The Negro of Peter
Originally prepared for: RUS 493 - "African-American Literary Ties to Russian Intellectual Thought"
By the iron will of PeterContents: (Note p.42- A number of these tales are unfinished.)
Was Russia transformed.
I will obtain for you a wife,Half an hour later, the door opened and the Tsar came out of the drawing-room. With a solemn nod of the head he returned the triple bow of Prince Lykov, Tatyana Afanassyevna and Natasha, and passed straight into the hall. The host handed him his red sheepskin coat, led him out to his sledge, and on the steps thanked him once more for the honour he had shown him. Peter drove off.
Or not a miller be.
Returning to the dining-room, Gavrila Afanassyevitch seemed greatly preoccupied. He angrily ordered the servants to clear the table as quickly as possible, sent Natasha off to her room, and informing his sister and father-in-law that he wished to speak to them, he led them into the bedroom in which he was accustomed to rest after dinner. The old Prince lay down on the oak bed; Tatyana Afanassyevna sat herself down in the old-fashioned armchair, and moved a foot-stool up for her feet; Gavrila Afanassyevitch locked all the doors, sat down on the bed at Prince Lykov's feet, and in a low voice began:
"It was not for nothing that the Tsar visited me today; guess what he wanted to talk to me about."
"How can we know, my dear brother?" said Tatyana Afanassyevna.
"Has the Tsar appointed you to a governorship somewhere? said his father-in-law. "It's about time he did. Or have you been offered an embassy? Why not? Men of distinction and not mere secretaries are sent to foreign sovereigns."
"No," replied. his son-in-law, frowning. "I am a man of the old school, and nowadays our services are not required, although it may be that an orthodox Russian nobleman is worth as much as these modern upstarts, pancakemen and heathens but that's quite another matter."
"Then what was he talking about with you for so long, brother?" said Tatyana Afanassyevna. "Can some misfortune have befallen you? The Lord save and defend us from that!"
"No, there's no misfortune, but I confess I was set thinking."
"What is it, brother? What's it all about?"
"It concerns Natasha. The Tsar came to make a match for her."
"God be thanked!" said Tatyana Afanassyevna, crossing herself. "The
girl is of marriageable age, and the match-maker reflects the suitor. God
grant them His love and advice; it is a great honour. For whom does the
Tsar ask her hand?"
" Hm!" grunted Gavrila Afanassyevitch. " For whom? That's just it-for whom?"
"Well, for whom then?" repeated Prince Lykov, who was beginning to doze
"Guess," said Gavrila Afanassyevitch.
"My dear brother," the old lady replied, "how can we guess! There are plenty of marriageable men at Court, each of whom would be glad to take your Natasha as his wife. Is it Dolgoruky?"
"No, not Dolgoruky."
"Well, God be with him: he's far too supercilious. Shein? Troyekurov?"
"No, neither of them."
"I don't take to them either: they're flighty and too full of the foreign spirit. Well, is it Miloslavsky?"
"No, not he."
"God be with him: he's rich but stupid. Who then? Yeletsky? Lvov? It can't be Raguzinsky? No, I can't guess. For whom, then, does the Tsar want Natasha?"
"For the Moor Ibrahim."
The old lady cried out and clasped her hands. Prince Lykov raised his
head from the pillow and repeated in astonishment:
"For the Moor Ibrahim!"
"My dear brother!" said the old lady in a tearful voice, "Do not ruin your own dear child-do not deliver Natasha into the clutches of that black devil!"
"But how," retorted Gavrila Afanassyevitch,"how am I to refuse the Tsar, who in return promises to bestow his favour on us, on me and all our family?"
"What!" exclaimed the old Prince, who was by now wide awake. "Natasha, my granddaughter, to be married to a bought negro!"
"He is not of humble birth," said Gavrila Afanassyevitch; "he is the son of a Moorish sultan. The pagans took him prisoner and sold him in Constantinople, and our local ambassador rescued him and presented him to the Tsar. His elder brother came to Russia with an appreciable ransom and..."
