in a tearful voice, "don't destroy the issue of your own flesh and blood, don't throw Natashenka into the clutches of that black devil."
"But how can I refuse the Emperor," objected Gavrila Afanasevich, "when he is promising to reward me with his favor, both me and my whole family?"
"How now," exclaimed the old Prince, whose drowsiness had entirely disappeared, "to give Natasha, my granddaughter, in marriage to a bought Negro!"
"He is not of common birth," said Gavrila Afanasevich. "He is the son of a black sultan. The Moslems captured him and sold him in Constantinople; our ambassador paid a ransom for him and gave him to the Tsar. His elder brother has been to Russia with a sizable ransom and..."
"Gavrila Afanasevich, dear brother," the old lady interrupted him, "we have heard the tales of Bova Korolevich and Eruslan Lazarevich. Tell us rather what you answered to the Emperor's proposal."
"I said that he ruled over us, and it was our duty as his vassals to obey in all things."
At this moment a noise could be heard behind the door. Gavrila Afanasevich went to open it but felt something obstructing it; he gave it a strong push, and when the door opened, they saw Natasha lying prostrate in a swoon on the blood-spattered floor.
When the Emperor had locked himself in with her father, her heart sank. Some premonition whispered to her that the matter concerned her. When Gavrila Afanasevich sent her off, declaring that he had to speak with her aunt and grandfather, she could not resist the promptings of feminine curiosity and quietly stole through the inner apartments to the door of the bedroom. She did not miss one word of the whole horrifying conversation; when she heard her father's last words, the poor thing lost consciousness, and as she fell, she hit her head against the iron-plated chest in which her trousseau was kept.
The servants came running; they lifted Natasha up, carried her to her room, and put her on the bed. After a while she came to and opened her eyes, but she could not recognize either her father or her aunt. A high fever developed. In her delirious state she kept talking about the Tsar's blackamoor and a wedding, and suddenly let out a piercing wail: "Valerian, dear Valerian, my treasure! Save me, here they come, here they come!" Tatiana Afanasevna anxiously glanced at her brother, who blanched, bit his lip, and left the room without a word. He returned to the old Prince, who, unable to climb the stairs, had remained below.
"How is Natasha?" he asked.
"Unwell," answered the distressed father. "Worse than I thought: in her unconscious state she is raving about Valerian."
"Who is this Valerian?" asked the grandfather, alarmed. "Could it be that orphan, the son of a Strelets, whom you took into your house?"
"The very same one," answered Gavrila Afanasevich. "To my misfortune, his father saved my life at the time of the rebellion, and the devil made me take the accursed wolf cub into my house. Two years ago, when he voluntarily enlisted in a regiment, Natasha, saying good-bye to him, burst into tears, and he stood as if petrified. This seemed suspicious to me, and I discussed it with my sister. But since that time Natasha has not mentioned him, and nothing whatever has been heard of him. I thought she had forgotten him, but evidently she hasn't. This decides the matter: she's to marry the blackamoor."
Prince Lykov did not contradict him: it would have been in vain. The Prince returned home; Tatiana Afanasevna remained at Natasha's bedside; Gavrila Afanasevich, having sent for the physician, locked himself in his room, and the house grew silent and gloomy.
The unexpected marriage proposal surprised Ibrahim at least as much as it had Gavrila Afanasevich. This is how it had happened. One time, as Peter was working with Ibrahim, he said to him, "I notice, brother, that you've grown a little listless. Tell me frankly, is there anything you want?"
Ibrahim assured the Emperor that he was happy with his situation and wished for nothing better.
"All right," said the Emperor, "if you feel spiritless for no reason, then I know how to cheer you up."
When they finished their work, he asked Ibrahim, "Did you like the girl with whom you danced the minuet at the last assembly?"
"She is a charming girl, Your Majesty; and she struck me as a modest and good-natured one, too."
"In that case I'll see to it that you get to know her better. Would you like to marry her?"
"I, Your Majesty?"
"Listen, Ibrahim, you are a solitary man, without kith or kin, a stranger to everyone except me. If I should die today, what would become of you tomorrow, my poor blackamoor? You must get settled down while there is still time; you must find support in new connections, entering into alliance with the Russian gentry."
