Peter The Great’s Negro by Alexander Pushkin

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

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I must now introduce the gracious reader to Gavril Afanassievitch Rjevsky. He was descended from an ancient noble family, possessed vast estates, was hospitable, loved falconry, and had a large number of domestics,—in a word, he was a genuine Russian nobleman. To use his own expression, he could not endure the German spirit, and he endeavoured to preserve in his home the ancient customs that were so dear to him. His daughter was in her seventeenth year. She had lost her mother while she was yet in her infancy, and she had been brought up in the old style, that is to say, she was surrounded by governesses, nurses, playfellows, and maidservants, was able to embroider in gold, and could neither read nor write. Her father, notwithstanding his dislike to everything foreign, could not oppose her wish to learn German dances from a captive Swedish officer, living in their house. This deserving dancing-master was about fifty years of age; his right foot had been shot through at Narva,[1] and consequently he was not very well suited for minuets and courantes, but the left executed with wonderful ease and agility the most difficult steps. His pupil did honour to his teaching. Natalia Gavrilovna was celebrated for being the best dancer at the assemblies, and this was partly the cause of the mistake made by Korsakoff, who came the next day to apologize to Gavril Afanassievitch; but the airiness and elegance of the young fop did not find favour in the eyes of the proud noble, who wittily nicknamed him the French monkey.

It was a holiday. Gavril Afanassievitch expected some relatives and friends. In the ancient hall a long table was laid. The guests arrived with their wives and daughters, who had at last been set free from domestic imprisonment by the decree of the Emperor and by his own example.[2] Natalia Gavrilovna carried round to each guest a silver tray laden with golden cups, and each man, as he drained his, regretted that the kiss, which it was customary to receive on such occasions in the olden times, had gone out of fashion.

They sat down to table. In the first place, next to the host, sat his father-in-law, Prince Boris Alexeievitch Likoff, a boyar[3] of seventy years of age; the other guests ranged themselves according to the antiquity of their family, thus recalling the happy times when respect for age was observed. The men sat on one side, the women on the other. At the end of the table, the housekeeper in her old-fashioned costume—a little woman of thirty, affected and wrinkled—and the captive dancing-master, in his faded blue uniform, occupied their accustomed places. The table, which was covered with a large number of dishes, was surrounded by an anxious crowd of domestics, among whom was distinguishable the house-steward, with his severe look, big paunch and lofty immobility. The first few minutes of dinner were devoted entirely to the productions of our old cookery; the noise of plates and the rattling of spoons alone interrupted the general silence. At last the host, seeing that the time had arrived for amusing the guests with agreeable conversation, turned round and asked:

“But where is Ekemovna? Summon her hither.”

Several servants were about to rush off in different directions, but at that moment an old woman, painted white and red, decorated with flowers and tinsel, in a silk gown with a low neck, entered, singing and dancing. Her appearance produced general satisfaction.

“Good-day, Ekemovna,” said Prince Likoff: “how do you do?”

“Quite well and happy, gossip: still singing and dancing and looking out for sweethearts.”

“Where have you been, fool?” asked the host.

“Decorating myself, gossip, for the dear guests, for this holy day, by order of the Czar, by command of my master, to be a laughing-stock for everybody after the German manner.”

At these words there arose a loud burst of laughter, and the fool took her place behind the host’s chair.

“A fool talks nonsense, but sometimes speaks the truth,” said Tatiana Afanassievna, the eldest sister of the host, and for whom he entertained great respect. “As a matter of fact, the present fashion must seem ridiculous in the eyes of everybody. But since you, gentlemen, have shaved off your beards[4] and put on short caftans, it is, of course, useless to talk about women’s rags, although it is really a pity about the sarafan, the maiden’s ribbons, and the povoinik![5] It is pitiable and at the same time laughable, to see the beauties of to-day: their hair frizzed like tow, greased and covered with French powder; the waist drawn in to such a degree, that it is almost on the point of breaking in two; their petticoats are distended with hoops, so that they have to enter a carriage sideways; to go through a door they are obliged to stoop down; they can neither stand, nor sit, nor breathe—real martyrs, the poor doves!”

“Oh, little mother Tatiana Afanassievna!” said Kirila Petrovitch T——, a former governor of Riazan, where he acquired three thousand serfs and a young wife, both by somewhat dishonourable means, “as far as I am concerned, my wife may do as she pleases, and wear what she likes, provided that she does not order new dresses every month and throw away the former ones that are nearly new. In former times the grandmother’s sarafan formed part of the granddaughter’s dowry, but nowadays all that is changed: the dress, that the mistress wears to-day, you will see the servant wearing to-morrow. What is to be done? It is the ruin of the Russian nobility, alas!”

At these words he sighed and looked at his Maria Ilienishna, who did not seem at all to like either his praises of the past or his disparagement of the latest customs. The other young ladies shared her displeasure, but they remained silent, for modesty was then considered an indispensable attribute in young women.

“And who is to blame?” said Gavril Afanassievitch, filling a tankard with an effervescing beverage. “Isn’t it our own fault? The young women play the fool, and we encourage them.”

“But what can we do, when our wishes are not consulted?” replied Kirila Petrovitch. “One would be glad to shut his wife up in an attic, but with beating of drums she is summoned to appear at the assemblies. The husband goes after the whip, but the wife after dress. Oh, those assemblies! The Lord has sent them upon us as a punishment for our sins.”

Maria Ilienishna sat as if upon needles; her tongue itched to speak. At last she could restrain herself no longer, and turning to her husband, she asked him with an acid smile, what he found wrong in the assemblies.

