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CHAPTER V.
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[Pg 251] 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[Pg 252] 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?"

[Pg 253]

"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."

[Pg 254]

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.............
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