Next morning, according to his promise, Peter woke Ibrahim and greeted
him as lieutenant-captain of the Preobrajensky regiment, in which he
himself was captain. The courtiers flocked round Ibrahim, each one in
his own way trying to welcome the new favourite.
The haughty Prince Menshikoff gave him a friendly grasp of the hand.
Sheremetieff inquired after his own Parisian friend, and Golovin asked
him to dinner. Others followed his example, so that Ibrahim received
invitations for at least a whole month.
His life was now passed in regular but active occupation; consequently
he was not dull. Prom day to day he became more attached to the Tsar,
and grew better able to appreciate his lofty character. The thoughts
of a great man are a most interesting study. Ibrahim saw Peter in the
Senate debating with Buturlin and Dolgoruki, discussing important
questions in the Admiralty, fostering the Russian navy,–in his
leisure, with Theophan, Gavril, Bujinski, and Kopievitch, examining
translations from foreign publications, or visiting a factory, an
artizan’s workshop, or the study of some learned man. Russia became
to Ibrahim one vast workshop, where machinery alone moved, where each
workman under ordered rules is occupied with his own task.
He felt that he too must work at his own bench, and tried to regret
as little as possible the amusements of his Parisian life. But if
was hander to forget a dearer memory. Often he thought of Countess
L., her just indignation, her tears, and grief. At times a terrible
thought oppressed him: the distractions of society: new ties: another
favourite. He shuddered; jealousy began to rage in his African blood,
and burning tears were ready to flow down his swarthy face.
One morning he was sitting in his study amid official documents, when
he heard himself loudly greeted in French. Turning quickly round he was
embraced with joyous exclamations by young Korsakoff, whom he had left
in Paris in the whirl of the great world.
“I have only just arrived,” said Korsakoff “and came straight to you.
All our Parisian friends desire to be remembered to you, and regret
your absence. The Countess L. requested me to invite you without fail,
and here is her letter for you.”
Ibrahim seized it eagerly, and was looking at the familiar writing on
the envelope, scarcely believing his own eyes.
“How glad I am,” added Korsakoff, “that you have not been bored to
death in this barbarous Petersburg. How do they manage here? What do
they do? Who is your tailor? Have they started an opera?”
Ibrahim absently replied that the Tsar was probably at that moment at
work in the shipping dock.
“I see,” he said, “you are preoccupied, and don’t want me just now.
Another time we will have a good talk; I am off to present my respects
to his Majesty.” With these words he turned on his heel, and hurried
out of the room.
Left alone Ibrahim quickly opened the letter. The countess complained
tenderly, reproached him with falseness and inconstancy.
“You used to say,” she wrote, “that my happiness was more to you than
all the world. Ibrahim, if this were true, could you have left me in
the state to which the sudden news of your departure brought me. You
were afraid I might detain you. Be assured that, in spite of my love,
I should have known how to sacrifice it for your good and to what you
deem your duty.”
The countess ended with passionate assurances of love, begging him to
write, if only occasionally, and even if there were no hope that they
would ever meet again.
Ibrahim read and re-read this letter twenty times, rapturously kissing
those precious lines. Burning with impatience for news about the
countess, he set out for the Admiralty, hoping to find his friend still
there, when the door opened, and Korsakoff re-entered. He had seen the
Tsar, and he seemed as usual perfectly self-satisfied.
“Between ourselves,” he said to Ibrahim, “the Tsar is a most
extraordinary man. Fancy! I found him in a sort of linen vest on the
mast of a new ship, whither I had to scramble with my dispatches. I
stood on a rope ladder, and had not room enough to make a proper bow.
I lost my presence of mind for the first time in all my life. However,
the Tsar, when he had read my papers, looked at me from head to foot.
Ho doubt he was agreeably impressed by my good taste and splendid
attire. At any rate he smiled, and invited me to the assembly today.
But I am a perfect stranger in Petersburg. For my six years’ absence I
have quite forgotten the local customs. Please be my mentor; call for
me on your way, and introduce me.”
Ibrahim promised, and hastened to turn the conversation on the subject
that most interested him.
