Peter The Great’s Negro by Alexander Pushkin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Pushkin – Peter The Great’s Negro – Contents

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Among the number of young men sent abroad by Peter the Great for the acquisition of knowledge indispensable to a country in a state of transition, was his godson, the negro, Ibrahim. After being educated in the Military School at Paris, which he left with the rank of Captain of Artillery, he distinguished himself in the Spanish War of Succession, but having been severely wounded, he returned to Paris. The Emperor, in the midst of his extensive labours, never ceased to inquire after his favourite and he always received flattering accounts of his progress and conduct. Peter was exceedingly pleased with him, and more than once requested him to return to Russia, but Ibrahim was in no hurry. He excused himself under various pretexts: now it was his wound, now it was a wish to complete his education, now a want of money; and Peter indulgently complied with his wishes, begged him to take care of his health, thanked him for his zeal in the pursuit of knowledge, and although extremely parsimonious in his own expenses, he did not spare his exchequer when his favourite was concerned, and the ducats were generally accompanied by fatherly advice and words of admonition.

According to the testimony of all historical accounts, nothing could be compared with the frivolity, folly and luxury of the French of that period. The last years of the reign of Louis the Fourteenth, remarkable for the strict piety, gravity, and decorum of the court, had left no traces behind. The Duke of Orleans, uniting many brilliant qualities with vices of every kind, unfortunately did not possess the slightest shadow of hypocrisy. The orgies of the Palais Royal were no secret in Paris; the example was infectious. At that time Law[2] appeared upon the scene; greed for money was united to the thirst for pleasure and dissipation; estates were squandered, morals perished, Frenchmen laughed and calculated, and the kingdom fell to pieces to the music of satirical vaudevilles.

In the meantime society presented a most remarkable picture. Culture and the desire for amusement brought all ranks together. Wealth, amiability, renown, talent, even eccentricity—everything that satisfied curiosity or promised amusement, was received with the same indulgence. Literature, learning and philosophy forsook their quiet studies and appeared in the circles of the great world to render homage to fashion and to obey its decrees. Women reigned, but no longer demanded adoration. Superficial politeness was substituted for the profound respect formerly shown to them. The pranks of the Duke de Richelieu, the Alcibiades of modern Athens, belong to history, and give an idea of the morals of that period.

“Temps fortuné, marqué par la licence,
Où la folie, agitant son grelot,
D’un pied leger parcourt toute la France,
Où nul mortel ne daigne être dévot,
Où l’on fait tout excepté pénitence.”

The appearance of Ibrahim, his bearing, culture and natural intelligence excited general attention in Paris. All the ladies were anxious to see “le négre du Czar” at their houses, and vied with each other in their attentions towards him. The Regent invited him more than once to his merry evening parties; he assisted at the suppers animated by the youth of Arouet,[3] the old age of Chaulieu, and the conversations of Montesquieu and Fontenelle. He did not miss a single ball, fête or first representation, and he gave himself up to the general whirl with all the ardour of his years and nature. But the thought of exchanging these delights, these brilliant amusements for the simplicity of the Petersburg Court was not the only thing that dismayed Ibrahim; other and stronger ties bound him to Paris. The young African was in love.

The Countess L——, although no longer in the first bloom of youth, was still renowned for her beauty. On leaving the convent at the age of seventeen, she was married to a man whom she had not succeeded in loving, and who later on did not take the trouble to gain her love. Report assigned several lovers to her, but thanks to the indulgent views entertained by the world, she enjoyed a good reputation, for nobody was able to reproach her with any ridiculous or scandalous adventure. Her house was one of the most fashionable, and the best Parisian society made it their rendezvous. Ibrahim was introduced to her by young Merville, who was generally looked upon as her latest lover,—and who did all in his power to obtain credit for the report.

The Countess received Ibrahim politely, but without any particular attention: this made him feel flattered. Generally the young negro was regarded in the light of a curiosity; people used to surround him and overwhelm him with compliments and questions—and this curiosity, although concealed by a show of graciousness, offended his vanity. The delightful attention of women, almost the sole aim of our exertions, not only afforded him no pleasure, but even filled him with bitterness and indignation. He felt that he was for them a kind of rare beast, a peculiar creature, accidentally brought into the world, but having with it nothing in common. He even envied people who remained unnoticed, and considered them fortunate in their insignificance.

The thought, that nature had not created him for the inspiring of a passion, emancipated him from self-assertion and vain pretensions, and added a rare charm to his behaviour towards women. His conversation was simple and dignified; he found great favour in the eyes of the Countess L——, who had grown tired of the pronounced jests and pointed insinuations of French wit. Ibrahim frequently visited her. Little by little she became accustomed to the young negro’s appearance, and even began to find something agreeable in that curly head, that stood out so black in the midst of the powdered perukes in her reception-room (Ibrahim had been wounded in the head, and wore a bandage instead of a peruke). He was twenty-seven years of age, and was tall and slender, and more than one beauty glanced at him with a feeling more flattering than simple curiosity. But the prejudiced Ibrahim either did not observe anything of this or merely looked upon it as coquetry. But when his glances met those of the Countess, his distrust vanished. Her eyes expressed such winning kindness, her manner towards him was so simple, so unconstrained, that it was impossible to suspect her of the least shadow of coquetry or raillery.

