Gently burnt the hanging lamp before the glass case, wherein glittered
the gold and silver frames of the ancestral _icons._ The flickering
light lit faintly the curtained bed, and the table strewn with labelled
phials. Near the fireplace sat a servant at her spinning wheel, and
only the light sound of her distaff broke the silence.
“Who is there?” asked a weak voice. The maid rose instantly, approached
the bed, and quietly raised the curtain.
“Will it soon be dawn?” asked Natalia.
“It is already noon,” replied the maid.
“Oh, heavens! and why is it so dark?”
“The shutters are closed, miss.”
“Then let me dress quickly.”
“You must not, miss; the doctor forbids it.”
“Am I ill then? How long?”
“Nearly a fortnight now.”
“Is it really so? And it seems to me but last night that I went to bed.”
Natasha was silent; she tried to collect her scattered thoughts.
Something had happened to her, what it was she could not remember. The
maid stood before her, awaiting her orders. At that moment a muffled
sound was heard below.
“What is it?” asked the patient.
“The masters have finished dinner,” answered the attendant; “they are
rising from table. Tatiana Afanassievna will be here directly.”
Natasha seemed pleased, she waved her feeble hand. The maid dropped the
curtain and resumed her seat at the spinning wheel.
A few minutes after, a head, covered with a broad white cap with dark
ribbons, peeped through the door and asked in a low voice:
“How is Natasha?”
“How do you do, auntie?” said the invalid gently, and Tatiana
Afanassievna hurried towards her.
“The young lady is conscious,” said the maid, cautiously moving up
an easy chair. With tears in her eyes the old lady kissed the pale
languid face of her niece, and sat down beside her. Immediately after
her came the German doctor in a black caftan and learned wig. He
counted Natalia’s pulse, and told them first in Latin, then in Russian,
that the crisis was over. He asked for paper and ink, wrote a new
prescription, and departed. The old lady rose, kissed Natalia again,
and at once went down with the good news to Gavril Afanassievitch.
In the drawing-room in full uniform, with sword and hat in hand, sat
the royal negro, talking respectfully with Gavril Afanassievitch.
Korsakoff, stretched full length upon a downy couch, reclined,
listening to their conversation while he teased the greyhound. Tired of
this occupation, he approached a mirror, the usual refuge of the idle,
and in it saw Tatiana Afanassievna behind the door making unperceived
signs to her brother.
“You are wanted, Gavril Afanassievitch,” said Korsakoff to him,
Gavril Afanassievitch instantly went to his sister, closing the door
“I am astonished at your patience,” said Korsakoff to Ibrahim. “A whole
hour have you been listening to ravings about the ancient descent
of the Lykoffs and the Rjevskis, and have even added your own moral
observations. In your place _j’aurais planté la_ the old liar and
all his race, including Natalia Gavrilovna, who is only affected and
shamming illness, _une petite santé._ Tell me truly, is it possible
that you are in love with that little _mijaurée?_”
“No,” replied Ibrahim, “I am of course marrying, not from love, but
from consideration, and that only if she has no actual dislike for me.”
“Listen, Ibrahim,” said Korsakoff, “for once take my advice; really I
am wiser than I look. Give up this silly idea–don’t marry. It seems
to me that your chosen bride has no particular liking for you. Don’t
many things happen in this world? For instance: of course I am not bad
looking, but it has happened to me to deceive husbands who were really
not a whit my inferior. Yourself too…. you remember our Parisian
friend Count L.? A woman’s fidelity cannot be counted on. Happy is
he who can bear the change with equanimity. But you! with “your
passionate, brooding, and suspicious nature, with your flat nose, thick
lips, is it with these that you propose to rush into all the dangers of
“Thank you for your friendly advice,” said Ibrahim, coldly; “you know
the proverb: ‘it is not your duty to rock other folk’s children.'”
“Take care, Ibrahim,” replied Korsakoff, smiling, “that it does not
fall to your lot to illustrate that proverb literally later on.”
The conversation in the next room waxed hot.
“You will kill her,” the old lady was saying; “she cannot bear the
sight of him.”
“But just consider,” replied her obstinate brother. “For a fortnight
now he has been calling as her accepted bridegroom, and hitherto has
not seen his bride. He might think at last that her illness is simply
an invention, and that we are seeking only to gain time in order to get
rid of him. Besides, what will the Tsar say? He has already sent three
times to ask after Natasha. Do as you please, but I do not intend to
fall out with him.”
