The Negro of Peter
By the iron will of Peter
Was Russia transformed.
-YAZIKOVOriginally prepared for: RUS 493 - "African-American Literary Ties to Russian Intellectual Thought"
I am in Paris;Among those young men sent abroad by Peter the Great for the acquisition of knowledge essential to a country in the process of reorganization was his godson, the Moor Ibrahim. He was educated at the military academy in Paris, passed out as an Artillery Captain, distinguished himself in the Spanish War, and after being severely wounded he returned to Paris. In the midst of his vast labours, the Tsar never ceased to inquire after his favourite, and always received flattering reports of his progress and conduct. Peter was extremely pleased with him and more than once summoned him back to Russia; but Ibrahim was in no hurry. He used various pretexts to postpone his departure: now his wound, now a wish to improve his knowledge, now a shortage of money; and Peter indulgently acceded to his requests, besought him to take care of his health, thanked him for his enthusiasm in the quest for knowledge, and although extremely frugal in his own personal expenditure, he did not spare his exchequer where it concerned Ibrahim, adding fatherly advice and words of caution to the ducats which he sent him.
I have begun to live, not merely to breathe.
According to the evidence of all historical records, nothing could compare with the sheer giddiness, the folly and the luxury of the French at that time. The last years of the reign of Louis XIV, noted for the strict piety, the solemnity and the decorum of the Court, had left no traces behind them. The Duke of Orleans, combining many brilliant qualities with vices of every sort, unfortunately possessed not the slightest degree of hypocrisy. The orgies which took place at the Palais Royal were no secret to Paris; the example was contagious. It was at this time that Law appeared. Greed for money was united to a thirst for enjoyment and dissipation. Estates vanished; morals went by the board; Frenchmen laughed and calculated, and the state fell to pieces to the skittish music of the satirical vaudevilles.
At the same time, society presented a most diverting picture. Culture and the longing for amusement drew together all manner of men. Wealth, courtesy, fame, talent, eccentricity even - everything that provided food for curiosity or gave promise of entertainment was received with the same indulgence. Writers, scholars and philosophers abandoned the quiet of their studies and appeared in the circles of the haut-monde, to pay tribute to fashion and to lead it. Women reigned, but no longer demanded adoration. Superficial good manners took the place of profound respect. The exploits of the Duke of Richelieu, the Alcibiades of modern Athens, belong to history and give an indication of the morals of the period.
Temps fortuni, marquipar la license, O~ la folie, agitant son grelot, D'un pied liger parcourt toute la France, Ou' nul moriel ne daigne itre divot, Ou' l'on fait tout excepti penitence.
The appearance of Ibrahim, his outward aspect, his culture and his native intelligence gave rise to general attention in Paris. All the ladies wanted to see le ne'gre du Czar at their houses, and they vied with one another to catch him. The Regent more than once invited him to his gay evening parties. He attended suppers livened by the youth of Arouet, the old age of Chaulieu, and the conversations of Montesquieu and Fontenelle. He did not miss a single ball, fete or first night, and gave himself over to the general whirl with all the ardour of his years and his nature. But the thought of exchanging these distractions, these brilliant amusements for the dry simplicity of the Petersburg Court was not the only thing that bound Ibrahim to Paris; he had other, more pressing ties. The young African was in love.
The Countess D**, no longer in the first bloom of her youth, was still renowned for her beauty. On leaving a convent at the age of seventeen, she had been married to a man with whom she had had no time to fall in love, and who afterwards had never bothered to gain her love. Rumour attributed many lovers to her, but thanks to society's indulgent attitude, she enjoyed a good reputation, since it was impossible to reproach her with any ridiculous or scandalous adventure. Her house was the most fashionable in Paris, and the best Parisian society gathered there. Ibrahim was introduced to her by young Merville, who was generally reckoned to be her latest lover-which impression he tried with all his means to justify.
The Countess received Ibrahim politely, but without any particular attention; he felt flattered by this. People generally regarded the young Moor as a freak, and, surrounding him, overwhelmed him with compliments and questions; this curiosity, although concealed beneath an air of graciousness, offended his vanity. The delightful attention of women, almost the sole aim of man's exertions, not only gave him no pleasure, but even filled his heart with bitterness and indignation. He felt that for them he was a kind of rare beast, an exceptional and strange creation, accidentally transferred to their world, and possessing nothing in common with them. He even envied those who remained unnoticed and considered them to be fortunate in their insignificance.