"My dear Gavrila Afanassyevitch!" the old lady interrupted. "We all know the fairy-tale about Bova Korolevitch and Yeruslan Lazarevitch! Tell us rather how you replied to the Tsar's proposal."
"I told him that we were under his authority, and that it was our duty as his servants to obey him in all things."
At that moment a noise was heard from behind the door. Gavrila Afanassyevitch went to open it, but felt some resistance from the other side. He pushed harder-the door opened, and they saw Natasha lying in a faint upon the blood-stained floor.
Her heart had sunk when the Tsar had shut himself up with her father. Some presentiment whispered to her that the matter concerned her, and when Gavrila Afanassyevitch sent her away, saying that he must speak with her aunt and grandfather, she had been unable to resist the impulse of feminine curiosity, had crept softly through the inner rooms to the bedroom door, and had not missed a single word of the whole terrible conversation; on hearing her father's last words, the unfortunate girl had fainted and, in falling, had injured her head against an iron chest in which her dowry was kept.
Servants hastened to the scene; they picked Natasha up, carried her to her room, and laid her down on her bed. After a while she regained consciousness and opened her eyes; but she recogniscd neither her father nor her aunt. A violent fever set in; in her delirium she raved about the Tsar's Moor and about the wedding, and then suddenly, in plaintive, piercing tones, she cried out:
"Valerian, dear Valerian, my life! Save me! There they are! There they are! . . ."
Tatyana Afanassyevna glanced anxiously at her brother, who turned pale, bit his lip and silently left the room. He returned to the old Prince who, unable to climb the stairs, had remained below.
"How is Natasha?" he asked.
"Very bad," replied the distressed father. "Worse than I thought: she's delirious and raves about Valerian."
"Who is this Valerian?" asked the alarmed old man. "Surely not the orphan, the musketeer's son, who was brought up in your house?"
"The same, to my misfortune," replied Gavrila Afanassyevitch. "His father saved my life at the time of the rebellion, and the devil put into my head the idea of taking the accursed young wolf into my house. When, at his own request, he was enrolled into the regiment two years ago, Natasha burst into tears as she said goodbye to him, and he stood as if turned to stone. I was suspicious at the time and spoke to my sister about it. But since that day Natasha has never referred to him, nor has anything been heard about him. I imagined that she had forgotten him, but it seems that this is not the case. But it is decided: she shall marry the Moor."
Prince Lykov did not protest; it would have been in vain. He returned home; Tatyana, Afanassyevna remained at Natasha's bedside; Gavrila Afanassyevitch, having sent for the doctor, locked himself up in his room. In his house all became sadly subdued.
The unexpected offer of the Tsar to make a match for him astonished Ibrahim quite as much as it had done Gavrila Afanassyevitch. This is how it happened: he and Peter were working together when the Tsar said:
"I observe, my friend, that you are downhearted; tell me frankly: what it is that you want?"
Ibrahim assured the Tsar that he was quite content with his lot and wished for nothing better.
"Good!" said the Tsar. " If there is no reason for your low spirits, I know then how to cheer you up."
When they had finished their work, Peter asked Ibrahim:
"Did you like the girl you danced the minuet with at the last Assembly?"
"She is very charming, Sire, and seems to be a good-hearted and modest girl."
"Then I shall make you better acquainted with her. Would you like to marry her?"
"Listen, Ibrahim: you are on your own in this world, without birth or kindred, a stranger to all except myself. If I were to die today, what would become of you tomorrow? You must get settled while there's still time; find support in new ties, marry into the Russian nobility."
"Sire, I am happy with your protection and favour. May God grant that I do not outlive my Tsar and benefactor-I wish for nothing more; but even if I did think about getting married, would the young lady and her relatives consent? My appearance..."
"Your appearance What nonsense! A fellow like you? A young girl must obey her parents and we'll see what old Gavrila Rzhevsky has to say when I myself am your matchmaker."
