At the conclusion of their work

Half an hour later the door opened and Peter came out. With a solemn
bow to the treble salute from Prince Lykoff, Tatiana Afanassievna, and
Natasha, he passed out into the lobby. The host handed him his long
red overcoat, conducted him to the sledge, and on the door steps again
thanked him for the honour he had done him.

Peter drove off.

Returning to the dining-room, Gavril Afanassievitch seemed much
troubled; angrily bade the servants clear the table, sent Natasha to
her apartments, and informed his sister and father-in-law that he must
talk with them. He led them into the bedroom, where he usually took his
after-dinner nap. The old Prince lay down upon the oak bed; Tatiana
Afanassievna sat down upon the ancient damask easy chair, and drew the
footstool towards her; Gavril Afanassievitch locked all the doors and
sat down at Prince Lykoffs feet. In a low voice he began:

“The Tzar had a reason for coming here to-day. Guess what it was.”

“How can we know, dear brother?” replied Tatiana Afanassievna.

“Has he commanded you to a voievod?” asked his father-in-law. It is
time he did so long ago. Or he has proposed a mission to you? Why not?
Not always clerks. Important people are sometimes sent to foreign
monarchs.

“No,” replied his son-in-law, scowling. “I am a man of the old pattern;
our services are not required in the present day, though perhaps an
Orthodox Russian nobleman is superior to modern upstarts, pancake
hawkers, and Mussulmen. But that is a different matter.”

“Then what was it, brother?” asked Tatiana Afanassievna crossing,
herself.

“The maiden is ready for marriage, the bridegroom must be in keeping
with the proposer. God grant them love and discretion; of honour there
is plenty.”

“On whose behalf then does the Tzar propose?”

“Hum, whose? indeed!” exclaimed Gavril Afanassievitch. “Whose! That is
just the point.”

“Whose?” repeated Prince Lykoff half dozing already.

“Guess,” said Gavril Afanassievitch.

“Dear brother,” replied the old lady, “how can we guess? There are many
gentlemen at court. Any one of them would be delighted to marry your
Natasha. Is it Dolgoruki?”

“No, not Dolgoruki.”

“The Lord be with him, he is so haughty. Shein? Troekuroff?”

“Neither of them.”

“I don’t care for them either. They are flighty and too German. Then it
is Miloslavsky?”

“No, not he.”

“God be with him, he is rich and stupid. Who then? Is it Eletsky, Lvof?
It cannot be Ragusinski? Well, I cannot imagine. Then whom does the
Tzar wish Natasha to marry?”

“The Negro Ibrahim.”

The old lady exclaimed and threw up her arms. Prince Lykoff raised
his head from the pillows, and in astonishment repeated: “The negro
Ibrahim?”

“Dear brother!” said the old lady in a voice full of tears. “Do not
destroy your darling daughter, do not deliver Natashinka into the claws
of the black devil.”

“But how then?” replied Gavril Afanassievitch, “refuse the Tzar, who in
return promises us his protection to me and all our house.”

“What!” exclaimed the old Prince, who was wide awake now. “Natasha, my
granddaughter, to be married to a bought negro?”

“He’s of good birth,” said Gavril Afanassievitch, “he is the son of a
negro Sultan. He was not taken prisoner by the Mussulmen but sold at
Constantinople. Our ambassador bought him and presented him to Peter.
The negro’s eldest brother came to Russia with a handsome ransom
and—-”

“We have the legend of Bova Koroleviteh and Eruslana Lasarevitch.”

“Gavril Afanassievitch,” added the old lady, “tell us rather how you
replied to the Tzar’s proposal.”

“I said that he was in authority over us, and that it was our duty to
submit to him in everything.”

At that moment a noise was heard behind the door. Gavril Afanassievitch
went to open it, but something obstructed; he gave a hard push,
the door opened, and he beheld Natasha unconscious lying on the
blood-smeared floor.

Her heart misgave her when the Tzar was closeted with her father. A
sort of presentiment whispered to her that the matter concerned her;
and when Gavril Afanassievitch bade her to retire, while he conferred
with her aunt and grandfather, she could not resist feminine curiosity,
crawled quietly through the back rooms to the bedroom door, and missed
no word of their terrible conversation. When she heard her father’s
last sentence, the poor girl fainted, and falling, struck her head
against the metal-bound chest which held her dowry.