The thought that nature had not created him for the joys of a reciprocated passion rid him of all conceit and vain pretension, and this gave a rare charm to his behaviour with women. His conversation, which was simple and dignified, pleased the Countess D** who had wearied of the endless jesting and pointed raillery of French wit. Ibrahim was often at her house. She gradually grew accustomed to the young Moor's appearance, and even began to find something rather pleasant about the curly head, so black amid the powdered wigs in her drawing-room. (Ibrahim had been wounded in the head and wore a bandage instead of a wig.) He was twenty-seven; he was tall and well-built, and more than one beauty gazed at him with feelings more flattering than mere curiosity; but the prejudiced Ibrahim either did not notice this, or looked upon it as mere coquetry. Yet when his glances met those of the Countess, his distrust vanished. Her eyes expressed such charming good nature, her manner towards him was so simple and natural that it was impossible to suspect her in the least of flirtatiousness or mockery.
The thought of love had not occurred to him but to see the Countess every day had already become essential. He sought to meet her everywhere, and each meeting seemed to him as an unexpected favour from heaven. The Countess guessed at the nature of his feelings before he did himself. It cannot be denied that a love without hope and without demands touches a woman's heart more surely than all the ploys of the seducer. When Ibrahim was present, the Countess followed his every movement, listened to all that he said; without him, she grew pensive and lapsed into her usual state of absent-mindedness. Merville was the first to observe their mutual inclination and he congratulated Ibrahim. There is nothing that enflames love more than the encouraging observations of an outsider. Love is blind, and having no confidence in itself, it is quick to grasp at the least support. Merville's words aroused Ibrahim. The possibility of possessing the woman he loved had until then not entered his head; his soul was suddenly lit up with hope; he fell insanely in love. In vain did the Countess, alarmed by the frenzy of his passion, attempt to counter it with friendly admonitions and sensible advice; she herself was beginning to falter. Indiscreet compliments followed one another with speed. Finally, carried away by the strength of the passion she inspired in him and succumbing to its influence, she gave herself to the rapturous Ibrahim...
Nothing is concealed from the eyes of an observant world. The Countess's new attachment soon became known to all. Some ladies were astonished at her choice; to many it seemed perfectly natural. Some laughed; others regarded her behaviour as unpardonably indiscreet. In the first intoxication of passion Ibrahim and the Countess noticed nothing, but soon the equivocal jokes of the men and the pointed comments the women began to reach their ears. Ibrahim's solemn, cold manner had hitherto protected him from such attacks; he suffered them impatiently and did not know how to retaliate. The Countess, accustomed to the respect of society, was unable to see herself with equanimity as the object of sneers and gossip. At times she complained to Ibrahim in tears, at times reproached him bitterly and implored him not to defend her, lest by some useless bluster he should ruin her completely.
Her situation was made the more difficult by a new circumstance. The consequences of incautious love began to show themselves. Words of consolation and advice, proposals all were exhausted, all rejected. The Countess foresaw inevitable ruin and awaited it with despair.
As soon as the Countess's condition became known, tongues began to wag with a new force. Sensitive women gasped with horror; the men laid bets among themselves as to whether the Countess would give birth to a white or a black child. Epigrams were freely exchanged at the expense of her husband, who alone in all Paris neither knew nor suspected anything.
The fateful moment drew near. The Countess's condition was appalling. Ibrahim visited her every day. He saw her mental and physical strength gradually ebbing. Her tears, her terror broke out anew at every moment. At last she felt the first labour pains. Measures were instantly taken. Means of removing the Count were found. The doctor arrived. Two days previously, a poor woman had been persuaded to give up her new-born infant into the hands of strangers; a trusted accomplice was sent to fetch it. Ibrahim waited in the study next to the very bedroom in which the unhappy Countess lay. Not daring to breathe, he listened to her muffled groans, to the whisperings of the maidservant, and to the orders of the doctor. She was in labour for a long time. Her every groan tore at his soul; each interval of silence filled his heart with terror. Suddenly he heard the weak cry of a child and, unable to contain his joy, he rushed into the Countess's room. A black baby lay on the bed at her feet. Ibrahim drew near to it. His heart beat violently. He blessed his son with trembling hands. The Countess smiled faintly and stretched out a weak hand to him. But the doctor, fearing that the shock might prove too much for the patient, drew Ibrahim away from the bed. The new-born child was placed in a covered basket and taken out of the house by a secret stairway. The other child was brought in and its cradle placed in the bedroom of the mother. Ibrahim left, somewhat relieved. The Count was expected. He returned late, learned of the safe delivery of his wife, and was most pleased. Thus the public, who had been expecting a considerable scandal, was deceived in its hope, and was forced to seek consolation in malignant gossip.
Everything resumed its normal course, but Ibrahim felt that his fate was certain to change, and that sooner or later his attachment to the Countess D** would reach her husband's ears. In that event, whatever happened, the Countess's ruin would be inevitable. He loved her passionately and was passionately loved; but the Countess was self-willed and frivolous. This was not the first time that she had loved. Repugnance and loathing could take the place of her heart's most tender feelings. Ibrahim already foresaw the moment when her love might cool; until then he had not known jealousy, but with horror he now had a presentiment of it; he felt that the anguish of separation would be less tormenting, and he therefore determined to sever the ill-fated association and return to Russia, whither Peter and an obscure feeling of duty had been summoning him for a long time.