The thought of love had not entered his head, but to see the Countess each day had become a necessity to him. He tried to meet her everywhere, and every meeting with her seemed an unexpected favour from heaven. The Countess guessed his feelings before he himself did. There is no denying that a love, which is without hope and which demands nothing, touches the female heart more surely than all the devices of the libertine. In the presence of Ibrahim, the Countess followed all his movements, listened to every word that he said; without him she became thoughtful, and fell into her usual absence of mind. Merville was the first to observe this mutual inclination, and he congratulated Ibrahim. Nothing inflames love so much as the approving observations of a bystander: love is blind, and, having no trust in itself, readily grasps hold of every support.

Merville’s words roused Ibrahim. The possibility of possessing the woman that he loved had never till then occurred to his mind; hope suddenly dawned upon his soul; he fell madly in love. In vain did the Countess, alarmed by the ardour of his passion, wish to combat his vehemence with friendly warnings and wise counsels, she herself was beginning to waver….

Nothing is hidden from the eyes of the observing world. The Countess’s new inclination was soon known by everybody. Some ladies were amazed at her choice; to many it seemed quite natural. Some laughed; others regarded her conduct as unpardonably indiscreet. In the first intoxication of passion, Ibrahim and the Countess observed nothing, but soon the equivocal jokes of the men and the sarcastic observations of the women began to reach their ears. Ibrahim’s cold and serious manner had hitherto protected him from such attacks; he bore them with impatience, and knew not how to retaliate. The Countess, accustomed to the respect of the world, could not calmly bear to see herself an object of calumny and ridicule. With tears in her eyes she complained to Ibrahim, now bitterly reproaching him, now imploring him not to defend her, lest by some useless brawl she should be completely ruined.

A new circumstance tended to make her position still more difficult: the result of imprudent love began to be noticeable. The Countess in despair informed Ibrahim of the matter. Consolation, advice, proposals—all were exhausted and all rejected. The Countess saw that her ruin was inevitable, and in despair awaited it.

As soon as the condition of the Countess became known, gossip began again with renewed vigour; sentimental women gave vent to exclamations of horror; and epigrams were disseminated with reference to her husband, who alone in all Paris knew nothing and suspected nothing.

The fatal moment approached. The condition of the Countess was terrible. Ibrahim visited her every day. He saw her mental and physical strength gradually giving way. Her tears and her terror were renewed every moment Measures were hastily taken. Means were found for getting the Count out of the way. The doctor arrived. Two days before this a poor woman had been persuaded to resign into the hands of strangers her new-born infant; for this a confidential person was sent. Ibrahim was in the room adjoining the bedchamber where lay the unhappy Countess…. Suddenly he heard the weak cry of a child—and, unable to repress his delight, he rushed into the Countess’s room…. A black baby lay upon the bed at her feet. Ibrahim approached it. His heart beat violently. He blessed his son with a trembling hand. The Countess smiled faintly and stretched out to him her feeble hand, but the doctor, fearing that the excitement might be too great for the patient, dragged Ibrahim away from her bed. The new-born child was placed in a covered basket, and carried out of the house by a secret staircase. Then the other child was brought in, and its cradle placed in the bedroom. Ibrahim took his departure, feeling very ill at ease. The Count was expected. He returned late, heard of the happy deliverance of his wife, and was much gratified. In this way the public, which had been expecting a great scandal, was deceived in its hope, and was compelled to console itself with slandering. Everything resumed its usual course.

But Ibrahim felt that there would have to be a change in his lot, and that sooner or later his relations with the Countess would come to the knowledge of her husband. In that case, whatever might happen, the ruin of the Countess was inevitable. Ibrahim loved passionately and was passionately loved in return, but the Countess was wilful and light-minded; it was not the first time that she had loved. Disgust, and even hatred might replace in her heart the most tender feelings. Ibrahim already foresaw the moment of her coolness. Hitherto he had not known jealousy, but with dread he now felt a presentiment of it; he thought that the pain of separation would be less distressing, and he resolved to break off the unhappy connection, leave Paris, and return to Russia, whither Peter and a vague sense of duty had been calling him for a long time.

[1]Although this story was unfortunately left unfinished, it has been included in this collection, as, apart from its intrinsic merit, it throws an interesting light upon the history of Poushkin’s African ancestor.—The real name of the hero was Hannibal.—Translator.

[2]John Law, the famous projector of financial schemes.


< < <
Chapter II > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Pushkin – Peter The Great’s Negro – Contents

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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