The servants rushed in, lifted Natasha, carried her to her own suite
of apartments, and laid her upon her bed. After a little she came to
and opened her eyes, but recognised neither father nor aunt. Fever
set in; in her delirium she spoke of marriage and the Tzar’s negro,
and suddenly cried in a plaintive and piercing voice: “Valerian, dear
Valerian, my life, save me: There they are, there they are.”

Tatiana Afanassievna glanced anxiously at her brother, who turned
white, bit his lip, and left the room in silence. He returned to the
old Prince, who, unable to mount the stairs, had remained below.

“How is Natasha?” he asked.

“Poorly,” replied the sad father; “worse than I thought: in her
delirium she raves about Valerian.”

“Who is this Valerian?” inquired the anxious old man. “Can it be the
orphan son of the musketeer whom you brought up in your house?”

“The same, to my sorrow!” replied Gavril Afanassievitch. “His father
saved my life during the insurrection, and the devil induced me to take
home the accursed young wolf. Two years ago, at his own request, he
was drafted into the army. Natasha cried at parting with him, while he
stood as if turned to stone. I thought it suspicious, and spoke to my
sister about it. But Natasha has never mentioned him since; and nothing
has been heard of him. I hoped she had forgotten him, but it seems not.
I have decided; she shall marry the negro.”

Prince Lykoff did not contradict him; it would have been useless. He
returned home. Tatiana Afanassievna remained by Natasha’s bedside.
Gavril Afanassievitch, after sending for the doctor, locked himself in
his own room, and in his house all was still and sad. This unexpected
proposal of marriage surprised Ibrahim, at any rate, quite as much as
it surprised Gavril Afanassievitch. It happened thus.

Peter, while busy at work with Ibrahim, said to him:

“I have remarked, my friend, that you are low-spirited; tell me frankly
what it is you want.”‘

Ibrahim assured the Tsar that he was contented with his lot, and wished
for nothing better.

“Good,” said the monarch; “if you are sad without a cause, then I know
how to cheer you.”

At the conclusion of their work, Peter inquired of Ibrahim:

“Do you admire the young lady with whom you danced the minuet at the
last ball?”

“Sire, she is very nice, and seems a modest, amiable girl.”

“Then you shall make her more intimate acquaintance. Should you like to
marry her?”

“I, sire?”

“Listen, Ibrahim; you are a lonely man, without birth or clan, a
stranger to everybody but myself. If I were to die to-day what would
become of you to-morrow, my poor negro? You must get settled while
there is yet time, find support in new ties, connect yourself with the
Russian nobility.”

“Sire, I am contented with you; the protection and favour of your
Majesty. God grant I may not survive my Tsar and benefactor. I desire
nothing more, and even if I had any views of matrimony, would the
young girl or her relations consent? My personal appearance—-”

“Your personal appearance? What nonsense! How, are you not a fine
fellow? A young girl must obey her parent’s wishes; but we will see
what old Gavril Rjevski will say when I go myself as your matchmaker.”

With these words the Tsar ordered his sledge, and left Ibrahim wrapped
in deep meditation.

“Marry,” thought the African; “and why not? Surely I am not destined to
pass my life alone, and never know the greatest happiness and the most
sacred duties of manhood, simply because I was born in the torrid zone?
I cannot hope to be loved; what a childish thought! Is it possible to
believe in love? Can it exist in the frivolous heart of woman? The Tsar
is right; I must assure my own future. Marriage with young Rjevski will
unite me to the haughty Russian nobility, and I shall cease to be a
stranger in my new country. From my wife I shall not require love; I
shall content myself with her fidelity and friendship.”

Ibrahim wished to work according to his custom, but his imagination was
too excited. He left the papers, and went out to stroll along the banks
of the Neva. Suddenly he heard Peter’s voice, looked round, and saw
the Tsar, who had dismissed his sledge and was following “him with a
lively countenance.

“It is all settled, my friend,” said Peter, taking him by the arm; “I
have betrothed you. Tomorrow, call upon your father-in-law, but be
careful to honour the pride of the _boyar_; leave your sledge at the
gates, and go across the yard on foot, talk to him of his honours and
distinction, and he will be delighted with you. And now,” he added,
shaking his cudgel, “take me to the rogue Danileitch, with whom I must
have an interview about his latest pranks.”

Ibrahim thanked Peter most sincerely for his fatherly care, accompanied
him as far as the magnificent mansion of Prince Menshikoff, and
returned home.

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