“This is what I find wrong in them,” replied the provoked husband: “since the time when they commenced, husbands have been unable to manage their wives; wives have forgotten the words of the Apostle: ‘Let the wife reverence her husband’; they no longer busy themselves about domestic affairs, but about new dresses; they do not think of how to please their husbands, but how to attract the attention of frivolous officers. And is it becoming, Madame, for a Russian lady to associate with German smokers and their work-women? And was ever such a thing heard of, as dancing and talking with young men till far into the night? It would be all very well if it were with relatives, but with strangers, with people that they are totally unacquainted with!”

“I would say just a word, but there is a wolf not far off,” said Gavril Afanassievitch, frowning. “I confess that these assemblies are not to my liking: before you know where you are, you knock against some drunkard, or are made drunk yourself to become the laughing-stock of others. Then you must keep your eyes open lest some good-for-nothing fellow should act the fool with your daughter; the young men nowadays are so spoilt, that they cannot be worse. Look, for example, at the son of the late Evgraf Sergeievitch Korsakoff, who at the last assembly made so much noise about Natasha,[6] that it brought the blood to my cheeks. The next day I see somebody driving straight into my courtyard; I thought to myself, who in the name of Heaven is it, can it be Prince Alexander Danilovitch? But no: it was Ivan Evgrafovitch! He could not stop at the gate and make his way on foot to the steps, not he! He flew in, bowing and chattering, the Lord preserve us! The fool Ekemovna mimics him very amusingly: by the way, fool, give us an imitation of the foreign monkey.”

The fool Ekemovna seized hold of a dish-cover, placed it under her arm like a hat, and began twisting, scraping, and bowing in every direction, repeating: “monsieur … mamselle … assemble … pardon.” General and prolonged laughter again testified to the delight of the guests.

“Just like Korsakoff,” said old Prince Likoff, wiping away the tears of laughter, when calmness was again restored. “But why conceal the fact? He is not the first, nor will he be the last, who has returned from abroad to holy Russia a buffoon. What do our children learn there? To scrape with their feet, to chatter God knows in what gibberish, to treat their elders with disrespect, and to dangle after other men’s wives. Of all the young people who have been educated abroad (the Lord forgive me!) the Czar’s negro most resembles a man.”

“Oh, Prince,” said Tatiana Afanassievna: “I have seen him, I have seen him quite close: what a frightful muzzle he has! He quite terrified me!”

“Of course,” observed Gavril Afanassievitch: “he is a sober, decent man, and not a mere weathercock…. But who is it that has just driven through the gate into the courtyard? Surely it cannot be that foreign monkey again? Why do you stand gaping there, beasts?” he continued, turning to the servants: “run and stop him from coming in, and for the future….”

“Old beard, are you dreaming?” interrupted Ekemovna the fool, “or are you blind? It is the imperial sledge—the Czar has come.”

Gavril Afanassievitch rose hastily from the table; everybody rushed to the window, and sure enough they saw the Emperor ascending the steps, leaning on the shoulder of his servant. A great confusion arose. The host rushed to meet Peter; the servants ran hither and thither as if they had gone crazy; the guests became alarmed; some even thought how they might hasten home as quickly as possible. Suddenly the thundering voice of Peter resounded in the ante-room; all became silent, and the Czar entered, accompanied by his host, who was beside himself with joy.

“Good day, gentlemen!” said Peter, with a cheerful countenance.

All made a profound bow. The sharp eyes of the Czar sought out in the crowd the young daughter of the host; he called her to him. Natalia Gavrilovna advanced boldly enough, but she blushed not only to the ears but even to the shoulders.

“You grow more beautiful every day,” said the Emperor to her, and according to his usual custom he kissed her upon the head; then turning to the guests, he added: “I have disturbed you? You were dining? Pray sit down again, and give me some aniseed brandy, Gavril Afanassievitch.”

The host rushed to the stately house-steward, snatched from his hand a tray, filled a golden goblet himself, and gave it with a bow to the Emperor. Peter drank the brandy, ate a biscuit, and for the second time requested the guests to continue their dinner. All resumed their former places, except the dwarf and the housekeeper, who did not dare to remain at a table honoured by the presence of the Czar. Peter sat down by the side of the host and asked for some soup. The Emperor’s servant gave him a wooden spoon mounted with ivory, and a knife and fork with green bone handles, for Peter never used any other knives, forks and spoons but his own. The dinner, which a moment before had been so noisy and merry, was now continued in silence and constraint. The host, through respect and delight, ate nothing; the guests also stood upon ceremony and listened with respectful attention, as the Emperor discoursed in German with the captive Swede about the campaign of 1701. The fool Ekemovna, several times questioned by the Emperor, replied with a sort of timid coldness, which, be it remarked, did not at all prove her natural stupidity. At last the dinned came to an end. The Emperor rose, and after him all the guests.

“Gavril Afanassievitch!” he said to the host: “I want to say a word with you alone;” and, taking him by the arm, he led him into the parlour and locked the door. The guests remained in the dining-room, talking in whispers about the unexpected visit, and, afraid of being indiscreet, they soon dispersed one after another, without thanking the host for his hospitality. His father-in-law, daughter, and sister conducted them very quietly to the door, and remained alone in the dining-room, awaiting the issue of the Emperor.

[1]A town on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland, and the scene of a great battle in 1700, when the Russians were completely routed by the Swedes under Charles XII.

[2]Previous to the reign of Peter the Great, the Russian women lived in almost Oriental seclusion, and it was for the purpose of abolishing this custom that Peter established his famous “assemblies.”

[3]A noble of the second degree.

[4]In his zeal to introduce into his empire the customs of Western Europe, Peter the Great issued an order that all Russians were to shave off their beards.

[5]The national head-dress of the Russian women.

< < < Chapter III
Chapter V > > >

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

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