Beauty no longer affects me as it did;Days, months passed, and the enamoured Ibrahim could not resolve to leave the woman he had seduced. The Countess grew more and more attached to him. Their son was being brought up in a distant province. Gossip was dying down, and the lovers began to enjoy a greater peace, silently remembering the storm of the past and trying not to think of the future.
Joy has lost a part of its delight,
My mind is not so free of care,
I am less happy ...
I am tormented by the desire to do honour,
I hear the sound of glory calling!
Ibrahim was one day at the house of the Duke of Orleans when the Duke, walking past him, stopped and handed him a letter, telling him to read it at his leisure. The letter was from Peter. The Tsar, guessing at the cause of Ibrahim's absence, had written to the Duke to say that he had no intention of forcing his will upon Ibrahim, that he left it to him to decide whether or not to return to Russia, and that, in any event, he would never desert his former foster-son. This letter moved Ibrahim to the depths of his heart. From that moment his fate was decided. On the following morning he announced to the Regent his intention of setting out for Russia instantly.
"Think what you're doing," the Duke said to him. "Russia is not your
native land. I don't suppose you'll ever see your torrid birthplace again,
but your long stay in France has made you equally alien to the climate
and the way of life in semi-savage Russia. You were not born a subject
of Peter. Heed my advice: take advantage of his gracious permission. Stay
in France, for whom you have already shed your blood, and rest assured
that your services and qualities will not pass unrewarded here."
Ibrahim thanked the Duke sincerely, but remained firm in his intention.
"I am sorry," the Regent said to him, "but perhaps you're right."
He promised to release him from the army and wrote in detail about the matter to the Russian Tsar.
Ibrahim was soon ready for his journey. The day before his departure, he spent the evening, as usual, at the house of the Countess D**. She knew nothing of his plans; Ibrahim had not the courage to reveal them to her. The Countess was calm and cheerful. On several occasions she beckoned him to her and joked about his pensiveness. The guests dispersed after supper. The Countess, her husband and Ibrahim remained in the drawing-room. The unhappy Ibrahim would have given everything in the world to have been alone with her; but Count D** seemed so peaceably installed before the fire that it was impossible to hope that he would leave the room. All three were silent.
"Bonne nuit," said the Countess at last.
Ibrahim's heart missed a beat and he suddenly felt all the pain of separation. He stood motionless.
"Bonne nuit, messieurs," the Countess repeated.
Still he did not move... Eventually his eyes grew dim, his head began to swim, and he could scarcely walk out of the room. Arriving home, scarcely conscious, he wrote the following letter:
I am going away, dear Leonora; I am leaving you forever. I am writing to you because I have not the courage to explain matters to you in any other way.That same night he left for Russia.
My happiness could not have lasted. I have enjoyed it in spite of fate and nature. You would have grown tired of me; your enchantment would have vanished. This thought has pursued me always-even in those moments when I have seemed to forget everything at your feet, intoxicated by your passionate self-denial, your infinite tenderness... The frivolous world mercilessly decries that very thing which, in theory, it permits: its cold scorn would sooner or later have defeated you, humbled your ardent spirit and eventually you would have grown ashamed of your passion... And what would have become of me? No! It is better to die, better to leave you before this appalling moment comes about...
Your tranquillity is more dear to me than anything: you could not enjoy it with the eyes of the world fixed upon you. Remember all that you have suffered, all the insults to your self-esteem, all the torments of fear; remember the terrible birth of our son. Consider: should I subject you further to such agitations and dangers as these? Why strive to unite the fate of so tender and beautiful a creature as yourself to the miserable lot of a negro, a pitiful creation scarcely worthy to be classed as human?
Good-bye, Leonora, good-bye, my dear and only friend. I am leaving you, you, the first and last joy of my life. I have neither country nor relatives. I am going to sad Russia, where my total solitude will be a consolation to me. Serious affairs, to which from this moment I will dedicate myself, will, if not stifle, at least divert me from the torturous memories of days of ecstasy and bliss.... Good-bye, Leonora, I tear myself away from this letter as if from your embraces; good-bye, be happy... And think sometimes of a poor negro, of your faithful Ibrahim.
The journey did not seem as terrible as he had expected. His imagination triumphed over reality. The farther he got from Paris the more vivid and the closer did the objects he was leaving for ever present themselves to him.
Without realizing it, he reached the Russian frontier. Autumn had already set in, but in spite of the bad state of the roads he was driven with the speed of the wind, and on the morning of the seventeenth day of his journey he arrived at Krasnoye Selo, through which at that time the highway ran.