With these words the Tsar ordered his sledge and left Ibrahim sunk deep in thought.
"Marry!" thought the African. " Why not? Must I be fated to spend my life in solitude, without knowing the greatest rewards and most sacred duties of man, merely because I was born under a stronger sun? I cannot hope to be loved, but that is a childish objection! How can one believe in love? How can love exist in the frivolous heart of a woman? Such charming fallacies I have rejected for ever, and have chosen more practical attractions. The Tsar is right: I must consider my future. Marriage with the young Rzhevsky will unite me to the proud. Russian nobility, and I shall no longer be a stranger in my new fatherland. I shall not demand love from my wife, but will be content with her fidelity; her friendship I shall acquire by unfailing tenderness, trust and devotion."
Ibrahim attempted to get back to his work, but his imagination was too excited. He left his papers and went for a stroll along the banks of the Neva. He suddenly heard Peter's voice; he looked round and saw the Tsar, who, having dismissed his sledge, was walking after him with a bright expression on his face.
"It's all fixed, my friend!" Peter said, taking him by the arm. "I have betrothed you. Go and call on your future father-in-law tomorrow, but see that you gratify his nobleman's pride; leave your sledge at the gate and go through the courtyard on foot; talk to him of his services and his noble family, and you'll make a lasting impression on him. And now,"he continued, shaking his cudgel," lead me to that scoundrel Danilytch; I must talk to him about his latest pranks."
Thanking Peter heartily for his fatherly solicitude, Ibrahim accompanied him as far as Prince Menshikov's magnificent palace, and then returned home.
A sanctuary lamp burned dimly before the glass case in which glittered the gold and silver frames of the family icons. Its flickering light weakly lit up the curtained bed and the little table covered with labelled medicine-bottles. Near the stove a servant maid sat at her spinning-wheel, and the faint noise of the spindle was the only sound to break the silence of the room.
"Who's there?" asked a weak voice.
The servant-maid instantly stood up, went over to the bed, and gently raised the curtain.
"Will it soon be daylight?" Natalya asked.
"It's already midday," the servant-maid replied.
"Good heavens! Then why is it so dark?"
"The shutters are closed, miss."
"Help me to get dressed then, quickly."
"I must not, miss; the doctor has forbidden you to get up."
"Am I ill then? How long have I been ill?"
"Two weeks now."
"Really? And I feel as if I only went to bed yesterday."
Natasha was silent; she tried to collect her confused thoughts. Something had happened to her, but what exactly it was she could not remember. The servant-maid stood before her, awaiting her orders. At that moment a dull noise was heard from below.
"What was that?" asked the sick girl.
"They've just finished eating," the servant-maid replied, "and are getting up from the table. Tatyana Afanassyevna will be here presently."
Natasha seemed pleased by this; with a feeble hand she waved away the servant-maid, who drew the curtain and sat down again at her spinning-wheel.
A few minutes later, a head in a broad white bonnet with dark
ribbons appeared round the door, and asked in a low voice:
"How is Natasha?"
"Hello, auntie," the patient said quietly, and Tatyana Afanassyevna hastened across to her.
"The mistress has regained consciousness," said the servant maid, carefully drawing an armchair up to the bed.
With tears in her eyes the old lady kissed the pale, languid face of her niece and sat down beside her. A German doctor in a black coat and a scholarly looking wig, who had followed her into the room, felt Natasha's pulse and announced first in Latin and then in Russian that the danger had passed. Asking for some paper and ink, he wrote out a fresh prescription and left. The old lady got up, kissed Natalya once more and immediately hurried downstairs to Gavrila Afanassyevitch with the good news.
In the drawing-room, in uniform, his sword at his side and with his hat in his hand, the Tsar's Moor sat respectfully talking to Gavrila Afanassyevitch. Korsakov, stretched out on a down sofa, was listening to them absent-mindedly and teasing an estimable Russian greyhound; tiring of this occupation, he went across to the looking-glass, the habitual refuge of the idle, and in it he saw Tatyana Afanassyevna vainly beckoning to her brother from the doorway.