"Your Majesty, I am blessed with Your Highest protection and favor. God grant me that I may not survive my Tsar and benefactor: I ask for no more. But even if I were inclined to marry, would the young lady and her relatives consent? My appearance..."
"Your appearance! What nonsense! You're a fine young man in every way. A young girl must obey the wishes of her parents, and we'll see what old Gavrila Rzhevskii says when I come as your matchmaker." With these words, the Emperor sent for his sleigh and left Ibrahim plunged in profound thought.
"To marry!" mused the African. "And why not? Or am I destined to spend my life in solitude, never experiencing the greatest joys and most sacred obligations of a man, just because I was born below the fifteenth parallel? I cannot hope to be loved, but that is a childish objection. Can one trust love in any case? Does it exist at all in the fickle heart of woman? Having given up sweet libertinage forever, I have succumbed to other allurements, more significant ones. The Emperor is right: I must ensure my future. Marriage with the young Rzhevskaia will affiliate me with the proud Russian gentry, and I will no longer be a newcomer in my adopted fatherland. I will not demand love from my wife: I shall be content with her fidelity. As for her friendship, I will win it by unfailing tenderness, trust, and indulgence."
Ibrahim wanted to get down to work as usual, but his mind wandered. He abandoned his papers and went for a stroll along the embankment of the Neva. Suddenly he heard Peter's voice; turning around he saw the Emperor, who had dismissed his sleigh and was coming after Ibrahim with a cheerful expression on his face.
"It's all accomplished, brother," he said taking Ibrahim by the arm. "I've asked for her hand on your behalf. Tomorrow pay a visit to your father-in-law, but make sure to honor his boyar pride: leave your sleigh at his gate, go across his courtyard on foot, speak about the services he has rendered his country and about the prominence of his family, and he'll become devoted to you. And now," he continued, shaking his cudgel, "walk with me to that scoundrel Danilych's house; I must talk to him about his latest pranks."
Ibrahim, having sincerely thanked Peter for his fatherly solicitude, saw him to the gate of Prince Menshikov's magnificent palace, and returned home.
A sanctuary lamp burned quietly before the glass case holding the family's ancient icons in their glittering gold and silver frames. The lamp's flickering flame cast a faint light on the curtained bed and on the little table covered with labeled medicine bottles. A maidservant sat at a spinning wheel close to the stove; the light whir of her spindle was the only sound that disturbed the silence of the bedroom.
"Who is here?" said a weak voice. The maid rose immediately, went to the bed, and gently raised the curtain. "Will it soon be daylight?" asked Natalia.
"It's already noon," answered the maid.
"My God, why is it so dark then?"
"The windows are shuttered, miss."
"Bring me my clothes quickly."
"I can't, miss; it's against the doctor's orders."
"Am I sick then? Since when?"
"It's been two weeks already."
"Has it? To me it seems as if I'd gone to bed only yesterday."
Natasha grew silent, trying to collect her scattered thoughts. Something had happened to her, but exactly what it was she could not remember. The maid still stood in front of her, waiting for her orders. At that moment an indistinct rumble could be heard from downstairs.
"What's that?" asked the sick girl.
"Their Honors have finished dinner," answered the maid. "They're getting up from the table. Tatiana Afanasevna will come up here now."
Natasha, it seemed, was pleased; she feebly moved her hand. The maid pulled the curtain to and sat down at her spinning wheel again.
In a few minutes a head wearing a broad white cap with dark ribbons appeared in the doorway and a subdued voice asked, "How's Natasha?"
"Hello, auntie," said the invalid softly, and Tatiana Afanasevna hastened to her.
"The young mistress has revived," said the maid, cautiously drawing an armchair up to the bed.
The old lady, with tears in her eyes, kissed her niece's pale, languid face and sat down by her. Soon after, the German physician in his black coat and scholar's wig entered the room, felt Natasha's pulse, and announced, first in Latin and then in Russian, that the danger had passed. He asked for paper and ink, wrote out a new prescription, and left. The old lady got up, kissed Natalia once more, and went downstairs to tell Gavrila Afanasevich about the good news.
