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Great Russian Short Stories
By Paul Negri
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE QUEEN OF SPADES
THERE WAS a card party at the rooms of Naroumoff of the Horse Guards. The long winter night passed away imperceptibly, and it was five o'clock in the morning before the company sat down to supper. Those who had won, ate with a good appetite; the others sat staring absently at their empty plates. When the champagne appeared, however, the conversation became more animated, and all took a part in it.
"And how did you fare, Sourin?" asked the host.
"Oh, I lost, as usual. I must confess that I am unlucky: I play mirandole, I always keep cool, I never allow anything to put me out, and yet I always lose!"
"And you did not once allow yourself to be tempted to back the red? ... Your firmness astonishes me."
"But what do you think of Hermann?" said one of the guests, pointing to a young Engineer: "He has never had a card in his hand in his life, he has never in his life laid a wager, and yet he sits here till five o'clock in the morning watching our play."
"Play interests me very much," said Hermann: "but I am not in the position to sacrifice the necessary in the hope of winning the superfluous."
"Hermann is a German: he is economical—that is all!" observed Tomsky. "But if there is one person that I cannot understand, it is my grandmother, the Countess Anna Fedorovna."
"How so?" inquired the guests.
"I cannot understand," continued Tomsky, "how it is that my grandmother does not punt."
"What is there remarkable about an old lady of eighty not punting?" said Naroumoff.
"Then you do not know the reason why?"
"No, really; haven't the faintest idea."
"Oh! then listen. You must know that, about sixty years ago, my grandmother went to Paris, where she created quite a sensation. People used to run after her to catch a glimpse of the 'Muscovite Venus.' Richelieu made love to her, and my grandmother maintains that he almost blew out his brains in consequence of her cruelty. At that time ladies used to play at faro. On one occasion at the Court, she lost a very considerable sum to the Duke of Orleans. On returning home, my grandmother removed the patches from her face, took off her hoops, informed my grandfather of her loss at the gaming-table, and ordered him to pay the money. My deceased grandfather, as far as I remember, was a sort of house-steward to my grandmother. He dreaded her like fire; but, on hearing of such a heavy loss, he almost went out of his mind; he calculated the various sums she had lost, and pointed out to her that in six months she had spent half a million of francs, that neither their Moscow nor Saratoff estates were in Paris, and finally refused point blank to pay the debt. My grandmother gave him a box on the ear and slept by herself as a sign of her displeasure. The next day she sent for her husband, hoping that this domestic punishment had produced an effect upon him, but she found him inflexible. For the first time in her life, she entered into reasonings and explanations with him, thinking to be able to convince him by pointing out to him that there are debts and debts, and that there is a great difference between a Prince and a coachmaker. But it was all in vain, my grandfather still remained obdurate. But the matter did not rest there. My grandmother did not know what to do. She had shortly before become acquainted with a very remarkable man. You have heard of Count St. Germain, about whom so many marvelous stories are told. You know that he represented himself as the Wandering Jew, as the discoverer of the elixir of life, of the philosopher's stone, and so forth. Some laughed at him as a charlatan; but Casanova, in his memoirs, says that he was a spy. But be that as it may, St. Germain, in spite of the mystery surrounding him, was a very fascinating person, and was much sought after in the best circles of society. Even to this day my grandmother retains an affectionate recollection of him, and becomes quite angry if anyone speaks disrespectfully of him. My grandmother knew that St. Germain had large sums of money at his disposal. She resolved to have recourse to him, and she wrote a letter to him asking him to come to her without delay. The queer old man immediately waited upon her and found her overwhelmed with grief. She described to him in the blackest colors the barbarity of her husband, and ended by declaring that her whole hope depended upon his friendship and amiability.
"St. Germain reflected.
"'I could advance you the sum you want,' said he; 'but I know that you would not rest easy until you had paid me back, and I should not like to bring fresh troubles upon you. But there is another way of getting out of your difficulty: you can win back your money.'
"'But, my dear Count,' replied my grandmother, 'I tell you that I haven't any money left.'
"'Money is not necessary,' replied St. Germain: 'be pleased to listen to me.'
"Then he revealed to her a secret, for which each of us would give a good deal ..."
The young officers listened with increased attention. Tomsky lit his pipe, puffed away for a moment and then continued:
"That same evening my grandmother went to Versailles to the jeu de la reine. The Duke of Orleans kept the bank; my grandmother excused herself in an off-handed manner for not having yet paid her debt, by inventing some little story, and then began to play against him. She chose three cards and played them one after the other: all three won sonika, and my grandmother recovered every farthing that she had lost."
"Mere chance!" said one of the guests.
"A tale!" observed Hermann.