“How was the Countess L.?”
“The countess? At first she was naturally most unhappy at your
departure; then, of course by degrees, she grew reconciled, and took
to herself another lover–who do you think? The lanky Marquis R. Why
do you open those African eyes of yours? Does this appear to you so
strange? Don’t you know that enduring grief is not in human nature,
particularly in a woman. Meditate duly upon that while I go and rest
after my journey, and don’t forget to call for me on your way.”
What terrible thoughts crowded Ibrahim’s soul? Jealousy? Rage?
Despair?–Ho!–but a deep, crushing sorrow.
He murmured to himself. I foresaw it, it was bound to happen. Then he
opened the countess’s letter, read it over again, hung his head, and
wept bitterly. Long did he weep. Those tears relieved him. He looked
at his watch and found that it was time to start. Gladly would he have
stayed away, but the party was an affair of duty, and the Tsar was
strict in exacting the attendance of those attached to him.
He dressed and started to fetch Korsakoff. Korsakoff was sitting in his
dressing gown, reading a French book.
“So early?” he exclaimed, seeing Ibrahim.
“Excuse me,” the other replied, “it’s already half-past five, we shall
be late; make haste and dress, and let us go.”
Korsakoff hurriedly rang the bell with all his might; the servants
hurried in, and he began hastily to dress. His French valet handed him
slippers with red heels, light blue velvet breeches, a pink kaftan
embroidered with spangles. In the antechamber his wig was hurriedly
powdered and brought in; Korsakoff pushed into it his closely cropped
head, asked for his sword and gloves, turned ten times before the
glass, and announced to Ibrahim that he was ready. The footmen handed
them their bearskin overcoats, and they drove off to the Winter Palace.
Korsakoff smothered Ibrahim with questions.
Who was the belle of St. Petersburg. Which man was considered the
best dancer? and which dance was the most fashionable? Ibrahim very
reluctantly gratified his curiosity. Meanwhile they reached the
palace. A number of long sledges, old carriages, and gilded coaches
stood on the lawn. Near the steps were crowded coachmen in livery and
moustaches, outriders glittering with tinsel, with feathers and maces,
hussars, pages and awkward footmen carrying their masters’ furcoats
and muffs, a following indispensable according to the notions of the
gentry of that period. At sight of Ibrahim a general murmur ran. “The
negro, the negro, the Tzar’s negro!” He hurriedly led Korsakoff through
this motley crowd. The Court footman opened wide the doors; and they
entered a large room. Korsakoff was dumb with astonishment. In this big
hall, lighted up with tallow candles dimly burning amidst clouds of
tobacco smoke, sat magnates with blue ribbons across their shoulders,
ambassadors, foreign merchants, officers of the guards in their green
uniform, shipbuilders in jackets and striped trousers, all moving to
and fro in crowds to the unceasing sound of sacred music. The ladies
sat near to the walls;–the young attired in all the splendour of
fashion. Gold and silver shone upon their gowns; from the midst of wide
crinolines their slender figures rose like flower stalks. Diamonds
glittered in their ears, in their long curls, and round their neck.
They turned gaily to the right and left awaiting the gentlemen and the
Elderly ladies tried cunningly to combine the new style of dress with
the vanished past; caps were modelled on the small sable hat of the
Tsaritsa Natalia Kirilovna, and gowns and mantles somehow recalled the
sarafan and dushegreika (short jacket without sleeves). They seemed
to share rather with wonder than enjoyment in these new imported
amusements, and glanced angrily at the wives and daughters of the Dutch
skippers, who in cotton skirts and red jackets knitted their stockings
and sat laughing and talking quite at ease amongst themselves. Seeing
the fresh arrivals, a servant approached with beer and tumblers on a
tray. Korsakoff in bewilderment whispered to Ibrahim.
“Que diable est ce que tout cela?” Ibrahim could not repress a smile.
