Peter The Great’s Negro by Alexander Pushkin

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

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Chapter IV > > >


The next morning, Peter, according to his promise, awoke Ibrahim and congratulated him on his elevation to the rank of Captain-lieutenant of the Grenadier company of the Preobrajensky Regiment,[1] in which he himself was Captain. The courtiers surrounded Ibrahim, each in his way trying to flatter the new favourite. The haughty Prince Menshikoff pressed his hand in a friendly manner; Sheremetieff inquired after his Parisian acquaintances, and Golovin invited him to dinner. Others followed the example of the latter, so that Ibrahim received invitations for at least a whole month.

Ibrahim now began to lead a monotonous but busy life, consequently did not feel at all dull. From day to day he became more attached to the Emperor, and was better able to estimate his lofty soul. To follow the thoughts of a great man is a very interesting study. Ibrahim saw Peter in the Senate disputing with Boutourlin and Dolgorouky, in the Admiralty College discussing the naval power of Russia; in his hours of leisure he saw him with Feophan, Gavril Boujinsky, and Kopievitch, examining translations from foreign publications, or visiting the manufactory of a merchant, the workshop of a mechanic, or the study of some learned man. Russia presented to Ibrahim the appearance of a huge workshop, where machines alone move, where each workman, subject to established rules, is occupied with his own particular business. He felt within himself that he ought to work at his own bench also, and endeavour to regret as little as possible the gaieties of his Parisian life. But it was more difficult for him to drive from his mind that other dear recollection: he often thought of the Countess L——, and pictured to himself her just indignation, her tears and her grief…. But sometimes a terrible thought oppressed him: the seductions of the great world, a new tie, another favourite—he shuddered; jealousy began to set his African blood in a ferment, and hot tears were ready to roll down his swarthy face.

One morning he was sitting in his study, surrounded by business papers, when suddenly he heard a loud greeting in French. Ibrahim turned round quickly, and young Korsakoff, whom he had left in Paris in the whirl of the great world, embraced him with joyful exclamations.

“I have only just arrived,” said Korsakoff, “and I have come straight to you. All our Parisian acquaintances send their greetings to you, and regret your absence. The Countess L ordered me to summon you to return without fail, and here is her letter to you.”

Ibrahim seized it with a trembling hand and looked at the well-known handwriting of the address, not daring to believe, his eyes.

“How glad I am,” continued Korsakoff, “that you have not yet died of ennui in this barbarous Petersburg! What do people do here? How do they occupy themselves? Who is your tailor? Have they established an opera?” Ibrahim absently replied that probably the Emperor was just then at work in the dockyard.

Korsakoff laughed.

“I see,” said he, “that you do not want me just now; some other time we will have a long chat together; I am now going to pay my respects to the Emperor.”

With these words he turned on his heel and hastened out of the room.

Ibrahim, left alone, hastily opened the letter. The Countess tenderly complained to him, reproaching him with dissimulation and distrustfulness.

“You say,” wrote she, “that my tranquillity is dearer to you than everything in the world. Ibrahim, if this were the truth, would you have brought me to the condition to which I was reduced by the unexpected news of your departure? You were afraid that I might have detained you. Be assured that, in spite of my love, I should have known how to sacrifice it for your happiness and for what you consider your duty.”

The Countess ended the letter with passionate assurances of love, and implored him to write to her, if only now and then, even though there should be no hope of their ever seeing each other again.

Ibrahim read this letter through twenty times, kissing the priceless lines-with rapture. He was burning with impatience to hear something about the Countess, and he was just preparing to set out for the Admiralty, hoping to find Korsakoff still there, when the door opened, and Korsakoff himself appeared once more. He had already paid his respects to the Emperor, and as was usual with him, he seemed very well satisfied with himself.

“Entre nous,” he said to Ibrahim, “the Emperor is a very strange man. Just fancy, I found him in a sort of linen under-vest, on the mast of a new ship, whither I was compelled to climb with my dispatches. I stood on the rope ladder, and had not sufficient room to make a suitable bow, and so I became completely confused, a thing that had never happened to me in my life before. However, when the Emperor had read my letter, he looked at me from head to foot, and no doubt was agreeably struck by the taste and splendour of my attire; at any rate he smiled and invited me to to-day’s assembly. But I am a perfect stranger in Petersburg; during the course of my six years’ absence I have quite forgotten the local customs; pray be my mentor; come with me and introduce me.”