"You are wanted, Gavrila Afanassyevitch," said Korsakov, turning to him and interrupting Ibrahim.
Gavrila Afanassyevitch immediately went out to his sister, closing the door behind him.
"I am amazed at your patience," said Korsakov to Ibrahim. "For a full hour you have been listening to all that rubbish about the antiquity of the Lykov and Rzhevsky families-and have even added your own moral observations! In your place j'aurais plante la the old trifler and all his tribe, including Natalya Gavrilovna, who's mincing about pretending to be ill-une petite sante.... Tell me honestly: are you really in love with that affected little thing? Listen to me, Ibrahim, and follow my advice for once; I am in fact far more sensible than I appear. Get this crazy notion out of your head. Don't marry. It doesn't look to me as though your betrothed has any especial liking for you. Anything can happen in this world. For instance: I am not really such an ugly fellow, and yet it has been my experience to deceive husbands who were, by the Lord, no worse than myself. And you yourself - remember our Parisian friend, the Countess D**? It's useless to hope for female fidelity; happy is he who can look upon it with indifference! But you! .. With your ardent, brooding and suspicious nature, with your flat nose, your thick lips and your rough, woolly head - for you to hurl yourself into the dangers of marriage!..."
" I thank you for your friendly advice," interrupted Ibrahim coldly, "but you know the saying: 'It's not one's business to rock somebody else's children'..."
"Take care, Ibrahim," replied Korsakov, laughing, "that one day you're not called upon to prove the truth of that-in the literal sense."
In the meantime, the conversation in the next room was becoming heated.
"You'll kill her," the old lady was saying. "She can't stand the sight of him."
"Well, judge for yourself," her obstinate brother retorted. "He has been coming here as her betrothed for a fortnight already, and he hasn't yet seen his bride-to-be. He may eventually begin to think that her illness is a mere invention, and that we are only seeking to delay matters so as to get rid of him somehow or other. And what will the Tsar say? Three times already he has sent for news of Natalya's health. You can say what you like, but I don't propose to quarrel with him."
"Dear Lord above!" said Tatyana Afanassyevna. "What will become of the unfortunate girl? At least allow me to prepare her for such a visit."
Gavrila Afanassyevitch consented to this, and returned to the drawing-room.
"The danger has passed, thank God!" he said to Ibrahim. " Natalya is much better; were it not for having to leave our dear guest Ivan Evgrafovitch here alone, I would take you upstairs for a glimpse of your betrothed."
Korsakov congratulated Gavrila Afanassyevitch on Natalya's recovery, asked him not to worry on his account, assured him that he had to leave, and hurried out into the hall, without allowing his host to show him out.
Meanwhile Tatyana Afanassyevna hastened to prepare the sick girl for the appearance of the dreaded visitor. Entering the bedroom, she sat down breathless by the side of the bed and took Natasha's hand, but before she had time to utter a single word the door opened. Natasha asked who it was.
The old lady felt faint and her whole body grew numb. Gavrila Afanassyevitch drew back the curtain, looked coldly at the patient and asked her how she was. The patient tried to smile but could not. She was struck by her father's stern expression and was seized by a feeling of anxiety. At that moment it seemed to her that someone else was standing by the head of the bed. With an effort she raised her head and she suddenly recognised the Tsar's Moor. Then she remembered everything, and all the horror of her future came to her. But her exhausted frame received no perceptible shock. Natasha lowered her head to the pillow and closed her eyes...her heart beat painfully. Tatyana Afanassyevna made a sign to her brother that the patient wished to go to sleep, and they all quietly left the room, except for the servant-maid, who sat down at the spinning-wheel again.
