Monday, January 24, 2011

Monsieur Aigrette Noir

St. Petersburg, Russia
May, 1758

Black Egret woke on the softest bed he had ever experienced. It was so soft, he found his back was sore when he tried to sit up. The bed was crowded with pillows.

"Monsieur Aigrette Noir," said a servant. "I am sorry to wake you, but the Empress requests your presence in her audience chamber in one half hour."

Black Egret stood up slowly, feeling the aches and creaks in his tired body. "Very well," he said. He had picked up a reasonable amount of French on the voyage from Philadelphia to France. "I am ready."

The servant, a small, precise man in a simple black suit, raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me, Monsieur," he said, "but you are not. The Empress is a woman who expects a certain amount of care and stylishness in appearance. You, monsieur, look as though you have not changed your clothes since you left America."

"Not true," said Black Egret. "I changed them in Calais."

"But now you are in Russia," said the servant. "Permit me, monsieur, to assist you with your toilette."

And so Black Egret submitted himself to be stripped, bathed, slathered in oils, soaps, and perfumes, shaved (but his braids were left long -- "to make Monsieur look more exotic," said the servant), dried, painted with makeup, dressed in layers of white cotton and silk and lace, and finally shod in black buckled shoes. The tall gold-edged mirror showed him a Russian prince -- but without, thankfully, the ridiculous white powdered wigs these white men fancied.

"This is acceptable," said the servant at last, picking lint off his red felt dress jacket. "If Monsieur will follow me."

Black Egret thought his room was opulent, but he soon realized he had been stashed in the simpler, poorer wing of the palace. Each hall they passed, each corner they turned, revealed more gold filigree, more tall mirrors and white stone sculptures and gigantic oil paintings, heavy hanging fabrics and windows looking out over extravagant gardens glittering in the morning dew.

Silently they walked down acres of corridors, through a massive marble hall and into an even larger one, colonnaded, lined with windows, and decked with curtains, mirrors, paintings, and precious metals. Men and women dressed even more extravagantly than he milled in the room, talking quietly, and turning to watch them as they entered. At the far end was a great golden throne on a raised dais; and in it sat a woman who could only be the Empress Elizabeth of Russia. She was holding the journal, open on her lap.

As he approached the throne, the room slowly fell silent. He felt dazed and light-headed with all the opulence, as if he were walking among the clouds to an audience with the sun.

"Welcome," said the Empress, when he had mounted the first few steps towards the throne, and a servant gently touched his arm to stop him from going closer. "Do you speak French?"

"Well enough, impératrice," he said. "I learned a little on the voyage. I am surprised that the Empress of Russia speaks French."

There was some laughter around the court -- laughter with a dangerous edge. But the Empress smiled. "French is the most civilized language in the world," she said. "But you could not be expected to know that. You are called Monsieur Aigrette Noir?"

"Yes, impératrice," he said.

"You have done a great service for us," she said. She smiled and held up the journal. "This booklet shows, beyond all doubt, that the great explorer Bering traveled far into America. And this brave warrior savage has brought it to us, as proof. Because of him, our empire is now by far the greatest in the world."

She turned to an aide. "Pyotr, please hand me the award."

Pyotr bowed, and gave her a small box. She opened it and drew out a small metal star on a cloth strap.

"Monsieur Aigrette Noir," she said, standing, "for extraordinary services to the Russian Empire, in token of our eternal gratitude, I hereby name you Russian Ambassador to the American Indians; and I present you with the Empire's highest award: the Star of the Order of St. Andrew."

"Bow," whispered the servant. Black Egret bowed, and the Empress reached up and put the star around his neck. It was a beautiful thing, made of silver, emblazoned in the center with Russian letters and what appeared to be some kind of bird.

"I thank you," said Black Egret. Still dazed and dizzy from opulence and praise, he struggled for words. "I am honored."

At this, the crowd in the hall began to cheer and clap. He turned and bowed to them, and they cheered and clapped some more.

"And now, Monsieur Ambassador Aigrette Noir," said the Empress, smiling -- and he abruptly wondered if she was making fun of him, a "savage warrior" with such a grand title -- "is there anything that the Russian Empire can do for you? Is there some wish you have, some gift we can bestow?"

Black Egret's thoughts, so confused before, abruptly focused and centered on one thing. ""Yes, impératrice," he said. "There is only one thing I wish. I have traveled many years to come here. I have lost my brothers, and many companions, men, horses, dogs. I almost died of sickness, cold, and starvation. Now I am here, and I have never been in a more beautiful city, or a more beautiful palace. But my only wish, impératrice, is to return to my home."

The Empress smiled. "Of course," she said. "We will give you whatever supplies and assistance you may require. I will have it arranged directly. And now, ladies and gentlemen of the court," she said, throwing her white arms wide, "let the feast begin!"

The hall filled with movement and talking as the people started to file towards the exits. The servant at Black Egret's elbow tugged on his sleeve. "Come, Monsieur Ambassador," he said. "We will return to your room to change into dinner clothes. --Monsieur Ambassador?"

Black Egret did not move. He felt as if his mind was working clearly for the first time that day. He had been blinded by gold and silver and glass. The Empress had been lying, that was absolutely clear to him: she had no intention of allowing him to return home. Why not? He had no idea; Russian customs were a closed book to him. But she had lied, and he had seen it plainly.

But he was going home.

He allowed himself to be quietly led back along the wide corridors, all the way to the great windows that opened out upon the exquisite gardens. Then he simply stepped away from his guide, smashed through the windows, kicked off his black buckled shoes, and was off, running as only a Kahnawake warrior can. Behind him the shouting started, and he heard the first pistol shots.

No comments:

Post a Comment