"Perhaps they were marked cards!" said a third.
"I do not think so," replied Tomsky gravely.
"What!" said Naroumoff, "you have a grandmother who knows how to hit upon three lucky cards in succession, and you have never yet succeeded in getting the secret of it out of her?"
"That's the deuce of it!" replied Tomsky: "she had four sons, one of whom was my father; all four were determined gamblers, and yet not to one of them did she ever reveal her secret, although it would not have been a bad thing either for them or for me. But this is what I heard from my uncle, Count Ivan Ilitch, and he assured me, on his honor, that it was true. The late Chaplitsky—the same who died in poverty after having squandered millions—once lost, in his youth, about three hundred thousand rubles—to Zoritch, if I remember rightly. He was in despair. My grandmother, who was always very severe upon the extravagance of young men, took pity, however, upon Chaplitsky. She gave him three cards, telling him to play them one after the other, at the same time exacting from him a solemn promise that he would never play at cards again as long as he lived. Chaplitsky then went to his victorious opponent, and they began a fresh game. On the first card he staked fifty thousand rubles and won sonika; he doubled the stake and won again, till at last, by pursuing the same tactics, he won back more than he had lost ...
"But it is time to go to bed: it is a quarter to six already."
And indeed it was already beginning to dawn: the young men emptied their glasses and then took leave of each other.
The old Countess A——was seated in her dressing-room in front of her looking-glass. Three waiting-maids stood around her. One held a small pot of rouge, another a box of hair-pins, and the third a tall cap with bright red ribbons. The Countess had no longer the slightest pretensions to beauty, but she still preserved the habits of her youth, dressed in strict accordance with the fashion of seventy years before, and made as long and as careful a toilette as she would have done sixty years previously. Near the window, at an embroidery frame, sat a young lady, her ward.
"Good morning, grandmamma," said a young officer, entering the room. "Bonjour, Mademoiselle Lise. Grandmamma, I want to ask you something."
"What is it, Paul?"
"I want you to let me introduce one of my friends to you, and to allow me to bring him to the ball on Friday."
"Bring him direct to the ball and introduce him to me there. Were you at B——'s yesterday?"
"Yes; everything went off very pleasantly, and dancing was kept up until five o'clock. How charming Eletskaia was!"
"But, my dear, what is there charming about her? Isn't she like her grandmother, the Princess Daria Petrovna? By the way, she must be very old, the Princess Daria Petrovna."
"How do you mean, old?" cried Tomsky thoughtlessly; "she died seven years ago."
The young lady raised her head and made a sign to the young officer. He then remembered that the old Countess was never to be informed of the death of any of her contemporaries, and he bit his lips. But the old Countess heard the news with the greatest indifference.
"Dead!" said she; "and I did not know it. We were appointed maids of honor at the same time, and when we were presented to the Empress ..."
And the Countess for the hundredth time related to her grandson one of her anecdotes.
"Come, Paul," said she, when she had finished her story, "help me to get up. Lizanka,where is my snuff-box?"
And the Countess with her three maids went behind a screen to finish her toilette. Tomsky was left alone with the young lady.
"Who is the gentleman you wish to introduce to the Countess?" asked Lizaveta Ivanovna in a whisper.
"Naroumoff. Do you know him?"
"No. Is he a soldier or a civilian?"
"Is he in the Engineers?"
"No, in the Cavalry. What made you think that he was in the Engineers?"
The young lady smiled, but made no reply.
"Paul," cried the Countess from behind the screen, "send me some new novel, only pray don't let it be one of the present day style."
"What do you mean, grandmother?"
"That is, a novel, in which the hero strangles neither his father nor his mother, and in which there are no drowned bodies. I have a great horror of drowned persons."
"There are no such novels nowadays. Would you like a Russian one?"
"Are there any Russian novels? Send me one, my dear, pray send me one!"
"Good-bye, grandmother: I am in a hurry.... Good-bye, Lizaveta Ivanovna. What made you think that Naroumoff was in the Engineers?"
And Tomsky left the boudoir.
Lizaveta Ivanovna was left alone: she laid aside her work and began to look out of the window. A few moments afterwards, at a corner house on the other side of the street, a young officer appeared. A deep blush covered her cheeks; she took up her work again and bent her head down over the frame. At the same moment the Countess returned completely dressed.
"Order the carriage, Lizaveta," said she; "we will go out for a drive."
Lizaveta arose from the frame and began to arrange her work.
"What is the matter with you, my child, are you deaf?" cried the Countess. "Order the carriage to be got ready at once."
"I will do so this moment," replied the young lady, hastening into the anteroom.
A servant entered and gave the Countess some books from Prince Paul Alexandrovitch.