Ibrahim agreed to do so, and hastened to turn the conversation to a subject that was more interesting to him.

“Well, and how about the Countess L——”

“The Countess? Of course, at first she was very much grieved on account of your departure; then, of course, little by little, she grew reconciled and took unto herself a new lover: do you know whom? The long-legged Marquis R——. Why do you show the whites of your negro eyes in that manner? Does it seem strange to you? Don’t you know that lasting grief is not in human nature, particularly in feminine nature? Think over this well, while I go and rest after my journey, and don’t forget to come and call for me.”

What feelings filled the soul of Ibrahim? Jealousy? Rage? Despair? No, but a deep, oppressing sorrow. He repeated to himself: “I foresaw it, it had to happen.” Then he opened the Countess’s letter, read it again, hung his head and wept bitterly. He wept for a long time. The tears relieved his heart. Looking at the clock, he perceived that it was time to set out. Ibrahim would have been very glad to stay away, but the assembly was a matter of duty, and the Emperor strictly demanded the presence of his retainers. He dressed himself and started out to call for Korsakoff.

Korsakoff was sitting in his dressing-gown, reading a French book.

“So early?” he said to Ibrahim, on seeing him.

“Pardon me,” the latter replied; “it is already half-past five, we shall be late; make haste and dress and let us go.”

Korsakoff started up and rang the bell with all his might; the servants came running in, and he began hastily to dress, himself. His French valet gave him shoes with red heels, blue velvet breeches, and a red caftan embroidered with spangles. His peruke was hurriedly powdered in the antechamber and brought in to him. Korsakoff placed it upon his cropped head, asked for his sword and gloves, turned round about ten times before the glass, and then informed Ibrahim that he was ready. The footmen handed them their bearskin cloaks, and they set out for the Winter Palace.

Korsakoff overwhelmed Ibrahim with questions: Who was the greatest beauty in Petersburg? Who was supposed to be the best dancer? Which dance was just then the rage? Ibrahim very reluctantly gratified his curiosity. Meanwhile they reached the palace. A great number of long sledges, old-fashioned carriages, and gilded coaches already stood on the lawn. Near the steps were crowded coachmen in liveries and moustaches; running footmen glittering with tinsel and feathers, and bearing staves; hussars, pages, and clumsy servants loaded with the cloaks and muffs of their masters—a train indispensable according to the notions of the gentry of that time. At the sight of Ibrahim, a general murmur arose: “The negro, the negro, the Czar’s negro!” He hurriedly conducted Korsakoff through this motley crowd. The Court lackey opened wide the doors to them, and they entered the hall. Korsakoff was dumfounded…. In the large room, illuminated by tallow candles, which burnt dimly amidst clouds of tobacco smoke, magnates with blue ribbons across their shoulders, ambassadors, foreign merchants, officers of the Guards in green uniforms, ship-masters in jackets and striped trousers, moved backwards and forwards in crowds to the uninterrupted sound of the music of wind instruments. The ladies sat against the walls, the young ones being decked out in all the splendour of the prevailing fashion. Gold and silver glittered upon their dresses; out of monstrous farthingales their slender forms rose like flower stalks; diamonds sparkled in their ears, in their long curls, and around their necks. They glanced gaily about to the right and to the left, waiting for their cavaliers and for the dancing to begin. The elderly ladies craftily endeavoured to combine the new style of dress with that of the past; their caps were made to resemble the small sable head-dress of the Empress Natalia Kirilovna,[2] and their gowns and mantles recalled the sarafan and doushegreika.[3] They seemed to take part in these newly introduced amusements more with astonishment than pleasure, and cast looks of resentment at the wives and daughters of the Dutch skippers, who, in dimity skirts and red jackets, knitted their stockings and laughed and chatted among themselves as if they were at home.

Observing new arrivals, a servant approached them with beer and glasses on a tray. Korsakoff was completely bewildered.

“Que diable est ce que tout cela?” he said in a whisper to Ibrahim.