There were still another twenty-eight versts to Petersburg. While the horses were being changed Ibrahim went into the post-house. In a corner, a tall man wearing a green caftan and with a clay pipe in his mouth, was reading the Hamburg newspapers, leaning with his elbows on the table. Hearing somebody come in, he looked up.
"Ah, Ibrahim!" he cried, rising from the bench. " How are you, my godson?"
Ibrahim, recognizing Peter, rushed forward to him in delight, but respectfully stopped short. The Tsar drew near, embraced him and kissed him on the forehead.
"I was told you were coming," said Peter, "and came here to meet you. I've been waiting for you since yesterday." Ibrahim could not find words to express his gratitude. "Order your carriage to follow on behind," the Tsar continued; "you come and sit with me, and we'll go home."
The Tsar's carriage was driven up; he and Ibrahim sat down and they set off at a gallop. After an hour and a half they reached Petersburg. Ibrahim stared with curiosity at the newly-born capital which was rising out of the marshes at the bidding of its master. Half-finished dams, canals without quays, wooden bridges everywhere testified to the recent victory of man's will over the hostile elements. The houses seemed to have been built in a hurry. In all the town only the Neva, as yet unadorned by its granite frame but already covered with war- and merchant-ships, was magnificent. The imperial carriage stopped at the palace of the so-called Tsaritsin Garden. Peter was met on the steps by an attractive woman of about thirty-five, dressed in the latest Parisian fashion. Peter kissed her on the lips and taking Ibrahim by the hand, he said:
"Do you recognise my godson, Katenka? I beg you to be kind and gracious to him as before."
Catherine fixed him with her dark, penetrating eyes, and stretched out her hand to him affably. Two young beauties standing behind her, tall and slim and fresh as roses, approached Peter respectfully.
"Lisa," he said to one of them, "do you remember the little Moor who used to steal my apples for you at Oranienbaum? Here he is: I introduce him to you."
The Grand Duchess laughed and grew red. They went into the dining-room, where the table had been laid in expectation of the Tsar. Inviting Ibrahim to join him, the Tsar sat down to dine with his family. The Tsar conversed with him on various topics during dinner and questioned him about the Spanish War, France's internal affairs and the Regent, whom he liked, although he found much in him to condemn. Ibrahim was endowed with a sharp and observant mind; Peter was very pleased with his replies; he recalled some incidents in Ibrahim's childhood, relating them with such good humour and merriment that nobody could have suspected this kind and hospitable host of being the hero of Poltava, of being the severe and powerful reformer of Russia.
After dinner the Tsar, in accordance with Russian custom, went off to rest. Ibrahim was left with the Empress and the Grand Duchesses. He tried to satisfy their curiosity with his descriptions of the Parisian way of life, of the festivities and the ever-changing fashions. Meanwhile, some of the persons who belonged to the inner circle of the Tsar had assembled at the palace. Ibrahim recognised the magnificent Prince Menshikov, who, on seeing a Moor in conversation with Catherine, looked proudly askance at him; Prince Yakov Dolgoruky, Peter's strict councillor; the learned Bruce, described by the people as the Russian "Faust"; the young Raguzinsky, a former comrade of Ibrahim; and others who had come to the Tsar to make their reports and to receive orders.
The Tsar reappeared after a couple of hours.
"Let us see," he said to Ibrahim, "whether you have forgotten your old duties. Take a slate and follow me."
Peter shut himself up in his workroom and occupied himself with the
affairs of the state. In turn he worked with Bruce, with Prince Dolgoruky,
with the chief of the police, General Devier, and dictated several decrees
and decisions Ibrahim. Ibrahim could not help but marvel at the alertness
and strength of his intelligence, the power and flexibility of his attention
and the variety of his activities. When their work had finished, Peter
took out a pocket-book in order to assure himself that all that had been
scheduled for that day had been carried out. Then, leaving his workroom,
he said to Ibrahim:
"It's already late; I dare say you're tired; spend the night here as you used to in the old days. I'll wake you up tomorrow."
Ibrahim, left alone, could scarcely come to his senses. He was in Petersburg, seeing again the great man near whom, while not yet appreciating his worth, he had spent his childhood. With a feeling almost of contrition, he confessed in his heart that, for the first time since his separation from the Countess D**, his thoughts had not dwelt exclusively upon her throughout the day. He saw that the new way of life that was awaiting him-the activity and constant work-could revive his soul, fatigued by passion, idleness and secret despondency. The thought of working together with a great man and, with him, of playing some part in the fate of a great nation, awoke in him for the first time the noble feeling of ambition. In this frame of mind he lay down on the camp-bed which had been prepared for him, and then the accustomed dream took him back to distant Paris, to the embraces of his dear Countess.