The empress and the grand duchess, radiant in their own beauty and
their attire, walked through the rows of guests, talking affably to
them. The emperor was in another room, Korsakoff, wishing to show
himself to him, with difficulty pushed his way through the ever-moving
crowd. Sitting in that room were mostly foreigners solemnly smoking
their clay pipes and drinking from their earthen jugs. On the tables
were bottles of beer and wine, leather pouches with tobacco, tumblers
of punch, and a few draught-boards. At one of these was Peter playing
draughts with a broad-shouldered English skipper. They solemnly saluted
one another with gulps of tobacco smoke, and the Tsar was so engrossed
by an unexpected move of his opponent that he did not notice Korsakoff,
in spite of the latter’s contortions. At that moment a stout gentleman
with a large bouquet on his breast rushed in, announced in a loud voice
that dancing had begun, and instantly retired. He was followed by a
large number of the guests, including Korsakoff among the rest.
The unexpected sight surprised him. Along the whole length of the
hall, to the sound of the most doleful music, the ladies and gentlemen
stood in two rows face to face. The gentlemen bowed low; the ladies
curtsied lower still, first to their _vis-à-vis_, then to the right,
then to the left; again to their _vis-à-vis_, then to the right, and
so on. Korsakoff, gazing at this fantastic pastime, opened his eyes
and bit his lips. The curtsying and bowing went on for about half an
hour. At last they ended, and the stout gentleman with the bouquet
announced that the dances of ceremony were ended, and ordered the band
to play a minuet. Korsakoff was delighted, and made ready to show
off. Among the young ladies was one whom he particularly admired. She
was about sixteen, dressed richly but with taste, and sat next an
elderly gentleman of dignified and stern appearance. Korsakoff rushed
up to her and begged the honour of a dance. The young beauty was
disconcerted, and seemed to be at a loss what to say. The man sitting
next her frowned more than before. Korsakoff awaited her reply, when
the gentleman with the bouquet approached, led him to the middle of the
hall, and said pompously:
“Dear sip, you have done wrong. In the first place, you approached this
young person without first rendering her the three requisite salutes,
and secondly, you took upon yourself the right of choosing her, whereas
in the minuet that privilege is hers and not the gentleman’s. For this
you must undergo severe punishment, that is you must drain the goblet
of the Great Eagle.”
Korsakoff from hour to hour grew more astonished. In a moment the
guests surrounded him, loudly demanding instant compliance with the
law. Peter, hearing the laughter and loud talk, came from the next
room, being very fond of witnessing such punishments. The crowd divided
before him and he stepped into the centre, where stood the accused with
the master of the ceremonies before him holding an enormous cup full
of malmsey wine. He was earnestly persuading the culprit to submit
willingly to the law.
“Aha!” said Peter, seeing Korsakoff, “you are caught, brother. Drink,
monsieur, and no wry faces.”
There was nothing for it. The poor dandy, without stopping, drained the
goblet and returned it to the master of the ceremonies.
“Hark, Korsakoff,” said Peter, “your breeches are of velvet, the like
even I don’t wear, who am much richer than you. That is extravagance,
take care I do not quarrel with you.”
After this rebuke Korsakoff wished to leave the circle, but staggered
and nearly fell, to the great delight of the emperor and the merry
company. This incident not only did not mar the harmony nor interest of
the principal entertainment, but on the contrary enlivened it.
The gentlemen began to scrape and bow, and the ladies to curtsy and
knock their little heels together with great diligence, no longer
keeping time to the music. Korsakoff could not share in the general
merriment. By her father Gavril Afanassievitch Rjevski’s orders, the
lady whom Korsakoff had chosen approached Ibrahim, and, dropping her
eyes, timidly held out her hand to him. Ibrahim danced the minuet with
her and led her back to her seat, then went in search of Korsakoff,
led him out of the hall, placed him in the carriage, and drove him
home. At the beginning of the journey Korsakoff mumbled, “Curses upon
the soiree and the goblet of the Great Eagle,” but he soon fell into
a deep sleep. He knew not how he got home, undressed, and was put to
bed, and he awoke next day with a headache, and a dim remembrance of
the scraping, curtseying, and tobacco smoke, the gentleman with the
enormous bouquet, and the mighty goblet of the Great Eagle.