In the drawing room sat the Tsar's blackamoor, in uniform, with sword by his side and hat in hand, respectfully conversing with Gavrila Afanasevich. Korsakov, stretched out on a soft divan, was listening to them absentmindedly while teasing a good old gray hound; when he had grown tired of that occupation, he went up to a mirror - his usual refuge from boredom - and in the mirror caught sight of Tatiana Afanasevna, who was vainly trying to signal to her brother from the doorway.
"You're wanted, Gavrila Afanasevich," said Korsakov, turning to his host and interrupting Ibrahim. Gavrila Afanasevich promptly went to his sister and closed the door behind him.
"I marvel at your patience," said Korsakov to Ibrahim. "Not only do you listen a whole blessed hour to these ravings about the Rzhevskiis' and Lykovs' ancient lineage, but you even add your own virtuous commentary! If I were you, j'aurais plante la the old prattler and his whole tribe, including Natalia Gavrilovna, who is putting on airs, pretending to be sick, une petite sante... Tell me honestly, can you be in love with this little mijauree? Listen, Ibrahim, take my advice just this once: honestly, I am wiser than I seem. Give up this freakish idea. Don't marry. It seems to me that your fiancée has no particular liking for you. Anything can happen in this world. For instance, it goes without saying that I cannot complain about my looks; but I have had occasion to deceive husbands who were, I swear, no worse than I. And you yourself... Don't you remember our Parisian friend, Count D.? One cannot rely on woman's fidelity; lucky the man who can contemplate the matter with indifference. But you? Should you, with your passionate, brooding, and suspicious nature, with your flat nose and thick lips, and with that kinky wool on your head, throw yourself into all the dangers of matrimony?"
"I thank you for the friendly advice," Ibrahim interrupted him coldly, "but you know the saying: it's not your duty to rock other people's babies."
"Take care, Ibrahim," answered Korsakov, laughing, "take care not to let it happen that you should illustrate this proverb in a literal sense."
Meanwhile, the conversation going on in the adjacent room was becoming heated.
"You're going to kill her," the old lady was saying. "She will not survive the sight of him."
"But think of it yourself," argued the obstinate brother. "He's been coming here as her bridegroom for two weeks, yet hasn't seen his bride once. He may think at last that her illness is a mere fabrication, that we're only stalling for time in order to find some way to get rid of him. And what will the Tsar say? He has already sent inquiries about Natalia's health three times. Say what you like, I've no intention of quarreling with him."
"The Lord be merciful," said Tatiana Afanasevna, "what will the poor thing come to? Let me at least prepare her for the visit." To this Gavrila Afanasevich agreed, and he returned to the drawing room.
"Thank God," he said to Ibrahim, "the danger has passed. Natalia is much better; if I weren't embarrassed to leave my dear guest, Ivan Evgrafovich, all by himself, I would take you upstairs for a glimpse of your bride."
Korsakov rejoiced over the news and, assuring Gavrila Afanasevich that he had to leave, asked him not to worry about him. He ran out into the entrance hall, giving his host no chance to see him off.
In the meanwhile Tatiana Afanasevna hastened to prepare the invalid for the frightening guest's arrival. Entering the bedroom, she sat down, out of breath, by the bed and took Natasha's hand; but before she was able to utter a word, the door opened. Natasha asked who it was. The old lady, horror-stricken, lost her faculty of speech. Gavrila Afanasevich drew the curtain aside, looked at the patient coldly, and asked how she was. She tried to smile at him, but she could not. Struck by her father's stern glance, she felt apprehensive. Presently it seemed to her that somebody was standing at the head of her bed. She raised her head with an effort and suddenly recognized the Tsar's blackamoor. This brought everything back to her mind, and all the horror of the future presented itself to her imagination. But her exhausted body did not register a visible shock. She let her head fall back on the pillow and closed her eyes ... Her heart beat feebly. Tatiana Afanasevna signaled to her brother that the patient wished to go to sleep, and everybody left the room quietly, except for the maidservant, who set to work again at her spinning wheel.