The unhappy young beauty opened her eyes, and seeing that no one was by her bedside, she called the servant-maid and sent her off to fetch the dwarf. But at that moment a little old figure, round as a ball, rolled up to the bed. Lastochka (for so was the dwarf called) had followed Gavrila Afanassyevitch and Ibrahim upstairs as fast as her short legs could carry her, and. faithful to that curiosity innate in all members of the fair sex, had hidden behind the door. Seeing her, Natasha sent the servant-maid away and the dwarf sat down on a stool by the bedside.
Never had so small a body contained within it so much mental activity. She meddled in everything, knew everything and concerned herself with everything. In a sly, insinuating manner, she 'had managed to acquire the affection of her masters and the loathing of the rest of the household, over which she ruled in the most despotic fashion. Gavrila Afanassyevitch listened to her tales, complaints and petty requests; Tatyana Afanassyevna constantly sought her opinion and was guided by her advice; and Natasha had boundless affection for her and confided to her all the thoughts and emotions of her sixteen-year-old heart.
"Do you know, Lastochka," she said, "that my father proposes to marry me to the Moor?"
The dwarf sighed deeply, and her wrinkled face became more wrinkled than ever.
"Is there no hope? " continued Natasha. "Won't my father take pity on me?"
The dwarf shook her cap.
"Won't my grandfather or aunt intercede on my behalf ?
"No, miss. While you were ill, the Moor succeeded in casting a spell over everybody. The master is out of his mind about him, the Prince raves about no one else, and Tatyana Afanassyevna is for ever saying: 'It's a pity he's a Moor, as we couldn't wish for a better suitor."
"Oh my God, oh my God!" moaned poor Natasha.
"Don't be sad, my beauty," said the dwarf, kissing her feeble hand. "Even if you do become the Moor's wife, you'll still be able to do as you like. It's not the same as it was in the old days: husbands no longer keep their wives under lock and key. I have heard that the Moor is rich; your house will have everything you want-you'll be living in clover. . . ."
"Poor Valerian," said Natasha, but so softly that the. dwarf could only guess what she had said, being unable to hear the words.
"That's just it, miss," she said, lowering her voice mysteriously; " if you thought less about the archer's orphan, you wouldn't have raved about him in your delirium, and your father wouldn't be angry."
"What?" said the alarmed Natasha. "I raved about Valerian, and my father heard? And he was angry?"
"That's just the trouble," the dwarf replied. "If you were to ask him now not to marry you to the Moor, he would think that Valerian was the cause. There's nothing for it: you must yield to your father's wishes, and what will be, will be."
Natasha did not utter a word in reply. The thought that her heart's secret was known to her father affected her imagination deeply. One hope remained to her: to die before the fulfillment of the hateful marriage. This thought consoled her. Weak and sad at heart, she resigned herself to her fate.
In the house of Gavrila Afanassyevitch, to the right of the hall, there was a narrow room with one small window. In it stood a plain bed covered with a blanket; in front of the bed was a small deal table, on which a tall candle was burning and where lay some open sheets of music. An old blue uniform and an equally old three-cornered hat hung on the wall below a cheap, popular print of Charles XII on horseback, which was fastened to the wall by three nails. The notes of a flute sounded from this humble abode. The captive dancing-master, its lonely occupant, in a night cap and a nankeen dressing-gown, was relieving the boredom of a winter's evening by playing some old Swedish marches, thereby recalling the gay times of his youth. Having devoted two full hours to this exercise, the Swede unpieced his flute, put it in its box and began to undress.
At that moment the latch on his door was raised, and a tall, good-looking young man in uniform entered the room.
The surprised Swede stood up before his unexpected visitor.
"You don't recognise me, Gustav Adamitch," said the young visitor, his voice full of emotion. "You don't remember the boy whom you taught the Swedish articles of war, and with whom you nearly caused a fire in this very room by firing off a child's cannon."
Gustav Adamitch looked at him intently.
"Aaah!" he exclaimed at last, embracing him. "How are you? What are you doing here? Sit down, you young scamp, and let's have a talk..."
1827 (Pushkin never completed this story.)