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HOME > Classical Novels > The Queen of Spades and other stories > PETER THE GREAT'S NEGRO. CHAPTER I.
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Amongst the young men sent abroad by Peter the Great to acquire the information necessary for a civilised country was his godson Ibrahim the negro. He was educated in a Parisian military school, passed out as a captain of the artillery, distinguished himself in the Spanish war, and when seriously wounded returned to Paris. In the midst of his enormous labours the emperor never ceased to ask after his favourite, of whose progress and good conduct the accounts were always favourable. Peter was exceedingly pleased with him, and frequently invited him to Russia; but Ibrahim was in no hurry. He excused himself; either his wound, or his wish to complete his education, or want of money, served as the pretext; and Peter complied with his wishes,[Pg 215] begged him to take care of his health, thanked him for his assiduity in study, and though exceedingly economical himself was lavish to his protégé, and sent together with gold pieces fatherly advice and warning.

Judging by all historical accounts, the flightiness, madness, and luxury of the French of that period were unequalled. The latter years of Louis XIV.'s reign, memorable for the strict piety, dignity, and propriety of the court, have left no traces behind. The Duke of Orleans, in whom many brilliant qualities united with vice of every kind, unfortunately did not possess an atom of hypocrisy. The orgies of the Palais Royal were no secret in Paris; the example was infectious. At that time Law made his appearance. To the love of money was united the thirst for pleasure and amusement. Estates dwindled, morals perished, Frenchmen laughed and discussed, while the kingdom crumbled to the jovial tunes of satirical vaudevilles. Meanwhile society presented a most uninteresting picture. Culture and the craving for amusement united all classes. Riches, amiability, renown, accomplishments, even eccentricity, whatever nourished curiosity or promised entertainment, was received with equal pleasure. Literature, learning, and philosophy left the seclusion of the study to appear in the great world and minister to fashion, the ruler of opinions. Women reigned,[Pg 216] but no longer exacted adoration. Superficial politeness took the place of profound respect. The escapades of the Duke de Richelieu, the Alcibiades of modern Athens, belong to history and display the morals of that period:

"Temps Fortune, marqué par la licence,
Ou la folie, agitant son grelot,
D'un pied leger parcourt toute la France,
Ou nul mortel ne daigne être dévot,
Ou l'on fait tout excepté pénitence."

Ibrahim's arrival, his appearance, culture, and native wit, attracted general attention in Paris. All the ladies fought for a visit from the Tsar's negro. More than once was he invited to the Regent's merry evenings; he was present at the suppers enlivened by the youth of Voltaire and the age of Shollier, the conversations of Montesquieu and Fontenelle. Not a ball, not a fête, not one first representation did he miss; and he gave himself up to the general whirl with all the passion of his youth and nature. But the idea of exchanging these entertainments, these brilliant pleasures for the simplicity of the St. Petersburg Court was not all that Ibrahim dreaded. Other and stronger ties bound him to Paris. The young African was in love. No longer in the first bloom of youth, the Countess L. was still celebrated for her beauty. At seventeen, on leaving the[Pg 217] convent, she was married to a man for whom she had not learnt to feel the love which ultimately he showed no care to win. Rumour assigned her lovers, but through the leniency of society she still enjoyed a good repute; for nothing ridiculous or scandalous could be brought against her. Her house was the most fashionable, a centre of the best society in Paris. Ibrahim was introduced by young G. de Merville, who was regarded generally as her latest lover; an impression which he tried by every means to strengthen. The Countess received Ibrahim with civility, but without particular attention. He was flattered. Usually the young negro was regarded with wonder, surrounded and overwhelmed with attention and questions; and this curiosity, though veiled by a display of friendliness, offended his vanity.

The delightful attention of women, almost the sole aim of our exertions, not only gave him no pleas are, but even ailed him with bitterness and wrath. He felt that he was for them a species of rare animal, a strange peculiar creature, accidentally brought into a world with which he had naught in common. He even envied those whom no one noticed, and deemed their insignificance a blessing. The idea that nature had not formed him for tender passion robbed him of all self-assertion and conceit, and added a rare charm to his manner towards women. His conversation was[Pg 218] simple and dignified. He pleased the Countess L., who was tired of the formal pleasantries and pointed innuendoes of French, wit.

Ibrahim visited her often. Little by little she grew used to the young negro's looks, and even began to find something agreeable in that early head, so black amid the powdered wigs that thronged her drawing-room (Ibrahim had been wounded in the h............
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