“My God!” exclaimed Tatiana Afanassievna; “how will she bear it? At any
rate, let me prepare her for this.”
Gavril Afanassievitch consented, and returned to the drawing-room.
“Thank God!” he said to Ibrahim; “the crisis is over. Natalia is much
better. I do not like to leave our dear guest, Mr. Korsakoff, here
alone> or I would take you upstairs to get a glimpse of your bride.”
Korsakoff congratulated Gavril Afanassievitch, begged them not to put
themselves out on his account, assured them that he was obliged to go,
and rushed into the lobby, whither be refused to allow his host to
Meanwhile, Tatiana Afanassievna hastened to prepare the invalid for the
arrival of her terrible visitor. Entering the apartments, she sat down
breathless by the bedside and took Natalia by the hand. But before she
had time to say a word, the door opened.
“Who has come in?” Natasha asked.
The old lady felt faint, Gavril Afanassievitch drew back the curtain,
looked coldly at the patient, and inquired how she was. The sick girl
tried to smile but could not. Her father’s stern gaze startled her, and
fear overcame her. She fancied some one stood at the head of her bed.
With an effort she raised her head and instantly recognised the Tsar’s
negro. At that moment she remembered all, and all the horror of the
future presented itself before her. But exhausted nature could receive
no further perceptible shock. Natasha dropped her head back on the
pillow and closed her eyes, her heart within her gave sickly throbs.
Tatiana Afanassievna signed to her brother that the patient wanted to
go to sleep, and everybody left the apartments quietly. The maid alone
remained and resumed her seat.
The unhappy beauty opened her eyes, and seeing no one by her bedside,
called the maid and sent her for the dwarf. But at that moment an old,
round creature, like a ball, rolled up to her bed. Tie Swallow (so
the dwarf was nicknamed) had rushed as fast as her short legs would
carry her up the stairs after Gavril Afanassievitch and Ibrahim, and
hid behind the door. Natasha saw her and sent the maid away. The dwarf
sat down on a stool by the bedside Never had so small a body contained
so active a soul. She interfered in everything, knew everything, and
exerted herself about everything. With cunning penetration she knew how
to gain the affection of her masters, and the envy of all the household
over which she wielded autocratic sway. Gavril Afanassievitch listened
to her tales, complaints, and petty requests. Tatiana Afanassievna
asked her opinion every moment and took her advice, while Natasha’s
affection for her was unbounded. She confided to her all the thoughts,
all the impulses of her sixteen-year-old heart.
“Do you know, Swallow,” she said, “my father is going to marry me to
the negro.” The dwarf sighed deeply, and her wrinkled face became more
“Is there no hope?” added Natasha. “Do you think my father will not
have compassion upon me?”
The dwarf shook her cap.
“Won’t grandfather intercede for me, or my aunt.”
“No, miss, the negro during your illness managed to bewitch everybody.
Master is mad about him, the prince dreams of him alone, and Tatiana
Afanassievna says it is a pity he is a negro, otherwise we could not
wish for a better bridegroom.”
“My God, my God!” sobbed poor Natasha.
“Don’t grieve, dear beauty,” said the dwarf, kissing her feeble
hand. “If you must marry the negro, at any rate you will be your own
mistress. Now it is not as it was in olden times; husbands no longer
imprison their wives; the negro is said to be rich, the house will be
like a full cup–you’ll live merrily.”
“Poor Valerian,” said Natasha, but so low, that the dwarf only guessed
but did not hear the words.
“That is just it, miss,” she said mysteriously, lowering her voice; “if
you thought less of the sharpshooter’s orphan you would not rave of him
in your delirium, and your father would not be angry.”
“What!” inquired Natasha, in alarm; “I raved about Valerian? My father
heard? My father was angry?”
“That is the misfortune,” replied the dwarf. “Now, if you ask him not
to marry you to the negro, he will think Valerian is the cause. There
is nothing to be done, you had better submit, and what is to be will
Natasha made no reply. The notion that the secret of her heart was
known to her father had a powerful effect upon her mind. One hope only
was left to her–that she might die before the completion of this
hateful marriage. This idea comforted her. With a weak and sad heart
she resigned herself to her fate.