The unlucky beauty opened her eyes and, no longer seeing anyone by her bed, called the maid to her and sent her to fetch the midget. At that same moment, however, the rotund little old elf was already rolling toward her bed like a ball. Lastochka (as the midget was called) had run up the stairs behind Gavrila Afanasevich and Ibrahim as fast as her short legs could carry her, and she hid behind the door, in keeping with the inquisitive nature of her sex. As soon as Natasha saw her, she sent the maid away, and the midget sat down on a little stool by the bed.
Never has such a small body contained such a lively spirit. She meddled in everything, knew everything, fussed about everything. Her shrewd mind and ingratiating manner earned her the love of her masters and the hatred of the rest of the household, over which she ruled despotically. Gavrila Afanasevich listened to her denunciations, complaints, and petty requests; Tatiana Afanasevna perpetually asked for her opinion and took her advice; and Natasha had a boundless attachment to her, entrusting her with all her thoughts and all the stirrings of her sixteen-year-old heart.
"You know, Lastochka," said Natalia, "father is going to marry me to the blackamoor."
The midget sighed deeply and wrinkled up all the more her already wrinkled face.
"Is there no hope?" continued Natasha. "Is father not going to take pity on me?"
The midget shook her little cap.
"Isn't grandpapa or auntie going to intercede for me?"
"No, miss. While you've been sick the blackamoor has succeeded in charming them all. The master is devoted to him, the Prince raves about him, and Tatiana Afanasevna says, What a pity he's black; otherwise we couldn't wish for a better bridegroom.'"
"Oh my God, oh my God," groaned poor Natasha.
"Don't grieve, my beauty," said the midget, kissing Natalia's weak hand. "Even if you have to marry the blackamoor, you will have your freedom. Today it's not as it used to be: husbands don't lock up their wives. The blackamoor, they say, is rich; your house will be like a cup brimming over; you'll live in clover..."
"Poor Valerian," said Natasha so softly that the midget could guess more than hear her words.
"That's just it, miss," she said, confidentially lowering her voice. "If the Strelets's orphan weren't quite so much on your mind, you wouldn't rave about him in a fever, and your father wouldn't be angry."
"What?" said the frightened Natasha. "I raved about Valerian, father heard me, father is angry?"
"That's exactly the trouble," answered the midget. "After this, if you start asking him not to marry you to the blackamoor, he will think that the reason is Valerian. There is nothing to be done: you must submit to his paternal will and accept what fate brings you."
Natasha did not utter a single word in protest. The thought that her secret love was known to her father produced a powerful effect on her mind. Only one hope remained for her: to die before the hateful marriage came to pass. This idea comforted her. She submitted to her fate with a faint, sorrowful heart.
At the entrance to Gavrila Afanasevich's house, to the right of the passageway, there was a tiny cubicle with one small window. In it stood a simple bed covered with a flannel blanket, and. in front of the bed a little deal table, on which a tallow candle burned and some sheets of music lay open. A soldier's old blue coat and a three-cornered hat of the same age hung on the wall; above the hat, a print showing a mounted Charles XII was fastened to the wall with three nails. Notes from a flute resounded through the humble dwelling. Its solitary inhabitant, the captive dance teacher in his nightcap and nankeen dressing grown, was enlivening the monotony of the winter evening by playing old Swedish marches, which reminded him of the gay time of his youth. Having devoted two hours to this exercise, he took his flute apart, put it away in a box, and started undressing.
Just then the latch on his door was lifted, and a tall handsome young man in a uniform entered the room.
The Swede rose to his feet, surprised, before the unexpected visitor.
"You don't recognize me, Gustav Adamych," said the young visitor with feeling. 'You don't remember the boy whom you drilled in Swedish musketry and with whom you almost started a fire in this same little room, shooting off a toy cannon."
Gustav Adamych looked at his visitor intently.
"Ah!" he cried at last, embracing him, "god dag to you, so are du here now? Sitt down, your old scamp, so shall ve speak."
|Бібліотека ім. О. С. Пушкіна (м. Київ).