Ibrahim could not repress a smile. The Empress and the Grand Duchesses, dazzling in their beauty and their attire, walked through the rows of guests, conversing affably with them. The Emperor was in another room. Korsakoff, wishing to show himself to him, with difficulty succeeded in pushing his way thither through the constantly moving crowd. In this room were chiefly foreigners, solemnly smoking their clay pipes and drinking out of earthenware jugs. On the tables were bottles of beer and wine, leather pouches with tobacco, glasses of punch, and some chessboards. At one of these Peter was playing at chess with a broad-shouldered English skipper. They zealously saluted one another with whiffs of tobacco smoke, and the Emperor was so occupied with an unexpected move that had been made by his opponent, that he did not observe Korsakoff, as he smirked and capered about them. Just then a stout gentleman, with a large bouquet upon his breast, rushed hurriedly into the room and announced in a loud voice that the dancing had commenced, and immediately retired. A large number of the guests followed him, Korsakoff being among the number.

An unexpected scene filled him with astonishment. Along the whole length of the ball-room, to the sound of the most mournful music, the ladies and gentlemen stood in two rows facing each other; the gentlemen bowed low, the ladies curtsied still lower, first to the front, then to the right, then to the left, then again to the front, again to the right, and so on. Korsakoff, gazing at this peculiar style of amusement, opened wide his eyes and bit his lips. The curtseying and bowing continued for about half an hour; at last they ceased, and the stout gentleman with the bouquet announced that the ceremonial dances were ended, and ordered the musicians to play a minuet. Korsakoff felt delighted, and prepared-to shine. Among the young ladies was one in particular whom he was greatly charmed with. She was about sixteen years of age, was richly dressed, but with taste, and sat near an elderly gentleman of stern and dignified appearance. Korsakoff approached her and asked her to do him the honour of dancing with him. The young beauty looked at him in confusion, and did not seem to know what to say to him. The gentleman sitting near her frowned still more. Korsakoff awaited her decision, but the gentleman with the bouquet came up to him, led him to the middle of the room, and said in a pompous manner:

“Sir, you have done wrong. In the first place, you approached this young person without making the three necessary reverences to her, and in the second place, you took upon yourself to choose her, whereas, in the minuet that right belongs to the lady, and not to the gentleman. On that account you must be severely, punished, that is to say, you must drain the goblet of the Great Eagle.”

Korsakoff grew more and more astonished. In a moment the guests surrounded him, loudly demanding the immediate fulfilment of the law. Peter, hearing the laughter and the cries, came out of the adjoining room, as he was very fond of being present in person at such punishments. The crowd divided before him, and he entered the circle, where stood the culprit and before him the marshal of the Court holding in his hands a huge goblet filled with malmsey wine. He was trying in vain to persuade the offender to comply willingly with the law.

“Aha!” said Peter, seeing Korsakoff: “you are caught, my friend. Come now, monsieur, drink up and no frowning about it.”

There was no help for it: the poor beau, without pausing to take breath, drained the goblet to the dregs and returned it to the marshal.

“Hark you, Korsakoff,” said Peter to him: “those breeches of yours are of velvet, such as I myself do not wear, and I am far richer than you. That is extravagance; take care that I do not fall out with you.”

Hearing this reprimand, Korsakoff wished to make his way out of the circle, but he staggered and almost fell, to the indescribable delight of the Emperor and all the merry company. This episode not only did not spoil the unison and interest of the principal performance, but even enlivened it. The gentlemen began to scrape and bow, and the ladies to curtsey and knock their heels with great zeal, and this time without paying the least attention to the time of the music. Korsakoff could not take part in the general gaiety. The lady, whom he had chosen, by the order of her father, Gavril Afanassievitch Rjevsky, approached Ibrahim, and, dropping her blue eyes, timidly gave him her hand. Ibrahim danced the minuet with her and led her back to her former place, then sought out Korsakoff, led him out of the ball-room, placed him in the carriage and drove home. On the way Korsakoff began to mutter in an incoherent manner: “Accursed assembly!… accursed goblet of the Great Eagle!”… but he soon fell into a sound sleep, and knew not how he reached home, nor how he was undressed and put into bed: and he awoke the next day with a headache, and with a dim recollection of the scraping, the curtseying, the tobacco-smoke, the gentleman with the bouquet, and the goblet of the Great Eagle.

[1]One of the “crack” regiments of the Russian Army.

[2]The mother of Peter the Great.

[3]A short sleeveless jacket.

< < < Chapter II
Chapter IV > > >

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

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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