"Tell him that I am much obliged to him," said the Countess. "Lizaveta! Lizaveta! where are you running to?"
"I am going to dress."
"There is plenty of time, my dear. Sit down here. Open the first volume and read to me aloud."
Her companion took the book and read a few lines.
"Louder," said the Countess. "What is the matter with you, my child? Have you lost your voice? Wait—give me that footstool—a little nearer—that will do!"
Lizaveta read two more pages. The Countess yawned.
"Put the book down," said she: "what a lot of nonsense! Send it back to Prince Paul with my thanks.... But where is the carriage?"
"The carriage is ready," said Lizaveta, looking out into the street.
"How is it that you are not dressed?" said the Countess: "I must always wait for you. It is intolerable, my dear!"
Liza hastened to her room. She had not been there two minutes, before the Countess began to ring with all her might. The three waiting-maids came running in at one door and the valet at another.
"How is it that you cannot hear me when I ring for you?" said the Countess. "Tell Lizaveta Ivanovna that I am waiting for her."
Lizaveta returned with her hat and cloak on.
"At last you are here!" said the Countess. "But why such an elaborate toilette? Whom do you intend to captivate? What sort of weather is it? It seems rather windy."
"No, Your Ladyship, it is very calm," replied the valet.
"You never think of what you are talking about. Open the window. So it is: windy and bitterly cold. Unharness the horses. Lizaveta, we won't go out—there was no need for you to deck yourself like that."
"What a life is mine!" thought Lizaveta Ivanovna.
And, in truth, Lizaveta Ivanovna was a very unfortunate creature. "The bread of the stranger is bitter," says Dante, "and his staircase hard to climb." But who can know what the bitterness of dependence is so well as the poor companion of an old lady of quality? The Countess A——had by no means a bad heart, but she was capricious, like a woman who had been spoilt by the world, as well as being avaricious and egotistical, like all old people who have seen their best days, and whose thoughts are with the past and not the present. She participated in all the vanities of the great world, went to balls, where she sat in a corner, painted and dressed in old-fashioned style, like a deformed but indispensable ornament of the ball-room; all the guests on entering approached her and made a profound bow, as if in accordance with a set ceremony, but after that nobody took any further notice of her. She received the whole town at her house, and observed the strictest etiquette, although she could no longer recognize the faces of people. Her numerous domestics, growing fat and old in her ante-chamber and servants' hall, did just as they liked, and vied with each other in robbing the aged Countess in the most bare-faced manner. Lizaveta Ivanovna was the martyr of the household. She made tea, and was reproached with using too much sugar; she read novels aloud to the Countess, and the faults of the author were visited upon her head; she accompanied the Countess in her walks, and was held answerable for the weather or the state of the pavement. A salary was attached to the post, but she very rarely received it, although she was expected to dress like everybody else, that is to say, like very few indeed. In society she played the most pitiable rôle. Everybody knew her, and nobody paid her any attention. At balls she danced only when a partner was wanted, and ladies would only take hold of her arm when it was necessary to lead her out of the room to attend to their dresses. She was very self-conscious, and felt her position keenly, and she looked about her with impatience for a deliverer to come to her rescue; but the young men, calculating in their giddiness, honored her with but very little attention, although Lizaveta Ivanovna was a hundred times prettier than the bare-faced and coldhearted marriageable girls around whom they hovered. Many a time did she quietly slink away from the glittering but wearisome drawing-room, to go and cry in her own poor little room, in which stood a screen, a chest of drawers, a looking-glass and a painted bedstead, and where a tallow candle burnt feebly in a copper candle-stick.
One morning—this was about two days after the evening party described at the beginning of this story, and a week previous to the scene at which we have just assisted—Lizaveta Ivanovna was seated near the window at her embroidery frame, when, happening to look out into the street, she caught sight of a young Engineer officer, standing motionless with his eyes fixed upon her window. She lowered her head and went on again with her work. About five minutes afterwards she looked out again—the young officer was still standing in the same place. Not being in the habit of coquetting with passing officers, she did not continue to gaze out into the street, but went on sewing for a couple of hours, without raising her head. Dinner was announced. She rose up and began to put her embroidery away, but glancing casually out of the window, she perceived the officer again. This seemed to her very strange. After dinner she went to the window with a certain feeling of uneasiness, but the officer was no longer there—and she thought no more about him.
A couple of days afterwards, just as she was stepping into the carriage with the Countess, she saw him again. He was standing close behind the door, with his face half-concealed by his fur collar, but his dark eyes sparkled beneath his cap. Lizaveta felt alarmed, though she knew not why, and she trembled as she seated herself in the carriage.
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